Car design for distributed microfactory production

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Car design for distributed microfactory production

Car design for distributed microfactory production

Mark Richardson1, Frank Will2, Robbie Napper1

1 Department of Design, Faculty of Art & Design,

Monash University, PO Box 197, Caulfield East, Melbourne, Victoria 3145.

2InO8 Pty. Ltd., 10 Capri Ct, Jan Juc, VIC 3228

Email for correspondence:


A century after Henry Ford democratised automobility through standardisation, division of labour and economies of scale, shifts in global competitiveness and consumer attitudes towards vehicle design are impacting the viability of manufacturing operations here in Australia. While on the one hand this means we stand to lose a wealth of knowledge, skills and infrastructure related to mass production, on the other it opens a space for innovation. New technologies and cultures, such as 3D printing, generative software, mass customisation, sensor based networks and Maker culture conflate work responsibilities and democratise manufacturing through open and mutable design. This allows anyone with a good idea to make and market one-off artefacts, thus, paving the way for economies of scope. In this context, we’re seeing a new and diverse breed of tech/artisan-derived transport providers emerging from outside the existing industry, three of which – KOR Ecologic, Local Motors and Divergent Microfactories – provide precedents for new vehicle manufacturing practices. This paper discusses the significance of these, reviews emerging trends and highlights future production possibilities.


Additive manufacturing, 3D printing, car design, sustainability, automotive, leaning car

1. Introduction

Cars are one of the most complex and nuanced domestically produced products and, for better or worse, their presence has significantly shaped our urban environment, industrial reality and socio-cultural psyche (Whitelegg 1997:105; Urry 2004; Moriarty and Honnery 2007). For generations, Australia’s highly skilled, locally grown workforce has been competitive on a world stage and a source of local innovation. However, the manufacturing landscape is changing. Since Ford Motor Company, General Motors and Toyota announced closures of manufacturing operations here in Australia questions have been raised as to the future wellbeing of the broader manufacturing sector (Grattan 2014; Mazzarol 2014). As one of our key manufacturing industries (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2005), the demise of automotive manufacturing is likely to have serious repercussions on the sector’s health, with large losses to the country’s employment, skills and productivity growth (Mazzarol 2014; Gibson, Carr and Warren 2015). With the loss of our mass manufacturing skills and sites of production, we now need to find alternative means, new products and, equally importantly, integrated Product Service Systems (PSS) that effectively respond to changing ecological, social and financial imperatives. In order to do this, Mazzarol (2014) states the need to be able to quickly capture and employ knowledge [rather than quickly mass produce standardised physical artefacts]; a change that is being driven elsewhere by the rise of digital mobile data, 3D printing and customers empowered with greater access to information. On an environmental sustainability level, it is also important to find ways to encourage net dematerialisation and resource efficiency.

Automotive manufacturers claim to be victims of economies of scale, given Australian production volumes do not justify the investment needed to upgrade their operations (Gahan 2013). This does not mean Australia cannot manufacture cars here, it just means it is not financially viable to produce them in the way we currently do. This emphasises the need to modify our approach to making, owning and using these products and, in so doing, allow new business model trends to develop in line with emerging social movements. However, even if we find new ways to make cars, the issues facing carmakers go deeper than low manufacturing volumes and reduced market penetration. The big-picture concerns threatening the long-term sustainability of automotive manufacturing also threaten the viability of the product itself. These issues include:

  • Peak oil and rising fuel prices (Deffeyes 2001: 160; Moriarty and Honnery 2007; Stern 2007: 284)

  • Carbon emissions reduction regulation and other climate change mitigation strategies (Garnaut 2008: 128; Kahn Ribeiro et al. 2007)

  • Strategic urban planning in some municipalities to reduce car use (Department of Urban Affairs and Planning 2001: 3; City of Moreland 2008)

  • Growing public perceptions linking internal combustion vehicles to climate change, health issues and inefficient energy consumption (Whiteleg 1997: 107–10; Australian Greenhouse Office 2005; AAA 2008)

  • Road congestion and limited, more expensive parking (Shoup 1999; Litman 2006; BTRE 2007)

  • Affordability – the households more likely to need automobility are least likely to be able to afford it (Dodson and Sipe 2006; Unkles and Stanley 2008)

While these issues increase vulnerability for carmakers, commuters also stand to pay a price, as many perceive to be locked into motorcar use for primary transport (Urry 2004; Khan et al. 2007: 15). Given road-based personal transport has a long history and has been core to urban development (Whitelegg 1997: 36) and alternative modes of transport still fail to singly fulfil the collective functionality of the car in areas such as trip flexibility, carrying capacity and convenience, it is unlikely cars will totally disappear in the short to medium term. This would seem to support continuing industrial production of motor vehicles; however, collectively, the issues facing both manufacturing and the automotive sectors provide big-picture incentives to design alternative forms of transport and produce them in new ways.

