Airbus signs deal to 3D-print drones and self-driving cars

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Airbus has created a new venture to manufacture drones and self-driving cars “at unprecedented speeds” with Local Motors Industries, a 3D-printing start-up in San Francisco.  The two companies are launching a joint venture called Neorizon, which will focus on building mobility and autonomy products at a “microfactory” in Munich.

Dirk Hoke, chief executive of Airbus Defence, said the joint venture brings together aerospace engineers with decades of experience from Airbus with the radically different tools of Local Motors, which has designed a range of vehicles through crowdsourcing and then brought them to life with 3D printers.

 

The 50/50 joint venture would also be open to working with other partners, he added.

 

“As a big company you struggle to have a good story on how to drive innovation compared to little start-ups,” Mr Hoke said. “Here is a good combination: an open ecosystem for co-development, prototyping and inviting other companies.” For LMI, the partnership with Airbus is a validation of the concepts it has been developing since Local Motors, its main subsidiary, began building 3D-printed cars in 2007.

If 3D printing could viably create vehicles at scale, entire supply chains would become superfluous. Barriers to entry in the auto market are high in part because of just how difficult it is to build a reliable network of suppliers to provide “just in time” components. The average car, according to Toyota, has 30,000 parts, usually supplied by thousands of companies spanning the globe.

 

The promise of 3D printers is that companies could simply print what they need rather than wait it for to be shipped. But whether 3D printing matures — and when — is a question subject to considerable hype.

 

In 2012, 3D Systems’ Abe Reichental predicted it would be “as big as the internet.” Some day, that could be true, but as of 2018 less than 0.1 per cent of the $12.7tn global manufacturing market relied on 3D printing, according to a report this year by 3D Hubs. 

 

Airbus started working with LMI in 2016, when it participated in three six-week competitions to design, build, and then operate a drone. Mr Hoke said the software ecosystem, which drew upon cloud intelligence to build the drones and help it fly autonomously, convinced him of the need for his engineering team to participate more. “This is a starting point to generate completely out-of-the-box ideas”.