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3D Revolution: Local Motors Wants to Print You a Car You Can Actually Drive




You get the feeling Jay Rogers is used to being the smartest guy in the room.

You also get the feeling he typically is.

Remember Ken Jennings, the genius who won on “Jeopardy!” 74 straight times? Rogers makes you feel like one of those contestants Jennings torched before Nancy Zerg, a 48-year-old real estate agent, finally beat him.

Where is Zerg when you need her? Not that Rogers is an ass, because he isn’t. He just has a specific, “Wizard of Oz” agenda, and life is short, so there’s no point wasting time on talk about Munchkins.

John B. “Jay” Rogers is the president, CEO, co-founder, and heart and soul of Local Motors, which wants to sell you a car. Not today but “soon,” by Rogers’ reckoning. “Not in my lifetime,” by the reckoning of non-believers.

The scope of what Rogers plans is so ambitious that it’s difficult to get your head around it. In an entirely incomplete nutshell, here it is: One day, Local Motors will indeed be local motors, meaning there is a micro-factory not far from where you live. Picture factories in cities all over the U.S., all over the world. How big of a city? “Kansas City would have a factory,” Rogers says. “Topeka would not.”

Local Motors Jay Rogers 01

Local Motors Jay Rogers 01

Again, you get the feeling that if you asked, Rogers — without notes or teleprompter — would point out that Kansas City, Missouri, has a population of about 470,800, and combined with the approximately 149,600 people who live across the river in Kansas City, Kansas, that would give you an immediate market of 620,400 citizens, while poor Topeka (population 127,215) is just too damn small.

Did we mention Local Motors wants to create cars by 3D printing? And has, in fact, built 3D-printed cars and that we drove one? So here’s how the business would work, or at least our interpretation: You go to your local Local Motors, unless you live in Topeka, where you’d have to take a Greyhound 63.8 miles east to Kansas City. The salesman, who would certainly not be called a salesman but something more elite, asks you what Local Motors vehicle you’d like to buy.

Initially, there would likely be one electric powertrain in a chassis. You say sports car, Local 3D-prints you a sports car and drops it on that chassis and powertrain. Same thing with a minivan or small pickup, sedan, shooting brake, whatever.

You drive it for three or five or 50 years. Want a new car? Go back to your not-a-salesman and turn in your vehicle, which is ground up into the same little pellets it started out as, and is 3D-printed again and dropped onto your old chassis, or a new and improved chassis. Everything can be recycled.

Eventually Local Motors would also build what Rogers hopes will be the first autonomous car on the market. Of course. Who doesn’t want to build the first autonomous car?

Not interested? Then you haven’t sat across from Rogers, who is tall, lean, and favors white shirts and a large bowtie, of which he seems to have a substantial collection. The bowtie is off-putting, as intended, and makes him easy to identify in a crowd. Given his bearing, he might look better in a military uniform, such as that of a U.S. Marine, a captain, perhaps.

Did we mention Jay Rogers was a captain in the Marines? That was after he graduated from Princeton, concentrating on international affairs and foreign policy. And then he went to China for three years to start a company. And lived in Dallas, running an investment fund. Then, at 26, he joined the Marines and ended up in Officer Candidate School. Two years later, 9/11 happened, and he ended up in Iraq.


Last-minute work is underway as the Local Motors crew prepares Olli to meet the press as well as several dignitaries in Washington, D.C.

He lost friends in the Middle East. He began thinking oil was a central reason we were there. His friends were dying for oil. So there, at least symbolically in the trenches, in a People-magazine-style revelation, he decided to start a car company that did not rely on the internal combustion engine.

When Rogers got back to the U.S. — he picked up a Harvard MBA in his spare time — he started Local Motors in Phoenix, Arizona. With a population of 1.54 million, it’s plenty big enough for a factory. The company was founded in 2007 and launched in 2008.

It’s not as though entrepreneurship doesn’t run in the family. Did we mention (this is the last time we’ll say that) his grandfather owned Indian Motorcycle? And ran Texas Industries, which owned Chaparral Steel (sold in 2007 for $4.22 billion) and an enormous construction-supply company, which included what was once the world’s largest cement plant (sold in 2014 to Martin Marietta for $2.06 billion)?

Local Motors Jay Rogers 03

Local Motors Jay Rogers 03

Rogers unquestionably has the pedigree — and the papers to prove it. As you would suspect, he also has his fingers in other pies aside from Local Motors. He and his concept of industrial problem-solving are gaining crowdsourcing credibility with FirstBuild, an online community of thousands of inventor-entrepreneurs mulling over hundreds of projects.

They submitted designs for the Airbus Cargo Drone Challenge, with the goal of designing a small, battery-powered drone weighing less than 25 kilograms, capable of delivering, say, medical supplies. And they partnered with General Electric to design a home pizza oven that cranks out pizzas of the same quality you get from restaurants. It is expected to sell for around $10,000, which in some neighborhoods might actually buy you a pizza restaurant. In keeping with the theme, FirstBuild also designed a pizza delivery vehicle for a Domino’s Pizza competition, but Domino’s instead decided to go with a Chevrolet Spark with a pizza warmer stuck in the side.

