The era of 3D printing has arrived. This cutting-edge technology has produced wonders such as 3D-printed casts (that shave weeks off of recovery time) and custom-fabricated rocket engines. This production technique has gained popularity with hobbyists and industrialists alike, and cars have even been produced using 3D printers. Some of those cars can even outperform legendary supercar brands, such as Ferrari! We’ll get to those 3D-printed cars in a moment, but let’s begin by explaining what 3D printing entails.
How Does 3D Printing Work?
3D printing is part of a larger subset of manufacturing techniques called additive manufacturing. Additive manufacturing works much like building blocks do; individual pieces are added together, layer by layer, until the final manufactured item is completed. 3D printers use liquid materials, such as melted plastic, fast-drying resin and molten metal, to produce complex objects.
To begin, designers create a design for the completed item and use modeling software to create a virtual model of the item. The software then slices the design into a series of thin cross sections and feeds instructions to the 3D printer. The printer then squeezes, sprays or otherwise transfers layers of the chosen material, building up the object layer by layer. Hobbyist printers typically use plastics, but industrial models can print using metal, rubber, plastics, glasses and more. Depending on the size and complexity of the completed item and the printer used, it might take a 3D printer just minutes or multiple days to print a particular design. Even complex items like cars can be 3D printed.
The First 3D-Printed Car
The first 3D-printed car that is more than a lab project will be produced by Local Motors, a technology company based in Phoenix, Arizona, that specializes in building cutting-edge vehicles. The Local Motors 3D Swim began its presales in early 2016, and first delivery of the $53,000 vehicle is expected in 2017.
The Swim, which was designed Kevin Lo of Portland, showcases the potential of 3D printing. After revealing the winning design, it took less than four months to produce the initial model. The Swim is a compact, open-air vehicle with seating for four, with styling reminiscent of a MINI Cooper. The company is currently putting the Swim through crash testing and plans to have the testing completed in time for the vehicle’s 2017 launch.
The company uses a blend of ABS plastic and carbon fiber to construct the Swim. Each Swim is made out of approximately 50 individually printed pieces, compared to a regular car that’s put together with around 30,000 individual parts. If the car gets into a fender bender, owners can simply have a new body piece printed to replace the damaged part. Right now, the vehicle is about 75 percent printed, but the company hopes to make each vehicle 90 percent printed by the time the first models hit the road. There will only be the one design available for early adopters, but the company plans to offer a wide range of customization options as the technology matures.
Local Motors may be the first to offer a production 3D-printed vehicle, but they’ve inspired other companies to design their own 3D-printed cars. One of these cars is supposedly faster than a Ferrari.
Meet Blade, the World’s First 3D-Printed Supercar
Blade, the world’s first 3D-printed supercar, was designed and built by Kevin Czinger and his fabrication company, Divergent Microfactories. It represents a radical new approach towards car construction; the chassis is constructed by connecting 3D-printed modules, called NODEs, together using carbon fiber rods. Once the NODEs are printed, an entire chassis can be constructed by hand in as little as 30 minutes. The resulting frame is incredibly strong and resilient, and the completed vehicle offers an unprecedented power to weight ratio, weighing in at a mere 1,388 pounds.
Divergent dressed up the Blade with a composite shell featuring swooping curves, exaggerated wheel wells and a swept-back passenger compartment reminiscent of a fighter jet cockpit. Overall, the Blade looks like a slimmer version of a McLaren P1 or the Ferrari LaFerrari. Drivers can be forgiven if they mistake the Blade for one of those vehicles in performance category as well; the vehicle pairs its lightweight chassis with a turbocharged four-cylinder engine that delivers a respectable 700 horsepower. It has a 0-60 mph time of just 2.5 seconds, besting the McLaren P1, and a power-to-weight ratio that doubles up on the Bugatti Veyron.
For all its performance, however, the Blade was built to prove a point, not to sell vehicles. Divergent hopes to move 3D printing from a niche fabrication technique for prototypes and high-concept vehicles into the mainstream. 3D printing offers reduced waste and energy costs, and it lends itself well to distributed manufacturing. The Blade exists as a proof of concept, demonstrating that 3D-printed cars can be safe, powerful, and efficient.
The Tech Behind the Blade
The Blade is an impressive machine, but it represents an even more impressive idea. The central idea behind the Blade is the NODE, a 3D-printed joint constructed of a lightweight aluminum alloy. A set of NODEs can be custom designed for each vehicle, and if adjustments need to be made to the design, Divergent can simply change the design in the modeling software and print out a new set of NODEs. In traditional auto manufacturing, each design change requires adjustments to expensive and inflexible machine tools, so Divergent’s process represents a major step forward that reduces weight and allows the manufacturer to respond to design changes without a major loss of capital.
Once the NODEs are printed, simple carbon fiber rods connect the joints together. The final chassis is lightweight and strong, offering fantastic functionality without unnecessary material or energy-intensive manufacturing processes. The frame can literally be snapped together in a matter of minutes. Once the frame is assembled, the rest of the components can be installed, with a final body installed over the frame. The body itself isn’t a structural element for the vehicle, so it can be made of any material and in any design.
3D printing is here to stay, and it’s quickly taking its place as one of the most promising manufacturing techniques. 3D-printed cars offer low capital requirements and the ability to break away from antiquated design ideas and respond to real-world design challenges quickly.
Would you buy a 3D-printed car?