3D printed cars coming next year, start-up says

Forget making vases, bracelets and other trinkets. Arizona-based Local Motors plans to transform the traditional automotive world with the launch of a three dimensional (3D) printed car next year.

The company plans to build two versions of the Reload Redacted vehicle using a design that was submitted as part of a contest by Kevin Lo, an engineer living in Vancouver, Wash. Set to debut during the first quarter of 2016, it will be a low-speed battery-car, or so-called neighborhood electric vehicle, priced between $18,000 and $30,000.

A full speed vehicle is set to follow, the company said.

Local Motors' Reload Redacted Swim
Source: Local Motors

"At Local Motors, we are hell-bent on revolutionizing manufacturing," said John B. Rogers, Jr., CEO and co-founder of Local Motors.

"Car manufacturers have been stamping parts the same way for more than 100 years. We now have the technology to make the process and products better and faster by linking the online to the offline through DDM (Direct Digital Manufacturing). This process will create better and safer products, and we are doing exactly that."

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There are several versions of 3D printing. The most common method uses a laser to form various materials, from epoxy resins to powdered titanium, into solid objects. Local Motors uses a slightly different deposition process that also builds up objects essentially one pixel at a time. Both methods are relatively slow compared to conventional manufacturing but offer the advantage of allowing near endless customization.

Local Motors publicly demonstrated its concept at the Detroit Auto Show in January. That prototype, dubbed the Strati, had barely 50 individual parts, beyond the electric power train.

Plans for mini-factories

Whereas a traditional automobile is put together—piece by piece on an assembly line that can be miles long, snaking through a plant that might cost as much as $1 billion to erect and tool up—Local Motors plans to set up a series of compact facilities at a fraction of the size and cost.

"Micro-factories are a great counterpoint because they employ an economy of scope by taking advantage of low-cost tooling and co-creation, resulting in the ability to get products to market faster and in less time while using less capital to find a winning concept," co-founder Rogers explained at the time.

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Local Motors has been working with the Oak Ridge National Laboratory on 3D printing. It claims to have tapped into a vast, worldwide network of pioneers, some professional, some amateurs, to work out the kinks in the printing process. That includes contest winner Lo, who works for Hewlett-Packard on advanced printer systems.

Among the judges in the contest was comedian and car fanatic Jay Leno, who said, "You need something that makes you go 'what's that?'"

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While the technology is less expensive and complex than operating an assembly line it also is a lot slower. It currently takes days to print out a car's body. So, were Local Motors ever to envision going large-scale, it might need hundreds or even thousands of 3D printers.

However, research is ongoing and some proponents claim they are working on techniques that could increase printer speeds by as much as 500-fold.

Local Motors previously debuted a model dubbed the Rally Fighter for $99,000. Though the private company won't reveal numbers, industry observers estimate sales are in the double digits at the most. The new project would be the first effort to make something that's more than a curiosity.

The two initial Local Motors models, the Reload Swim and Sport, will be followed later next year by a 3D printed vehicle homologated—or designed to conform—to meet federal safety standards, the company states.

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Meanwhile, it has launched a program it calls LOCO University Vehicles, short for Local Motors Co-Created University Vehicles. Three colleges have already signed up to participate: the University of Michigan, Arizona State University and the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. Several projects will focus on developing an autonomous vehicle.

"Think Uber, but with low-speed, autonomous cars," said Ed Olson, an associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science at University of Michigan, who leads the project there. "The goal of this program is for us to begin to understanding the challenges of a transportation-on-demand system built around autonomous cars."

The program hopes to create a fleet of autonomous vehicles to transport students around Michigan's North Campus in Ann Arbor.