The United State automotive industry has recovered its production capacity to 16,000,000 vehicles a year for domestic consumption. That’s a lot of cars. It’s important because car making is one of the 4 or 5 largest segments of economic activity and because of the industry’s size, it impacts the entire economy.
That means on average there are 30 cars being completed for shipment and sale every minute. If there are 16 suppliers in the industry, each supplier has built up infrastructure to build 2 cars per minute. Obviously this is not a literal analogy since each car company has a different market share and builds it’s manufacture resources to support it’s sales. Many of the car companies have multiple plants around the US and Canada to support the North American market.
So what about 3D printed cars? According to Lonnie Love at Oak Ridge National Laboratories they were able to start the Cobra project from scratch and build a car from the ground up in 6 weeks. Presumably that includes a lot of development work, like working out the surface finish process and chemistry, that would not a be a recurring effort in production. The vehicle drive train is electric so there are none of the issues relative to engine, transmissions or exhaust emissions to deal with.
In fact, Local Motors’ demo at the International Machine Tool Show had them building their off road “buggy” in 55 hours. Pretty amazing.
The work at ORNL is viewed primarily as adapting 3D printing to rapid prototyping. This is what early 3D printing processes were all about 20 years ago when stereo lithography first became commercially available. The high cost of the early technology limited it’s use to customers who could afford it. This is no longer the case.
So if you could print and build a car in 55 hours, how does that change the dynamics of vehicle manufacturing? What is the likely cost scenario for such a product? How can we test these processes for long term durability and safety? How many plants, how many workers and how many printing machines would it take to begin to supply a mass market of cars?
Among the amazing statistics is the fact that the ORNL Cobra weighs half the weight of the original. In addition, considerable time was spent in creating internal structures that reinforce the vehicle by taking advantage of the 3D process. These factors all favor the viability of 3D printing as a production approach to vehicle manufacturing.
More to come on this in future posts.