The Urbee 3D-printed car heading towards production

Urbee 3D printed car

Other than robots doing much of the work that humans used to do, today’s assembly line process of automotive manufacturing hasn’t changed a whole heck of a lot since Henry Ford’s day. Not conceptually at least. Too many parts bolted together and too much metal. It’s just so 20th century.

But things may be changing, thanks to — you guessed it — 3D printing. Instead of all the energy and material waste of making all those heavy metal parts, in the future we’ll just 3D print the parts in other materials. The parts will be lighter and stronger, and there will be a whole lot less of them since 3D printers can print shapes traditional manufacturing methods can’t — one 3D printed part might take the place of dozens of today’s parts.

Last September, we saw a step in the direction of 3D printed auto bodies when the two-passenger, hybrid Urbee (URban Electric with Ethanol), was unveiled at a TEDxWinnegeg conference. The Urbee is a car whose body is made entirely using 3D printing. But at the time of the unveiling, it was just the prototype that had been 3D printed.

Now the Urbee is ready to go from prototype to production, and unlike products that are prototyped using 3D printers and then are produced using conventional methods, the production version of Urbee’s body will actually be manufactured entirely using 3D printers. This is a first for the auto industry.

Here’s an interview of founder Jim Kor by the TwinCities Pioneer Press:

Engineer and entrepreneur Jim Kor and his team at Urbee are going to print the body piece by piece in plastic at Eden Prarie’s RedEye, the on-demand prototype and production facility owned by 3D printer company Stratasys. They’ll be using the Stratasys Fortus 3D printer, and it will be the largest project RedEye has yet to create on it’s 88 printers.

Since the goal with the Urbee is to produce a car that is fuel-efficient, strong and environmentally friendly, 3D printing the body is the only way to go. As Kor explains, “The process has the potential to put the material exactly where you want it and not put it where you don’t want it. Conventional cars carry around a lot of extra weight.”

The 3D printing process also greatly reduces the number of parts required to produce the car. Kor says on a typical car, the dashboard alone, for example, has thousands of parts. The Urbee has only 50 parts total that make up the body, which includes various parts from the dashboard to the bumpers — almost everything besides the chassis, powertrain and wheels/tires. I’d imagine it’s going to be a tighter fit as well and hopefully all those squeaks and rattles we’ve learned to live with could be a thing of the past too.

The Urbee will be powered by an ethanol engine that only outputs 8 horsepower, but due to all the advantages 3D printing provides, it will reach 70 mph fast enough. But get this: it will get 200 mpg on the highway and 100mpg in town! Worried about the light weight? They are making sure it’s got enough weight to it so it won’t be blown around on the road — it will weigh in at roughly half of a Toyota Prius (2921 pounds). And it’s durable — designed to last 30 years.

So how much for this super-green, futuristic car? Last we heard in September, the price range was between $10,000 and $50,000, depending upon the demand. If everything goes right (funding) you might be able to buy one in 2014.

Here’s a video of the unveiling at TEDxWinnegeg last September: