Distributed Manufacturing and the Car of Tomorrow
Michael Molitch-Hou posted on May 24, 2016 |

Since the inception of Henry Ford’s assembly line, auto manufacturing occurs more or less in the same fashion—though a great deal of automation, quality control and other improvements have been made along the way. Due to the economics of injection molding, tooling and everything in between, the process by which we make cars involves producing large, costly batches of the same vehicle over and over again. 

For that reason, new features are implemented in next year’s model. Critical safety flaws can only be repaired through massive recalls. On top of that, this mass manufacturing is often performed very far from the target destination, resulting in pollution associated with overseas travel and long shipping times, not to mention the complexities of politics and labor laws associated with production in a distant country. Additionally, manufacturers must create more parts than may ultimately wind up in the market, resulting in a surplus of inventory.

In an era in which documents can be transferred instantaneously across the Web, this idea of centralized manufacturing feels pretty dated-almost medieval. With additive manufacturing (AM), however, the concept of one-off automobiles becomes a real possibility, potentially allowing for the improvement of every new vehicle that comes off the line. Individual parts need not be injection molded en masse overseas but can be 3D printed locally and on demand.


AM for the Auto Industry

Though Arizona’s Local Motors plans for its 3D printed roadsters to hit highways in 2017, we’re a long way from widespread adoption of 3D printed vehicles. The biggest and most practical benefit that the technology has for the auto industry right now, and for manufacturing in general, is through the production of spare parts and the reduction of physical inventory.

Rather than produce a surplus of parts, a manufacturer has the potential to either translate legacy components into 3D-printable CAD models or, when designing new components, ensure that they can be 3D printed. In so doing, it’s possible to replace their physical inventory with a virtual one. And, instead of having that part shipped from some distant locale, the component can be 3D printed locally when it’s actually needed.

While this may help original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) reduce material waste, thus cutting the economic and environmental costs associated with that waste, it also opens them up to all-new design possibilities as they begin to shift towards a new way of design thinking, based on the potential of AM. Often associated with 3D printing is the saying, “complexity is free,” meaning that intricate geometries can be fabricated without any additional cost to the producer.

No other automotive endeavor may illustrate these design possibilities as well as the Hack Rod project. Bringing together powerful generative design tools from software company Autodesk, parts that can only be made with 3D printing, distributed manufacturing and a whole lot of real-world data, Hack Rod is, according to the project website, “the first car in history engineered with artificial intelligence.” 


The Hack Rod as a Case in Point

The Hack Rod project was started by Mouse McCoy, founder and creative director of the Bandito Brothers film studio, Greg “GT” Tracy, one of the world’s top stunt drivers, and Felix Holst, former vice president of Creative for the Wheels division at Mattel. United by a common goal of improving auto design, McCoy, Tracy and Holst first tore an existing industry-winning hot rod down to its basic frame before taking it out on the road filled with 2,000 sensors. This resulted in a huge amount of data, ranging from the brainwaves of the driver to the physical forces affecting the car’s body.

The Hack Rod performing a test drive for the purpose of data analysis. (Image courtesy of Bandito Brothers.)
The Hack Rod performing a test drive for the purpose of data analysis. (Image courtesy of Bandito Brothers.)

The data collected from on- and off-road tests would serve as the basis for designing the ultimate automobile. The project’s claim that it is the first car to be “engineered with artificial intelligence” stems from the software that’s been used to engineer it. Autodesk Dreamcatcher is a novel approach to design in that, rather than allowing a user to create a model from scratch, users input various design objectives and pieces of information. Dreamcatcher then generates models that meet these criteria. 

The chassis of the Hack Rod as generated by Autodesk Dreamcatcher. (Image courtesy of Bandito Brothers.)
The chassis of the Hack Rod as generated by Autodesk Dreamcatcher. (Image courtesy of Bandito Brothers.)

In the case of the Hack Rod, the team was able to input the necessary engineering and performance goals—fuel efficiency, aerodynamics, cost of production and more—and actually generate iterations of designs for the chassis of their automobile. Dreamcatcher can analyze the physics of a given model in the real world before it even gets there. Then, once the chassis design has been selected, it can be incorporated into a 3D model of the entire auto body, designed with Autodesk Fusion 360, before being sent into Autodesk Flow Analysis, where it will be analyzed for aerodynamics. 

ReCap from Bandito Brothers on Vimeo.

The catch about a software like Autodesk Dreamcatcher is that the models it creates, in many cases, can only be brought into the physical world with 3D printing.


3D Printing and Fast Radius

For now, the Hack Rod team has yet to create a full-scale model of the AI-designed chassis for their super-smart supercar. But they have assembled a one-third-scale model, made from multiple hard acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) plastic components. To do so, they turned to Fast Radius, a company focused on distributed manufacturing through 3D printing.