Returning to Mazzarol’s views on 3D printing’s role in business resilience: additive manufacturing not only provides a way to make objects, it is a production method that specifically caters to economies of scope. In simple terms, the cost of producing a single artefact is the same as producing multiples, given no hard tooling is required and the artefact is made directly from digital data. When embedded in a microfactory – a small factory with small robotic manufacturing and assembly facilities (Tanaka 2001; Kussul, et al. 2002; Okazaki, Mishima, & Ashida 2004) – 3D printing can become a powerful production tool, providing a platform for adaptable production.

The term microfactory dates back to 1990 referring to work undertaken at MEL Industries to miniaturise manufacturing tools and process to make small products (Tanaka 2001); however, until recently the concept has not had broad reach. The motivation for small-scale, small-volume fabrication was rekindled in the early two thousands by Neil Gershenfeld’s (2005) work developing the Fab Lab concept at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The Fab Lab — or fabrication laboratory — consists of low-cost, digitally enabled, additive and subtractive, printing and slicing technologies. The basis of the notion was that, for a small investment, anyone could set up a facility to make almost anything (Gershenfeld 2005). In terms of business resilience, a Fab Lab or microfactory is not limited to making extended runs of products in the way that mass production lines are. Instead, in one print cycle, for instance, it might produce a vehicle chassis and in the next make a set of cutlery without requiring a tooling change.

The machines used in Fab Labs and microfactories would not typically cater to the production of car-sized objects; however, Local Motors (n.d.), a transport design and manufacturing firm that crowd sources design content, and Divergent Microfactories (2015), a startup who recently unveiled a 3D printed concept supercar, have been using the term ‘microfactory’ to describe their vehicle fabrication facilities. Even though the machines they use and the products they make are larger than the original definition encompassed, relative to the size of factories traditionally used be car manufacturers (measured in kilometres) Local Motor’s microfactories in Phoenix AZ, Las Vegas NV and Chrystal City VA are significantly smaller (measured in tens of metres). They have effectively demonstrated that for a relatively minimal investment cost, space, and setup time production facilities can be established to manufacture fully functioning vehicles.

This raises number of questions in relation to the automotive sector here in Australia. Given traditional mass production methods do not suit low-volume automobile production, can the new adaptable-production opportunities that microfactories bring help rejuvenate manufacturing? Do we have the capabilities to design a uniquely Australian vehicle specifically for microfactory production? And, what should that vehicle be? This paper proposes a number of opportunities in answer to these. Section 2 reviews vehicle production in context of new forms of manufacturing; specifically looking at the new freedoms 3D printing brings to the sector. Section 3 then discusses some emerging trends and areas for exploration that may have implications for future automotive manufacturing in Australia.

2. A New Manufacturing Landscape

Twentieth Century methods of manufacturing face increasing competition from new-millennium production approaches, which are moving away from standardisation and towards economies-of-scope and ‘manufacturing as a service’ (Tassey 2014) as demonstrated by 3D printing services such as Shapeways, Trinkle and 3D hubs. Over past decades, post-Fordist production has encouraged product diversification within the context of mass production, sometimes using techniques broadly categorised under the umbrella of mass customisation. Applying methods of modularity among others, MC affords manufacturers opportunities to meet market demands from consumers that aspire to own individualised goods, or at the very least, goods that are more aligned with their specific needs, wants and values. An example of such an approach is a platform based design, now considered normal in the automotive industry (Robertson and Ulrich 1998). An automaker will create a chassis and driveline platform and then develop a diverse range of vehicles on this – for example Volkswagen’s MQB platform yielding, among others, the Volkwagen Golf, Audi A3, and Skoda Octavia. Within platform design there are additional opportunities for exploiting mass customisation, for example in component sharing across different cars, and component swapping to create models within families of cars.

