3D-printed cars are real and could be available to buy later this year

A clever US start-up has proven it is possible to 3D print a car – and hopes to bring it to market later this year.

The global 3D printing industry is booming. Sales of 3D printers alone have rocketed from $400 million to almost $4 billion in just five years, says tech research firm Gartner – and now the car industry is getting in on the act.

But with driverless technology moving swiftly and people already being offered the chance to test 'driverless pods' in London, how long will it be, realistically, until 3D-printed cars are actually available?

Incredibly, it won't be long until we find out with the world’s first 3D printed car set to be made available for preorder via crowd-funding in a matter of months, before going on retail sale later in 2016.

Local Motors, a start-up in Arizona, has created the world’s first 3D printed car, the LM3D Swim.

READ MORE: Will the future of driverless cars mean the end for car insurance?

It crowd-sourced a final design (Jay Leno helped choose the final look, created by tech fan Kevin Lo), has completed all the engineering development and is now trialling the printers that will start producing parts for its 3D printed car. 

Jay Leno helped choose the final look

It’s a remarkable achievement with endless potential, but the premise behind it is simple: cars are complicated and expensive to put into production. Simplify the design and minimise the tooling costs, and new cars can come to market in a fraction of the time and budget.

If achievable this would be have a massive effect on the motor-production industry as currently a car is being built in the UK every 16 seconds after a huge increase in production in the last year.

Local Motors has certainly achieved the time goal, but might have to work on the budget.

Its first car, the $53,000 LM3D Swim, is made up of around 40 components, instead of the 3,000-plus that go into a normal car. Entire sections are 3D printed, layer by layer, including the car’s core – its chassis – and most of its body panels.

Currently, it is made up of 75% 3D-printed parts. The goal is to take that up to 90%. Of course, some parts can never be 3D-printed – wheels, windows, mechanical parts (it’s likely to be driven by a zero-emissions electric motor) – but the goal is to use 3D printing wherever possible for the LM3D Swim. Don’t worry, costs are set to come down in the future too.

How does 3D printing work?

3D printing is an additive process: parts are built up layer-by-layer.

ABS plastic is heated up and then extruded from a fine nozzle which is attached to a moving arm – this forms the shape of the component, inch by inch.

It’s powered by data from computer-aided design drawings which have themselves been ‘sectioned’ so each layer has its own set of design instructions. Even complex shapes can be built – 3D-printed parts are often more complex and intricate than parts made by other methods.

Because it’s an additive process, 3D printing is still a little slow. New 3D printing technology is on the horizon that uses light shining through a vat of resin to form parts – they literally appear as they are pulled out of the resin itself, after being formed by the light beams below the surface. A part can be made in 40 minutes compared to the 12 hours of normal 3D printing.

All 3D technologies allow parts to be made straight from screen: tooling doesn’t have to be produced first. This is a very slow and costly process – taking this step out of the production cycle is why manufacturers are so excited by 3D printing.

With the increasing focus being put on electric cars - especially for Volkswagen in the midst of the current diesel emissions scandal - and a huge amount of press being placed on driverless cars (you can see the five most advanced currently for sale here), it's no surprise that 3D printed cars has somewhat slipped under the radar, allowing Local Motors to quietly emerge as a pioneer of the technology.

Below is Local Motors guide on how they 3D print a car.

What’s the potential of 3D printing?

The fact Local Motors has made the 3D printed car a reality opens up entirely new possibilities for the car industry. In theory, you won’t need a central car factory building models on a production line – simply send the 3D print files to someone with a printer big enough to make them from scratch. Local Motors calls this Direct Digital Manufacturing, or DDM.

This will be especially significant to emerging markets, where setting up a traditional car factory would not be viable but a 3D-printed assembly facility could be.

As such a significant part of a car’s showroom price is made up of production costs, 3D-printed cars could possibly be significantly cheaper than today’s models. This would make it easier for start-up firms such as Local Motors to start making cars.

Customisation will also be easy, as freelance designers could make custom-look cars quickly and simply, by redesigning the company’s base 3D files using CAD software.

Of course, by its nature, the simplicity of 3D printing best lends itself to smaller, lighter, cheaper models – vehicles similar to the Renault Twizy – rather than bigger, heavier and more expensive cars. We’re unlikely to see a 3D-printed Ford Fiesta.

But 3D printing could also cut costs for bigger car manufacturers, helping reduce list prices and ongoing running costs. Instead of injection-moulding plastic components and then transporting them to a car factory, for example, plastic parts could be made on-site via 3D printing – and spares could even be 3D printed in a car repair shop should you need to replace them.

Further afield, owners could even make their own spare parts using their home 3D printer, simply by buying official files from the car manufacturer.

There’s a long way to go with 3D printing but Local Motors has proven the market-ready 3D printed car is almost here and could help inspire other firms – and most significantly, established car manufacturers – to follow suit.

Who knows, in the future, we may be able to order, print and build our own car… questions is, would you?

Would you buy a 3D printed car?