Local Motors goes global

Local Motors may need to change its name. Along a dusty desert highway, in a building that from the outside looks like an old airplane hangar, this small custom auto manufacturing company has global plans.

by Ron French

It’s difficult to know where to begin the story of Local Motors. Maybe it’s the micro factory vision that could revolutionize industry much like the assembly line did a century ago? Or could it be the direct digital manufacturing that cuts the “analog humans” out of much of the process. Or maybe the story begins with Local Motors CEO and co-founder Jay Rogers, a man whose enthusiasm is as boundless as his vison.

 

Helping Rogers and his fast-growing company is Solid Edge, the computer-aided design software by Siemens, which is the only product on the market with synchronous technology, allowing Local Motors to seamlessly import non-native designs from collaborators around the world. The partnership with Siemens is likely to grow in the near future, as Local Motors expands into Knoxville, Beijing, Washington, D.C. and Berlin. “What we’ve done with Siemens so far is just a start of what we can do,” said Rogers. “It will go well beyond software.”

Not your father’s factory

No one would mistake Local Motors for a traditional automotive technology factory. Walk through the building, and you feel you are in a cross between an Internet start-up and a gear head convention. There are plants in towers and auto designs pasted on a wall. Men with laptops work on 3D designs near men who are putting the finishing touches on a Rally Fighter, a fully customizable vehicle for which customers often pay extra to come to the factory to assist in its construction. “We’re painting a new picture,” Rogers said. “How do you build a company that isn’t just about changing a power train, but changing the way vehicles are built?”

 

It’s hard to keep Rogers sitting long enough for an interview, but that’s pretty much the story of his life. He is a graduate of two of the most prestigious universities in the United States, Princeton and Harvard, and served six years as a company commander in the U.S. Marines. He’s worked for a medical device startup in China and is Chief Investment Officer for a philanthropy focusing on health care and education.

 

Rogers founded Local Motors on several outside-the-box concepts. One was that a web of microfactories could turn a profit just like the huge factories of the international auto manufacturers. Second was the notion that auto design would benefit from the same type of crowdsourcing on which Wikipedia was based.

 

That “democratization of manufacturing,” had one big problem: There was no shortage of people and vendors around the globe who had the talent, background and vision to design a vehicle from the ground up; but those people all were using different computer-assisted design software.

 

Meanwhile, Local Motors was designing vehicles, putting them in 2D analog and building them in house.

Join the party

That’s where Siemens came in. Solid Edge is the only computer-assisted design software on the market with synchronous technology, allowing the seamless import and editing of designs created with non-native design software. The affordable and flexible subscription pricing model made Solid Edge even more attractive, because there was no large cash outlay.

 

Without Solid Edge, the company’s co-creation model would have been cumbersome. When you get a non-native format, you’re basically starting from scratch,” explains Alex Fiechter, head of product development for Local Motors. “With other programs, you’re starting with a static block. With Solid Edge, you can go in and start working with planes as planes, and Solid Edge interpolates the changes.”

Solid Edge’s Synchronous design means you can come join the party at any time.
Jay Rogers, Local Motors CEO and co-founder

Unable to sit any longer, Rogers jumps up to show his visitor products that were designed or improved by the Local Motors community of enthusiasts. He beckons his visitor to follow him to the rear of the factory, where the company’s most famous product sits – a 3D-printed vehicle. Named the Strati, it looks like a cross between a dune buggy and a Transformer. The chassis, frame and some interior features are printed, with the mechanical components sourced from the Renault Twizy, an electrically powered city car.

 

It takes 44 hours to print the car parts, which are made of carbon fiber reinforced thermoplastic. Local Motors hopes to have a fully homologated 3D-printed car approved for US roads in 2018. As revolutionary as it is, the Strati is less important than what Rogers hopes the co-created, micro-manufactured, 3D-printed vehicle represents: a new industrial revolution. The result is the world’s first 3D-printed car.

Reshaping design for the 21st century

By being able to take design directly to a 3D printer, “I can change it on a dime,” Rogers said. “I can make it shorter, I can make it taller, I can make it wider, and there’s no tooling change at all. The second vehicle can be different from the first vehicle. Model years cease to exist. “If I were to boil down what Local Motors does, it’s decreasing the cost of technology innovation in vehicles.”

 

What Local Motors is doing, Rogers says, is reshaping what design and manufacturing means for the 21st century, ideas as radical as those that a century ago created the auto industry and transformed factories around the world.

 

The 3D-printed car isn’t exactly a family sedan. Not yet. Evolution doesn’t happen overnight. And it doesn’t happen alone. Local Motors is in the beginning stages of partnering with Siemens to help develop robot controls that will make the movement from design to 3D product more seamless.

 

“Siemens probably makes more controls than anybody else in the world, in the medical device industry and the machine tool industry,” Rogers said. “The future of being able to digitally manufacture things is about making the controls do what the community says they want. That’s what we’re in the midst of now. You economize the design of a vehicle by creating controls and software that work at the pace that lets the consumer and the community member who is contributing to it know what is possible.

 

Local Motors is a digital manufacturing technology company – from design to product without the human interpreting in analog in the loop. You have to have machines that can read digital instructions, and you have to have people who give digital instructions that can listen to what the machines can do.

 

A chassis-less electric car skitters silently past Rogers as he surveys his factory. It’s clear he’s seeing far beyond the walls of this desert building.

A global web of microfactories

Local Motors in early 2017 will open a microfactury in Knoxville, Tennessee, USA, where it will build its new self-driving shuttle Olli, its 3D-printed cars and other vehicles. The micro factory will be fully outfitted for beginning-to-end production of 3D-printed cars, and will include a showroom. The company opened a sales and demonstration facility in 2016 just outside Washington, D.C., and a micro factory in Berlin also came online.

 

“If we’re going to be a global company, we have to be as German as we are American,” Rogers said. Ultimately, the goal is to have a web of microfactories across the world, following the company’s motto of “design globally, build locally.”

 

“You build a million of the same product because it’s exhausting to build a new one,” Rogers said. “But what if the vision we built with Henry Ford’s mass production gives way to a vision where products are developed 20 times faster, or 36 times faster, where every month we’re changing something and making it better. It’s going to change the entire way we envision industry.”

 

And with that Rogers heads off to sort out an issue with a gaggle of engineers.

May 2017

Picture credits: Steve Craft

Ron French is a Senior Writer for Bridge Magazine and a freelance journalist based in Lansing, Michigan, USA. He specializes in economics, technology and healthcare issues.

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