The “check engine” light is the the most insidious light on a car’s dashboard. Mine began to glow an acid yellow-green during a cold, rainy rush hour last week in bumper to bumper traffic on Chicago’s Western Avenue. “Service car soon,” it admonished in an ominous yet distinctly unhelpful way. I patted the steering wheel reassuringly. “What’s wrong, baby?” I asked, willing my usually reliable gas-guzzling steed to hang on long enough to make it home.
It was too late to go the dealer that night, which left plenty of time to surf the web and worry. A check engine light can mean anything from a cracked fuel cap to a cracked engine block—a few dollars to a few thousand dollars—and the only way to know for sure is to hook the car up to a computer. There is an app for that. Actually several. But they all require a bit of rooting around in the alien world beneath the dashboard to plug in a cable or dongle. Having neither cable nor dongle, nor the ability to fix whatever the problem might have turned out to be, I headed straight to the dealer at dawn.
Car repair roulette is the worst. My spin landed on “vent valve,” a three inch piece of plastic pipe vital for regulating the mix of oxygen and fuel. After 60,000 miles of trusty service, it was coated with carbon, stuck in the open position. Apparently, a vent valve is not something that can be cleaned, but rather must be replaced. A few hours and several hundred dollars later, the car was fixed and I had a bonus souvenir.
I stared at the small hunk of plumbing the mechanic had fished out of the garbage for me, appalled that something so doohickey-looking had the potential to wreck my car. Then I was appalled that countless millions of cars and trucks on the road are similarly vulnerable, some more than others according to a quick Google scan. How could this be designed so poorly that it could not be cleaned? It was plasticwith a little bit of metal inside—why did it take so long and cost so much to fix?
Chalk up one more reason to cheer on Tesla: electric cars don’t have vent valves. Still, until batteries replace gas tanks in the global fleet, the $2 trillion auto parts market will be churning out a near infinite number of pricey parts designed for a truly dizzying variety of petroleum powered makes and models. The carbon footprint of a car goes beyond fuel efficiency and manufacturing supply chains. It also includes all the spare parts required for years of maintenance and repair. Each one of those parts has its own long meandering supply chain, many traveling by ship from Asia, then by freight train and truck to a mechanic near you.
It is an industry easy to game. This past September, nine Japanese auto parts suppliers pled guilty to an ongoing global antitrust investigation spearheaded by the US Justice department:
"…More than a dozen separate conspiracies involving more than 30 kinds of parts affected sales to Chrysler, Ford and General Motors, as well as the American subsidiaries of Honda, Mazda, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Subaru and Toyota.
“These international price-fixing conspiracies affected more than $5 billion in automobile parts sold to U.S. car manufacturers,” Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said in a statement. “In total, more than 25 million cars purchased by American consumers were affected by the illegal conduct….”
— New York Times
In other words, it is a racket, just as every grumbling car owner hit with a pricey repair job involving a small cheap-looking part has long suspected. Although the fines against the car part conspirators tallied nearly three quarter of a billion dollars, that may not be enough to deter others from trying to find sneakier ways to pad pockets. It is just that tempting.
In the meantime, the average lifespan of a car in the US now tops 11 years. The average car owner shells out thousands upon thousands of dollars for repairs and maintenance. It is like buying another half car, one part at a time.
GAME CHANGER IN 3D
3D printing could help change the equation, obliterating long supply chains, slashing carbon footprints, cutting costs, frustrating fraudsters and affecting the way cars and their parts are designed in the first place. The technology is already popular with car designers. It is both a faster way to prototype designs and also dramatically cheaper. Creating a prototype engine with 3D printing, for example, can reduce costs from a million dollars to a few thousand. That’s money that drops straight to the bottom line.
It will still be a few years before my mechanic has a 3D printer fabricating parts out in the garage that might translate to savings to my bottom line. Antique car collectors such as Jay Leno, however, have already embraced the technology.
"…If you went to a machinist and asked him to make this (part) for you…it would take weeks to do. Here you design it on a computer and the same day you have a replacement part. There are no lost motors any more. There are no lost pieces you can’t reproduce.."
— Jay Leno
In the video below, watch how easily Gonzalo Martinez, Director of Strategic Research at 3D software-maker Autodesk, is able to improve the design an antique engine part on a computer. Within hours, a new part—far better than the original—is ready to be installed.
Mass production excels at economy, quantity and uniformity but at the expense of agility: It is hard to make the kinds of small quick changes that Martinez was able to make. Like a pebble in a pond, even a tiny change can cause ripples throughout the process. Mediocre designs can persist because they are good enough to last a while, like my vent valve, rather than as good as they might be.
A NEW APPROACH
Local Motors, a six year-old automaker based in suburban Phoenix, Arizona, aims to change the paradigm, reinventing the car business from the ground up, beginning with design. Cars are “co-created” incorporating ideas and feedback submitted by thousands of LM members from around the world. In turn, specs for LM-designed car parts are open-sourced to the community (most parts, however, are sourced from outside suppliers generally less keen to share intellectual property). 3D printers are used extensively for prototyping and production.