Win some, lose some. But don’t think Jay Rogers will be content with losing for long.

Local Motors’ Top Designers: You

Gato GrandeGato Grande
The Gato Grande: not in production anytime soon

At the official coming-out party for Local Motors’ National Harbor, Maryland, office, company CEO Jay Rogers introduced Edgar Sarmiento, a 24-year-old industrial designer from Columbia.

Seems opportunities for free-form design are scarce in Columbia. Sarmiento became aware of an online design competition called Urban Mobility Challenge: Berlin 2030, entered it, and won. His product was also debuting here today: the little driverless, 12-passenger toaster with tires called Olli that Local Motors built and plans to market. Rogers presented Sarmiento with a big cardboard check for $20,000, with a promise of more. For designers like Sarmiento, the money is less important than the recognition — and filling your resumé with designs someone actually believed in enough to build. The Strati, for instance, was designed by Michele Anoé, a designer from Italy who entered the design challenge and won $5,000. The LM3D Swim, which we drove, was built from a design chosen from 62 by a panel that included auto-maven and comedian Jay Leno. The designer is Kevin Lo of Vancouver, Washington.

Greg Thompson’s ISF (Internal Strut Frame)


Surely it helps to have experience, but top professional automotive designers are not the only ones who can get in on the Local Motors community action.

The designers use Local Motors’ Co-Creation Platform on the company’s website, localmotors.com. The message: “We invite any and all people to help us solve the world’s most challenging problems.”

Step one is Inspire: Find a problem and pose it to the online community. For example, “six-passenger vehicle that can travel 200 miles on an electric charge.” Step two is Ideate, which means, loosely, think it over. Step three is Develop, at which point Local looks at and votes on the best ideas and begins determining how to build the product. Step four is Build.

So who owns the ideas? Designers “own their ideas but are contributing them to an open-source platform. While there are certainly specific terms that are worth reading and understanding, all content remains the property of the owner.”

Zaier Jihad’s LM Aquila

 

Indeed, the site cocreate.localmotors.com is filled with gorgeous renderings, and the occasional “Are they joking?” design, such as the stick-figure Gato Grande which is “5 feet tall, 8 feet long, 5 feet wide, 4-inch ride height, two seats, 10-cylinder engine.” But assuming the designer, Ashby2005 is for real (“Designed by me. Sorry for bad quality.”), at least one community member posted an encouraging note: “Don’t apologize; keep working at improving your design and engineering!”

That could be the first step to a 3D-printed Gato Grande in your driveway. Some day.

We Drive the 3D-Printed Future! Until it Runs Out of Juice

If you’ve never been to National Harbor, imagine a 350-acre “iconic, all-American must-see waterfront destination for shopping, dining, events, and attractions in our nation’s capital.” Well, close. It’s actually on the Maryland side of the Potomac River, but you can see Washington, D.C., from here. Part of it, anyway.


IBM’s Watson cognitive technology platform and 3D printing brought Olli, a short-range, 12-passenger shuttle, to life.

That’s where the newest, most unlikely micro-factory for Local Motors opened in June in what used to be the National Children’s Museum. It still kind of is: Besides the massive display of Local Motors clothing for sale and the products it produces — from the Isuzu VehiCROSS-like Rally Fighter, a $99,000 semi-kit vehicle powered by a Chevrolet V-8, to the Kickstarter-funded Verrado drift trike, an electric Big Wheel for adults — there are lots of kid-friendly exhibits, many illustrating the company’s 3D-printing capability. Indeed, in another big room is a massive 3D printer, one of the largest in the world.

Big 3D printers run hot. But they aren’t too complicated. Imagine this sentence; imagine that we just kept printing over it, and over it — a couple of hundred times. And that instead of ink, the printer was using melted-down pellets made by Saudi Basic Industries Corporation. After it printed over this sentence — or that sentence up there — like 200 times, the sentence would probably be a foot tall. Which would, at least, make this story easier to find in the magazine.

Anyhow, this is where we meet Jay Rogers as he and his staff prepare for the following day’s grand opening, which will be attended by local, state, and federal dignitaries as well as the media. The featured attraction is Olli, a self-driving, electric-powered pod that resembles a glass-sided bookend on four small wheels. It looks like one of a dozen connected airport trams that broke loose and ended up here.

Designed by Edgar Sarmiento, the Olli pod has its own website, meetolli.auto, where it explains itself—in the first person. “Use me to transport students across campus efficiently. Fill the gaps in your city’s transit system. Or perhaps allow me to make moving across your corporate grounds more enjoyable. I can give your mobility more mojo.” Some parts, like the seats and wheel wells, are 3D-printed. Capacity is 12.

