3-D Printing And Electric Vehicles: A Match Made In Heaven

We hear plenty of news about 3-D printing, a.k.a. additive manufacturing (AM). We also hear a whole lot about mobility, and especially about electric vehicles (EVs) and how they’re transforming the transportation world. What we haven’t heard much about – yet – is how AM and EVs come together to create a whole new manufacturing and product landscape. Here are two examples to help illustrate the radical evolution that’s underway.

Local Motors Industries (LMI), of Chandler, Arizona, is a private company with 130 employees in its four locations, all focused on 3-D printed vehicles. They first pioneered the since-discontinued Strati, the world’s first 3-D printed car. Now they’re putting all their energies into Olli, their 3-D printed urban electric shuttle. More fundamentally, though, the company is pioneering Direct Digital Manufacturing (DDM). “Amortizing a car’s tooling and assembly line can cost $1 billion,” said Jay Rogers, CEO and co-founder of LMI. “What if I didn’t need tools? Wipe away tooling, forming, and so on, and you destroy the need for a prototype. All design becomes digital.”

Rogers started dreaming of this concept when he was serving as an Infantry Company Commander in the U.S. Marine Corps. “I had two friends killed in an ambush in their Humvee,” he said. “Their motor was in the center of the vehicle, and they were on the outside, exposed. Another friend was shot down in a helicopter and crashed in the water and drowned, because he was in an old CH-46 [a 1960s-era tandem-rotor transport]. I was inspired by these tragedies to figure out a way to get new technologies into vehicles as quickly as possible.”

With AM, that speed he was looking for is there for both the initial launch and product evolution. “With totally digital design, we can have a minimal viable product (MVP) in six months, and have the first vehicle unit out the door in the next six months, so we can launch in one year,” he said. “Then, when we want to change the design, the very next unit off the line has that design. It gives a very valid reason to 3-D print a car, if you have the technology. Well, we’ve been developing that technology.”

Olli is currently the primary face of the company. The autonomous shuttle is in trails in 13 locations around the world, including Peachtree Corners in Atlanta, the University of Buffalo, LG in Seoul, South Korea, and at the University of Western Australia in Perth. “With Olli, you can reclaim your commute,” said Rogers. “You lose productivity in your own vehicle. This is like a mobile living room or Starbucks. Nobody foresaw the smart phone as a productivity device. Well, this is an incredible opportunity to uncork that kind of technology innovation in transportation.”

The company is looking beyond ground transportation too. Last October LMI announced a partnership with Airbus to build Neorizon, a micro-factory on the Airbus campus near Munich, Germany. The new plant will use the DDM model to print not just ground mobility solutions for challenges like urban cargo, but also air mobility solutions such as drones.

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