By Robert Tuomi
(WINDSOR, ON) – Ironically, a team of technicians, armed with nothing more than powered hand tools, has successfully assembled the future of automobile manufacturing with the world’s latest Strati. With seating for two, the modern day roadster dramatically demonstrates how a new car company, Local Motors, is, “blowing up the status quo.”
The result of its efforts, in a field known as Direct Digital Manufactured (DDM), or 3D printed additive manufacturing, could be of distinct disadvantage to the local tool and die and auto parts industries, unless they embrace the technology.
Because the car is printed, using a device known as Big Area Additive Manufacturing (BAAM), a prototype designed, and soon to be offered for sale, by a company known as Cincinnati, the body consists of only 25 parts, well less than the two thousand needed for a comparable unit using contemporary methods.
Manufactured last week at North America’s largest industrial technology gathering, the biannual International Manufacturing Technology Show (IMTS), which this year took over all of the floor space in Chicago’s cavernous four pavilion McCormick Place Convention Centre, the new Strati is the third such glimpse of advanced manufacturing. It is the collective effort of Cincinnati and Local Motors along with the Oak Ridge National Laboratory of Oak Ridge, TN, the United States Department of Energy, and others.
Oak Ridge has been a powerhouse in advancing technologies. It is probably best known for its work in the 1940s leading the Manhattan Project which gave the world the first atomic bomb used during wartime.
Designed by Italy’s Michele Anoe, the winner of an international design competition, the newest Strati is emblematic of the fact Local Motors is not your average car company, but rather a global consortium, of sorts; of scientists and engineers with an extreme interest of upending the status quo.
One of the most notable accomplishments of this latest vehicle is how quickly it was made. Earlier versions took six days to print. Number three was done in 44 hours.
About the best way to describe BAAM is that it is similar to what a very large cake decorator might look light. It robotically moves around on a pre-determined path applying molten plastic resembling squeezed cake icing, layer after layer, to create fenders, chassis and so on, which are then subjected to robotic routers which mill out cavities for inserting lights and other components. The car’s plastic seats took 68 layers and three hours of printing and, to the touch, are as comfortable as regular ones.
While, admittedly, the electric motor and suspension components of the vehicle are metal, manufactured in traditional methods, what might keep those in the local tool and die shops up late at night is what is happening now around America at private skunk works.
In these highly secretive industrial laboratories, corporate scientists, working for today’s suppliers of 3D printers, are searching for ways to not only print auto components using molten metal, but to do it in a way that is safe. There are not many details about these initiatives beyond hushed talk at the McCormick.
What 3D printing is currently doing should also be un-nerving to the local industry. Today’s commercially available additive printers quickly produce complex jigs, fixtures, tool masters, and low-volume production tooling in time frames measured in as little as hours.
After the success of Strati, the question is no longer if this technology is sustainable but, rather, how long will it take Local Motors, and others, to blow-up a whole industry. It might be sooner rather than later.
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