3D Printers

Come See the Amazing, the Extraordinary, the Stupefying 3D Printed Car!

It finally happened! Local Motors 3D printed a car in front of a live audience at the International Manufacturing Technology Show (IMTS) in Chicago. Unfortunately, my wife, Danielle, and I were too busy moving from Los Angeles to catch the Strati vehicle printed live, but, quite serendipitously, we moved to Chicago just in time to catch it drive off of the showroom floor.

Though the Strati isn’t the first 3D printed car, it is the first crowd-sourced, open-source, 3D printed vehicle and the first additively manufactured before an audience, specifically an audience of over 100,000 visitors at the US’s largest manufacturing trade conference. The entire process of printing all 212 layers of the car took about two days, using the Big Area Additive Manufacturing CI 3D printer from machine manufacturer Cincinnati Incorporated. After the body of the car, made from a 15% carbon fiber/85% ABS composite, was completed, it was sent over to the milling station, where a Thermwood CNC router, purchased by Local Motors earlier this year, smoothed out portions of the car significantly.

Designer of the winning Strati model for Local Motors' 3D Printed Car, Michele Anoe
Designer of the winning Strati model for Local Motors’ 3D Printed Car, Michele Anoe

The next few days were spent assembling the heart of the auto, including the steering components, its custom wheels, wiring harnesses, suspension, and the electric motor.  When Danielle and I showed up, the Local Motors crew was just starting to install the seats and throw on some decals before the Strati’s first test drive.  Press local and foreign were swarming the event.  It was almost as if they’d never seen a 3D printed car before! Also present was the winning designer of Local Motors 3D printed car contest, Michele Anoé from Italy.  The talented artist received $5,000 for his Strati model, which was voted into the finals by the Local Motors community and finally chosen by a team of 3D printing and manufacturing experts.  More importantly, he was flown out to Chicago, where he autographed his work before it hit the road.

Cincinnati BAAM 3D printer 3D prints Local Motors Strati at IMTSAlready, you can tell that the Strati was a product of immense collaboration.  Outside of the crowd-sourced design, the machine built to print the car involved multiple companies and organizations working together.  I was told by Brian Post, a postdoc at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), that Cincinnati, Inc. went to the research center wanting to get involved in 3D printing.  Cincinnati already possessed an enormous CNC machine, which they donated to the federally funded lab.  In turn, ORNL outfitted the CNC with an elaborate air system that sent 3D printable pellets (the carbon fiber/ABS composite) to a 3D printing extruder. Post said that, in this way, ORNL turned the 110-year-old Cincinnati from “your grandfather’s machine manufacturer to your grandkid’s machine manufacturer.”

Local Motors 3D Prints Car Drives at IMTS

As the 3D printed car project developed this summer, ORNL and Cincinnati also added a heated print bed capable of lowering about 1 meter, to add some Z-axis height to the machine.  The result was the BAAM, a reverse acronym that transformed what the crew referred to as the Big Ass Additive Manufacturing machine to the Big Area Additive Manufacturing printer.  In exchange for Department of Energy dollars and a giant CNC machine, ORNL offered its know-how to the Ohio-based machine manufacturer, which was given the ability to license ORNL’s R&D to sell the BAAM, a machine with a work envelope of up to 3.3 ft x 8 ft. x 20 ft. (.8 m x 2.5 m x 6 m), “accelerations exceeding 2.0G and head positioning speeds of up to 10,000 in./min“, and a price tag of $1 million.  So, though the Strati car itself is open-source, like the rest of Local Motors’ vehicles, the machine needed to print it may not be.

Local Motors CEO Jay Rodgers in 3D Printed Car Drives at IMTS
Local Motors CEO Jay Rodgers Drives the 3D Printed Car at IMTS

Just as we finished up talking to the folks at ORNL and Cincinnati, while gawking at their enormous 3D printer, Local Motors was about to start revving its engines.  We headed over to the roped off area where the team was about ready to go.  CEO John Rogers posed with all of the team members that participated in the project, gave a speech (seen in the video embedded below) before settling into the Strati with Association For Manufacturing Technology President, Doug Woods.

