We’ll Soon 3-D Print Our Cars In Microfactories

Danielle Beurteaux

Henry Ford wouldn’t be happy. The car magnate’s model of mass production is on the verge of obsolescence. What will take its place? Microfactories.

Microfactories are small manufacturing environments that make small-scale goods. They save space, can be environmentally sustainable because, among other things, they can be hyper-local – parts aren’t being shipped around the world. They flip the conventional concept of economies of scale on its head, because they’re nimble environments that are more able to respond to present demand. Microfactories rely on automation, and this is where 3-D printing technology is preeminent. (This video of “robot swarms” gives an overview of one concept.)

Local Motors, a transportation company that has sites in Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Knoxville, Tenn., employs the microfactory model. Jay Rogers, the company’s founder, thinks prototyping and small-scale production is the way to go to discover the best ideas turn into products. He built Local Motors around a “co-creation community”; ideas are crowdsourced and crowdfunded. The first product, a 3-D car called the Strati, was made in 2014. Rogers says his company’s microfactory works “five times faster and with 100 times less capital” than the competition.

They have a lot of ideas in the works, like the Edgar, which is the company’s minibus concept; they partnered with Airbus to look for the new ideas for commercial cargo drones, and with Domino’s Pizza to create a rendering of the “ultimate pizza delivery vehicle” (it includes a warming oven, hello).

Now Local Motors wants to go commercial. The company’s LM3D is slated to be available later this year. It’s 75% 3-D printed, and while the base components, for safety and regulatory reasons, will remain the same, other parts of the car will be customizable – made possible because of iterative, 3-D technology.

Great ideas never happen alone, of course. Sweden’s Clean Motion, which makes electric autorickshaws, is planning to set up microfactories around India to make most of the vehicle’s components.

Divergent, a car company based in San Francisco, is aiming to make vehicle manufacturing a greener process. The company’s first prototype, a 3-D printed “supercar” named the Blade is made in a microfactory with the company’s innovative “Node” joint, which is 3-D printed aluminum.

In 2014, General Electric launched FirstBuild, a makerspace in Louisville, Ky., which includes a microfactory (which they bought from Local Motors). GE now has a portfolio of microfactories, and reportedly wants to open 100 in coming years. The model is co-creation, and anyone can be a part of the community.

The Louisville location’s latest innovation isn’t as grand as a car, but no less important – an improved cold brew coffee maker. The Cold Brew Challenge follows on the heels of previous competitions for a pizza oven and an ice maker.

What else will made iteratively? Teeth, body parts, and anything else that benefits from a high level of customization. It looks like 3-D printing coupled with the microfactory model will be the biggest change in how things get made.

For more on how the proliferation of artificial intelligence, automation, and connectivity will dramatically change the workplace, see Our Digital Planet: Rise of The Digital Worker, The New Breed of Worker.

Danielle Beurteaux

About Danielle Beurteaux

Danielle Beurteaux is a New York–based writer who covers business, technology, and philanthropy. Her work has appeared in The New York Times and on Popular Mechanics, CNN, and Institutional Investor's Alpha, among other outlets.