Imagine you visit a car company's website and choose an engine, a body style, and maybe customize front seats to conform to your size and shape. In response, a large industrial printer starts pumping out a car according to your specs. And within a few hours, your new ride is waiting in the showroom, ready to drive.

Meet Strati, the world’s first 3D printed car, recently launched at the International Manufacturing Technology Show (IMTS) in Chicago. Its maker, Pheonix-based Local Motors, are bringing this vision closer to reality.

Quest to simplify

Local Motors began this project in April with a design contest aimed at simplifying the car design and manufacturing process through direct digital manufacturing. They received more than 200 submissions and selected the design submitted by Italian automotive designer, Michele Anoe.

Strati – Italian for layers – was printed in 44 hours out of 15% carbon-reinforced ABS thermoplastic in 212 layers on Big Area Additive Manufacturing printers. After the initial printing process for the body and key components, final assembly required only the addition of seat covers and other soft bits, as well as non-printed mechanical pieces, such as brakes. It took one day to mill the rough form and another two days to assemble the parts into a car that could drive at speeds up to 40 miles per hour and travel 120 miles on a single charge.

This electric car is the first automobile that came to life almost entirely through a 3D printer with a body and a chasis together. A few experiments like Urbee used 3D printed panels and features, but relied on a standard internal structure. Some car companies, including Ford, are also dabbling with 3D printing techniques, but most of them use the technology only for prototyping and not actual production.

Beyond prototyping

This situation could change quickly as several industrial manufacturing companies seem keen to apply the 3D printing or additive manufacturing technology to their production process. A recent survey of large manufacturers by PWC revealed that about half of US manufacturers believe that it is “likely” or “very likely” that 3D printing will be used for low-volume, highly specialized products over the next three to five years and about one in five predict the technology will be used for after-market parts production.

And if these kinds of additive assembly designs catch on, online designing platforms could significantly cut lengthy design and prototyping processes. Design changes in major components could then be implemented quickly and save a lot in production costs.

Fewer parts, shorter supply chains

Additive printing can also help cut down on the number of parts. Local Motors, for instance, claims that Strati is made up of less than 50 parts, compared to thousands and thousands of parts that make a typical car today. And fewer parts could mean fewer supply chain headaches. According to PWC, about 30% of manufacturers believe that the greatest disruption to emerge from widespread adoption of 3D printing may be the restructuring of supply chains. Early adopters are finding that 3D printing reduces wasted material and enables production of parts that are often too difficult and complex to make through traditional manufacturing processes.

As the Industrial Internet accelerates into the manufacturing world, 3D printing seems set to drive past prototyping and transform shopfloor dynamics forever.

About the author

Pragati Verma

Journalist/Blogger