In January 2015, Arizona startup Local Motors 3D printed a car live at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. A machine the size of a single-car garage, a scrolling arm much like the paper printer on your desk scrolling back and forth, added successive layers of carbon fiber-infused plastic to build the vehicle up micron by micron. The vehicle, called the Strati with a top speed of 25 miles per hour, took 44 hours to print. An electric battery, motor, suspension and wheels were added to complete it.
It was an engineering marvel. Futurists at the time projected homes, cars, televisions and nearly another other durable product could be manufactured in this new, innovative form—additive manufacturing.
But like most shiny new inventions, the hype has subsided and four years later, 3D printed cars aren't much closer to mass production. Yet the industry is blossoming as it's moved further along the hype cycle from the peak of inflated expectations toward the plateau of productivity.
3D printing machines are nearly commonplace in manufacturing plants—at the 2019 Detroit auto show, Ford Motor Co. said it would begin using 3D manufactured parking brake brackets for the Ford Mustang GT500, auxiliary plugs for the F-150 Raptor and lever arm service parts for the Ford Focus—and it's building big business in metro Detroit.
EOS North America in Novi, a subsidiary of Germany's EOS Holding GmbH, manufactures and sells around 1,000 3D printing commercial manufacturing machines annually, a far cry from its meager beginnings 30 years ago.
"We were not an overnight success," said Glynn Fletcher, president of EOS North America. "It took 20 years to sell the first 1,000 machines and another five years to sell the second 1,000. Now we've ridden the hype cycle and are selling more than that a year."