When Can I Drive a 3D Printed Car?
Imagine ordering a new car like you’d order a pizza. “Make it green, please, with a swoosh on the side, and a little extra legroom…” Soon, you’ll be able to do just that. The 3D printed car is crossing over from the realm of sci-fi into real life, as a car company called Local Motors announces plans to start selling these custom-created vehicles. But how does 3D printing a car work? And when can you test-drive one?
What is a 3D-printed car, anyway?
If you’ve ever seen a 3D printer humming away at a local library or university (or maybe you have one in your basement), you probably have a general idea of how it works. First, you use a computer modeling program to create your design, or a 3D scanner to copy an existing object. Then, 3D modeling software slices the design into thousands of ultra-thin layers. The printer deposits those layers of material, usually a plastic-based resin, gradually building them up into a three-dimensional design.
But there’s a big difference between printing a phone case and a full-sized car. Or is there? Watch this video to see how 3D printing a car works. You can see the chassis take shape, then the seats and body, all rising from the ground up. Pretty sweet.
The first 3D printed car you can buy
In 2014, carmakers were stunned to see a 3D-printed car, called the Strati, made on site at the International Manufacturing Technology Show in Chicago. The Strati roadster didn’t just look cool (and a little bit rough); it was also “a blast to drive,” Popular Mechanics declared.
The maker of the Strati was Local Motors, an Arizona-based company founded by Iraq War veteran Jay Rogers with the vision of building these simplified cars in “microfactories” around the world, instead of massive and complex manufacturing facilities.
In 2015, Local Motors held a competition to find the best design for a mass-market 3D printed car. The result, the LM3D Swim, will be available to buy in 2017 for $53,000. It’s an electric vehicle made of carbon-fiber reinforced plastic. More polished than the Strati, it resembles a cartoon dune buggy. According to Local Motors, “early tests show promise that all crash testing will be complete by the end of 2016 including all certifications needed to get 3D-printed cars on the road.”
What’s next for 3D printed cars?
Local Motors isn’t the only company experimenting with this new manufacturing method. Toyota recently unveiled a concept car called the uBox after a two-year collaboration with graduate students at Clemson University’s International Center for Automotive Research. The uBox, which to us looks like a Happy Meal version of the Pontiac Aztek, was built using conventional methods, but features elements that can be personalized with 3D printing, such as dashboard display bezels and door trim.
Other companies are exploring the possibilities of 3D printing car parts. Mechanical engineer Eric Harrell successfully printed a Toyota 5-speed transmission and an engine. In the near future, however, you’re more likely to see small interior parts come from printers.
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