Jay Baron, president of the Center for Automotive Research, insists that 3D printing is “potentially a huge deal.” Specific to fabricating automobiles with 3D printers, he said replacing some or all of the billion dollar assembly lines in automobile manufacturing will drastically improve overall manufacturing flexibility, lower vehicle weight and lower tooling costs. “It would be a disruptive technology that could be the launching pad for other technologies and more consumer choice.”
Introducing the staggering flexibility of 3D printing to the automobile business is a bit of a throwback to that industry’s earliest days, when coach-builders custom-designed and fabricated every car to order, built to each customer’s fickle specifications. In those days, such masterpieces were exclusively for the wealthiest customers and took months or years to produce. Today, 3D printing technologies promise not only to once again allow high levels of automobile customization but also at staggering speeds.
Scientists at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, a technology laboratory managed by the U.S. Department of Energy, are now developing 3D printing systems that could produce one-off, bespoke vehicles at costs competitive with high-volume automakers using more traditional manufacturing methods.
Some say that the speed in which 3D printing technology creates objects is already on the Moore’s Law trajectory, the growth curve which continues to describe the staggering power increases of computer hardware over time. It is an observation that the power of technologies such as digital cameras, sensors and memory capacity roughly doubles every year.
Avi Reichental, the CEO of the world’s largest 3D printer manufacturer, 3D Systems, confirmed that the speed of 3D printers has indeed been doubling, on average, every 24 months. A video released by his company states that a crucial speed barrier has now been broken in that 3D manufacturing under his watch now creates items faster than traditional injection molding techniques.
Journalist Steve Heller, writing for Motley Fool, took issue with this. He wrote that 3D Systems is “borderline obsessed” with Moore’s Law comparisons, asserting that Intel co-founder Gordon E. Moore’s observation applies only to semiconductors. It “has absolutely nothing to do with 3-D printing technology,” he wrote.
Critiques aside, Reichental goes further and says that an outright revolution has already begun. “Expect printers to become real powerful home appliances. The train has left the station,” he said.
If true, 3D printing will be incredibly fast within 10 years. One might say that items – in a truly Star Trek sort of way – will be created virtually out of thin air. At the current rate of increase, 3D printers in 2024 will be creating simple and complex objects 32 times faster than today.
An example of this is Local Motors, a Phoenix, Arizona vehicle manufacturer, which plans to print a full-sized automobile this September. The expectation is for the process to take five to six days. Overlaying Moore’s Law on top of Local Motors’ time projection, printing the same car in 2024 will take four and a half hours (with the cost roughly being equally diminutive) and, in ten more years (2034) the car will be created in … six minutes.
By Gregory Baskin