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Driving a 3D-Printed Car Through Manufacturing — Q&A with Jay Rogers of Local Motors

From micro-manufacturing and co-creation to the first 3D-printed car, Jay Rogers is remaking the manufacturing process.

 

If the democratization of manufacturing is being fueled by forces such as the open-source movement and 3D printing, Jay Rogers may be sitting in the driver’s seat.

The CEO of Local Motors, whose company produced the world’s first open-source car, the Rally Fighter, is coming off a path-breaking year. The company designed and built the first 3D-printed car and then shifted gears to join with GE to bring its innovative co-creation and micro-manufacturing process to the appliances business through FirstBuild.

But Rogers, a former marine with an MBA from Harvard, doesn’t see the co-creation movement ending there. “From consumer to industrial applications within fields such as medicine, defense and manufacturing, the possibilities are limitless,” he tells Ideas Lab.

In an interview, Rogers discusses the prospects for co-creation, 3D printing, sustainable transportation and the future direction of auto manufacturing itself:

 

You have demonstrated that co-creation isn’t just a viable business model, but a powerful innovation spark. What industries are best poised to benefit — or be disrupted by — co-creation?

Just 10 years ago, the ability to engage a global community of innovators in co-creation was near impossible. The tools for collaboration and design were simply not accessible to the average person.

These tools are now democratized. Global networks are commonplace, and professional-grade design tools are available for less than the cost of a monthly coffee tab.

Local Motors has proved it is possible to co-create complex cyber mechanical devices — both vehicles and, most recently, appliances in partnership with GE’s FirstBuild. The business case for co-creation has never been stronger; Local Motors can bring a vehicle to market 10 times faster and with 100 times less capital than traditional manufacturers by engaging more bright minds through this process.

 

You developed the first fully functional 3D-printed car. How will 3D printing technology and the way it’s used evolve? Are we moving closer to the democratization of manufacturing?

At Local Motors, we view 3D printing (additive manufacturing) as just one of the many tools available in a suite of tools used to make things. Depending on the function and design, it may make more sense to form, cut, weld, fasten or coat material. It is important to note that 3D printing is not a “one tool fits all” solution — like anything, there are inherent benefits and drawbacks to the technique.

Perhaps the greatest advantage that 3D printing has over other manufacturing methods is that it gives the user control of where materials are placed. Smart designers are able to create complex pieces optimized for strength and weight. The net result is designs that are lighter, require vastly reduced assembly time and are digital, meaning they can be modified with a few strokes of a keyboard. Imagine each successive build of an object improving over the last with features that are uniquely tailored to the requirements of the end user. 3D printing has enabled us to make this vision a reality.

 

Given your recent participation in the iMobility Challenge and other efforts focused on urban mobility, what do you think will be the biggest change in urban mobility and more sustainable forms of transportation?

As we continue to focus our efforts on local transportation challenges, I believe that you will notice that there is no single “one size fits all” solution to transportation. Instead, many solutions appropriate to the needs of a local community will emerge.

The new global is local. The world is increasingly in a position to switch to a model of contained-energy economies. Such economies utilize local resources to create the energy powering the production and transportation ecosystem. The result is that jobs are created locally, while wealth that had been traditionally exported from the community is captured and reinvested.

The microfactory is in perfect alignment with this new paradigm. Unlike traditional factories that require major investment in infrastructure, a microfactory can be developed at low cost and within a footprint that fits into the community.

Within the microfactory, there is a free and open lab space available to the community. Members of the local community engage in co-creation with designers, engineers and fabricators from around the globe to develop and prototype solutions to uniquely local challenges. The best solutions are put into production and sold for use in the community. If a superior design is developed, it can be rapidly and inexpensively prototyped and produced.

 

What emerging materials or technologies hold the most promise for innovation in manufacturing?

Altering a traditionally designed and manufactured product is an expensive and complex proposition. Because traditional manufacturing utilizes patterns, dies and other expensive equipment, it is costly to make changes. These processed are simply not designed for iterative change. For example, if a large automotive company decides to produce a new vehicle, it will require approximately six years and $1 billion of investment in planning, tooling and equipment to reequip a factory.
Tools like 3D printers unlock creativity and innovation within the design process.

3D printing and digital manufacturing change the game completely. Altering a design is as simple as uploading new instructions to the 3D printer; if a designer or engineer believes that there is room for improvement, they can rapidly prototype and refine the new solution. The best solutions can then be implemented on the very next vehicle built. This capacity for constant improvement will immediately improve vehicle safety, customizability and speed the pace of technology adoption.

Further, when a thermoplastic material is used in the printing process, the potential for recyclability is tremendous. Imagine being able to recycle your old car and watching a new one printed and assembled for you while you wait.

 

How can U.S. manufacturing, including the auto sector, best maintain its competitiveness? What can it learn from Local Motors?

One of the key lessons that I emphasize within our team at Local Motors is that, in a networked and digital world, speed to market trumps the traditional “patent and protect it” model of innovation. In the United States, there exists a century of entrenched regulation that serves to maintain the status quo — in many cases disadvantaging those who innovate.

In order to reduce our environmental impact and satisfy the short attention span of digital consumers, we must push harder to accelerate the speed at which we accept new innovations. I am so pleased that other automotive manufacturers are starting to notice. Tesla Motors recently joined Local Motors in open sourcing design information related to their vehicles, and Ford Motor Company is actively engaged in the rapid prototyping of new components through the use of 3D printing.

(Top GIF: Video courtesy of Local Motors)

 

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