Local Motors Looks to Disrupt Manufacturing with 3D-Printed Car
At this year’s edition of the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS), going on right now in Detroit, I saw a few things I hadn’t seen in previous years. One was the presence of bomb-sniffing dogs, thanks to a suspicious package left across the street from the auto show that was later determined to be harmless by law enforcement agents.
The other was a vehicle called the Strati that was 3D-printed right on the auto show floor last week by Local Motors, an unconventional car company based in Chandler, AZ, and founded in Massachusetts. The Strati’s design was chosen last May from more than 200 ideas submitted online, and its body is made of thermoplastic reinforced by carbon fibers; the material was contributed by SABIC, a petrochemical company based in Saudi Arabia. It took 44 hours to print the Strati’s 212 layers.
Once 3D printing is complete, the Strati moves to a Thermwood CNC router—a computer-controlled cutting machine that mills the finer details—before undergoing the final assembly process, which adds the drivetrain, electrical components, wiring, tires, gauges, and a showroom-ready paint job. Depending on the options chosen by the buyer, the Strati will retail between $18,000 and $30,000, and it is expected to be highway-ready in the next year.
The Strati was an impressive feat, especially for a small, first-time NAIAS participant like Local Motors. The company was founded in 2007 by John Rogers (he also goes by Jay), an entrepreneur and former Marine commander in Iraq who wanted to build vehicles outside of the traditional auto industry—ideally, products that weren’t reliant on foreign oil.
“We were helping the Iraqis to rebuild their oil ministry, but thinking deeper, thinking to myself as a businessman and an entrepreneur, I would have liked to just shut this whole apparatus down,” Rogers told Xconomy in a 2008 profile. “Friends of mine had been killed. Global warming was weighing heavily on my mind. I really had a moment of ‘What should I be doing with the rest of my life? What can I do to make a difference?’”
Since 2008, Local Motors has grown fast: It increased its team from nine employees to just over 100, built microfactories in Phoenix and Las Vegas, and has introduced what it calls the world’s first fully functional, 3D-printed vehicle designed using crowdsourced ideas from around the world. The result, says Justin Fishkin, Local Motors’ chief strategy officer, is a complete paradigm shift in the way cars are brought to market.
“It’s the first co-created vehicle,” Fishkin explains. “It was one-hundredth the cost and built five times faster than vehicles are usually—we did it in four months for a few million dollars. At the most basic level, ours is a platform that combines open source technology with a global community of engineers, designers, makers, and enthusiasts that all work together.”
A traditional vehicle, Fishkin says, has roughly 25,000 parts. A 3D-printed Local Motors car has about 50. The company is “agnostic” when it comes to choosing a powertrain, he says—customers can pick between electric, gas, and diesel options.
The Local Motors microfactory showroom is more like an Apple store than a typical car dealership. The vehicle designs are solicited through crowdsourcing either in person or online, and they’re customizable. In the future, Local Motors customers will be able to visit a microfactory, choose a model and options, and then pick up the 3D-printed car the following day. (Though the current printing time is 44 hours, Fishkin says Local Motors is striving to reduce it to less than 24 hours within the next year.)
Customers can also bring their vehicles in at any time for hardware and software upgrades, or they can choose to melt their vehicle down and, for instance, add a seat. Because Local Motors uses a distributed manufacturing system to make only what is purchased, it doesn’t stock inventory.
Anyone can come into a Local Motors microfactory, use its design lab, and work on a vehicle project free of charge. “All we ask is that they share their designs,” Fishkin adds. “We pay royalties to people who participate in the design of a vehicle that is brought to market.” (Fishkin says Local Motors uses an algorithm to determine the rate of royalties. It’s not enough to quit your day job, he says, but approximately 2 percent of sales go to the idea originator and another 2 percent is split among the rest of the contributors.)
Fishkin characterizes Local Motors’ approach as being part of a third industrial … Next Page »
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