It’s customizable with interchangeable parts, and it can be configured to fit your taste and lifestyle. Nope, it’s not a Lego model but it’s made from acrylonitrile butadiene styrene, ABS for short, the same thermoplastic used to make Lego bricks. So, what is it? It’s the car of the future - the 3D printed car and it’s coming sooner than you think. Local Motors, the company behind this exciting innovation, is set to start rolling out their 3D printed cars in 2016.
Designed to be a “low-speed neighborhood car”, it will run on electricity and will sell for between $18,000 to $30,000. However, a full speed vehicle is set to follow after the debut release. The initial model is based on a design by Kevin Lo, a mechanical engineer from Vancouver, WA. His design won in a competition earlier this year decided on by a panel of professionals plus car enthusiast Jay Leno.
Asked about his design, Lo told Phoenix Business Journal “You can drastically change the look of your car and make it track-ready, fun and sporty.”
Said Leno, “You need something that makes you go, ‘What’s that?' My top choice would be Reload Redacted Swim/Sport because it’s sporty, fun, and you can commute in it.”
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What is 3D Printing?
We’ve been talking about a 3D printed car but what really is the concept behind it?
3D printing, also called Additive Manufacturing is a process of making three dimensional solid objects from a digital file. In 3D printing, successive layers of material are laid down under computer control. Each layer is a thinly sliced horizontal cross section of the 3D object.
The whole process starts with making a virtual design of the object that is to be created. The design is either made in a CAD (Computer Aided Design) file using a 3D modelling software for the creation of an entirely new object, such as the 3D printed car or with a 3D scanner for an existing object. The 3D modelling software then “slices” the final model into hundreds, even thousands of horizontal layers. The 3D printer then reads every slice and creates the object layer by layer, blending each layer so that a seamless three dimensional object is created.
Local Motors uses technology called BAAM (big area additive manufacturing) to create its cars. It’s basically 3D printing but on a much bigger scale. Using a pellet fed extruder, they use a carbon fiber composite ABS to manufacture their cars. The printing process, says James Earle, an engineer at Local Motors, is similar to the operation of a hot-glue gun where solid thermoplastic pellets are heated and extruded in liquid form through a nozzle. The nozzle guided by the computer and moving like a printer head, adds layer upon layer of material in strips until the 3D object is complete.
Revolutionizing the Industry
Recent innovations in large-scale 3D printing have largely improved automakers’ capability for creating prototypes more efficiently and encouraging innovation. Potentially, it could also signal lower production costs.
"At Local Motors, we are hell-bent on revolutionizing manufacturing." This was a statement from John B. Rogers, Jr., CEO and co-founder of Local Motors.
The aim is to have fewer parts because in traditional car manufacturing, “the supply chain is a gargantuan process” with many different suppliers providing the many bits and pieces that make up modern cars.
Local Motors is employing technology that makes processes and products faster through Direct Digital Manufacturing. As opposed to a traditional plant where an automobile is manufactured piece by piece passing through a long assembly line in a plant that costs as much as $1B to build and maintain, Local Motor’s plan is to put up micro factories at a fraction of size and cost.
How does all these benefit the average consumer? Hopefully, more options for affordable, energy efficient cars that leave minimal carbon footprint, which drive good and look good, too.