Local Motors 3D Printed Car Drives at IMTS43

It was at about that moment that Danielle and I realized that, in the delirium of moving 1700 miles across country, we’d forgotten to charge our camera’s batteries. Danielle rushed over to the UPS booth, where Marketing Manager Charlie Chung told her about UPS’s in-store 3D printing pilot program and their MakerBot Mini giveaway before letting her charge the back-up battery at the booth’s numerous charging stations.

Local Motors 3D Printed Car Drives at IMTS14

We followed the stream of press tracking the electric car as it rolled through the AMT Emerging Technology Center and out of the building.  The Strati was preceded by a police escort and numerous security guards that ensured a clear path for the vehicle.  With the huge crowd forming around it at every photo op, Danielle and I began to think that President Obama was going to pop out of the car and begin a speech about 3D printing and shuttered warehouses. Needless to say, the excitement was palpable.

Local Motors CEO Jay Rodgers and AMT President in the Strati 3D Printed Car at IMTS

The Strati then parked in front of the convention center, Chicago’s McCormick Place, as if a trophy commemorating the momentous occasion.  And, it really was momentous.  In my previous article on Local Motors, I discussed what may be considered the first 3D printed car, the Urbee.  I often feel that, when looking at history from a bird’s eye view, there really aren’t so-called “firsts” or even “inventors”. Because our brains are so accustomed to seeing patterns and rooting out specific details, we like to label individuals and events, saying “so-and-so invented such-and-such”.

In reality, a new technology is developed as a part of a large swathe of moments and people.  Often times, multiple individuals will be working on the same endeavors at the same time across the world. For instance, when looking for the “inventor” of photography, you’ll find Nicéphore Niépce, Louis Daguerre, Hercules Florence, and William Fox Talbot all working on their own processes for photography in different countries in the same several year span. Then, as history unfolds, technologies, their applications, and whole cultural practices disperse across populations so that photography becomes a staple of everyday life.

So, while the Urbee already exists, Local Motors, in conjunction with its partners, has proven its Direct Digital Manufacturing concept and made the process of 3D printing a car’s body a more realistic pursuit.  They’ve developed a machine capable of doing it, shown that it works, and may be ready to start producing 3D printed cars.  The event we witnessed is a milestone in demonstrating a possible future in which 3D printing cars is the norm and not the exception.

Local Motors 3D Printed Car Drives at IMTS33

After seeing the Strati, Danielle and I visited the other 3D printing booths at the event.  Stratasys was there, where we saw the remarkable full-color, three material Connex3 3D printer in person.  We also checked out ExOne, a manufacturer I hadn’t seen at other conventions, and learned about their latest 3D printing material, Inconel 625, with which they’re able to fabricate parts that are 99% solid using their binder jetting process.  3D Systems allowed Danielle and I to use a haptic mouse, another first for us and a really uncanny experience, as the mouse made it actually feel as though we were stretching and pushing parts of our 3D model.  At their booth, we got to see a ProX machine printing metal.  Finally, we talked to C.ideas Inc., a 3D scanning and printing service provider based right here in Illinois.  Davide previously covered their work in bringing a limited edition Lotus 340r to life with their 3D scanning and printing technology (more on them soon!).

3D Systems Haptic Mouse at IMTS show

For 3D printing enthusiasts, any of the above exhibitors would have been really exciting to visit.  Still, it was hard not to feel that they might have been overshadowed a bit (at least in the public’s mind) by what had happened on the main stage with the 3D printed car.  Representing only a part of a growing movement reaching towards a critical mass, Local Motors’ 3D printed Strati was just the beginning. Leaving IMTS, I asked myself if, soon, car buyers would be able to completely customize their vehicles, either designing their own shapes in CAD or choosing from pre-made models and sliding parameters to modify the car’s body to their liking, and then have it 3D printed on a machine like the BAAM.  Or maybe, as personal automobiles become more rare, communities will begin crowd sourcing their public transportation, city cars and buses, to be additively manufactured similarly.  And, if this was possible for something as important as the automobile, what would it mean for other manufactured goods ubiquitous in our society?

It seemed that the 3D printed car had happened so soon, so publicly.  And the future looks to be occurring faster than we’d anticipated.  If so, I wonder if we’ll really be prepared for it.

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All photos by Danielle Matich of Volim Photography.