In what will be a world's first, Local Motors, Cincinnati Inc., and the U.S. Energy Department's Oak Ridge National Laboratory are teaming to produce a 3-D printed electric vehicle in September at the International Manufacturing Technology Show in Chicago.
While it's well known that 3-D printing is making increased inroads into automotive applications, this project takes the disruptive technology to an entirely different level. It pioneers the use of large-scale 3-D printing technology to print a substantial part of a full-size, functional EV.
It's way too early to know how Ford (NYSE:F), General Motors (NYSE:GM), and other established automakers could be affected by large-scale 3-D printing in general, or the "big area additive manufacturing" technology that Cincinnati and Oak Ridge are developing. The BAAM machine will reportedly be 200-500 times faster than most of today's 3-D printers, and capable of printing polymer components 10 times larger than such systems. I suspect this tech could eventually be a double-edged sword to Ford, General Motors, and their big auto brethren, which we'll get to.
Rev up your... battery, Strati!
In a testament to the power of crowd-sourcing and the amazing creativity that can be found all over the globe, Local Motors, a crowd-sourced vehicle manufacturer, received more than 200 entries from over 30 countries to the design challenge that it held for the 3-D printed EV. Earlier this month, a panel of six judges selected the Strati -- which brings to mind the love child of a sleek sports car and rugged dune buggy -- as the overall winner. Designer Michele Anoe of Italy won $5,000 and the opportunity to see the vehicle that will be highly inspired by his design printed at the IMTS.
Strati's main body, or chassis, will be printed in one single piece from carbon-fiber-reinforced ABS plastic, and is designed to hold the headlamp, mirrors, windshields, and electronic parts together. The 3-D printed seats will be removable, which allows for easy customization by color and material. The car will use the battery and electric powertrain from a Renault Twizy, which were part of the fixed constraints around which all entrants had to design their vehicles. There's also a cool retractable roof, which will be 3-D printed as well. "It's simple and clean, with character," said Stratasys' MakerBot unit's CEO Bre Pettis, one of the judges. Lonnie Love, another judge and a scientist at the Oak Ridge National Lab, added that the design "offers an excellent balance between innovation, complexity and practicality."
The Strati takes a page out of BMW's (NASDAQOTH:BAMXF) book -- the BMW i3 electric vehicle is the first mass-produced car made (partially) from carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic, or CFRP. BMW used CFRP to produce the passenger cell because the material has high tensile strength, high chemical resistance, and high temperature tolerance -- yet it's lightweight. Shaving weight off a vehicle is critical when developing EVs in order to help compensate for the heavy battery.
Here's a view of how the Strati breaks down by components (sorry, can't do anything about the tiny wording):
Six other entries also received recognition, with their creators each being awarded $1,000. This included the "Internal Strut Frame," which was selected as the favorite by members of the Local Motors' community. Vertical struts are used in this vehicle to support the upper surfaces, which makes for a sturdier frame and saves weight. Five other designs were given "innovation awards" by the judges, and have elements that could be included in the design of the car that will be produced.
How rapid, large-scale 3-D printing could affect the auto industry
It's notoriously difficult to predict the affects of any potentially disruptive technology, as well as the timeline involved. More to the point, we need to wait to see how well the BAAM machine performs when it brings Strati into the world this September. It would seem, however, that the partners must be confident that Strati will have a fairly complication-free birth for them to demonstrate the technology live for all the world to see.
The above said, let's take the view that this technology will eventually work well -- as I believe is likely -- and engage in some speculation.
If Ford, General Motors, or other automakers embrace rapid, large-scale 3-D printing for certain applications and/or production of select vehicles, it could help them drive down their production costs. This would be a win if they maintained pricing, or lowered pricing less than their cost savings. I used the qualifiers "certain" and "select" because 3-D printing will never fully displace conventional subtractive manufacturing performed in an assembly line environment, in my opinion. The two technologies will most likely co-exist in many manufacturing settings, as they each have unique strengths.
However, there's also a potential negative for the established automakers. Speedy, large-scale 3-D printing has the potential to significantly lower the barriers to entry to the notoriously high fixed costs auto industry. This is largely because it eliminates the need for tooling, among other factors. Upstarts would be able to set up shop and start designing and churning out new models more quickly and cheaply than is currently possible. It would still be unlikely that any of these new entrants would gain a significant foothold in the auto industry. More likely, however, many smaller or "micro" auto companies could chip away at a tiny portion of the collective kingdom that now belongs to the existing automakers. Additionally, this scenario could be a game changer in developing nations, where there's a dire need for more affordable cars.
Stay "tuned," auto and 3-D printing investors -- I'll continue to follow the BAAM story.