More recently, new technologies such as additive manufacturing, generative software, sensor-based networks and social movements such as Maker culture go further to democratise manufacturing through open and mutable design. This allows anyone with a good idea to make one-off artefacts and take them to market. Chris Anderson’s (2013) notion of The Long Tail is relevant here, as technologies that democratise production, such as domestic 3D printers, CNC machines and laser cutters, herald what some refer to as the Third Industrial Revolution (Rifkin 2012).

2.1 3D printing and domestic-scale production

Rifkin (2012) frames the Third Industrial Revolution in the context of the lateral control of renewable energies within distributed capitalism. Energy-use reduction and resource efficiency are central to this, providing a good argument for using digital and web enabled/connected Additive Manufacturing (3D printing) tools. Rifkin (2012) states that these technologies use one tenth of the energy of traditional production methods and consume less materials. Additionally, machines like 3D printers, small-scale CNC machines and laser cutters can be sited in end-users homes or microfactories and allow one-off or small batch production. Given no hard tooling is required this is a highly flexible manufacturing technique that can deliver greater product diversity, more consumer choice and a resilient production platform: to the point where small-scale producers can have viable low-sales-volume businesses making highly adaptable designs and distributing them across global markets. This can be achieved with relatively low start-up costs that can be distributed across networked manufacturing hubs (Gershenfeld 2005: 12).

In recent years, Additive Manufacturing’s shift into the consumer market has added momentum to the development of microfactories. While 3d printing reaches back a number of decades, with Chuck Hull’s development of stereolithography for 3D Systems Corporation in 1984 (Hull 1996) and Scott Crump’s Fuse Deposition Modelling for Stratasys in 1987-88 (Crump 1992), it has been since the mid 2000s when a number of Open Source Hardware projects contributed to a shift towards low-cost machines and distributed production, notably:

  • Arduino open-source physical computing platform (Banzi 2009);

  • Reprap open-source self-replicating 3D printer (Bowyer 2011; Jones et al. 2011)

  • Fab Lab, a low-cost fabrication laboratory comprising digitally enabled manufacturing tools (Gershenfeld 2005);

  • hackerspaces and 100K Garages, offshoots of the Fab Lab that provide collectives a local place to meet, collaborate on projects and make artefacts (Altman 2012);

  • Creative Commons licence, established in 2001, which enables users to share source documents, digital models and intellectual property freely in a share-and-share-alike agreement (Katz 2011);

  •, a repository of user-generated digital models that can be freely downloaded, printed and modified by anyone (Pettis 2011);

  • MAKE Magazine and, publications that focus on providing instructions for making DIY projects (Frauenfelder 2010; Dougherty 2012).

Collectively, these (and subsequent developments) have opened opportunities for individuals in a domestic setting to become small-scale and one-off product manufacturers (Richardson and Haylock 2012). Since then, 3D printing has opened new possibilities for distributed small-scale production and open innovation processes (Kotsakis 2013).

3D printing in the automotive industry, however, has been largely limited to the prototyping of components as a design and engineering validation tool. It has been used to make small parts and sub-assemblies for both visual analysis and quality control. Until recently there have been few examples of this technology being used to produce final production parts in vehicles. However, a number of automotive design startups have been exploring additive manufacturing as a cornerstone of direct digital production. These have developed concept prototypes that they intend to take into production; they are, KOR Ecologic’s ‘Urbee’, Local Motor’s ‘Strati’ and Divergent Microfactories’ ‘Blade’ .

2.2 Precedents of microfactory production in the automotive manufacturing sector: The ‘Urbee’, ‘Strati’ and ‘Blade’ 3D printed cars

The Urbee, Strati and Blade effectively demonstrate the potential for using 3D printing technologies in the microfactory production of cars. The ‘Urbee’ by KOR Ecologic (Figure 1a) was designed to be lightweight and energy efficient in order to operate with renewable energy. It is constructed with 3D printed body panels that bolt onto an aluminium sub-frame. These were printed with a honeycomb structural infill, significantly reducing weight over injection moulded or stamped equivalents – this kind of closed-geometry construction cannot be achieved with traditional production methods; however there limitations to the process. Given the bed sizes of the Stratasys Fortus machines were smaller than the required size for the body panels, each 1.5 x 1.0 x 1.5 meter panel needed to constructed by joining 4 smaller ones together (Kor 2012). This means assembling and finishing the panels requires more work than traditional manufacturing methods do.

