Local Motors Executive Discusses 3D Printing and the Future of Manufacturing

Phoenix-based Local Motors staged a live 3D printing of The Strati, which it’s billing as the world’s first 3D printed car, at the Detroit auto show. The startup printed the polymer body of a working car prototype right on the show floor, including everything that could be integrated into a single material piece: chassis and frame, exterior body, and some interior features. The mechanical components of the vehicle, including battery, motors, wiring, and suspension, are sourced from Renault’s Twizy, an electric-powered city car.

“We’ll be the first to tell you we won’t put economy of scale out of business. We’re profitable at the very first car. But we’re able to bring a vehicle to market at about 1/100th the cost and five times faster than [traditional manufacturers].”

More than battery-operated two-seater cars, the company hopes to overturn existing paradigms with “distributed manufacturing” of highly customized products using additive or 3D printing at “microfactories” spread around America. The first, in Knoxville, Tennessee, comprises about 50,000 square feet on 10 acres of land, including test tracks for the cars built there.

The microfactory is divided into four areas: a retail showroom where consumers can configure and order their own individualized automobiles (and eventually other products); a “Local Motors Lab” where non-employee inventors use the company’s tools and technology to work on aspects of Local Motors products in the hopes of landing a royalty on future output; an area where large-scale manufacturing occurs with the company’s heavy-duty printers and “routers” that smooth the products; and a warehousing area.

Manufacturing CEO Briefing talked with Justin Fishkin, chief strategy officer of Local Motors, about 3D and the future of car manufacturing.

MCEOB: Where did this idea come from?  

Justin Fishkin: The (Local Motors) company was founded by Jay Rogers, who was a Marine in Iraq when two of his buddies died, riding in Vietnam War-era equipment. He felt he could bring vehicle innovations to market more quickly. Opening up the hardware to crowdsourcing could help. He went to Harvard Business School after the Marines, wrote a business plan and some of his first investors were professors there.

He decided to bring the global community together to source ideas, expertise and micromanufacturing. 3D printing is one tool that has developed to enable our business model in a much more dynamic way. We didn’t really have the idea for 3D printing of a car until last April. It wasn’t the original idea for the company; it’s something that just developed in our favor.

MCEOB: How does your business model compare to the mass-production model that carmakers are still using?

Fishkin: We’ll be the first to tell you we won’t put economy of scale out of business. But today, companies from Ford to Tesla are spending $1 billion or $2 billion or $5 billion on a factory or on just one model line and then having to amortize that cost over hundreds of thousands of units—or more—over time. It’s hugely capital-intensive, and it takes six to seven years to bring out a new model.

We’re profitable at the very first car. We’re able to bring a vehicle to market at about 1/100th the cost and five times faster because we bring more people and expertise to the table.

We won’t be able to build a million units; we call it an “economy of scope” instead of an economy of scale. For 3D printed cars, we are opening up microfactories in Knoxville and Washington, D.C. Where we’re headed is to be able to have people walk into our “store,” go up to a screen, choose one of nine or 10 unibodies, choose powertrains that we’ll buy from other manufacturers, choose wheels and tires and colors—and we’ll print it while you wait or you come back the next day.

In a year, if you want to bring it back to upgrade the hardware, we’ll strip it down and melt it and give you credit to put toward your next vehicle. Or you can come back after just a month and swap in a new battery technology that comes out. It’s about integrating technology as quickly as it comes to market rather than waiting seven years. It’s an entirely different consumer experience.

MCEOB: The importance of highly sophisticated elements of car production, such as engaging exterior and interior design, are obviously important to most car buyers, and automakers spend billions of dollars to get those things just right. Where are you going to get your designs from?

Fishkin: Our community online is growing every day with more than 100,000 engineers and designers and enthusiasts and “makers” in about 130 countries. If you contribute to a vehicle we bring to market, you get paid a royalty on every unit we sell. It’s sort of like the music business; think of it a little bit like that. Not every vehicle or project that people are working on will come to market. But our community also is working on things from electric bikes to skateboards to satellites; we’re not just [an automaker] but a vehicle-technology company.

MCEOB: Your first vehicle, The Strati, will cost between $18,000 and $30,000, about the price range for the mainstream conventional-vehicle market. So why should someone want one of your cars instead?

Fishkin: Why would you want an iPhone? It’s the coolness factor. The recycling factor. Urban mobility. To be able to get the latest technology and upgrade it versus some out-of-date navigation system developed by an OEM will become the norm. People will walk in and have the experience of customizing a car and watching it made right in front of them. It’s experiential. And the price is competitive.

MB: What about safety?

Fishkin: We expect to put safe cars on the road in the next 12 months. We’re going through that process with regulators now.


Interested in what 3D printing can do for your company? Join Chief Executive and speaker Rick Smith for a free webinar on The New Economics of 3D Printing
March 26, 2015 (March 26, 2015 (2pm EST/3pm CST/4pm MST/5pm PST)

In this complimentary, live event, you will learn how 3D printing can help you reduce production costs, improve product quality and increase speed to market. Webinar attendees will receive a complimentary whitepaper, Revolutionizing Manufacturing with 3D Printing: An Introduction. 

Register today at Chiefexecutive.net/3d

Dale Buss :Dale Buss is a long-time contributor to Chief Executive, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal and other business publications. He lives in Michigan.