This 3D-printed car could be the future of sustainable auto manufacturing

Local Motors LM3D series
© Local Motors

Local Motors is reinventing cars, and car-building, from the ground up, using 3D printing, carbon fiber, "Microfactories," and a wide range of customizable features.

Last year, when we saw the first example of a 3D-printed car from Local Motors, fellow TreeHugger Christine asked if this innovation could herald "a return to a more artisanal, small series form of manufacturing," and wondered if we can truly reduce waste with print-on-demand processes or if we will "find ourselves buried in a sea of layered plastic trash?"

While it's way too early in the development of 3D-printing for auto-making to know about the plastic waste issue, one thing is for sure: If Local Motors can fully scale up its processes to meet its audacious goal of having 100 "Microfactories" around the world in the next ten years, as well as a number of "Mobifactories" (mobile factories, naturally) for maintenance and sales of its vehicles, it may very well be the artisanal car manufacturer we've been waiting for. And perhaps it could spur on the more rapid adoption of electric vehicles at the same time.

Although Local Motors also makes a high-end rally car and a motorcycle, where the real rubber meets the road, at least as far as being a transformative car-maker goes, is in its LM3D series, which promises to be a truly different kind of vehicle. The LM3D, which is expected to be road-ready and safe (exceeding the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards) when it becomes available sometime in 2017, includes a number of innovations that could be true game-changers for smaller-scale car manufacturing.

The LM3D is built with less than 50 individual parts (as opposed to the standard 30,000-plus parts in conventional vehicles), which equates to less tooling, fewer suppliers, and reduced waste in manufacturing, and according to the company, its Microfactories "produce a fraction of the emissions large automotive factories do," which adds to the elements of sustainability in Local Motors' operations. The current model of the car is built with 75% 3D-printed parts (made from a blend of carbon fiber and ABS plastic), with the aim of developing a vehicle that can be 90% 3D-printed.

One distinguishing feature of the Local Motors' 3D-printed car series is the ability for replacement or custom parts to be printed directly at the company's microfactories, which can have a smaller environmental footprint than that of manufacturing in a traditional format, which requires an infrastructure set up with additional tooling and molding machinery. This on-demand parts manufacturing process could allow for a much easier way to replace damaged body parts, or to let owners upgrade their vehicles as needed, without the necessary stockpiling of parts and accessories that other car-makers rely on. And according to Springwise, the parts could be recycled "indefinitely," which means that buyers would only need to purchase a single car body "for a lifetime," with repairs or upgrades capable of keeping the original car up-to-date and on the road.

In addition to the safety and sustainability elements of the LM3D, the vehicle also includes a host of 'smart' features, both hardware and software, and is designed to be integrated with current and future Internet of Things (IoT) networks for a smarter and simpler way to get around. The company is also interested in getting input from the crowd through its Open IO innovation platform, where a number of ideas, tasks, and challenges to the project are being posted and feedback is welcome.

Find out more about Local Motors' LM3D series at its website, where you can also sign up to stay in the loop about its developments in preparation for a crowdfunding campaign, which is expected to launch sometime in the second quarter of 2016.

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