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If Jay Rogers had his way, car buyers would be able to order a vehicle at a dealership, choose the design and accessories, and have it manufactured to their personal specifications pretty much on the spot.
Rogers is the CEO of Local Motors of Phoenix, Ariz., which aims to manufacture cars based on open-source designs. To him, it's a win-win situation: The customer gets a tailor-made car and the dealership doesn't have the headache of inventory that it might never sell. All thanks to 3D printing.
Rogers has already produced the world's first 3D-printed car, the Strati, a small two-seater that was unveiled to the world last month at the International Manufacturing Technology Show in Chicago.
In fact, Rogers, who is not shy, says he's moved beyond Tesla Motors' Elon Musk in the development of the electric car. "Tesla made the electric drive train famous, we're changing the whole car," Rogers told the technology website Mashable.
Rogers acknowledges that Local Motors can't take complete credit for the new car. The company encourages others to produce and share design ideas. These groups submit their finished designs to Local Motors, which then sells them both online and in retail stores.
The design for the Strati – which means "layers" in Italian – was submitted by Michele Anoe in Italy, one of more than 200 auto designers who responded to Local Motor's call in June 2013 for workable designs for 3D-printed cars.
Rogers says Anoe's design was ideal for Local Motors because it included the two manufacturing techniques his company wanted to use: 3D printing, which builds up a part, and subtractive machining, which pares material from a large piece of material into a smaller part.
For the printing, Local Motors teamed up with the U.S. Department of Energy's Oak Ridge Laboratory. Oak Ridge Labs found a company with a large laser printer, then retrofitted the device with a 3D extruder. Oak Ridge says the upgraded machine, capable of "Big Area Additive Manufacturing" or BAAM, can build parts 10 times larger and hundreds of times faster than existing technologies.
For the subtractive machining, Local Motors used a special routing or grinding machine from Thermwood Corp. to smooth out the car's rough edges.
All told, the 3D printing took 44 hours and the subsequent milling took a day longer. Then Local Motors employees spent four days assembling the parts.
The big question, of course, is: How does it drive? Probably the best example of an electric car today is the Chevrolet Volt. It has a range of 40 miles but can achieve speeds to make it keep up with other vehicles on a high-speed freeway.
The Strati has three times the Volt's range, but can't go faster than 40 mph. And, unlike the Volt, it still requires plenty of testing before it can hit the road.