Exploring the world’s first 3D-printed cars

3D printing technology has made a lot of advancements lately, prompting people to create more useful objects. People have always dreamed about being able to select a car online, download a design, and print it in the privacy of their own home. That dream is quickly becoming a reality thanks to developments from Local Motors. Innovative technology has made it possible for the car manufacturer to create the world’s first ever working 3D-printed vehicle.


The Strati

The idea of a 3D-printed car is not a new one. Before the LM3D Swim, Local Motors built the world’s first ever 3D-printed car, the Strati. Built and printed in Detroit, this electric car was the first step in mass producing printed cars.

Strati changed the way the world thought about 3D-printed vehicles. In 2010, printed cars were created, such as the Urbee, but they weren’t as mechanically involved as the Strati. In the past, car panels and features were printed, then placed on a traditionally-built structure. This meant that important components, such as the battery or motor, were not created using the 3D-printer. The Strati used direct digital manufacturing for the majority of the components.

Building a 3D car isn’t easy. To “print” a Strati, Local Motors had to first create the body using a Big Area Additive Manufacturing (BAM) machine. After the body was printed, subtractive manufacturing using a computer numerical control routing machine, or CNC, was used. That still didn’t include all of the features. Additional components were added over the course of several days. Manufacturing took a total of five days, with 44 hours of printing.

Local Motors plans on using this innovative process to further explore car customization and, eventually cut manufacturing costs. While the Strati was a small electric car, the company hopes to appeal to a wider audience by offering several different 3D-printed vehicles. Sport versions of the LM3D Swim, for example, are expected to be produced in the future.

Local Motor's new LM3D Swim.
Local Motor’s new LM3D Swim.

The LM3D Swim

Expected to be released in 2017, the Local Motors LM3D Swim uses a unique manufacturing technique. While the Arizona-based company isn’t a household name yet, it does have a history of working quickly to create innovative designs. The LM3D prototype has already been produced, but future models will have a slew of customizable features.

Because each vehicle is being 3D printed, buyers will be able to select from several different aesthetic features. Removable panels are a possibility, which would allow buyers to have much more control over the design they choose. Despite the advanced 3D capabilities, all vehicles would have the same powertrain and electronic engine.

Not all of the components will be 3D printed in the comfort of your own home. Body panels and the chassis would likely need to be traditionally manufactured. Local Motors has been working on a way to have as many parts printed as possible. As much as 90 percent of the car will be printable using a composite ABS plastic and carbon fiber material.

Even upgrades wouldn’t likely be performed at home. Local Motors claims it plans on melting each car from time to time in order to provide key upgrades. By melting unwanted components, the company can easily recycle them, cutting down on costs and waste.

Can you print a car at home?

While 3D printing technology does make it possible for buyers to print a car at home, it is impractical for them to do so. Local Motors is currently constructing a new microfactory to print and assemble the vehicles in. Construction in Knoxville, Tennessee is expected to be complete early next year, allowing the company to continue to focus on car designs and capabilities.

Local Motors is striving to get the LM3D series on the market. While each car has a hefty price tag of $53,000, the company is expecting several pre-sales. Preorders for the vehicles will start in 2016, but it will still be at least a year before anyone gets their 3D printed vehicle.

Because the manufacturing process and car style is still untested, federal regulations will require several tests to be performed before sales can begin. Standard crash testing is expected to start in 2016, with highway certifications quickly following.

3D printing technology has a lot to offer the automotive industry. The innovative technology that Local Motors is using will pave the way for more designs and advancements in the future. With successful pre-sales and testing, Local Motors can become a household name.

Matthew Young is an automotive reporter from Boston. As a freelance journalist with a passion for vehicles Matthew writes about everything on 4 wheels, be it race cars, SUVs, vintage cars, you name it. When he is not at his desk writing he can be usually found helping his dad in the garage. You can reach Matthew @mattbeardyoung.