Ford Motor Co. builds more than 12 vehicles around the world every minute. Local Motors needed six days to build just one car during a recent demonstration in Chicago.
Both are heavily dependent on technology known as 3-D printing, which takes raw materials and forms them into objects one ultrathin layer after another. Ford uses it to build prototypes and make product testing more efficient, but Local Motors is going even further by making the chassis and body of its cars in giant, $1 million printers.
"Instead of having one manufacturing location, like Detroit or Japan, we'll have microfactories all across the world so people come in and customize their auto-buying experience," said James Earle, Local Motors' lead engineer on the project. "It allows the consumer to interact a lot more with how their car is made."
Local Motors hopes to begin selling its car, called the Strati, in low volumes next year, though the car still has to pass crash tests and clear a lot of other hurdles before that could happen. It says the finished car — which includes a powertrain, wheels, suspension and other internal components sourced from Renault — will sell for between $18,000 and $30,000, with the printed portion costing more than $5,000 to make.
The novelty of a 3-D printed car has created a lot of publicity for Local Motors, which showed off the Strati on NBC's "Today" show this month, but 3-D printing is a well-established part of the auto industry. As the cost declines and capabilities improve, automakers and suppliers increasingly are relying on 3-D printing to shorten product development cycles, cut prototype costs, reduce mechanical failures and test new ways of raising fuel efficiency.
It's not having much impact on the production process itself, however, because costs would be too high and volumes too low.
Dearborn, Mich.-based Ford, which bought the third 3-D printer ever made nearly 30 years ago, now operates five labs that take anywhere from a few hours to a couple of days to form parts out of resin, silica powder, sand or even metal.
In 2010, Ford says, it avoided what would have been a costly, four-month delay in rolling out the Ford Explorer when it used one of the labs to quickly diagnose and resolve a brake-noise problem discovered shortly before launch. It also used 3-D printing — also called additive manufacturing or rapid prototyping — to maximize the efficiency of its EcoBoost engine lineup, including the new 2.7-liter engine going into the upcoming F-150 pickup.
"That engine was prototyped from bottom up using these technologies," said Harold Sears, a Ford additive manufacturing technology specialist. "These processes are touching every part, from bumper to bumper and roof to ground."
Inside a nondescript industrial building 5 miles from Ford's Dearborn, headquarters, Sears showed Automotive News, a sister publication of Plastics News, a variety of machines that printed a combined 20,000 parts last year, about four times the lab's output five years ago. One row uses blue lasers to harden resin into engine part prototypes such as a cylinder head water jacket, which used to cost Ford $20,000 to produce and now can be done for about $2,000.
Nearby, printers filled with white silica powder can assemble intake manifolds and other parts strong enough to install on running test vehicles in a matter of days, compared with months through other methods. In another room, a trio of printers vaguely resembling oversized inkjets that goes through 15 tons of fine sand a week forms a series of molds. Ford then pours liquid metal into the molds, rather than using a traditional, more expensive die that would need to be thrown out if the design changed.
"It allows flexibility to go through the design iterations without committing money to tooling and without having to wait for it," Sears said. "Dollars are an important thing for us to save, but time is the big thing."
Explained Karen Owens, who supervises the lab: "It doesn't take us as long to freshen a product. It can exponentially reduce the time to market."
Little production potential