3D-Printed Cars Are Coming

February 23, 2016

by Thi Dao - Also by this author

A vehicle in the process of being printed. Photo courtesy of AutoDesk via Business Wire
A vehicle in the process of being printed. Photo courtesy of AutoDesk via Business Wire

More than a year ago, I saw an acquaintance wearing 3D-printed sunglasses. I thought it was the coolest thing ever, but apparently, I’m behind the times.

You can 3D-print more things than just sunglasses: food, many small useful and useless gadgets, solar panels, and even houses. But of course we’re here to talk about the 3D-printed car.

Local Motors, a Phoenix-based company, is preparing to make and sell 3D-printed vehicles, beginning with the road-ready LM3D series that will be available for purchase in 2017. This car will cost about $53,000.

While government fleets are happy to test out and purchase traditionally manufactured electric and hydrogen-powered vehicles, this relatively expensive electric vehicle probably won’t make it to your fleet. What might make it, however, is still in the design stages — the company’s neighborhood electric vehicle (NEV). Local Motors gave me some preliminary information about this upcoming car.

What’s a 3D-Printed Car?

Here’s how direct digital manufacturing works: A computer-aided design (CAD) file is programmed into the printer, which then expels a semi-liquid thermoplastic along the programmed path. It creates layers that build upon one another to turn into a 3D object. Here's a video of another model being printed.

Local Motors is using a plastic/carbon fiber composite for its vehicles. Its vehicles are 75% printed, but the company hopes to bump this up to 90% in the future. Tires and glass aren’t printed, and the vehicle has steel in some portions of the body and chassis, but engineers are working to reduce use of outside materials.

The NEV will be a lot more affordable than the LM3D — cost will be between $13,000 and $20,000, depending on features and options.

What are the benefits of 3D printing for fleets?

The vehicles are customizable, which means if you want a cup holder in your NEV, or anything that doesn’t affect vehicle structure, you can ask for it.

What’s more, the company plans to make its vehicles IoT-connected. The Internet of Things is a network of physical objects, and a company spokesperson described it as making the computer components of the vehicle cloud-based. This allows for rapid software updates and allows the car to get to know the driver. (Call me pessimistic, but this makes me worry about hacking.)  The company expects this to be a stepping stone toward self-driving cars.

Local Motors will conduct safety and crash testing to get the safety certifications needed and even make it safer than a traditionally manufactured car, according to its website.

Maintenance might be easier for fleets. A printed car has fewer individual parts, which means fewer parts can break. And if something gets dented or broken, the 3D material is easy to replace. The smart car can also report damages, allowing fleet departments to provide real-time maintenance support.

Here’s an unexpected benefit: The vehicles will be recyclable. Your future remarketing conundrum may be: Do I auction this off or recycle and reuse the plastic/carbon fiber for a new car?

While 3D-printed cars are coming, fleet managers don’t have to worry about it just yet. The company hopes to begin road-testing the NEV this summer, so it might be a couple of years before it’s available.

An Exciting Time

Right now, you can buy 3D printing pens to make your own creations. You can also buy a 3D printer online, and a quick Google search shows you can print useful objects such as hammers. Printing technician tools might be another thing to look into.

Fleet managers are facing robots and drones in the near future, and now you may have to worry about another type of vehicle altogether. It’s hard to keep up, but these are the changes that make it such an exciting time to be in the automotive industry.

Do you think 3D-printed vehicles will have a place in the industry?

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Thi Dao

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Thi is the executive editor of Government Fleet magazine. She is interested in maintenance management and alternative fuels.

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