This (Mostly) 3D-Printed Car Is About to Take Its First Drive

The vision: Worldwide micro-factories that can print you a road-safe car on demand.

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Sep 12 2014, 6:30pm

All images: Local Motors

A US auto company just 3D-printed a car over a couple of days, and will take it for its first drive tomorrow morning. Local Motors printed out their Strati car at the International Manufacturing Technology Show in Chicago this week, and they're adamant it'll be the first of many. The company's vision: worldwide micro-factories that can print you a road-safe car on demand, so you can upgrade your vehicle as often as your mobile phone.

The Strati design took just 44 hours to print, which Local Motors CEO Jay Rogers told me on the phone is already down from 130 hours a few weeks ago. The company, which previously received attention for its Creative Commons-licensed Rally Fighter design, claims it's the first 3D-printed car. While that title might be up for debate—various bits of cars have been printed before—it's got some pretty cool features.

The whole main body of the Strati, including chassis, fenders, bonnet, dashboard, and so on, is 3D-printed out of an ABS-based filament reinforced with carbon-fibre. Obviously, the motor, battery, suspension and suchlike are not printed—we're not quite there yet. But unlike earlier "3D-printed" cars, such as the Urbee unveiled back in 2010, it doesn't have a metal chassis underneath.

Speaking from the technology show, Rogers told me that the point was to radically reduce the number of parts in the car. 

"The supply chain that we have in the world keeps us from changing cars quickly, because if you have to order 25,000 parts, your suppliers are very difficult to organise," he said.

That, he suggested, is why manufacturers have tried to extend the life of each model while also developing as many models on the same platforms as possible. But by printing the chassis tub in one piece, the company can massively cut down on the complexity of the car.

The whole building process of the car is pretty intriguing, and Rogers admitted that the main reason they're referring to it just as 3D printing is because people still go crazy for the term. It actually uses a few different digital manufacturing processes, as the car is printed, cut, and assembled by machine.

A first machine—the 3D printer—extrudes the material onto a heated bed, much like a regular desktop printer but oversized much less accurate. "We don't look for the surface finish of anything close to your standard printers," said Rogers, and explained that the bead they lay down is a half-inch wide, which gives a very stripy finish. A milling machine driven by the same computer program then mills the rough surface down so it's smooth.

Rogers was enthusiastic that the car will be road-safe, and said he's looking to get it approved as a low-speed electric vehicle. The one going for the test drive on Saturday can reach 40 mph.

But the cost is perhaps the most attractive element. "We think it's going to be incredibly disruptive on the cost side," said Rogers. At $4.80 a pound for the materials, the raw product costs around $4,800 per chassis before all the extra bits. "We're hopeful that the car can be priced between $18,000 and $30,000," said Rogers. "For an early disruptive car, those numbers are in Toyota range."

Read: Finally, 3D Printers Are Making Things That Are Actually Useful

What's most interesting about Local Motors' longer-term vision is that it shows how 3D printing could revolutionise a broader system of supply and demand. The company aims to open 50 "micro factories" internationally in the next five years (they currently have three, all in the US).

That's pretty much the dream of 3D printing: Go into a shop, order what you want, and have it made instantly, on site, with no wasted materials. Though I'd wait for the crash safety tests before you drive it out of the lot.