In January 2015, Arizona startup Local Motors 3D printed a car live at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. A machine the size of a single-car garage, a scrolling arm much like the paper printer on your desk scrolling back and forth, added successive layers of carbon fiber-infused plastic to build the vehicle up micron by micron. The vehicle, called the Strati with a top speed of 25 miles per hour, took 44 hours to print. An electric battery, motor, suspension and wheels were added to complete it.
It was an engineering marvel. Futurists at the time projected homes, cars, televisions and nearly another other durable product could be manufactured in this new, innovative form — additive manufacturing.
But like most shiny new inventions, the hype has subsided and four years later, 3D printed cars aren't much closer to mass production. Yet the industry is blossoming as it's moved further along the hype cycle from the peak of inflated expectations toward the plateau of productivity.
3D printing machines are nearly commonplace in manufacturing plants — at the 2019 Detroit auto show, Ford Motor Co. said it would begin using 3D manufactured parking brake brackets for the Ford Mustang GT500, auxiliary plugs for the F-150 Raptor and lever arm service parts for the Ford Focus — and it's building big business in metro Detroit.
EOS North America in Novi, a subsidiary of Germany's EOS Holding GmbH, manufactures and sells around 1,000 3-D printing commercial manufacturing machines annually, a far cry from its meager beginnings 30 years ago.
"We were not an overnight success," said Glynn Fletcher, president of EOS North America. "It took 20 years to sell the first 1,000 machines and another five years to sell the second 1,000. Now we've ridden the hype cycle and are selling more than that a year."
In 2015, EOS North America generated less than $40 million in sales. This year it's expected to top $150 million, Fletcher said. Globally, the company projects more than $400 million in 3D printing machine sales. It employs 200 in the U.S. in Novi and locations in Austin, Texas.
"Three years ago we went through a slowdown period; additive manufacturing was exciting for a while then when the cycle didn't meet those lofty expectations, it hit a reality check," Fletcher said. "Most of the early adopters moved on, but it's now penetrating mainstream manufacturers because it engages in design freedom and allows for functionality instead of designing for manufacturing processes."
3D printing, or additive manufacturing, is a relatively literal name for the process. An object — an engine part, chess piece, a car or whatever — is designed via software and is then manufactured by the 3D printing machine by adding layer-upon-layer of material. That material can be plastic, metal, concrete, etc. The process provides advantages over traditional manufacturing because it can create a functioning product in one piece, without the need to construct it from multiple parts. For example, a 3D printed gas tank could be created without any metal forming or welding to put the two halves of the tank together.