A 3D-printed car may sound like the latest futuristic gadget featured in the next James Bond flick, but as a matter of fact, it’s here — almost. The unique startup company Local Motors is gearing up to offer electric vehicle enthusiasts a chance to own a piece of the world’s first ever 3D-printed car series, and it has just let out word of a pre-sale featuring its sporty new LM3D Swim.
We use the word “unique” whenever we talk about Local Motors because the company has certainly taken the road less traveled in the auto industry. CEO and cofounder John B. “Jay” Rogers, Jr. kindly took some time out of his busy SEMA auto show schedule to get on the phone with CleanTechnica and explain the whole thing.
The 3D-Printed Car Community
We’re going to make this part of our mini-series on the connection between military matters and renewable energy leading up to Veterans Day, because Rogers has 6 years under his belt with the US Marine Corps as an Infantry Company Commander. He currently heads up the philanthropic group RBR Foundation, and he holds degrees from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton and from Harvard Business School with Baker Scholar honors.
As Rogers explains, LM3D Swim is the product of a business model based on a core leadership team dedicated to engage people who want to contribute to something that represents their passion in life, and who are willing to accept the respect of their community as currency rather than pay. Anyone can join the Local Motors community and there are no membership fees.
Rogers feels that actual currency is still an important part of the process, which distinguishes Local Motors from other crowdsourced platforms. The company develops its products through a series of competitions open to any community member, including cash prizes.
CleanTechnica and our sister site Gas2.org first caught wind of Local Motors when it introduced its 3D-printed Strati all-electric roadster in collaboration with Oak Ridge National Laboratory, billed as the first ever use of DDM (direct digital manufacturing) for manufacturing an integrated car body, chassis, frame, and associated parts all in one shot.
We also got to see the giant Local Motors 3D printer first hand while it was churning out a Strati live at the North American Auto Show in Detroit earlier this year. The whole thing takes about 44 hours to print and we didn’t have time to stick around for the finish, but we did get a shot of a completed model on exhibit at the show. You can see the lines of the 3D printed surface in contrast to the smoothed areas:
Here’s a shot of a Strati with all the finishing touches:
The Strati is actually a working EV with a drivetrain borrowed from the ever-versatile Twizy. You could take it for a spin but it’s not street legal (at least, not yet). As Rogers explains, the Strati was developed as an important first step toward a road-ready 3D-printed car, that step being to engage a community of enthusiastic, innovative collaborators.
To get to the road-ready step, Local Motors launched Project [Redacted] earlier this year, offering cash prizes for whoever could come up with a 3D-printed car design that could be developed into a fully homologated vehicle for the commercial market (homologated refers to a vehicle that meets all the standards required of road-readiness in the US).
The winning LM3D Swim entry, featured at the top of this post, was selected from a pool of 62 entries, based on input from the community as well as a panel of automotive supply chain experts who gave it high marks for buildability.
The collaborative process continues right up to the community of car buyers. Rogers explains where that comes in:
This is an iterative process for us. The iterative process basically means that we don’t know whether it’s done until we’ve sold enough to make them.
The first step was getting that panel of experts to tell us whether this would be right or not.
The second step was going out and seeing if we could get the minimum viable product done, and then once the MVP was done, then we wanted to make sure that we can sell it.
In other words, the LM3D Swim that you see driving down the road was manufactured/printed in order to show people what the car looks like in real life. As for getting one of their own, enough car buyers have to join together and make a commitment to the product.
Local Motors is also the collaborator behind the Energy Department’s aptly named LiteCar Challenge, which encouraged innovators to come up with transformative lightweight designs that create new efficiencies for fuel and resource use. The winning entry drew inspiration from a combination of water droplet and bone structure:
And speaking of collaboration, drawing design innovation from the community is part of the picture. Execution is the other part, and that is enabled by a network of high-tech partners including Siemens, which provided its Solid Edge® software for streamlining product development. The thermoplastic specialist SABIC provided the material for Swim’s printed parts, consisting of plastic reinforced with carbon fiber (for you 3D fans, it’s a pellet-based model rather than a more expensive fiber extrusion system).
Who Wants A 3D Printed Car?…
Since customers play a critical role in the production process, Local Motors has spent a lot of time thinking about who would want a 3D printed car, again with its own unique approach:
It’s not about a demographic for me or for my company, it’s about the LM3D Swim. It’s about a psychographic. Are you interested in a vehicle that’s got a 100 mile range with no emissions at the tailpipe, super sporty and fun-looking, that allows you to exhibit your “Swim lifestyle.”
You love the idea of having upgradable hardware, where — like your phone — you have it for 18 to 24 months, and then it gets better after that.
Those things are all part of that psychographic…in general, the attraction for what we do is a millennial attraction.
As for the common wisdom that millennials “are not interested in cars, we just want to ride Uber everywhere,” Rogers makes the point that as a lifestyle, the Uber model personal for mobility has a limited timeline, leaving plenty of room for people of any age who treat mobility, like their phone, as an extension of their personal technology.
…And Who’s Going To Make It?
Assuming that LM3D Swim gets out of the MVP stage and into production, Local Motors has another unique angle on that. In contrast to gigantic conventional factories and futuristic “gigafactories,” Local Motors is focused on a distributed, microfactory model that favors collaboration, customization, and innovation.
Since we’ve seen the Local Motors 3D printer up close, we can tell you that the printing setup takes up about as much space as a large garage (say three or so cars), with additional space required for polishing the parts and final assembly — in other words, once you have a 3D printer, microproduction is a realistic opportunity.
For those of you who are skeptical of the gigafactory model (think: long commutes, low wages, minimal services), Rogers presents an alternative view of production. Think of the difference between megabreweries and your local craft brewery, and you get the idea:
The macrofactory model will certainly change as a result of the microfactory model. Microfactories are possible today because of things like the Internet, things like FedEx, third-party logistics shipping, distributed content, and legal protections.
Microfactories are a force to be reckoned with. It’s about sustainability at its heart. It’s amazing how much local content is available in cities around the world…being able to develop that local content is about the local living economy.
I’m a big believer that GDP is a wrong measurement for the health of a nation. GDP is one of those things where we’re measuring literally corporate profits…we’re not measuring sunshine, happiness, how hard your commute is, what kind of technology you use during the day. That is part of what a microfactory brings to a town…that’s the kind of sustainability that gets left out when everyone is thinking about tailpipe emissions.
From a supplier development point of view, being able to have an ecosystem of businesses, the fabric around a microfactory, is more than just the local living economy. It’s good for the tax base, it’s good for STEM education, it’s good for all other kinds of things like that.
From a materials science perspective…if you think of the kind of load that people put on the road [see LITECAR Challenge above]…we can really change the way we pour asphalt and the way in which we think about paving our streets.
For you hoverboard fans, Rogers is already thinking ahead to the transformative impact of getting cars off the road and a few inches (or feet) up into the air, but that’s for another story.
The name of the Local Motors game is “true disruption” of the auto industry, and as much as we fangirl over this, that, and the other new electric vehicle from high-profile automakers, for the most part, they are based on a conventional manufacturing model involving acres of built infrastructure in a central location. Rogers closes out the interview with this thought:
True disruption in the automotive industry has been waiting to happen for a long time. It goes to the very core of our middle class… the bottom line is, if we’re going to build a better future for our children, we have absolutely got to change the way we manufacture vehicles — full stop.
Images: LM3D Swim, finished Strati and Waterbone via Local Motors; unfinished Strati photo by Tina Casey.
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