To see the first 3D-printed car may be something you never thought you would do in your lifetime. Looking back, who would have thought when the first mass-produced Ford Model T rolled off the assembly line in 1913, that one day cars would roll off printers?
They would probably have thought it was just as unlikely as a gasoline-powered automobile would have seemed to people in the 1700s.
But changes in technology take place gradually, and something that seemed unthinkable to our ancestors now seems totally logical and even preordained. And that may be where additive manufacturing is taking the auto industry. After all, while the assembly line marked a sea of change in manufacturing, making cars affordable to the masses, automobile production hasn’t substantially changed since the early 1900s. We’re still building cars on assembly lines from thousands of individual parts.
Additive manufacturing could change that, plastic layer by plastic layer.
Just a few years ago, the first 3D-printed car,* the Strati, made its debut at the International Manufacturing Technology Show (IMTS) in Chicago, where the car’s chassis and body were printed from carbon-fiber-reinforced ABS plastic in just 44 hours. The completed Strati was fully functional and driven for the first time on the morning of Sept. 13, 2014, the last day of the show. Then the printed Strati went on the road, beginning an international tour.
Produced by Local Motors, a crowd-sourced car manufacturer, in collaboration with Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, the car is an electric two-seater — and most would agree that by 21st-century automotive standards, it’s not much to look at. Some have said it resembles a giant Lego car, while Ezra Dyer, automotive editor of Popular Mechanics, described it as “crude by design, its dashboard looking like stacked silicone beads from a caulking gun.” Yet he went on to praise its toughness and drivability, saying, “The rear suspension rides on an aluminum subframe, and with no distinction between body and chassis, the car feels inordinately solid, substantial. There’s some clunking from the stand-in motor, but the car itself is silent.”
Greg Haye, general manager of Local Motors, says 3D-printed cars can be as safe or safer than current vehicles, as 3D printing is able to take advantage of complex geometries and lightweight structures. A 3D-printed car is built in layers squirted from the nozzles of a massive printer, allowing manufacturers to embed energy-absorbing crash structures or super-strong seat-belt mounts deep in the car’s body.
Another benefit is that the Strati has only 49 parts, compared with 25,000 in an average car — meaning it has substantially fewer parts that can develop problems. Plus, by decreasing the number of plastic parts, manufacturers can significantly reduce the environmental impact of car production. With 3D-printed cars, manufacturers can reuse a vehicle body if a customer requests a change or the vehicle simply reaches the end of its lifespan. They’re able to break the body down and reprint it into a new vehicle or even a different product.
According to Jay Rogers, CEO of Local Motors, the main advantage of 3D-printed cars is that local communities can build cars that are best suited to their environments and available resources. For example, a small factory in Alaska could manufacture Stratis designed specifically for cold weather, while another in Utah could produce cars suited for the desert.
From design to finish, the Strati took four-and-a-half months to produce, but according to Rogers, future models could be produced in as little as six weeks — with the printing itself taking just 24 hours.
With the advances being made, and the advantages offered by 3D printing, will it ever overtake traditional manufacturing in the automobile industry? The short answer is, there’s still a lot of work to be done.
As Haye puts it, “Most large automakers are primarily using 3D printing as a way to produce rapid prototypes only, and it may prove very difficult for them to change gears and shed their massive infrastructure and overheads.”
But that doesn’t mean the big automakers won’t eventually change their ways. In the meantime, drive safe.
Editor’s note: The first 3D-printed car, The Strati was on display at WESTEC 2017. Attend this year’s WESTEC event to see many other examples of additive manufacturing.
*Other projects might also stake a claim to the title of “first 3D-printed car,” but Local Motors says those projects rely on a standard internal structure, while every part of the Strati that isn’t mechanically involved is 3D-printed. The company also says the Strati is the first car for which the main portion was printed in one piece using direct digital manufacturing.