Local Motors wants to change the way America makes things. In fact, it already has.
The Phoenix-based automotive and industrial design and manufacturing outfit was one of the pioneers of cloud-based co-creation, where members of a 150,000-member strong online community submit and refine ideas for products, dramatically speeding up the process.
Founded in 2007, its first project was the Rally Fighter, a high-speed off-roader built from a mix of original parts and off-the-shelf components that’s manufactured in small numbers at what Local Motors calls a microfactory. Each vehicle it produces is an updated version of the one before it.
Since then, the company has branched out into a variety of projects, from electric bikes to home appliances and a military vehicle prototype developed in just four and a half months.
That last one shouldn’t be a surprise. The company’s CEO, Jay Rogers, is a Princeton and Harvard-educated U.S. Marine, a veteran of the Iraq War with a clear vision for how to get things done effectively and efficiently, while always leaving room for improvement.
Now the company is taking that idea to the next level, one layer of extruded plastic at a time.
Its latest vehicle is a 3D-printed electric sports car designed by a community member from Italy. It’s currently being honed before one is printed on location in September at the International Manufacturing Technology Show in Chicago.
Called the Strati, it’s a collaboration of Local Motors, industrial parts shaping specialist Cincinnati Incorporated and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, where a custom printer was created for the car.
Produced from a new fiber-reinforced thermoplastic strong enough for use in an automotive application, the chassis and body without drivetrain, wheels and brakes weighs a scant 450 pounds and the completed car is comprised of just 40 components, a number that gets smaller with every revision.
Fewer parts can mean fewer problems. Rogers says the minimalist machine is rock solid and squeak free.
Things like wring brackets and channels are built right in; the first example was printed in just 40 hours and took two technicians only three days to assemble. Compare that to a team of seven working around the clock for 45 days on the first Rally Fighter, which relied on more traditional construction methods.
Rogers hopes to cut the printing time almost in half by September, and to 2.4 hours within a year. He believes the entire manufacturing process can be reduced to one hour in the future.
But it could potentially be much less than that. While the current technology extrudes about 12 pounds of plastic per hour, Rogers says the experimental limit is 1,000 times as fast.
“If this works, even a little,” he says, “it will reform parts or all of the industry.”
While this undertaking is perfectly-suited to Local Motors’ small scale manufacturing model, Rogers sees no reason that it can’t be scaled up to work on a mass production level once the speed is increased. Several of the shipping container-sized printers could pump out constantly evolving cars by the thousands.
Or on demand.
Tapping into his military mind, Rogers envisions the printers being deployed with troops into the field to produce disposable vehicles, each finely tuned for a specific mission. It would eliminate waiting for much-needed equipment, and parts could be recycled or repurposed when the vehicles are no longer needed.
“People in the know are familiar with the massive overhead required by traditional manufacturing,” Rogers says. “[The Strati] is an experiment to prove this method works. If we can do it, there's no reason why we shouldn’t be doing it.”