Coming soon: The printed car

Henry Ford's assembly line helped spur the rise of the passenger car, but after more than a century virtually unchanged, the old cogs of mass production are showing wear. Enter Local Motors.

Fewer parts, greater flexibility

In September, the Phoenix, Arizona-based manufacturer of low-volume, crowd-sourced automobile designs moved the industry down the line just a bit further with the Strati, a full-size 3-D printed car. Though it took years to conceive, the Strati was printed on the floor of the International Manufacturing Technology Show in Chicago in just two days. Nearly everything but the electronics, powertrain and suspension was layered together using a fast-drying carbon fibre-infused plastic. The Strati, with fewer than 50 parts, was then assembled in two days.

As impressive as the Strati is on its own merits, the implications of its manufacture are even greater.

Alex Chausovsky, an analyst for at the industry forecasting firm IHS, said the Strati – and 3-D printing more broadly – can be a disruptive force in the auto industry. "The most significant impact of the Strati is that it challenges the status quo of automotive manufacturing,” he said. “It showed that it’s no longer necessary to produce vehicles from tens of thousands of parts using sophisticated and costly assembly lines."

Local Motors executive Justin Fishkin said 3-D printing has the potential to dramatically decrease the lifespan of any given passenger car design, freeing manufacturers to respond to market trends more nimbly. "We won't be on six- or seven-year model times," he said.

Adapting what already exists

The utility of 3-D printing is well-known in the auto industry. In 2013, Ford Motor used a 3-D printer to create an intake manifold prototype, at a cost of $3,000 to the company, whereas it would have otherwise spent $500,000 and considerably more time to prototype a manifold using traditional tooling.

The Strati, however, is on an order of magnitude more ambitious.

"Although rapid prototyping is still the major focus… in the automotive sector, there are some glimpses of a much bigger potential impact," IHS analyst Chausovsky said. He went on to cite the Swedish-made Koenigsegg One:1 hypercar, which contains a 3-D-printed variable turbo housing to improve response time and low-end torque, as well as a titanium-printed exhaust end piece.

Chausovsky noted that 3-D-printing speeds are doubling about every 18-24 months, and over the next decade materials such as stainless steel, aluminium, titanium and carbon fibre composite will be the fastest-growing areas for industrial 3-D printing.

Knock-on benefits

One of biggest upsides to 3-D automotive printing is the savings from sourcing materials right where the car will be driven.  

"Although the environmental implications of 3-D printing are still being studied, it’s clear that using fewer materials and localising production closer to the end-use markets are both very environmentally friendly practices," Chausovsky said.

Other environmental benefits of localised 3-D printing include the elimination of some carbon emissions that would result from transporting products to production facilities. As its name suggests, Local Motors champions this aspect of vehicle production. "The 3-D printer allows us to print locally, to run on local fuel," Fishkin said.

Customers could potentially walk into a Local Motors micro-factory (Fishkin says the company plans to build 50 over the next five years) and choose body styles, colours, tires and powertrain that fit their needs – an approach more in line with a cafeteria than an automotive assembly plant. "It gives the power back to the consumer as to what fuel they want to run on," Fishkin said.

Next steps for automotive printing

Fishkin is justifiably bullish about the automotive applications of 3-D printing, and has had no shortage of carmakers approaching him ("I'd have trouble telling you one that hasn't," he said) to talk shop. IHS’s Chausovsky notes that while the benefits of 3-D printing for the auto industry are clear, it would still take time for widespread adoption to take hold. But the likely benefits should be worth the wait.

"Because of the potential weight savings impacting fuel efficiency of vehicles, and the unlimited complexity of design that 3-D printing allows, it will be as revolutionary for the automotive industry as Ford’s assembly line process was," he said.

If Local Motors has anything to do with it, a 3-D printed horizon is closer than even the rosiest industry forecast would suggest.

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