Figure 1 (a) KOR Ecologic ‘Urbee’ (b) Local Motors ‘Strati’ (c) Divergent Microfactories ‘Blade’

The Local Motors Strati takes a more integrated approach (Figure 1b). It is made from 3D printed carbon-fibre-reinforced ABS plastic and uses the Renault Twizy drivetrain, wiring and suspension. It is the first running vehicle of its type to have the body and chassis components 3D printed as a whole. In a live demonstration at the International Manufacturing Technology Show in Chicago September 2014, the Local Motors team printed the Strati in 44 hours and completed the driveable vehicle assembly within the show timeframe. The 3D printing process uses what Local Motors refers to as BAAM printing, which uses a large-scale 3D printing machine with a pellet feed system (rather than the filament feed systems usually associated with Fuse Deposition Modelling (FDM)). The machine is large enough to print the vehicle chassis and body in one piece (Hartley 2014).

Divergent Microfactories’ (2015) ‘Blade’ (figure 1c) claims to be the world’s first 3D printed super car. Like the Urbee, its design follows a body-on-frame construction, but rather than using a welded tubular-alloy chassis, its modular construction consists of carbon fibre tubes coupled with 3D printed alloy nodes. This system is fast to construct – the frame taking just thirty minutes to assemble – and ideally suited to mass customisation, given reconfiguring the vehicle dimensions requires only shortening and lengthening the tubes; however, the composite body would require retooling to suit. The total weight saving in the Blade’s construction means it can use a more energy efficient 700-horse power four-cylinder turbo-charged internal combustion engine. This combination of lightweight construction and energy efficient powertrain achieves twice the power to weight ratio of the Bugatti Veyron (Divergent Microfactories 2015).

These projects demonstrate the potential for 3D printing to be used to make large, sophisticated products that are produced in small numbers. Additionally, they demonstrate opportunities for net dematerialisation, resource efficiency and potential for sustainability benefits, given they make complex lightweight structures with less material wastage coupled with energy savings afforded by microfactory tools (Kawahara et al. 1997). They also point to production-on-demand of products that can be tailored to the specific needs of individual end-users. Small-volume production needs alternative manufacturing methods and business models to provide financial security and business resilience. KOR ecologic, Local Motors and Divergent Microfactories are testing whether this can be achieved via 3D printing and distributed manufacturing.

3. Discussion

The introduction of microfactories into the manufacturing mix may help rejuvenate the industry here in Australia; however to date, the lack of commercially viable operations means this cannot be qualified. Despite this, there are a number of attractors that may encourage a shift. Currently, high production volumes are required to recoup the setup and ongoing costs associated with mass-production, which in the automotive industry includes the costs of operating dedicated and specialised factories. This translates to high-risk investment for small startups. However, with the assistance of microfactory production to make one-off or limited-run products, there are opportunities to explore risky and innovative ventures that would not typically find the support of venture capitalists. Products can be designed, built and tested in the market in small volumes in much the same way Local Motors is currently attempting in the USA. In Australia, for instance, the Low Volume Scheme for New Vehicles (Australian Government 2014) could facilitate this, allowing up to twenty-five or one hundred products to be sold per year. This is well within the realms of microfactory production and allows small businesses to test ideas in the market and let them grow at their own pace with the negative consequences of failure significantly reduced. Additionally, on-demand manufacturing reduces the need for dedicated factories and high-volume inventories of new stock, spare and replacement parts, thus decreasing the need for storage, administration and additional parts transport.

In order to transition from current production to fledgling digital production processes, there needs to be practical demonstrations of the technologies, approaches and product designs. From an automotive design perspective, it is difficult to say at the outset what vehicle attributes would be most appropriate for this; however, by considering the primary attributes of the Urbee, Strati and Blade, some possibilities can be projected. The Urbee and Blade demonstrate 3D printing’s role in making lightweight energy efficient vehicles. From a production perspective, the Urbee employs it to make lightweight closed-geometry, partly hollow panels in a way that traditional manufacturing with solid injection moulded plastic and stamped sheet metal cannot achieve. This process reduces material costs, volumes and embodied energy. Additionally, the Urbee’s philosophy of maximising energy efficiency extends to the shape of the vehicle, which has been designed to maximise aerodynamic gains; this improves energy consumption in use. The Blade, on the other hand, uses 3D printing to make a lightweight vehicle structure, delivering a modular construction that can be dynamically adaptable. This philosophy supports a culture of reuse, given individual modules can be reconstructed in different ways for different vehicles. The combined approaches of the Urbee and Blade ideally suit mass customisation; that is, 3D printed Urbee-like body panels could be parametrically updated continuously to suit different configurations of a Blade-like modular substructure.

