Fifteen seconds before nine AM on Saturday, September 13, Jay Rogers and his 10-member team were still adding the final touches--logos, a few tweaks to the dashboard cowling--to the world’s first-ever 3D printed car. Hundreds of attendees at the International Manufacturing Technology Show, many of whom had watched the vehicle rise up on the show floor, crowded around, taking pictures. Sitting in the driver’s seat, Rogers turned the key and maneuvered the vehicle off the red carpet, out of McCormick Place, and into the streets of Chicago.
“It was an unbridled success,” Rogers says of the 44-hour build. “As we drove out we had to be careful not to hit people who didn’t see us coming. It was a metaphor for what we had just done.”
Rogers is co-founder and CEO of Local Motors, based in Chandler, Arizona. Groundbreaking as it sounds (and is), printing a car is just one part of his grand plan to reinvent American automobile manufacturing. A graduate of Princeton, Harvard, and a proud former Marine, Rogers wants to see much mass production replaced with a locally based niche model like that used by Local Motors. The company’s products are designed collaboratively online, then rapidly built in “micro-factories:” easily reconfigurable small plants that lack big machines, tools, and conveyor belts.
People are just getting used to the idea that you can 3D print automobile parts. What inspired you to print a whole car?
What inspired me to start Local Motors itself is that I wanted to unleash the world of vehicle innovation. I’ve always been focused on how do you change the whole car. Printing little plastic parts doesn’t make that happen. People get so focused on the power train because they think the car had already been invented. But the car has not been invented. It’s in a constant state of change.
What kind of car is it?
It’s a neighborhood electric vehicle called the Strati. That means “layer” in Italian. It’s a two-seater, running a 12-kilowatt power train with about 120 miles’ range. In simple parlance, it’s a cute little car.
How did the process work? I assume you couldn’t print all the parts. Were parts printed separately and then assembled?
We set up a microfactory on the show floor. That gives you the freedom to do anything you want in the creation. We had a printer, which was phase one. We had a mill to remove excess material, which was phase two. And we had an assembly cell, which put the car together from 50 parts. I don’t think everything ever needs to be printed. As we look toward the future, the world of manufacturing is about having a tool bench full of tools, and you use the best one for the job.
Fifty parts is incredibly low for a car. How did you manage that?
In the traditional industry it’s more like 25,000 parts. Instead of having sheet upon sheet upon bracket upon fastener upon glue upon rubber seal upon glass upon harness--all of that was done with one machine printing the same material. Today, the way Toyota or BMW or Tesla makes vehicles is they take metal and form it into the best shape they can for safety and looks and aerodynamics. Then, if they want a ledge here or a hole there or a grommet here they have to keep adding stuff. Because with steel you can’t just sculpt, bend, or print something on top of it. This is more organic. Our bodies are grown from cellular structures. This car was grown like a bone, up from the bottom.
So what did the printer actually print?
It printed the chassis, the body, the dash, the center console, the seats, the fenders, the bonnet, the boot--the whole vehicle. Then the springs, the struts, the motor, the battery, the steering wheel, the headlights and taillights and blinkers, were components that we added.
Did Local Motors create the printer?
The printer was a collaboration between Cincinnati Incorporated, which made the basic structure, and Oak Ridge National Labs and Local Motors. All of us worked to come up with a prototype machine.
Did you run into any unexpected problems during the development or the actual printing process?
There are always bumps along the road. But they just serve to point out the power of this model. For example, we printed the wrong sized fender, and we were able to go right back to the printer and print another one and put it on. If that’s not proof positive that the process is flexible, I don’t know what is.
For the design, did you use the same competition-driven, online collaboration you used for Local Motors’ first car, the Rally Fighter, and other vehicles?
We used the same process. Just minutes ago I was standing outside, and we had the Rally Fighter nose to nose with the Strati. And the designer of the Strati was there. We shook hands over the back of the car, where his signature was. There were tears in his eyes. He works for an automotive design firm in Italy which designs for all these big names in motorcycles and cars. But he did this on his own. His boss was so proud of him that he flew over with him to celebrate.
Did you do a production test-run in one of your factories?
We tested the materials and the interface of the power train with the materials. But this was the first time we assembled and drove the vehicle, straight up. We did it all in public.
Have you added 3D printing capabilities to your microfactories? Will you be building the Strati with 3D printing and selling it?
That’s exactly right. In the next 12 months these vehicles will be available. And we’re not just doing the Strati but also a line of vehicles designed by our community and 3D printed.
How much will your 3D printed cars cost?
