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 revolution—one that takes advantage of technological advances like additive manufacturing and open-source software for a faster iteration process: “We’re trying to change the economics of the auto industry—we call it an economy of scope instead of an economy of scale. For 100 years, the auto industry has been supply-driven, where customers choose from the available inventory. We’re changing it to be demand-driven.”

Over the next 10 years, Local Motors plans to build 100 microfactories around the world, includingmetro Detroit. At NAIAS, the company announced its latest microfactory locations at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Knoxville, TN, and in Washington, DC.

“Everyone at Local Motors, and the participants in our global co-creation community, feel like we’ve played a role in catalyzing the disruption of 100 years of manufacturing vehicles the same way,” Fishkin says. “We hope that people around the world will join us by participating in the design of vehicle solutions of their own. The localization of vehicle manufacturing will create jobs and empower communities to run on locally generated fuels of their choice. This isn’t just exciting, it’s game-changing.”

That remains to be proven, but for now President Obama seems to agree. In 2011, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) approached Local Motors with a challenge: Design a combat support vehicle for use in Afghanistan more cheaply and quickly. Local Motors solicited design ideas on its website, chose the best out of the 162 that it received, and built and delivered the vehicle, called the XC2V, in four months– a timeframe considered impossibly fast.

The XC2V proved that crowdsourcing and co-creation can increase innovation and efficiency. During his remarks at its unveiling at Carnegie Mellon University, Obama said, “Not only could this change the way the government uses your tax dollars—because think about it, instead of having a 10-year lead time to develop a piece of equipment with all kinds of changing specs and a moving target, if we were able to collapse the pace at which that manufacturing takes place, that could save taxpayers billions of dollars. But it also could get products out to theater faster, which could save lives more quickly, and could then be used to transfer into the private sector more rapidly, which means we could get better products and services that we can sell and export around the world.”

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8 responses to “Local Motors Looks to Disrupt Manufacturing with 3D-Printed Car”

  1. bric hard says:

    #degrowth better…

  2. Dennis Woodman says:

    I wonder why they print a car, yet we are still using ” sniffer dogs “. I’m sure they could have sniffer robots.

  3. JMack says:

    I like this for the most part but, A traditional vehicle, Fishkin says, has roughly 25,000 parts. A 3D-printed Local Motors car has about 50, is pure horse, uh, manure, and calls to question the companies integrity. May as well have that fancy paint job include, “do no evil,” on the door panels…

  4. Ronald says:

    “John Rogers…wanted to build vehicles outside of the traditional auto industry—ideally, products that weren’t reliant on foreign oil.”

    What a great idea!

    “…and its body is made of thermoplastic reinforced by carbon fibers; the material was contributed by SABIC, a petrochemical company based in Saudi Arabia.”

    Oh, never mind. Nice try, tho.

  5. Mainly posting to keep track of this idea. I could see large scale 3D printing factories really taking off.

    I wonder if they could help me realize my dream of an amphibious RV camper that doesn’t move like a barge in the water?

  6. mrtweetyhack says:

    Still way too expensive. Might as well buy a regular car

  7. The giant automotive leading companies are already adopting and implementing 3d printing technology in their manufacturing procedures, BMW, Ducati and many more, if they do not have in house additive manufacturing abilities they join forces with giants such as Stratasys. Bottom line is the 3d printing already has huge impact on automotive industry. http://www.3dprintingpartner.com/3d-printed-car-automotive-additive-manufacturing/