If you live in the Mid-Atlantic region, you should soon be able to buy a 3D-printed car -- or at least see one made. Developers at National Harbor -- a 350-acre waterfront property in Prince George's County, Maryland -- announced their plans earlier this month to open a facility for Local Motors by year's end. The facility, which is expected to be approximately 40,000 square feet, will include a 3D printing microfactory, lab, and showroom.
Local Motors aims to change the way autos are made and sold
The business model of Phoenix-based Local Motors, founded in 2007, involves crowdsourcing the designing of vehicles, and then building and selling them locally. Its ultimate goal is to open microfactories near all major urban centers. Manufacturing autos close to their ultimate buyers should cut down drastically on distribution costs.
The company currently has locations in Phoenix and Las Vegas, but according to the Washington Post, the National Harbor site would be "the first Local Motors outpost to print, refine and assemble a fleet of cars via 3-D printer."
"It's like an IKEA. People will come from all around to experience it," the Washington Post quoted Justin Fishkin, chief strategy officer for Local Motors, as saying. I think that might prove true. Surely, many 3D printing aficionados, as well as tech lovers and auto enthusiasts, will probably find something of interest to do and see at the facility, which promises to have a major demonstrative -- and perhaps even a participatory -- bent.
Additionally, there reportedly will be hundreds of other 3D-printed items for sale. So, members of the general public who don't fall into the above-mentioned groups might also find something that appeals to them -- and their wallets.
Autodesk: Local Motors' public-company partner
OK, so this is cool, but where's the investing link?
Software maker Autodesk (NASDAQ:ADSK) announced last fall that it's collaborating with Local Motors. Local Motors is using Autodesk's Spark, a new open platform for 3D printing, as it continues to work with privately held Cincinnati Inc. and Oak Ridge National Laboratory to develop the Strati, the world's first 3D printed full-size car. In September, the trio used the BAAM (big area additive manufacturing) machine that Cincinnati and ORNL are developing to produce the Strati electric vehicle live at the International Manufacturing Technology Show in Chicago. They repeated the feat earlier this month at the Detroit Auto Show.
The Strati will initially be classified as a neighborhood electric vehicle, limited to driving on roads with posted speed limits of 45 miles per hour or less, according to Popular Science. However, PopSci also reports, "Local Motors is seeking approval from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for highway-capable vehicles."
If the Autodesk-Local Motors team-up can demonstrate that the Spark platform increases the ease and efficiency of Local Motors' 3D printing efforts on its Strati project and beyond, Spark could accelerate the adoption of 3D printing for industrial applications. This in turn would likely benefit Autodesk, which makes computer-aided design, or CAD, software for 3D printing as well as for other applications.
The bigger picture... a bigger 3D printing industry pie
If Local Motors' efforts help light a fire under the adoption of 3D printing for industrial applications, the entire size of the 3D printing industry could grow faster than projected. And estimates are already robust: Industry analyst Wohlers Associates expects that the global 3D printing industry will grow from $3.07 billion in 2013 to more than $21 billion by 2020; that's greater than a 31% compounded average annual growth rate.
In this scenario, manufacturers of 3D printers and companies that provide 3D printing services for industrial applications could benefit to varying degrees. These companies include 3D Systems (NYSE:DDD), Stratasys (NASDAQ:SSYS), ExOne, Arcam, voxeljet, and Materialise. (Materialise doesn't make 3D printers like the others; however, it does provide 3D printing services.)
Granted, Cincinnati's BAAM machine could be looked upon as a competitive threat to the existing 3D printing players. However, for the near and intermediate terms, I think it's more likely than not that the introduction of BAAM to the scene will help the existing 3D printing companies more than it will hurt them. The target markets of Cincinnati Inc. and the existing players do not currently overlap, as Cincinnati is solely targeting large-scale 3D printing.
Stratasys, in my opinion, could especially benefit from the increased use of 3D printing for both prototyping and short-run production applications in industrial settings. The 3D printing industry leader offers printers that can print in an impressive range of tough thermoplastics, well suited for various industrial applications. Unlike its main rival, 3D Systems, Stratasys currently doesn't sell systems that can print in metals, though I think it's just a matter of time until it does. Stratasys does, however, provide metal 3D printing services via its on-demand 3D printing services operation.
I also think it's likely that Stratasys will eventually possess capabilities to print in carbon-fiber-reinforced plastics. Stratasys has been working with Oak Ridge National Lab since 2012 to develop FDM carbon-fiber-reinforced plastics. (FDM stands for "fused deposition modeling," one of Stratasys' three 3D printing technologies.) Successfully infusing reinforcing fibers into plastic feedstock is widely considered a major key to scaling up 3D printing to produce large parts for automobile, aerospace, and other applications where strong but lightweight materials are needed. And, in fact, the Stratis that are being produced by Cincinnati's BAAM machine are largely being made using reinforced plastic.
The proposed opening of the first factory to use 3D printing to produce vehicles is surely a positive for the 3D printing industry as a whole. It's too soon, however, to predict how the success of such an endeavor will affect the fortunes of the existing players. But I'll continue to follow the Local Motors' story and keep 3D printing investors abreast of new developments.