Blog post contributed by community member Brian Wilkins
In 1979, there were 19.5 million U.S. manufacturing jobs, the most in the country’s history, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That represented 22 percent of all nonfarm jobs at the time. Today there are only 12.3 million U.S. manufacturing jobs, as recessions, excessive regulations and cheap labor abroad make it more practical for companies to set up shop overseas. But additive manufacturing (3D printing) is about to change all that.
The Strati, Local Motors’ 3D-printed car, has been buzzing all over the internet since one was printed right on the floor at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit this past January.
The first Strati, printed at the International Manufacturing Technology Show (IMTS) in Chicago last September showed the world that a 3D-printed electric car is possible. But a cool-looking, economical vehicle is just the tip of the iceberg as to how direct digital manufacturing is changing the automotive industry and the manufacturing sector as a whole.
The first test mule, known as Strati Version 1, consisted of 3D-printed seating, as well as a bonded, fastened-on rear structure for suspension and drivetrain components. “The front suspension was bolted to aluminum brackets that were bonded and fastened to the 3D-printed material,” said Dave Riha, lab manager at Local Motors. “The first mule was fully developed from a functional point of view. It didn’t have styling or a ‘body.’ But test drives proved it to be a very quiet, rigid structure.”
The IMTS Strati was the “mid-model refresh.” The attached aluminum substructures were eliminated in favor of the drivetrain and rear suspension being fastened directly to the 3D-printed structure. Lighting, upholstery, armrests, wind screen and several other features were added as well. The same 20% carbon-filled ABS thermoplastic polymer was used for the expanded body.
The possibilities 3D printing technology brings to the manufacturing industry were put on full display with the updated version. “We changed major design elements very quickly without new tooling,” Riha said. “The refresh followed similar construction and layout to the first Strati, but differed primarily in contours and shaping of the outer visual layers.”
Co-Creation and the Future Of Manufacturing
Disruptive technologies are historically met with resistance from the established power structure. The rapid ascent of personal computers is an example most can relate to.
There were about 250 devices on Earth that could be classified as “computers” in 1955. The first computer was a giant machine invented by John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert in Pennsylvania, according to the University of Rhode Island. You would need a home the size of a warehouse to own one, along with good pest control measures (the term “bug” for computer programs came from these large machines attracting moths). The subsequent decades saw companies like Commodore International (PET), Tandy Radio Shack (TRS-80) and Apple (Apple II) put the power of computing into the hands of the general public versus being monopolized by large corporations.
3D printing technology will disrupt manufacturing in much the same way, particularly in the automotive industry. One machine can now create a wide range of parts and products without drastically changing processes or needing additional equipment. Additive manufacturing requires a fraction of the manpower needed in traditional factories, can utilize many different raw materials and is much more environmentally-friendly. While 3D printing has been a boon for producing small parts, tools and products, there is still a lot of work to do when it comes to large scale applications.
“One area where 3D printing is still in it’s infancy is Big Area Additive Manufacturing (BAAM),” said Nyko dePeyer, the co-creation community manager for Local Motors. Larger printers require more space, time and of course money to build. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Dutch-design company MX3D developed computer-guided robotic arms that will build a steel bridge over a canal in Amsterdam by 2017. This same type of ambition can change automotive manufacturing and the world at large.
“We could potentially deploy a set of Mobifactories to developing areas, or even areas torn by war or natural disaster, and use our BAAM technology along with our global community and online platform to rapidly design, engineer, develop and print vehicles that could meet the specific needs of the people,” dePeyer said. “While we are still in the early stages of developing the technology, procedures, and plans for this, the potential for BAAM to change lives is just as significant as the potential for nano-3D printers to change our lives.”
Road-Ready 3D-Printed Car
Local Motors, along with its partner Oak Ridge National Laboratory, plans to unveil a highway-ready 3D-printed car by the end of 2016. PROJECTED [REDACTED] challenged the co-creation community to develop the majority of this 3D-printed road-ready car. The winning entry could be the foundation for what will become the road-ready vehicle.
Voting will continue through June 25. All you have to do is create a profile at LocalMotors.com to vote on your favorite design.