It is designed to operate on the safe, sequestered, Stepford-ish streets of National Harbor. You tell Olli where to go, such as Starbucks. Operated by IBM’s Watson technology, it learns. If you get on and say “Starbucks” every day, Olli will learn to greet you by name, perhaps even question why you keep paying $4 for a cup of coffee. Supposedly, unmanned Ollis will also be on duty in Miami and Las Vegas before the end of the year.

Local Motors LM3D SwimLocal Motors LM3D Swim
Local Motors’ LM3D Swim is a funky little four-seater that purposely shows off some of 3D printing’s rough edges.

There is also the pretty little Strati, billed as “the world’s first 3D-printed car,” powered by pieces from the electric Renault Twizy. Everything except the obvious stuff — tires, wheels, batteries — is 3D-printed in 227 layers of carbon fiber-reinforced ABS plastic. Printing the entire car takes 44 hours. It debuted to the media in 2014, which dutifully reported it would be on sale in 2015 for a price somewhere between $18,000 and $30,000, according to Scientific American and less lofty sources. That day is still yet to arrive.

We were anxious to drive a 3D-printed car, so we hopped into the LM3D Swim, which is sort of an updated take on the 1964 Meyers Manx (see page 56). It will supposedly be available in 2017, with a projected price of $53,000. Local plans to build it in the company’s Knoxville, Tennessee, micro-factory.

Presumably a good chunk of that cost would go toward the powertrain, assuming the Swim has the same electric propulsion hardware the test car had, which came from a BMW i3. The i3 costs about $8,000 less than the projected price of the Swim. Nobody said pioneering was cheap.

Once inside, the Swim is pretty comfortable, in a beach-chair sort of way. It rolls on Bridgestone tires and is as rigid as an anvil (that’s a compliment) as we approach speeds near 30 mph, about as fast as anyone goes in National Harbor.

It would be possible to put two passengers in the back seat, but it is rippled and unfinished and sort of lumpy, just like it came out of the printer. Even the dashboard, console, and steering column were unfinished 3D layers. A child-sized surfboard was strapped to the top, and the dried-blood red color was a wrap.

The Swim needs a little refinement, such as headlights that do not appear to be sourced from Kmart’s bicycle department. But all told, it is fun cruising around National Harbor, until the batteries run out, which fortunately happens at the top of a hill, on a road that leads back down to Local Motors. Driving the Swim and gliding along after your photographer gives you a shove? Pretty much the same sensation.

Local Motors Strati

Local Motors Strati

For OEMS, 3D Printing Isn’t Quite Ready For Prime Time

If you suspect the major auto manufacturers are interested in the role 3D printing could play in their production process, you’re right. But at this point, the relationship between the big OEMs and 3D printing is still deep in the getting-to-know-you phase.

Example: Ellen Lee, technical leader for additive manufacturing research at Ford, is the company’s resident 3D printing expert. In August, she and representatives from Boeing and Siemens attended a demonstration at Stratasys, a Minnesota company deeply involved in 3D. Stratasys’ Robotic Composite 3D Demonstrator and Infinite-Build 3D Demonstrator are billed as being capable of making bigger, stronger parts than before.

How could this be of use to Ford? Lee was impressed and intrigued, but she said there is a long, long way to go before substantial 3D parts find their way into consumer vehicles.

That seems to be the status of 3D with the major car companies: figuring out where the technology can fit in to help with the quest to build stronger, lighter, faster, and cheaper. She is familiar with Local Motors and what it is trying to do. “They’re not bound by some of the same regulations automotive OEMs are,” she says. “[Our] going ‘all in’ with it as they are—I think it’s going to be quite a long way off.”

Local Motors 3D printing for kidsLocal Motors 3D printing for kids
There’s something 3D-printed for everyone—kids included— at Local Motors’ National Harbor office.

Aerospace, says Lee, is driving much of the 3D development, and 3D-made parts are now being used in aircraft, “but that is a much lower volume than we would require,” she continues. Indeed, parts made by Stratasys are used in Atlas V rockets.

For a company like Ford, volume and repeatability remain an unanswered question. At this point, the use of 3D parts at Ford is mostly for validation testing and prototypes. The 3D parts that are being used in vehicles mostly go into “one-off applications,” she says, such as show cars or race cars.

If 3D could replace the need to build tooling for some parts—“Tooling is quite expensive,” Lee points out—it would hasten the acceptance of 3D, “but that would only get us part of the way there.”

So how long will it be before we’re likely to see 3D playing a more meaningful role at Ford? “In the five-year time frame,” says Lee, “there will be niche applications here and there.” But as far as producing “mainstream” parts “in larger sizes and higher volumes—that’s going to take quite a while.”

Designs: Greg Thompson gtautomotivedesign.com; Zaier Jihed; Ashby2005

Local Motors Jay Rogers

Local Motors Jay Rogers

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November 12, 2016