By Allen Penticoff
First, I’ll have to explain a new technology to the few readers who may have never heard of it. Relatively recent technology uses a fancy computer-controlled inkjet printer to spray tiny dots of material in a three-dimensional pattern. Thousands of layers can be created in any shape, including leaving spaces between individual parts so that in one session of a “print,” multiple parts can be made in a larger assembly. Known as “3D printing,” it is taking industry by storm. Human replacement parts are being made, as well as young kids building toys in their bedrooms.
So, to anyone who has been following the explosive growth of this technology, it comes as no surprise that at the recent International Manufacturing Technology Show at McCormick Place on Chicago’s lakefront, someone brought a 3D printer large enough to make a car. A machine maker from Ohio, Cincinnati, Inc., teamed up with another company, Local Motors, of Phoenix, Arizona, and Oak Ridge National Laboratory to build a two-seat electric car in one week. Together, their goal was to print 40 parts for the car during the run of the trade show. Using outside components they could not make, such as the electric motor, batteries and tires, they attempted to assemble a running car called the Strati — and they succeeded.
Using a 3D printer that would barely fit in a one-stall garage, they made the complete chassis that incorporated the fenders, frame such as it was, and hard points for the other components. This one big piece comprises most of the car and much of its 1,200-pound weight. Other parts the printer made were the windshield frame, wheels, steering components, suspension parts and the roof. Hand finishing and trimming was needed. In all, it looks much like an old fiberglass dune buggy body that uses a VW Beetle engine from the 1960s. The Strati, once assembled, could travel at speeds up to 50 mph. A bit slow for a car that cost $1.5 million to build.
The Oak Ridge National Laboratory underwrote the cost of this research and development project in the aim to “revolutionize how we move.” It will be a revolution in manufacturing. For one thing, it could well be that some day there would be no factory for some vehicles. The vehicle would be printed at a local dealer. Parts from a bin would be put together by local people to make cars on demand. The dealer could sell different body styles without needing to stock an inventory. This could apply to bicycles, scooters and motorcycles, as well as building cars. I won’t go so far as to say that this would vastly reduce the carbon footprint of manufacturing a vehicle, but it would eliminate factory overhead and labor expenses, and may bring more local jobs in more places — all theoretically lowering the purchase cost.
Since one of these big 3D printers is going to be quite expensive to make sturdy components of plastic reinforced with carbon fiber, there may be local enterprises that have several big printers to make such big parts for area businesses — making everything from furniture to furnaces. In a way, the technology is just in its infancy, despite all the remarkable things it can already do. Compare early giant cell phones to the tiny computer in your pocket now. We may come to all have 3D printers in our homes to build our meals.
I do believe 3D printing will revolutionize manufacturing. It’s already well on its way. What I’ll recommend in this column is that if you are a young person looking for a technology career with a bright future, look no further than 3D printing. Sign up now.
From the Sept. 17-23, 2014, issue