September 19, 2014 - 1:28 pm ET
Imagine a car, as functional and drivable as any other, coming off a three-dimensional printer and assembled in a matter of days.
An Arizona company says that could be a reality in the next year, and this month gave attendees at a Chicago technology show front-row seats to 3-D-printed car production.
The car, called the Strati, was built at the 2014 International Manufacturing Technology Show. After starting from scratch on Sept. 8, Local Motors created a car that coasted out of Chicago’s McCormick Place and onto Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive on Sept. 12.
Local Motors, an open-source design company in Chandler, Ariz., expects the Strati to be available to the public in 2015 for between $18,000 and $30,000.
Local Motors began working on the project about nine months ago, said Alex Fiechter, the company’s head of innovation. The company asked for 3-D-printed car design ideas and crowd-sourced more than 200 submissions. Italian designer Michele Anoe was the winner, and Local Motors got to work.
The company collaborated with Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, which had a large 3-D printer, and Thermwood Corp. in Dale, Ind., which built a router to smooth the edges of the car, Fiechter said.
Fiechter, who has been with Local Motors for four years, said he likes working through the manufacturing process.
“The biggest thing that drew me there was the potential to work with a diverse level of material,” he said.
It all starts with a concept design, Fiechter said. A simple sketch turns into a 3-D computer image. After the main vehicle body file is completed on the computer, it’s sent to the printer. Programmers set code to create each layer of the body.
“Then you press the ‘go’ button,” Fiechter said.
The body “layers out like a cake,” but comes in one piece, he said. At the International Manufacturing Technology Show, the body of the car took about 44 hours to print, and then it was shaped for aesthetic appeal and to accommodate mounting hardware.
The first version of the 3-D-printed car will be a lower-speed electric vehicle designed for neighborhood and city driving, Local Motors said. It will have to go through crash testing and clear the same regulatory hurdles as traditional vehicles, but the company still expects the Strati to be available in 2015, a company spokeswoman said. As Local Motors continues to test and refine its vehicles, the company hopes to make 3-D-printed cars that are highway-safe, the company said.
The Strati’s main structure is the 3-D-printed body made of thermoplastic and carbon fiber. Local Motors added fewer than 50 parts, including a motor, tires, headlights, taillights, transmission, steering column, a pedal box and seat upholstery. Renault donated the motor, transmission and some other parts from its Twizy, a battery-powered two-seater, Fiechter said.
Fiechter said he was most struck by the smoothness of the ride when he test drove the Strati. With the lightweight materials and limited junction points, there was no rattling, he said.
“It’s an incredibly quiet car for being the first one on the block,” Fiechter said.
The car runs up to roughly 50 mph and can travel 62 miles on a full charge, Local Motors said. And as long as vehicle safety is unaffected, “there’s no theoretical roadblock in front of saying someone could come in and modify their vehicle and have it print out that way,” Fiechter said.
Customers would be able to choose the color, adjust the space or modify the style of the car because it’s modeled on a computer. 3-D-printed modifications would reduce customer waiting time and expense.
But the Strati’s design as a neighborhood vehicle makes it unsuitable for long trips. Fiechter said it would be useful as a second or third car.
Fiechter said he’s unsure what’s next for the 3-D-printed car.
“From an engineering perspective, we’re at the tip of the iceberg,” he said. “[But] one way or another, you’re going to see a whole lot of this.”
You can reach Hannah Lutz at email@example.com.