A Bright 3D-Printed Future for Cars

By: Tierney Brannigan December 16, 2016
3D printing may be the next evolution in cost- and environmentally-efficient cars.
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From the air we breathe to the jobs our country needs, 3D-printed cars have the potential to bring positive change to the auto manufacturing industry, and two U.S. companies are spearheading the movement.

Arizona-based Local Motors and California-based Divergent Microfactories have completely reinvented the processes of conceptualizing, producing, and driving cars, thanks to new technology the firms have recently taken public.

Local Motors is credited with producing the first 3D-printed electric car, Strati, which was built in just 44 hours with an industrial-sized 3D printer. Similarly, Divergent Microfactories boasts the world’s first 3D-printed “supercar,” the Blade, which can go from 0 to 60 MPH in 2.2 seconds—faster than most modern sports cars.

Both companies have taken steps toward creating a whole new auto manufacturing industry, better equipped for the needs of our world today. However, the impressive speed of the cars’ manufacturing and function are just the amuse-bouche to a full helping of dynamic benefits brought about by 3-D printing technology.

3D Carbon Footprinting

In recent years, each summer has been hotter than the last. But as temperatures around the world continue to reach new heights, Local Motors and Divergent have risen to meet the challenges of climate change.

When thinking about car emissions, observers tend to focus on what vehicles release out on the road. However, there’s a relatively large and generally overlooked factor at play: what goes into making the cars themselves.

“The tailpipe emissions are just the tip of the iceberg,” Divergent Microfactories CEO Kevin Czinger said during a 2015 speaking engagement. “A far greater percentage of a car’s total emissions come from the materials and energy required to manufacture it.

In comparison, the Blade requires just one third the energy and materials needed to build an electric car in a large-scale auto manufacturing factory, Czinger said.

Similarly, Local Motors will also be able to produce their electric car (which produces zero tailpipe emissions) by dispensing just a fraction of the factory pollution usually created when mass-producing electric cars.

How will Divergent and Local Motors sustain such a low-emissions factory model? By thinking small. Both companies have made a conscious effort to move away from using large-scale factories, and instead, look to “microfactories” as part of the solution to the issue of car manufacturing pollution.

“Big car companies…do it for the mass, so they take a lot of time, they have a lot of masters to meet,” Local Motors CEO Jay Rogers told members of a TED Talk in Phoenix recently. “[And it takes] a lot of people to do that, big factories and a lot of money.”

By producing small batches of 3D-printed cars, Local Motors and Divergent Microfactories can divert more of their focus to the sustainability and integrity of the materials used. Overall, the carbon footprint left by these microfactories is micro indeed.  

“I’ve done large-scale traditional manufacturing. We’re at a turning point. The crux in our relationship with ourselves and the planet we live on,” Czinger said. “How we make things over the next 30 to 40 years will have a decisive impact on whether that relationship will be a productive one or existentially destructive.”

Cutting Costs by Owning the Process

The use of 3D printers as part of vehicle manufacturing ensures less building materials go to waste, creating not only a positive environmental impact, but also, a smarter way of financing car production.

“The vehicle, called the Blade, has…1/50 the factory capital costs of other manufactured cars,Czinger said.

To cut down on expenses, Local Motors and Divergent Microfactories embrace a 3D printing production concept known as Direct Digital Manufacturing (DDM). Using DDM allows both automakers to produce a majority of their car parts in house, constructing precise models of the vehicle parts that were once 3D computer renderings.

The process saves auto manufacturers money because relatively little material goes to waste. Manufacturers print what they need, in small and ultra-precise quantities.

“Traditional [manufacturers]…take a big piece of metal and machine it down to get a small piece out and usually their buy-to-fly ratio is 20 to 1,” Local Motors engineer James Earl explained. “They have to buy 20 pounds more material than they get out of their usable part…We only put in as much material as we need…which reduces costs overall because you’re not wasting all that material.”

The control that DDM gives to Local Motors and Divergent over the shape and production of 3D-printed car parts has also allowed them the freedom to build simpler cars with significantly fewer parts than those made on assembly lines. Less parts means less money spent on raw materials, and more money put towards the people hired to assemble each vehicle by hand.

Bringing Back Blue Collar Jobs

3D-printed cars require fewer and simpler parts, meaning microfactories can move away from the current large-scale, highly mechanized methods of car production. Companies like Local Motors and Divergent would only require a small team of employees, capable of following a blueprint and working with their hands.

“The chassis of a car can be completely assembled in a matter of minutes by semiskilled workers,” Czinger said about the 3D-printed Blade.

Could this new way of assembling cars bring auto manufacturing jobs back onto U.S. soil? Though the teams would be small, the number of plants would be plenty. Both Local Motors and Divergent expressed an interest in focusing on the positive impact of dispersing microfactories to any and all communities, large or small, industrial or urban.

Should you feel inspired to open a microfactory yourself, Czinger also noted Divergent would sell the technology and materials necessary to start 3D printing cars on your own.

With the right execution, these microfactories’ relatively low start-up costs combined with the development of simpler car parts have the potential to revamp the U.S. car manufacturing job market.

People all over the country will not only have the means to start building their own 3D-printed automobiles, but can also employ the “blue collar” workers in their communities, thus driving the local and national automotive industries forward.

Waiting on the Future

Now, let’s take a reality check. If this seems too good to be true, it’s because right now, it is.

Getting to a point where there are enough 3D car printing microfactories to compete with the production of traditional vehicle manufacturers will take time.

Still, James Earl of Local Motors remains hopeful.

“The technology is expanding exponentially, so in 20 years there may be an entirely new way of 3D printing that is quicker and faster than the way they’re making cars now,” he said.

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