A machine the size of a single-car garage, a scrolling arm much like the paper printer on your desk scrolling back and forth, added successive layers of carbon fiber-infused plastic to build the vehicle up micron by micron, Crain's Detroit Business reported.
The vehicle, called the Strati with a top speed of 25 miles per hour, took 44 hours to print. An electric battery, motor, suspension and wheels were added to complete it.
It was an engineering marvel. Futurists at the time projected homes, cars, televisions and nearly all other durable products could be manufactured in this new, innovative form — additive manufacturing.
But like most shiny new inventions, the hype has subsided and four years later, 3D printed cars aren't much closer to mass production. Yet the industry is blossoming as it's moved further along the hype cycle from the peak of inflated expectations toward the plateau of productivity.
3D printing machines are nearly commonplace in manufacturing plants — at the 2019 Detroit auto show, Ford Motor Co. said it would begin using 3D manufactured parking brake brackets for the Ford Mustang GT500, auxiliary plugs for the F-150 Raptor and lever arm service parts for the Ford Focus — and it's building big business in metro Detroit.
EOS North America in Novi, a subsidiary of Germany's EOS Holding GmbH, manufactures and sells around 1,000 3D printing commercial manufacturing machines annually, a far cry from its meager beginnings 30 years ago.
"We were not an overnight success," said Glynn Fletcher, president of EOS North America.
"It took 20 years to sell the first 1,000 machines and another five years to sell the second 1,000. Now we've ridden the hype cycle and are selling more than that a year."
In 2015, EOS North America generated less than $40 million in sales. This year it's expected to top $150 million, Fletcher said. Globally, the company projects more than $400 million in 3D printing machine sales. It employs 200 in the US in Novi and locations in Austin, Texas.
"Three years ago we went through a slowdown period; additive manufacturing was exciting for a while then when the cycle didn't meet those lofty expectations, it hit a reality check," Fletcher said.
"Most of the early adopters moved on, but it's now penetrating mainstream manufacturers because it engages in design freedom and allows for functionality instead of designing for manufacturing processes."
3D printing, or additive manufacturing, is a relatively literal name for the process. An object — an engine part, chess piece, a car or whatever — is designed via software and is then manufactured by the 3D printing machine by adding layer-upon-layer of material. That material can be plastic, metal, concrete, etc. The process provides advantages over traditional manufacturing because it can create a functioning product in one piece, without the need to construct it from multiple parts. For example, a 3D-printed gas tank could be created without any metal forming or welding to put the two halves of the tank together.
Pleasant Ridge-based Fisher Unitech Inc. is a 3D-printing software provider and seller of printing machines and services. Its primary focus has been on training engineers on 3D-printing design software as the use of additive manufacturing becomes more mainstream.
The production process is becoming so affordable that even smaller manufacturers are using it, said CEO Matt Wise.
"We train about 2,000 engineers a year on how to use the software," Wise said.
"Then they figure out how to leverage it in their process. We are really working to make these small- and medium-sized companies more efficient to compete with the bigger players."
Wise said the company expects to sell 3D-printing machines in the next few years.
"We are seeing manufacturers taking on more 3D printing in end production," Wise said.
"Companies are used to producing one-off parts or prototypes with this process and are now finding ways to compete with it on a larger scale."
Fisher Unitech employs about 170 and is projected to generate more than $80 million in revenue this year. Its software suite costs between $3,000 and $100,000.
Aerospace has been a major adopter of the process, including Boeing, Honeywell and United Technologies Corp. Planes and rockets are made in much smaller volumes, thus allowing the slower process of 3D printing to not be as much of a concern as in automotive, which produces millions and millions of parts annually.
Fletcher said modern space programs are really driving growth because they can shirk past protocols and procedures required by manned missions.
"The designs are not confined by all the certifications and qualifications of the past because these spacecraft aren't carrying people," Fletcher said.
"Whether it's (NASA's) Jet Propulsion Lab or SpaceX, they are applying additive manufacturing very seriously these days."
For automotive manufacturers, adopting additive manufacturing has been slower than anticipated because completely altering manufacturing processes is costly, said Ray Huff, associate engineer at Fort Collins, Colorado-based additive-manufacturing consulting firm Wohlers Associates Inc.
"The automotive industry has been using additive manufacturing mainly for prototyping and some tooling for years, but it's taken a few years for the technology to mature. If they are forging parts, it's going to take time before they trust a new technology," Huff said.
"For the users, like General Motors or Chrysler, they have to find the business case. People are learning to adopt it as they figure out where it's cost efficient."
EOS' top machines can cost up to $2 million, for instance.
Still, the additive-manufacturing industry is expected to grow leaps and bounds. The industry grew by 33.5 percent between 2017 and 2018 to nearly $10 billion, according to Wohlers Report 2019.
The global industry is expected to reach nearly $40 billion by 2027, according to a March report from Reports and Data.
The industry is expected to disrupt several manufacturing mainstays — polymers, casting and traditional machining. Those industries total nearly $400 billion in annual revenues and Fletcher believes additive manufacturing can carve out 20 percent of those markets. That leaves companies like EOS with tremendous room to grow.
"I see no signs of it slowing down," Fletcher said.
"We're planning for a 10-times gain, not 10 percent. To some extent, we're getting a bit ahead of the game, but we're putting in the production capabilities to allow us to scale."