Still a relatively new technology, 3-D printing has seen growth in its usage over the years. Aeronautics and even hospitals have benefited from the process, and it is slowly taking over as one of leading ideas for material crafting in the future.
The technology isn’t limited to plastics or polymers, but can be used to print metals among other hard substances.
Yet until last year, the idea of 3-D printed cars had not been fully fleshed out. Chandler-based technology company and electrical auto manufacturer Local Motors sought to change that, and is now working on both a new line of 3-D-printed cars, as well as a partnership with major universities that will use the same technology.
On July 7, Local Motors not only announced the winner of its Project Redacted competition, but also announced multiple partnerships with universities on another project entitled LOCO, or Local Motors Co-created University Vehicles.
Three universities have partnered with the company: University of Michigan, the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, and Arizona State University. Donor vehicles for the project have already been sent to Las Vegas and Maryland, with ASU’s set to arrive between late August and September.
According to a press release from Local Motors, UNLV and U of M will focus on crafting their LOCO vehicles into electrical autonomous cars, the first of their kind made through 3-D printing. ASU’s hand in the project will focus on research and materials gathering through the Fulton School of Engineering.
Fulton Associate Director Malcolm Green said that ASU's LOCO vehicle will initially be housed at the Polytechnic campus in Mesa for its first year. While there, it will assist in teaching design and manufacturing to students and will also play a role in the school’s new additive manufacturing program.
Green said that the vehicle will have roles in Fulton's mechanical engineering degree program, the first of its kind in Arizona. Additionally, it will be available for student projects, ranging from 3-D printing to design.
"The plan is to introduce students to the co-creation process that Local Motors has," he said, citing the company's virtual design process that encourages collaborative work.
As far as what materials the school will be researching, Green referenced the quick growth rate of 3-D-printing, and said that has advanced to incorporate metals and other materials.
"The technology is maturing so quickly, that you can make 3-D parts out of metals, stainless steel - your traditional polymers as well as metals," he said.
This meant that printed cars were not restricted to being crafted with just plastics or polymers.
"We might propose doing design and manufacturing projects with structural components such as axles that are made of metal," he said. "So it's still a 3-D printed car."
Despite his praise, Green said that 3-D printing is still an emerging technology, and there are times where a printed plastic object won't have the same strength as one made traditionally.
"The real opportunity is to understand these objects that are made with 3-D printed technology, and then to compare them versus the old way," Green said. "I think those products in time will be useful, but there needs to be a whole new set of design rules before we can create products this way. That's why it's really important that universities are participating in not only how to make products but ultimately how to optimize the design for these products."
On the collaboration with ASU and Local Motors, Green spoke highly of the partnership.
“From a research perspective, the scope of this project has legs that we can grow for many years,” he said.
Founded by former Marine John B. Rodgers Jr. Local Motors strives to produce vehicles that are road ready within a fraction of the time seen by major automotive companies.
They revealed the world’s first drivable 3-D printed car, the Strati, in September of last year, and have an additional printing plant in Tempe, with two more factories opening this year in Tennessee and Berlin.
Green said the collaboration between ASU and Local Motors will hopefully provide materials to be used not only for the LOCO project, but for the recent Project Redacted, which began in May. The company received more than 60 design entries from their co-creation community, and found a winner in 39-year-old Kevin Lo, a resident of Portland, Oregon.
Lo, who has a masters in engineering and bachelors in automotive engineering from Standford and the University of Texas in Austin respectively, won the contest with his entry,”Reload Redacted Swim/Sport.” Lo will have his designs be used as the basis for a fleet of 3-D-printed cars, with the first running prototype to be completed by September.
In a phone interview Lo and Local Motors spokesperson (and ASU alum) Adam Kress, Lo said that he relied on his engineering background to craft his designs.
“I started off by just reading (the requirements) and asking, ‘What are they trying to build?’ How do you make that build happen?" Lo said.
Lo started his design with the body, namely the wheels, motor and batteries before placing his design on top, likening it to a “skateboard with a cover over it.” His intention was function over form, likening the reverse to simply, “pretty artwork.”
“For me if you have beautiful styling but there’s no substance behind it, it kinda has no meaning,” he said
Because of the free-form nature of 3-D-printing, he felt that he wasn’t constrained to any one design, and had drafted five different models before settling on the two that garnered his win with Redacted. Still, Lo stressed that he expects his designs to change as the project moves forward. Kress followed up Lo’s statements and said that because the project was still in the early stages, the company would continue to flesh out ideas with Lo in the coming months.
As far was why 3-D printing was the preferred method of manufacturing vehicles coming out of Local Motors, Kress cited the process’ low costs and quicker production times than larger automotive companies.
“The average life cycle to bring a car to market from initial design to manufacturing out on the street is roughly six years," Kress said. "But we’re looking to greatly accelerate that timeline, and we’re able to do that through digital manufacturing.”
Kress and Lo believe that 3-D-printing has a place in the future for the automotive industry, particularly with reduced costs and faster turnarounds.
“Our big thing is to disrupt the way and change the way automobiles are made,” Kress said of Local Motors.
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