- Associated Press - Tuesday, December 23, 2014

LAS VEGAS (AP) - Near the corner of Las Vegas Boulevard and Stewart Avenue stand two squat garages, sporting the letters “LM.”

The initials stand for “Local Motors,” but they may also represent the future of automobile-making in the United States and beyond.

It’s here, just blocks away from the smoky casinos of Fremont Street and the Las Vegas Strip, where you’ll find the company responsible for the world’s first 3-D-printed car.

Founded in Phoenix but partly funded by the VegasTechFund in Las Vegas, Local Motors wants customers to be able to visit one of three micro-factories in the country, choose a body type from an extensive list and pick up a newly printed car, all in a 24-hour period, according to Gina O’Connell, Local Motors’ general manager.

In the past five years, the 3D printing business has exploded, following the development and release of low-cost, easy-to-use printers like the Makerbot Replicator used by hobbyists to print everything from toys to product models to guns. The trend is poised to impact the auto business, where 3D printers can lower the cost of production and the amount of time it takes to make a car.

Local Motors printed the Strati in September using the world’s first large-scale 3D printer, designed by Ohio-based Cincinnati Inc. and Oak Ridge National Laboratory, based in Tennessee. But the product that put Local Motors on the map won’t be in Las Vegas until January, when the Consumer Electronics Show comes into town.

The first Strati took five straight days to print. Since its first printing, the company has whittled that time to 44 hours. In the future, engineers hope to build the car in less than 24.

While most gas-powered cars have more than 25,000 parts, the Strati has 49.

When Local Motors introduced the car at the 2014 International Manufacturing Technology Show in Chicago, the Strati landed in publications like Popular Science and the New York Times. The exposure shined a light on the 3-D printing process, which has recently gained attention in industries such as health care, where doctors have just started using the machines to make prosthetics for patients and their pets.

A printer the size of a two-car garage uses digital schematics and a giant metal arm equipped with a printing “head” to produce the car. Pellets of ABS plastic the same material used to make Legos are fed into the head, which is heated to more than 400 degrees. The head moves in a pattern supplied by a computer and slowly feeds plastic and carbon fiber onto a platform to build the car, layer by layer. Soon after, the bottom part of the car seems to materialize out of nothing, like the Star Trek “transporter” done backward.

The printer produces the car’s chassis, body, dashboard, center console, seats, fenders, bonnet and boot. The only things that are not printed are the windshields, springs, struts, motor, battery, headlights, steering wheels and tail lights. Engineers add those components after the printer spits out the car’s main pieces.

When the car is finished, it’s not pretty like a Corvette or a Ferrari is pretty. Its edges are rough and obviously fashioned by a machine. But that’s the point. Local Motors’ mission is to offer the world a utilitarian product, not a beautiful one.

“It could be about beauty if you want it to be,” O’Connell said. “But it’s more about the rapidity of getting the product out fast and at the lowest cost possible.”

Local Motors plans to price the cars between $18,000 and $32,000, depending on whether a buyer wants upgrades.

Beyond its own line of cars, Local Motors hopes to tap the local community for other future-shaping concepts. They plan to operate a shop to showcase their own vehicles and a separate space for what the company calls “co-creation,” or crowdsourcing.

The system works like this: local citizens interested in building cars of the future can submit prototypes and plans for vehicles or parts of vehicles directly to Local Motors, which will then offer selected projects free access to a professional workspace, tools and storage space.

After uploading designs to Local Motors, designers can connect with fellow designers and engineers interested in the future of car making. Once those connections are made, anything can happen.

Once the product designers are in the shop, they can manufacture a low volume of vehicles based on their plans. And when the products are ready for sale, the designers can then leverage Local Motors’ e-commerce platforms and receive a royalty for each vehicle sold.

The Las Vegas shop has not taken on any projects, because the building does not yet supply enough electrical power, a problem staffers are working to resolve within the year.

Local Motors used a similar process to make the Strati a reality. The company launched a design contest in April 2014 asking for submissions that could be fashioned using a 3D printer. Of more than 200 submissions, Local Motors picked a design dreamed up by Michele Anoe, an Italian car designer, who also named the car.

In Italian, “Strati” means “layers,” which is exactly how 3D printing works.

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Information from: Las Vegas Sun, http://www.lasvegassun.com

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