When Will We Start to See 3D Printed Cars?
The real value behind 3D printing is what some refer to as “distributed manufacturing“, the idea that we no longer have to build everything at a single centralized factory but instead we can build at multiple decentralized locations. In addition to saving on transport and shipping costs, another value-add is that of flexibility. Imagine a world someday where you go down to your Toyota dealership to buy one of these:
Not only do you get to choose the color and options for the above vehicle, but now you can choose from the following:
- 12 unique exhaust tips printed from 3 different metals alloys
- 7 Front grill options
- 5 Rear spoiler options
- 13 different rim choices
That’s more than 5,400 different unique car configurations, each one bearing it’s own sense of exclusivity. Toyota could run an ad campaign about “a car as unique and as special as you are”, and every kid who grew up modifying a car on Gran Tursimo should be just about hitting his mid-life crisis. The timing couldn’t be more perfect, and already we see the likes of Ford partnering up with Stratasys (NASDAQ:SSYS) to start testing the 3D printing of large-scale parts. The question we have is this. If we’re already 3D printing airplane parts, why can’t we manage to 3D print car parts? There are a few reasons.
While the cost of 3D printing car parts is half the battle, the other difficult part is engineering the car dealerships to support “swap-ability”. Rims are easy enough to switch for a car, spoilers can easily be riveted in places, grills can easily be installed, but the processes need to be in place so that it can happen seamlessly. While rims don’t necessarily need to be painted, a spoiler does. Now you need a paint shop on hand. While the question remains as to whether or not people are willing to pay for such customization, the real value add might be in producing the internal components using 3D printing. One company looking at this space is Divergent3D.
Founded in 2014, Los Angeles startup Divergent3D has taken in a single $23 million Series A funding round which closed this past January. Instead of trying to become a company that produces 3D printed cars, Divergent3D wants to commercialize their “Divergent Manufacturing Platform” which produces the chassis of an automobile using 3D printing. In order to prove their concept, they built the world’s first 3D printed super car which they named “Blade”:
This 700 horsepower beauty weights about 1,400 pounds and does 0-60 in 2.6 seconds. It’s been a great marketing tool in order to attract a lot of media attention, but it’s not the beautiful exterior you should pay attention to, it’s what’s on the inside. The chassis that sits underneath is an easily assembled collection of carbon and 3D printed alloy nodes like the one seen below:
As for competition, you may be tempted to think there’s a lot going on in the 3D printed car space based on this list of 16 3D printed cars that exist today put together by All3DP:
If we actually dig into what all these entities are doing, it becomes apparent that not much is going on. Actual progress being made is as follows:
- Some Australian dude 3D printed a 103 year old Delage
- A Czech startup called 4ekolka is testing their prototype on the streets of Prague and hasn’t put up a website yet.
- Oak Ridge National Laboratory printed a Shelby Cobra functional concept
- A startup called Local Motors 3D printed two functional cars (Strati and LM3D) but they appear to be focused on their self-driving shuttle bus (more here)
- EDAG Engineering printed a few cocoon-type concepts which aren’t even functional cars, and some turtle shell looking thing
- More from zee Germans, this time a functional 3D printed prototype car built by a team at Aachen University
- Illionois 3D printing outfit called CIDEAS 3D printed parts for the rare Lotus 340r
- A startup called KOR Ecologic created a functional 3D printed car that most people probably wouldn’t be caught dead in
- 4 car manufacturers (Daihatsu, Kia, Honda, BMW) doing various stuff
- Daihatsu is actually doing what we envisioned which is letting people choose the interior and exterior components of the car which they call “skins”. The car is called the “Copen” and it appears to only be available in the Japanese markets.
- Kia is building a concept using internal 3D printed parts (yawn)
- Honda has built a concept 2-seater with almost entirely 3D printer bodywork
- BMW used 3D printing to restore a BMW once owned by Elvis
While this list of the “16 Coolest 3D Printed Cars In The Workd (Right Now)” is very comprehensive, it’s also kind of rubbish when you consider that some aren’t even functional cars and a number are just one-offs. If we consolidate this list down to anything that might resemble a real commercial opportunity (and the creator is actually moving forward with said opportunity), then really we only see two companies – Daihatsu and Divergent3D.
Since Daihatsu is a subsidiary of Toyota, maybe we can expect to see that customizable Toyota sports car sooner rather than later. As for Divergent3D, their recent funding round shows promise and they’ve been working closely with French automaker Groupe PSA (Peugeot, Citroen, etc.). Also, Ford could be doing amazing things right now with Stratasys but we just don’t know yet. Given that Stratasys is also behind the work being done by Daihatsu, we could expect to see some similar customization offerings.
To summarize, lots of concepts and fanfare but not much substance when it comes to real commercial adoption of 3D printed cars. It’s hard to believe that car manufacturers aren’t capable of buying a few 3D printers and making things happen themselves. Our previous article on “3D printing as a service” hinted at a future where car parts aren’t kept in stock put printed as needed instead. For investors, we can see that all of these companies are using 3D printing machines developed by companies like Stratasys or SLM. A good way to invest in 3D printing is by putting together a 3D printing motif like this one:
We’re finally seeing 3D printing stocks reverse their downward trend so now may be a good time to get some skin in the game.
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