While 3D printing has been known since the early 80s, with more-recent advancements including the world’s first fully 3D printed prototype car popping onto the scene last year, the potential for this technology has likewise popped into the public consciousness.
Not hurting its advancement is the socially connected and adrenaline-laced Local Motors – the company that made headlines with the all-electric Strati (pictured) as well as the U.S. government’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory Manufacturing Demonstration Facility.
Last month at Detroit’s North American International Auto Show, both had 3D printed electric cars they’d whipped together in record time with record cost savings. Actually Local Motors is working with ORNL’s technology and of the two, the feds had arguably the more impressive car, but Local Motors is more bullish on the potential to manufacture whole vehicles, and certainly more driven to do so.
3D Printing 101
The still-evolving technology has been used to make things from sandstone sculptures and functional things as large as multi-story buildings from cement-like or other materials, to metallic objects to things from plastic-based compounds – such as the cars in question.
For you word-oriented people – you know who you are – by definition, 3D printing really is more akin to “printing.” While the technology seems to evoke molding, no molds or tools are involved in the raw production. Later tools can sand, cut, grind and polish as needed.
The absolute first car believed to have employed 3D printing in its construction is the off-the-charts environmentally friendly Urbee which used 3D printed plastic panels and other bits attached to a conventional internal frame.
Local Motors went a step further in constructing the actual core elements of the whole car from 3D printing.
Local Motors and ORNL are using a Cincinnati Inc. big area additive manufacturing (BAAM) robotically controlled machine to create carbon-fiber reinforced ABS plastic extruded at 250 degrees. There are different processes in the 3D printing world. This one is called fused deposition modeling (FDM). Instead of filament plastic in its extruder, the BAAM machine uses pellets heated in a hopper and applied with precision.
The percentage of ABS and carbon fiber are always being tinkered with – presently about 20-percent carbon-fiber comprises the Strati – and the material has potential to be not unlike BMW’s carbon fiber reinforced plastic in function, if not its manufacturing.
Local Motors CFO Jean Paul Capin Gally said they’re looking even to deformable elastomers for bumpers and crash zones to accept impact.
It’s amazing stuff. Maybe all the excitement is justified?
Based in Chandler Arizona, with around 100 total employees and operations in Las Vegas and a foothold in Germany too, Local Motors has actually been in business since 2007.
It has more “microfactories” announced in National Harbor, Maryland, and Knoxville Tennessee proximal to ORNL, and these small operations are said to demonstrate right-sized assembly facilities for the niche car maker.
Last year it hired 59 new employees as it branched toward 3D printing from non-printed wild ideas like its gas-powered Rally Fighter car, a Harley-Davidson-based motorcycle, an innovative bicycle, and a sort of electric Big Wheel for adults called the Verrado drift trike.
Its all-electric Strati is for now a neighborhood electric vehicle (NEV). It does the Urbee one better in that its chassis and body were 3D printed, thus the “world’s first” designation for the whole car.
“To our knowledge, we are the first to attempt to print the body and chassis components of a vehicle together,” says the company. “Local Motors took every part of the car that wasn’t mechanically involved and printed it in a single shot.”
Underlying it is a Renault Twizy EV drivetrain but the design is “agnostic” says Capin Gally, and the company is not married to batteries, although focused on electric drivetrain to a greater degree than internal combustion.
The little EV that is more like a dune buggy is reported as going as fast as 40-50 mph, but 25 mph is more customary for NEVs which need not meet federal safety regulations.
Depending on how it’s configured, the Strati could sell for between $25,000 and $35,000.
Important to understand is Local Motors merges a number of new-think innovations into its business model it says is elegant, sustainable, job-creating, right-sized, and more.
Vehicle designs come from its community of members – you can be a member if you go to its site and sign on. It’s a kind of a brain trust, and the seed kernel of the idea came from ex-Marine and now CEO Jay Rogers who began the idea at Harvard Business School and started his company that at first was not all about green drivetrain goodness.
That the road toward sustainability and a progressiveness is being taken is clear, as evidenced not just by an interest in electrification, but also by the “microfacrory”.
The company has observed how this model stands in stark contrast to a Gigafactory. Of course Tesla wants economies of scale, and truly, microfactories are few and small. The present reality is Local Motors is an expandable niche, and not trying to go huge from its first few steps – but it’s working to grow as needed.
Now the Strati has arrived, its being touted as the first of more to come. The company says it will be teasing a road-going car at the New York auto show in April, and obviously next steps are to go from local commuter to real multi-passenger certified car.
It’s one step at a time, but they are working on it with high hopes, and the well wishes of a virtual community in 130 countries.
Less extroverted, but arguably more impressive are your tax dollars at work – also known as ORNL’s Manufacturing Demonstration Facility near Knoxville, Tenn.
Here at the former home of the Manhattan Project, the all-electric Shelby Cobra was 3D printed in just 24 hours. The entire project took six technicians six weeks from drawings and CAD program to rolling car shown to the President of the United States and Vice President a few days before the Detroit show.
The president refused to sign the car’s hood, Blue said, because of how much his early on endorsement of the Chevy Volt adversely affected the then-politicized car, but he and Joe Biden did autograph a molded continuous carbon fiber hood scoop. This was turned out of a mold created by 3D printing.
The Cobra, says Craig A Blue, Ph.D., the facility’s director, is actually “sizzle” to show the vast potential for industry 3D printing holds.
It was based on designs provided by Shelby but widened 10 percent to accommodate the electric drivetrain. The chassis and body were printed on ORNL’s beta printer it developed that led to the commercial printer Cincinnati Inc. manufactures.
The body employs chopped carbon fiber, and Blue said they are working toward inexpensive, environmentally sound, and quickly produced continuous carbon fiber.
Powering the Cobra are A123 Systems batteries, a 100-kilowatt motor, but really it’s a rolling test bed. They could just as well convert it into an extended-range EV, a FCV, or what have you in the government’s efforts to develop advanced-tech drivetrain and advanced manufacturing processes.
The Cobra’s rough-printed body was sanded from 200 grit to 2000 grit and painted beautifully by True Design – rather than the raw look of the Local Motors car – which could also receive the same treatment if desired.
It is fully recyclable and if one wanted, after five years or so, Blue said, one could remove the body, chop it up and re-melt it to form a new body of the same or new design.
What potential does 3D printing really have? Automakers such as Volkswagen or Ford or any other, Blue said, could also save millions of dollars and a couple years or so of time in say, 3D printing tooling to create a new vehicle.
And of course, it can be used in making individual parts, such as Koenigsegg did last year for its One:1 supercar with 3D printed internal parts for its side mirrors, air ducts, exhaust parts made of titanium, and turbocharger assembles.
Actually, ORNL is working also on 3D printing miniature engines, motor technologies, carbon fiber, and more.
Blue said in his view the real immediate-term potential that major automakers will “wrap their arms around” is not so much printing you your next car but in vast savings in tool making for prototypes and molds.
“That’s the future” said Blue of what’s here and ready to go such as the hood piece Obama and Biden autographed. The near-term future for major automakers is not whole printed cars, but many cost-saving improvements for automotive manufacturing, but the longer term future? Blue left that question open.
“Who’s to say? If I went back two years ago, and you told me we’d make that, and showed me pictures,” he said pointing to the Cobra, “I’d be like, you’re crazy, you’re absolutely crazy; but there it is.
“So I think we don’t want to be encumbered by our perception of where it’s going to go. Dare to dream. Who knows?”