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The future of 3-D printed cars is looking rosy

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On: Thu, Apr 7, 2016 at 3:34PM | By: Bill Wilson


The future of 3-D printed cars is looking rosy

Imagine a world where buying a car is a simple as going online, placing an order, and picking out your favorite options. Two days later a delivery truck brings your shiny new vehicle to your front door. That’s it; no car lots, no haggling, and no aggravation. Sound too good to be true? Actually, it’s an accurate picture of how 3-D printing is bringing seismic changes to the automotive world.

Economic analysts call 3-D printing “the next trillion dollar industry,” and with good reason. This revolutionary technology is reinventing manufacturing from the ground up. Now, instead of ponderous facilities and billion-dollar price tags, an investment of less than $100,000 can enable small workshops to get into the business of making auto parts. Today’s 3-D printers can create most of the components needed for an automobile in less than 48 hours. All that’s left is a basic assembly process and, voila, the new car is ready for shipping.

While this may sound like science fiction, 3-D printed cars are already sitting in homeowners' garages, thanks to the people at Phoenix-based Local Motors, a high-powered startup in business since 2007. The company partners with a wide range of private and public entities, including Siemens Plastics and Oak Ridge National Laboratories.

Local Motors employs methods that are as radical as they are ingenious. Instead of building huge, centrally located manufacturing plants, the company relies on 40–50,000 square-foot workshops it refers to as"micro factories." Instead of burying all aspects of the design process under a cloak of secrecy, it uses a collaborative open-source approach it calls "The Forge." And, instead of churning out giant gas-guzzling land yachts, it creates nimble, fuel-efficient vehicles that are as fun to look at as they are to drive.

In 2015 Local Motor proved its prowess by building a vehicle it dubbed the Strati at an international technology convention in Chicago. Workers printed out 75% of the components used in the vehicle’s final assembly during a 44-hour process. Milling and fitting the pieces together required an additional three days. The resulting auto is an electric-powered dune buggy-style runabout made from carbon fiber-reinforced plastic. It can go up to 25 miles on a single charge and is suitable for traveling to local destinations.

The Strati was a one-off project; it’s far from what the average consumer is looking for in a vehicle. Nonetheless, it’s proof the concept of a 3-D printed car is feasible. Local Motors plans to begin manufacturing vehicles that are fully compliant with federal regulations by 2017.

Achieving this goal will require unprecedented levels of cooperation among designers and engineers. But, should the project succeed, the consequences for the automotive industry and the car-buying public will be enormous. The speed and economy of the 3-D printing process will give drivers more power over their driving choices, while radically reducing production costs and the environmental impact of the automotive industry. For those with the vision to think outside the box, the future of printed cars is bright indeed.




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