We’ve said publicly $18,000 to $30,000. It is my belief we can be cheaper than that. And we also want to be able to find ourselves more expensive than that. Just like you have Toyota making cars that are $20,000 and BMW making cars that are $120,000, this process is going to happen up and down the curve.
How significant is this achievement to the future of automobile manufacturing and manufacturing in general?
Earlier today I was interviewed by two reporters from Chinese networks. Everybody today is enamored with the idea of China as a manufacturing force. And those reporters sat there in the car with me and said, “What is this?” And I said, “This is the future of manufacturing.” This is about bringing manufacturing back local, all over the world. It is a change in how we think about Detroit, Toyota City, Shenzhen, Yangzhou. This is about making manufacturing relevant, local, and fast. To have people all over China understand that the world of manufacturing just changed right underneath their noses is deeply satisfying to me.
Earlier this year you partnered with General Electric to launch that corporation’s first microfactory, for major appliances. What happened there and how does it fit into your vision for manufacturing’s future?
People kept coming to us and saying, “Is this relevant, because it’s just vehicles?” I was shocked because vehicles are a $2 trillion industry. But you can’t fight the power. GE was willing to say, “Yeah, we've got issues in developing and understanding how to keep the cost of new products down while we try out new things. We want to develop the model you used for Local Motors in our appliance division.” Now they are going to be changing the way that home-appliance innovation happens. They opened up a microfactory in Louisville, in June, and they’ve been running projects. They have a new disposal line-whoever thought of reinventing the disposal? They just finished an indoor grilling challenge. They’ve done a bottomless pitcher in a refrigerator. And they’ve changed the way an oven door works by having a peek-and-pull feature.
But microfactories like Local Motors’ and GE’s aren’t just onramps to mass manufacturing, are they? Places to try something out and see if it flies before investing in giant runs?
Many people assume that’s what they are. But they’re both. When people rent a car anywhere in the world they want to know the key is on the right, the lights are on the left, and everything works the same. So for industries like rental and fleet you just need mass manufacturing. Then there are whole other industries where you need niche products, like assisted living and campus vehicles and race cars and work trucks and vehicles customized for cold weather in places where there are lots of potholes and for warm weather in places where there are lots of hills. There are microniche markets all over the place, and those lend themselves to microfactory production. And if you are a rental company or somebody that needs a massive fleet, then you can use microfactories to create and test concepts before going to mass production.
Tesla yesterday announced plans to open a so-called “gigafactory”--174 football fields of space--for lithium batteries in Nevada. It sounds like, in the future, microfactories and gigafactories will co-exist.
You bet. Maybe Tesla will be a components supplier to Local Motors. I think that’s what they want. And we’d like it. Because I think Local Motors is going to be the future of vehicle production. The world doesn’t need more Henry Fords right now. I love Henry Ford. But we don’t need more mass factories. We have enough of them. We need companies that are innovating rapidly and changing the way we get vehicles on the road. Tesla is the company that brought the electric power train to the market. We are the company that is bringing new car manufacturing to the market.
Since word of the GE project and, now, the 3D printed automobile have spread, have you been approached by other corporations or organizations interested in working with you on this?
Full stop yes. From across the whole world. From Japan to India to South Africa to Singapore to Korea…it’s unending. The collaboration we’ve just had with the U.S. Army [around the ability to quickly configure vehicles for changing threats] portends great things, both in terms of training of veterans and increasing our operational capability. In the future you’re likely to see us do more things with the U.S. government, both on the defense and the energy sides. We’re also looking to extend our relationship with General Electric into other divisions in the near future.
What will you do with the first Strati?
We’ve already sold it. My granddad owned the Indian Motorcycle Company, and he died not owning an Indian. I don't own an Indian. And I don’t need to own this. I’m not sentimental about it. We move so quickly, we will have other firsts as we go along. We’re in a co-creative, crowd-funded world, where you have to give something to your customers. One of those things is they are paying to have the first vehicles. I think we owe them part of that history.
What would you like manufacturers, specifically US manufacturers, to take away from what occurred today at IMTS?
Pride. I really want them to embrace the change and the chance to be part of this. This is about standing on our own two feet and saying we don’t need to look to other countries to tell us what to do. The here and now is in their pockets. I want them to feel liberated, to feel that that their mojo is back. And I want them to run with it.
Any last thoughts?
What we did proves that entrepreneurship is alive and well even in hardware. Software and Internet-enabled devices that go in your pocket aren’t the only place that venture capital should take hold. I think this should be a lesson and a warning shot to Silicon Valley. They had better understand manufacturing and look much more boldly at people who make stuff.