"The last 100 years attributed to Henry Ford was the last industrial revolution. The next industrial revolution is the ability to take data, digital plans, and print something without having to spend a lot of money on tooling, and that’s what’s so exciting about our community," said Justin Fishkin, Local Motors chief strategy officer. "The ability to collaborate on digital designs and then share them with a machine that will make whatever the data tells it to make, in batches as small as one unit, is changing the game."
-- from “Can the 3-D printer help ‘green’ the auto industry?” by Julia Piper / E & E publishing
So far Local Motors has produced one car model (the Rally Fighter) and two motorcycles (the Racer and the Cruiser), each available in limited runs. Buyers are encouraged to be involved directly in the building process at one of the company’s micro factories--a second just opened in Las Vegas. They can even bring a few friends along for what is more of an assembly party than an assembly line.
The company has more than doubled in size in the three years since founder and CEO Jay Rogers gave a talk at TEDxPhoenix (embedded below). Though dated, it is still a good overall backgrounder on the Local Motors vision:
Local Motors may forever be a niche player, but it has already had impact well beyond its size. Its track record for rapidly prototyping and producing working vehicles caught the attention of the US military. In 2011, LM helped DARPA, the military’s R&D arm, launch an online competition to design a combat support vehicle. Now LM is working with the US Army Rapid Equipping Force (REF) on a new website to create “a community of soldier-focused innovators” to design a range of combat gear: ArmyCoCreate.com.
BY THE NUMBERS
At every turn, 3D printing is bringing big changes to the auto industry. In a recent blog post, John Hauer, chief marketing officer at online design marketplace 3DLT, crunched the numbers.
Yet most parts are designed using CAD (computer assisted design), which means they also exist digitally, which means they can be printed.
"…3D printing squashes the supply chain. How? 3D printable files can be stored in an online database. 3D designs can be retrieved, manufactured and packaged, when and where they’re needed, on demand. The effort, technology, and costs associated with mass manufacturing whither away. There’s no consolidation, shipping, receiving, sorting, repacking, warehousing or delivery of finished goods. There’s also less redundancy at thousands of retail locations. At Advance Auto Parts for instance, the average store does about $1.7 million in sales. It also carries about $600,000 in inventory. Assume 70% is redundant, multiply it across 4,000 stores, and it equates to $1.7 billion worth of inefficiency.
If 3D printing could eliminate even one percent (pardon the cliche,) it could save the company $17 million per year – roughly the sales volume of 10 stores and at an operating margin of 10%, the gross profit of 100 stores…”
— “3D Printing In The Automotive Aftermarket”
It is only a matter of time—probably sooner rather than later—before 3D printers are good enough, fast enough and cheap enough to be worth installing in auto parts stores, garages and in regional auto parts supply hubs.
Independent designers and hobbyists are already forging the path,
"…One of 3DLT’s designers, Ray Pierson, is a great example. He works as an engineer in the defense industry by day, but creates 3D printable car parts in his spare time. It started when Ray identified an opportunity with his own car. He drives a Volkswagen Touareg and didn’t like the way the cup-holders held his drinks. So, he designed a plastic tray to fit over the opening. He bought his own 3D printer and used it to print the tray. Others saw it and liked the way it worked. He started getting orders from other VW owners. Soon people with other makes of cars saw Ray’s tray and asked if he could design one for their model. He got to the point where he couldn’t keep up with production and joined 3DLT so he could focus on designing great products. Crowd-sourced designs like these could be a profitable source of content for an auto parts supplier with 3D printing capabilities…"
—”3D Printing In The Automotive Aftermarket”
THE LONG AND SHORT OF IT
My car is a necessity, but I would like to need it less. In the not too distant future, I can imagine a mix of commuter trains, biking and walking getting me where I need to go most of the time. Still, a car is often the best option, especially when the weather is bad (this is Chicago after all), there are things to schlep, it is late or it is the most efficient way to get where I need to go.
My next car will likely be electric—perhaps even a Tesla—a car that most definitely will not need a vent valve. That is still a few years off, but my current car, theoretically in the prime of its mechanical life, can still benefit from automotive innovation.
Imagine cheaper, better designed parts that make repairs simpler, faster and cheaper. Imagine supply chains radically shortened and carbon footprints shrunk. With some good 3D printers, my existing car can become at least a little eco-friendlier, improving its big picture life-cycle efficiency and economy. Yes, please.
• 3D print precise prototypes and tooling that can take abuse: case studies and more from 3D printer manufacturer Stratasys
• 3-D Printed Car Is as Strong as Steel, Half the Weight, and Nearing Production / by Alexander George, Wired magazine
• Kor Ecologic / 3D printed car project website
• 5 reasons 3-D printing isn’t quite ready for prime time / by Clay Dilllow, Fortune magazine
The Sum of Its Parts: Autozone Meet Autodesk (please) / On Supply Chains, Carbon Footprints and How 3D Printing Can Change the Game (again)
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