29 September 2014
The quick answer is: probably not. Not if you’re buying it within the next 20 years or so. But longer term, major advances in 3D printing (or additive manufacturing) are set to kick-start a new industrial era and the automotive industry will see profound change as a result.
Last week at Chicago’s International Manufacturing Technology Show, Local Motors, a low-volume maker of open-source motor vehicle designs, showed off the Strati, the world’s first automobile to be created entirely using direct digital manufacturing. In doing so, they might just have given us a glimpse into the future of automotive design, production, distribution, marketing and service.
It took 44 hours to print the cars 49 key components using a massive 3D printer called a BAAM (Big Area Additive Manufacturing) machine from Cincinnati Incorporated. The BAAM can render 18 Kg of carbon-reinforced ABS plastic per hour, and is large enough to produce the body as one single piece. During the show, the Local Motors team assembled the printed pieces, dropped in the engine and bolted on wheels, tires, seats, windshield, and interior. Today's average production passenger car has between 5,000 to 6,000 parts, making the Strati a remarkable study in simplification if nothing else. The complete vehicle tips the scales at around 680 Kg, including a drive train taken from a Renault Twizy EV that propels it to a top speed of 40 mph with a range of 120 miles. An IC engine could be fitted, and Local Motors have set themselves the goal of getting the Strati to run at highway speeds. According to Local Motors CEO, Jay Rogers, a base-model 3D printed car could sell for about $18,000 once production ramps up.
The quality, speed and cost of 3D printing will have to improve significantly before the process can be used to create actual components sold to regular customers, still less complete vehicles locally assembled while you wait. But the technology is improving daily and the benefits it promises are compelling. Imagine being able to configure your highly personalised vehicle, place the order and be driving it within a couple of days. And consider the efficiency and environmental benefits. Traditional manufacturing is pretty wasteful and dirty. 3D printing offers the potential to cut waste and reduce carbon footprints significantly. Fewer materials are wasted, as only the raw materials needed to create the object—be it plastic filament, metal powder, or carbon fibre —are actually used. Then there is the potential to remove inefficient transport from the production process. Today components and vehicles often travel across many continents to get to their final destination. With 3D printing, the production and assembly can be local. Raw materials are the only things that will ship, and they take up far less space.
A number of OEMs already use 3D printing to create prototypes and test parts. When the technology percolates down to the production level, high-end and niche automakers will likely benefit first, though the potential is clearly there to transform the efficiency of making OE and replacement parts for any mainstream vehicle.
It’s very clever stuff and we can expect to see plenty of exciting announcements over the coming years. Perhaps the biggest fly in the ointment (or resin) will be in the form of intellectual property threats. 3D printing will mean that expensive components can be reverse-engineered or replicated and sold at cheaper prices more easily than ever before. The black market in counterfeit components already costs the industry billions each year. More importantly it costs lives as a worrying number of accidents are caused or exacerbated by sub-standard fake parts bought, often on-line, by unwitting consumers. Protecting their IP, their reputation for quality and their customer's safety will be major challenges for all industrial companies in what many are already calling "the next industrial revolution".
Author: Ian Dickie