Hack Rod created the world’s first 3D printed automobile chassis designed using artificial intelligence. (3D printed by Fast Radius, designed by Hack Rod using Autodesk Dreamcatcher. Image courtesy of Rick Smith/Fast Radius.)
Hack Rod created the world’s first 3D printed automobile chassis designed using artificial intelligence. (3D printed by Fast Radius, designed by Hack Rod using Autodesk Dreamcatcher. Image courtesy of Rick Smith/Fast Radius.)

“You look at the future of production, and it’s not just mass production in Asia in very large batches,” said Fast Radius Cofounder Rick Smith. “It’s distributed production in exactly how many parts you need, when you need them and anywhere in the world where you need them produced closest to the use.” Smith explores this concept of distributed manufacturing and where manufacturing is headed in greater depth in his forthcoming book, The Great Disruption.

Unlike centralized manufacturing, which sees individual factories producing large batches of parts en masse and then shipping them to their often-distant destinations, distributed manufacturing emphasizes producing parts as close to their destinations as possible. Ideally, a car like Hack Rod could be made through this process, with 3D printers fabricating the vehicle’s parts for assembly on location. 

Smith points out that producing a car like the Hack Rod is as custom as it gets. In the case that you need an individual part, 3D printing can be more economical. “With mass production, you need a hundred or a thousand parts before the economics even begin to start working.” said Smith, “With distributed manufacturing and 3D printing, you can now start producing parts cost-effectively down to the single part. And if you need spare parts in the future when something ends up breaking, you just produce it on demand in real time and, eventually, wherever in the world you need that part.” 

These benefits extend far beyond the world of 3D-printed supercars. The same advantages apply to companies that have stopped producing a vehicle’s original components, as in the case of antique cars, or those that simply want to save money associated with maintaining a physical inventory. “We’re working with about a dozen OEMs that don’t have spare parts in stock. Rather than make a huge run of the spare parts that aren’t needed very often, they can now offer those to customers and print them on demand.” His OEM partners are now in the process of determining what products they don’t ship very often and, rather than produce more stock, digitizing them as virtual inventory. 

Fast Radius is located on the UPS Supply Chain Campus for convenient, expedited delivery. (Image courtesy of Fast Radius.)
Fast Radius is located on the UPS Supply Chain Campus for convenient, expedited delivery. (Image courtesy of Fast Radius.)

Fast Radius’s location in Louisville, Ky., is not by chance. With UPS as their biggest investor, the firm is located on the UPS Supply Chain Campus. The relationship between 3D printing service bureau Fast Radius and the world's biggest delivery company is mutually beneficial. On the one hand, UPS has a role in the increasingly important world of AM. On the other, Fast Radius can ship its prints just about anywhere and anytime by walking across the hall. 

“We’ve got a pretty interesting facility in Louisville,” Smith explained, “that is the first fully automated 3D printing production factory. It’s built as a manufacturing facility. In an automated way, anyone can place an order and the system finds the right printer and immediately starts printing, finishes the job, ejects the part and resets for the next one. And because we’re located within UPS, we’re often able to deliver the next morning anywhere in the continental United States.”

Automating and managing a 3D printing factory is not as easy as it sounds. Quality control for 3D printers is far from ideal, with consistency and predictability difficult to achieve. For companies like GE, which has its own AM factory in Alabama, the machines have been optimized for the production of a single design, the LEAP fuel nozzle, through endless trial and error until all of the process parameters have been perfected. Fast Radius seems to have added automation to its portfolio of machines—covering everything from plastics to metals —which is no small feat.

UPS is in the process of expanding their own internal distributed manufacturing setup to partner facilities globally. This will further establish the role of UPS in the distributed manufacturing world of the future. In addition to the straightforward mailing of packages, the company is also a supply chain management provider, overseeing the distribution of goods from the point of manufacturing to their shipping destination. UPS also often handles the warehousing of inventory. While not all goods will be produced locally and on demand, shipping companies like UPS can be called on to ship and store products.


Hack Rod Tomorrow, Distributed Manufacturing Today

The next step for the Hack Rod project will see Fast Radius working with partners like Lockheed Martin to 3D print a full-scale version of the supercar’s chassis in one piece. It’s difficult to know when an AI-designed automobile will be road ready, but one important component of the project is available to the public. Though Fast Radius is expanding even further, the Louisville company can make distributed manufacturing possible for businesses wishing to shift to on demand production today. 

For more information about the implementation of 3D printing as a business solution, visit the Fast Radius website.

Fast Radius has sponsored this post. They have no editorial input. All opinions are mine. —Michael Molitch-Hou

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