Source: The Nashville Post | Peter Chawaga | May 19, 2017
Far from Silicon Valley’s hotbed of digital disruption, an East Tennessee city has become the seemingly unlikely home for technological firsts in auto manufacturing.
Specifically, Phoenix-based motor vehicle manufacturing company Local Motors has chosen Knoxville as a site for a “microfactory” that will help create vehicles that utilize innovative technology, from self-driving capabilities to 3D-printed components.
Founded in 2007, the company has introduced an unconventional production model that enables the vehicles to be made in a highly targeted way — and it views Knoxville as a suitable market for its efforts.
“Local Motors’ goal is to change the way vehicles are manufactured and sold,” says company spokesperson Jacqueline Keidel. “Small batches of locally produced vehicles allow us to customize vehicles to best suit the needs of a specific market.”
The automaker makes niche vehicles designed by a “co-creation community” of far-flung contributors and builds them across a network of microfactory sites that includes — in addition to Phoenix and Knoxville — Berlin, Las Vegas and National Harbor, Maryland. This year, Local Motors’ Knoxville microfactory will produce the Olli, a self-driving, electric, eight-person shuttle that can be scheduled for pick-up and drop-off through a smart phone.
Previously, the site manufactured a component of Local Motors’ Strati, the world’s first 3D-printed car, though that project has been put on hold by the automaker.
“Local Motors hopes to revolutionize transportation by integrating the most advanced vehicle technologies into our products,” Keidel says. “From self-driving to cognitive to sustainable, we will offer a wide portfolio of vehicles that best suit the needs of the markets where they are manufactured, making transportation smarter, safer and more enjoyable.”
Knoxville’s microfactory is outfitted with the 3D-printing capabilities necessary to produce small-batch components without traditional machinery. It also has materials-testing technology and direct digital manufacturing software, two forward-thinking components that are part of Local Motors’ distinctive process.
“Vehicles are designed and tested using advanced manufacturing software,” Keidel says. “We can find problems and solutions using the software, rather than needing physical prototypes to do so.”
Though Knoxville does not have a long history as a center for non-traditional technology — the city is perhaps best known for a top-notch zoo, the high-profile University of Tennessee Volunteers football program and quick access to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park — its place in the future of manufacturing was recently secured.
When then-President Barack Obama visited the city in early 2015, he laid out a vision for the region to become a leader in technological production as part of the federal Institute for Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation (IACMI). Through the program, which is headquartered in Knoxville, the area has established a composites institute at the University of Tennessee and a national laboratory in Oak Ridge. The goals for IACMI include lowered material costs, lessened environmental impact and increased domestic production capacity.
“Companies such as Local Motors and Leisure Pools, and a composites supply chain in close proximity to industry and research, enable faster innovation and shared learning,” says Bryan Dods, CEO of IACMI.
The area’s manufacturing progress makes it appealing to Local Motors, as does its automobile-specific potential. As Tennessee’s third-largest city (with an estimated population of about 870,000), Knoxville also carries some political clout statewide.
“Knoxville shows a lot of promise for vehicle demand,” Keidel says. “The location gives us access to well-educated individuals due to the presence of the university, and [the city] is an up-and-coming hub for technology.”
By attracting companies like Local Motors, IACMI takes credit for more than $140 million in capital investment and 442 new manufacturing jobs enjoyed by Tennessee in 2016, per its annual report.
“Local Motors’ East Tennessee microfactory is an excellent example of innovation enabled through the IACMI partnership and its 150-plus members,” Dods says. “Local Motors is participating in several IACMI projects with IACMI members in the composites supply chain.”
For instance, IACMI and Local Motors have partnered to investigate how large-scale 3D printing and composite materials can be applied to vehicle production to reduce the design-to-manufacturing cycle time by 50 percent. It’s a project that could keep Knoxville on the cutting edge and help Local Motors discover manufacturing benefits that traditional companies cannot match.
“3D printing vehicles offers the world a way to reduce waste by using materials that are reusable and recyclable,” Keidel said. “This also offers more customization options without investing heavy amounts of capital to retool an entire factory. 3D printing as a manufacturing technique eliminates the need for an assembly line and long vehicle development times.”
While vehicle design offers a captivating case study in the potential of 3D printing on a large scale, the fact that this technology and these partnerships are being established in Knoxville could make the region a manufacturing leader well into the future and across any number of industries.
As the production landscape evolves more quickly than ever, it’s a good position for the city to be in.