In October of this year, Romanian-born artist Ioan Florea shocked the art and automotive world when he unveiled a rather remarkable sculpture. Beneath a series of chrome ripples and snaking curves was a 1970 Ford Turino. The wild shapes were created using a 3-D printer and a propriety process. The results were stunning, and according to Florea, there was a deeper meaning to using a car as the base of his creation.
“Three-D printing is truly the third industrial revolution,” says Florea. “The automotive industry is going to use it a lot. Really anything is possible.”
Florea is not alone in this assertion; 3-D printing is going to open up the world of production. All who have the vision, creativity, and drive can truly challenge the status production.
Within tech circles, the 3-D printer is the hottest thing since the Cuisinart, but for the uninitiated, here is a definition:
Three-D printing is the process of creating a three-dimensional shape from a digital file. The shape can be created out of a block of some material, like plastic or wood, that has been chipped away at; this is called the subtractive process. A newer method calls for creating the object from curing sprayed or poured liquids in layers that build up into the desired shape; this is known as the additive process. There are many different versions of each method, but the result is the same—an idea starts in a CAD computer, is sent to a 3-D printer, and voilà, a shape emerges.
In the automotive sector, companies have been able to use 3-D printing to employ a process called rapid prototyping. In the past, you had to build a real part from the metal you planned to use for the whole car in order to determine how it would look or if the bolt holes would even fit. Now, a designer can very quickly create a replica of that part made from plastic.
For large automakers, rapid prototyping is just another convenience for saving time and money, but for the little guys, it is a great equalizer that is slated to usher in what Flores refers to as the third industrial revolution.
“The second industrial revolution was the mass production process, perfected by Henry Ford,” says Flores, “which is part of why we chose a Ford Turino for our exhibit. The third phase is 3-D printing, which will democratize production.”
In the past, if an automaker—large or small—wanted to build a new part, it had to create heavy, expensive molds to set the design. Large automakers with built-in R&D budgets could afford to go through this process multiple times. Meanwhile, a small shop looking to build a new car might have to sink its entire budget to build a single prototype, a risky affair and a massive barrier to entry for automotive innovators.
The process is not just for validating new parts or design revisions. Three-D printing gives creative thinkers a resource to take the industry in a whole new direction. Jim Kor is an efficiency advocate who has designed eco-minded products such as tractors and busses. His latest product is the Urbee City Car, and it has earned him a great deal of attention in tech publications like Wired. The entire three-wheel, hybrid car is created from a 3-D printer made by a company called RedEye. It takes more than 100 days to print all the pieces, but the finished product weighs only 1,200 pounds and Kor has claimed it can cross the country on 10 gallons of diesel fuel.
The car costs about $50,000, and Kor has already taken more than a dozen orders. In theory, anyone with a RedEye printer could build his own Urbee. But the situation calls into question the safety of intellectual property in a future chock full of 3-D printers. Some experts suggest that there could be a 3-D printer in every home that would eventually be capable of making millions of different objects (kind of like the replicator for you Star Trek buffs).
If anyone can build a car or a cell phone from a digital file, then companies may begin charging customers for files and limiting the number of times an object can be printed—sort of how we can only install a licensed computer program onto a limited number of computers. We may see plenty of upstart shops bring vehicles to market at a fraction of previous development costs.
In a recent TED Talk, author Malcolm Gladwell revealed a great misconception about the story of David and Goliath. He pointed out that, in sports, David is seen as the underdog. However, in Biblical times, the slingshot was a fantastic new tool that gave the nimble David a competitive advantage over the lumbering Goliath. David and Goliath is not a parable about underdogs versus the favorite, but rather a parable about bucking the status quo with innovation.
This new class of entrepreneur and creator, equipped with 3-D printing tools, can challenge the large, top-heavy establishment of the automotive industry. The playing field is about to be leveled, and the only question is, how will automakers respond?