With major car manufacturers like Daimler and Ford already exploring the use of 3D printing for prototyping car parts, it seems inevitable that a road-worthy 3D-printed car is not too far on the horizon.
The future could arrive soon thanks to KOR EcoLogic, which has teamed with Stratasys's RedEye On Demand 3D printing business unit to fabricate a lightweight electric car that could take to the streets in about two years.
If you remember a few years ago, KOR EcoLogic president Jim Kor unveiled
Urbee, his vision for the future of energy-efficient cars that can be manufactured digitally. Urbee, meant to be the first 3D-printed car, is a two-person, lightweight hybrid that ideally will be made of recyclable plastic and capable of reaching a speed of 70 mph on the freeway using a combination of electricity, and if Kor has his way, a biofuel like 100-percent ethanol.
Jim Kor, president of KOR EcoLogic, poses with his invention, Urbee, a two-person lightweight hybrid vehicle that could be ready for the road and mass production in two years. (Source: KOR EcoLogic)
Now through the effort's partnership with Stratasys RedEye on Demand, a road-worthy Urbee is that much closer to production. The collaboration already has successfully printed an Urbee prototype, Urbee 1, using Stratasys's Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) process, Kor and RedEye business development manager Jeff Hansen told Design News. Now the companies are working on producing a follow-up, Urbee 2, that can eventually be mass-produced using RedEye on Demand's virtual manufacturing process. Hansen told us:
KOR Ecologic is building a vehicle for the future; RedEye is building a factory for the future. These two new technologies are merging together in a visionary automotive vehicle with low energy use that can be developed using a green manufacturing process that changes the manufacturing game.
Kor developed the main body parts for Urbee in CAD files and originally just thought he would use Stratasys's RedEye on Demand service for rapid prototyping of the large exterior panels required to build a car. "Our initial goal with Urbee 1 was just to see if we could actually make [3D print] and handle these large panels and turn them into a car body," he said.
Kor described the process of 3D printing Urbee's panels to Design News in this way:
Think of this process as a very sophisticated, computer-controlled glue gun that creates the part, layer by layer, from the bottom to the top of the part. The computer program takes its fundamental instructions from the original CAD
model. In our case this would be the fender, body panel, or glass window we had designed for Urbee 1.
The part starts out in the form of a continuous roll of plastic of round cross section, about the diameter of a single spaghetti noodle. This roll is fed into the 3D printer, and that noodle is what goes in to the head of the glue gun. But the plastic string that comes out of the glue gun, which is building the part layer by layer, is about the diameter of a human hair. So, amazing detail can be built into the 3D printed part, along with amazing accuracy. In this way, the FDM 3D printers tirelessly make parts, without any human intervention required from start to finish.
There is a conceptual error in your assumptions that lead to an excessively negative outlook. Instead of looking at how 3D printing is challenged to replace current high volume manufacturing (with a lot of very good points) instead take a look at new, created markets and market access that the technology creates. For anyone who has used 3D printing in one's workflow, it's a no-brainer that it saves time and money on prototype turns. Even if the parts aren't production quality (like some prototypes I made), they test function much faster than more traditional prototyping technologies. So as an augmentation technology, it's pretty obvious that 3D printing is a value adder.
It's sweet spot for production isn't really high volume. it's really twofold: first is that for small to medium batches, 3D can be cost effective when tooling costs are high, as there aren't enough units to pay off custom tooling. Effectively this means products that wouldn't make it to market in the past because they couldn't hit the sweet spot of cost vs volume will now have an economically viable way to market. We have observational evidence of this market creation as well.
Another market created is what I would call "customized volume". This is, in effect, a reduction in scale of a dynamic assembly line. When cars are produced, they are all optioned somewhat differently. It takes a huge logistical endevor to make that all work. With 3D printing, one can have every part be customized, with no additional tooling cost. In the case of molded parts, one can rarely justify a single mold for a single part. With 3D printing, just tell it to print, and it costs about the same to make as the "stock" version. The implications here are without bounds in how it will impact huge swaths of product classes.
But all these pale in comparison to the real "big play" in 3D printing, and this is digital replication. Just like mp3s changed the face of music, and digital replication of text, pictures and video have permanently altered all those market spaces, the combination of laser scanning and 3D printing allow for digital replication of shape and form. While the tech isn't yet able to replicate function (the laser scanner can measure components on a PCB, but it can't tell what the chips actually do!), digital shape replication will have huge impact on physical IP.
These are just impacts that we know are there, or are certain are coming. What we don't know is coming we can't really comment on. But back to volume production: How much speed of manufacturing degradation can one toleration when one eliminates a massive amount of custom tooling costs as well as elimination of die changeout times and the like? I'd grant that TODAY the math is pretty obvious and all the housing on the gazillion of USB sticks (for example) will continue to be done by molding. But I'd also assert that if your part run count is just one, 3D is already ahead! The question isn't will 3D show up in volume, but rather how will the crossover point vary over time (I'd guess that the number will increase, and do that quickly).
Back to this car. Will it make it? I honesty don't know. Is the model proposed for manufacturing a viable one that 3D printing enables? For sure! Maybe this product won't be the economic win, maybe it will. But I'd bet anything that this model for dev/production will be a winner for a huge number of new and existing companies to bring products to market. We're just watching the very first salvos in what will be a very long war as digital replication makes it to the production of physical objects.
If it takes a long time to print, it could indicate involvement by the federal government.
I have to wonder if it takes the plastics longer to cure when they are part of such a larger printer. I have been impressed how well the smaller units work. I would not be surprised if there is a difference.
The reason it will be available in two years is that it TAKES two years for the machine to print one of them. The 3D machines I've witnessed are VERY slow. Seems to me that is the reason that injection moulding was invented to produce something in seconds instead of the hours it would take to machine every one.
Thanks for your perspective. I understand how this might be true; however, Red Eye seems to think they have the facility for high-volume, quality 3D printing. So perhaps this idea could really work and be commercially viable. I suppose only time will tell!
This seems like another of those inevitable intersections of technologies, like 3D printing & robotics, or 3D printing & self-assembly. As Elizabeth points out, the Urbee project has not been moved into commercialization. OTOH, similar methods and processes are used all the time in race cars. When Kor says "Stratasys 3D printers can print two different materials at the same time," he's most likely referring to the Objet Connex printer's unique ability to blend multiple materials during operation, which is also being used in Skylar Tibbits' revolutionary 3D printing & self-assembly project, which we covered here http://www.designnews.com/author.asp?section_id=1392&doc_id=260118
Sorry to be the repeating naysayer here on 3D printing. There is no way the process described or anything like it can be used in a cost effective way for mass production. In truth, the printer would wear out after only a few cars, but before that the bank account will be empty from purchasing overly expensive raw materials and post processing (sanding, finishing, etc.).
I doubt the panels produced will be approved for passenger car use as exterior body panels in the US, if they are light and thin enough to compete with existing technologies. I've made and used FDM parts; this is just a disconnect for a signifcant production structural part.
Sorry, but this looks like an interesting car, lots of forward thinking ideas, but it won't make it commercially as described.
Well to my understanding, TJ, Red Eye already has these digital production facilities in several countries. I didn't go into detail with them, but I suppose one could do that for a whole other story about how this will work once an Urbee is ready for that process. I do think you're right, this will completely change the game for mass production, but I guess it remains to be seen exactly how and how much it will change. But you raise some really good and important questions.
Thanks, Pubudu. Since the cars haven't been mass produced yet and they're still working on a viable prototype for that, I don't think these costs or volumes have been determined yet (or at least they have not been revealed). But stay tuned for more news on this as the project carries on.
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