How Big Area Additive Manufacturing is Enabling Automotive Microfactories

Local Motors purchases two BAAM systems from Cincinnati Incorporated.

Big Area Additive Manufacturing. (Image courtesy of Cincinnati Incorporated.)

Big Area Additive Manufacturing. (Image courtesy of Cincinnati Incorporated.)

Make no mistake, 3D printing is changing manufacturing.

Although it may take years before we see the full impact of bringing this technology from rapid prototyping to full-scale production, there are already hints of big things to come.

Take Local Motors’ recent purchase of two Big Area Additive Manufacturing (BAAM) systems from Cincinnati Incorporated (CI) as an example. The former company designs, builds and sells custom vehicles out of its US-based microfactories. The latter is a century-old manufacturer of metal fabrication tools and, more recently, BAAM.


Big Area Additive Manufacturing

CI’s BAAM technology aims to bring 3D printing to industrial-scale applications. The BAAM machines are based on CI’s laser platform, including the machine frame, motion system and controls. However, the laser has been replaced with an extruder and feeding system.

The machines are available in two sizes, with workpiece dimensions of 140 in x 65 in x 34 in or 240 in x 93 in x 72 in and can print a variety of thermoplastics with carbon fiber or glass fiber, including ABS, PPS, PEKK and ULTEM. You can see an example of BAAM in action in this video about a 3D-printed Shelby Cobra:

According to CI, BAAM machines operate at speeds 200 to 500 times faster and on parts which are up to 10 times larger than existing thermoplastic additive machines.


The Automotive Microfactory

Local Motors currently operates four microfactories in the US, with the goal of opening 100 around the world over the next 10 years. The 40,000-square-foot facilities will feature BAAM as their centerpiece technology, with an estimated output of up to 250 cars per microfactory per year. That may not sound like much compared to the millions of vehicles being produced by major automakers, but Local Motors is operating on a significantly different model.

A 3D-printed Shelby Cobra next to a BAAM system. (Image courtesy of Cincinnati Incorporated.)

3D-printed Shelby Cobra next to a BAAM system. (Image courtesy of Cincinnati Incorporated.)

“We worked with CI early in the development of BAAM and were one of the initial purchasers of the machine,” said Elle Shelley, chief marketing officer for Local Motors. “We knew in short order that BAAM could provide the right platform for the microfactory concept.”

“Ultimately, we will create relevant vehicles tailored to the needs of specific markets, all printed on the BAAM,” Shelley added.

The idea is simple: customers visit their local Local Motors microfactory to design and purchase their vehicle, which will then be produced on-site. The microfactories will also be outfitted to service Local Motors vehicles. The result is a hybrid of a production plant and dealership.

The microfactory concept is supported by the Local Motors Co-creation and Build program. This connects designers, engineers, fabricators and enthusiasts through the company’s website, where users can submit their designs for feedback.


Additive Automotive Manufacturing

With the rise of 3D printing, ride-sharing programs and the impending emergence of autonomous vehicles, could this be the dawn of the automotive microfactory? The answer to that question depends upon a host of factors, not the least of which is operating cost.

BAAM System. (Image courtesy of Cincinnati Incorporated.)

BAAM System. (Image courtesy of Cincinnati Incorporated.)

Obviously, being able to 3D print automotive parts on demand cuts down on shipping costs, but right now those parts are limited by the materials compatible with BAAM. Until metal additive manufacturing becomes a viable production process for the automotive industry, microfactories will be as dependent on suppliers as their traditional counterparts. Moreover, this dependency is arguably worse for microfactories due to the diminished bargaining power that comes with being such a small customer.

On the other hand, the microfactory approach could have an advantage over traditional factories in terms of its flexibility. The emerging lesson from Silicon Valley is that smaller businesses can have the edge in innovation compared to their larger competitors, which can be so bogged down by bureaucracy that they fail to keep up with the rapid advancements made by smaller, leaner operations.

Could the microfactory be the new model for manufacturing, or is this another example of overestimating the disruptive influence of 3D printing? Share your insights in the Comments section below.