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Local Motors banks on plastic for future of cars

Lauren Abdel-Razzaq
The Detroit News

The Strati is definitely not the prettiest car at the Detroit auto show. Instead of the shiny metal luster of the vehicles on the main show floor, the little roadster has more of a chunky, unfinished look. The side effects of being born of a 3D printer.

Jean Paul Capin Gally, CFO of Local Motors, sits in the first 3D-printed car at the North American International Auto Show at Cobo Center in Detroit on Monday.

But for Jay Rogers, CEO and founder of Local Motors, the Strati is a vision of the future of automotive manufacturing. And the future of automotive manufacturing is in plastic.

"We believe in innovation, we believe in technology and we believe in strong job opportunities," he said. "In the United States and anywhere people can invent."

Rogers described his Phoenix-based company as a cross between a "Build-A-Bear," and IKEA and Formula One. But during the company's press conference Monday afternoon at the North American International Auto Show press day, he swore Local Motors is not just a "science experiment."

While showing off a mid-model refresh of the Strati, the world's first working 3D-printed car, Rogers announced plans to open microfactories for manufacturing, research and retail of the roadster at National Harbor, Maryland — just outside of Washington D.C. — and at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory at the University of Tennessee.

"The microfactories are the heart and soul of change in what is going on in the auto industry," said Rogers, CEO and founder of Local Motors.

The company, which has microfactories in Glendale, Arizona, and Las Vegas, is actually a cross between a think tank and an incubator for startups. It crowdsources ideas from across the world and puts all of the documentation and designs online to share. Last April, it put out a call online for designs and the Strati was the result of that.

And while one of them drove the test track in the lower layer of Cobo Center on Monday, the company printed another version at its display on the main floor, building up layer-by-layer in a process that takes about 44 hours.

"It's a whole different way of manufacturing," said CFO Jean Paul Capin Gally.

The Strati's body is made of carbon fiber-reinforced ABS plastic heated to 250 degrees and precisely laid out. It's essentially the same material as Legos, the company said. And the "microfactory" as it is called, looks similar to a small greenhouse.

"With the microfactory model, it would allow us to make locally relevant vehicles," said Capin Gally. They plan to put the first fleet of Strati on the streets of the nation's capital, although the time frame was not clear.

The company has already crowdsourced designs and built the Rally Fighter, an off-road racer, the Racer motorcycle, and the Verrado, a three-wheel electric drift trike. None of those models is 3D printed.

As 3D printing technology has become more affordable, the price of printing an entire car has become more affordable as well. It costs the company between $5-$7 per pound to print, with a total weight of 1,100 pounds.

Over time, the printing time has been reduced, but Capin Gally said Local Motors hopes to reduce that to as little as 12 hours, or two shifts.

This version is a low-speed vehicle, traveling up to 40 miles per hour on an electric motor. When a road-ready version is available, the company says it could sell for between $25,000 and $35,000, depending on the customization that is done. That's another unique aspect of the Strati design. The drive train, seats and other non-printed parts are fully customizable, said Capin Gally.

"We imagine a world in which you will have a very small footprint dealer, where you will choose your customized 3D printed car that will be printed for you." said Capin Gally.

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