The Strati’s approach bridges both the Urbee’s and Blade’s, integrating body and structure in an all-in-one geometry. While this does not provide physical modularity, there is the potential for mass personalisation by parametrically altering the digital model prior to 3D printing (see, for example, Tomiyama 2015). Importantly, the Strati was derived from a crowd sourced design process, using contributions from a distributed open collective of designers, engineers and end-users. This socially derived, democratically driven design process has potential to change innovation cycles, given the design process has access the ideas and expertise of a global group of contributors. This is also is well aligned with crowd funding models.

The Urbee, Strati and Blade represent only the beginning of what is possible with digital manufacturing. 3D printing brings opportunities for full-colour components, where an image or colour gradations can be intrinsically printed into each panel. This means, with software, end-users can personalise the appearance of a vehicle (see, for example, Lipson & Kurman 2013: 77). An extension of this strategy could see the implementation of new retail models involving Gamification and virtual experience – that is, experiencing and altering a vehicle in virtual reality prior to producing the physical artefact. The generative design program could intrinsically be bound by regulation and safety constraints. This means the future of vehicle package, drivetrain, materiality and styling development could be as diverse and personalised as the number of vehicles on the road. Likewise, the development of conductive 3D printing materials provides opportunities to print wiring looms directly into the body saving part complexity, what is known as structural electronics (Harrop 2015). Further, 3D printing all-in-one and multi-material mechanisms and 4D printing structures (3D printing objects that can transform over time) introduces intrinsic functionality, adaptability over time and reduces assembly time (Tibbits 2014). 3D printing in mid air (where the 3D printer prints in free space rather than building up stratified layers), allows printing in line-of-force; which means there is the possibility of developing greater structural integrity and less likelihood of de-stratification, which is common in some 3D printed plastic parts (see, for example, MX3D n.d.).

The Australian workforce is resilient and well accustomed to innovating while making-do. For generations we have developed vehicles that have comfortably performed alongside global products. From personal experience in the field, this has been achieved with less resources, time, money, technology and market base than our international competitors. Despite these limitations, Australian car manufacturers have competed on price, quality and attributes, and delivered internationally recognised icons such as the 1934 Ford Coupe Utility, FJ Holden and Chrysler R/T E49 Charger (Richardson 2015). It is well within the bounds of possibility that this spirit will translate well in harnessing new forms of digital production.

5. Conclusion

Ford, GM and Toyota's Australian imminent manufacturing closures will likely affect our broader manufacturing sector’s wellbeing, which according to some experts will likely affect Australia’s productivity and growth. However, these closures do not necessarily mean car production needs to cease; it just means Australia needs different approaches to making, selling and using cars. Niche market appeal makes mass production a risky production approach, given it requires either high production volumes or high retail prices to make good business sense. However, current small-volume production techniques are unlikely to have a broad enough reach to fully realise sustainability benefits. KOR ecologic, Local Motors and Divergent Microfactories are testing whether low-volume production can be better achieved via additive manufacturing through distributed microfactories.

The KOR Ecologic Urbee and Local Motors Strati provide excellent precedents for microfactory production. The Urbee demonstrates net dematerialisation and resource efficiency by utilising 3D printing to make closed-cell lightweight body panels. The Strati demonstrates the possibilities for all-in-one 3D printing of the vehicle body and chassis, which it does in the context of a microfactory. The Blade demonstrates a lightweight modular construction that allows the vehicle geometry to be reconfigurable which supports a culture of adaption and reuse. While these three projects are ground breaking, they deliver only a glimpse of future possibilities.

There is a good case for exploring microfactory production in relation to designing and manufacturing lightweight alternative vehicles. If made affordable, customisable, updateable and part of a broader service network, niche vehicles may have the potential to replace many road-going commuter trips. Further, their local production could assist the manufacturing sector – especially if the aims of global market penetration through distributed manufacturing are realised.


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