3D-printed cars and the story of Local Motors

The Strati, a 3D-printed car (Photo / Local Motors)

The Strati, a 3D-printed car (Photo / Local Motors)

Within the next couple of years, you likely will be able to buy a highway-ready 3D-printed car from one of the most innovative automobile startups in the world. Local Motors is currently working on the LM3D, and it could fundamentally change the way we think of car manufacturing.

It all began with Jay Rogers, who isn’t your typical entrepreneur. He started with a major in engineering at Princeton, intending to build cars, but later switched to international affairs and foreign policy. After spending time at a medical device company in China and an investment firm in Dallas, Rogers decided to go to business school.

But soon after getting into Stanford, he changed his mind and joined the Marines. Rogers was deployed to the Philippines and later fought in Iraq. But his original idea of building cars stuck with him. When Rogers left the Marines, he went to Harvard Business School to begin developing a plan.

One of the hardest parts about building a car company was convincing people to invest. “There are so many variables to make these devices tow us around,” Rogers told Dan Morrell in a Harvard Business School alumni profile. “I mean, I almost cried uncle 10 times in the first month.”

Rogers persisted and secured a series of small investments and partnerships that got the company going. Local Motors was founded in 2008 on the idea that the entire model of car making could change. Instead of tweaking an existing design and cranking out as many vehicles as possible to generate the benefits of scale (the approach of the existing car companies), Local Motors believes in open innovation and micro-manufacturing.

One of the company’s first projects was the Rally Fighter, a car that could be used in off-road racing. It was designed by 7,000 people around the world and put on the road in 12 months. “It was the world’s first open-source car,” Local Motors Chief Strategy Officer Justin Fishkin told Opportunity Lives. The Rally Fighter was featured in the 2014 blockbuster, “Transformers: Age of Extinction.”.

Soon, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) called, asking Local Motors to apply its revolutionary car making technique to an armored off-road defense vehicle. According to the Harvard profile, DARPA gave the company one month to design the vehicle and three months to build it — timelines that would seem preposterous for other carmakers. But Local Motors had no problem meeting the deadlines.

“We’re offering a modern alternative to mass manufacturing,” said Fishkin. “Most companies define ‘mass’ based on scale. We define ours based on scope.”

That allows Local Motors to do two things: collaborate with other companies to turn their ideas into reality, and create its own ideas, “crowdsourcing” the designs and funding along the way.

For example, Local Motors teamed up with Airbus to design cargo drones. But the company also hosted a competition on its own for people to design a motorized bicycle.

Most recently, Local Motors developed Olli, a fully autonomous vehicle that is currently transporting people around the streets of Washington, D.C. Olli is the first vehicle equipped with the cognitive computing of IBM’s Watson Internet of Things, meaning passengers can ask Olli questions about specific features in the vehicle or give instructions on where they want to go.

“Olli has a cargo application as well as an application for coming to pick you up and take you wherever you want to go,” said Fishkin. “We’re going to have a full fleet of mobility hardware that can be purposed for different businesses.”

The company has already built the Strati, the world’s first 3D-printed electric car. (Don’t believe it? You can watch a time-lapse video of the Strati’s printing.)

The Strati tops out at around 40 miles per hour, so it’s only built for neighborhoods. However, Local Motors is working on a “shape-shifting” model, where the car’s cockpit will transform when the driver switches to autonomous mode. This could make the car a trendsetter in the emerging market for autonomous vehicles. The company is holding a global design competition for people to submit their ideas of how to design this new feature.

Then, of course, there is the LM3D. In the near future, Local Motors envisions a store where you can walk in, choose from several different car bodies, tires, and other features, and wait while your customized car is printed for you right away.

“The large-scale 3D printer that we’re using to print this car has never been used for this before,” Fishkin said. “No one even thought you could.”

But Local Motors is proving everyone wrong. The company is expanding quickly, opening its first direct digital manufacturing-enabled production “microfactory” in Knoxville in just a few months. A facility in Berlin is scheduled to open later this year.

The automobile industry will experience fundamental changes over the next few years, and Local Motors will be leading the way.

Published on Opportunity Lives

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