Sustainable transport and the electric future

Moving the world across to sustainable transport was never going to be easy, but that's exactly what several companies are now attempting to do. What's more, several are finding success.

Such a mammoth undertaking requires a slightly different approach to design and manufacturing, especially for the smaller and largely unproven manufacturers entering the market.

While it's true a number of professionals are abiding by traditional methods, using detailed design documents as a base before moving onto clay modelling, other, more forward-thinking manufacturers are turning to 21st-century design practices. That is to say, technologies including the latest generation of computer-aided design (CAD) software.

Looking local

One manufacturer in the US, Local Motors, has decided that one of the better ways to create an electric vehicle is by ditching the traditional assembly line. That is to say, the process of large assembly machines piecing together the various electrical components and body panels.

Instead, the small company, creating vehicles in Detroit, creates cars entirely using computer-aided design tools. Designers work to build comprehensive 3D models, which allow for extensive iteration. When using software like SOLIDWORKS, for example, designers can test how vehicles will react to certain temperatures and pressures.

Finished 3D vehicle models are then sent for printing on a large scale, a process that's carried out in collaboration with Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.

While the current iteration of vehicle took just over four months to build, according to The Guardian, eventually, future models could be built in as little as six weeks. The printing itself could take 24 hours. Compared to the month-long processes for many cars currently on the road, it's a significant evolution.

So how would this work? Instead of the current assembly machines found in manufacturing plants across the globe, large-scale 3D printers could build entire cars in a matter of hours. A factory full of these printers could produce hundreds of vehicles every week.

When contrasted with the traditional method of designing and building a car, it's clear that Local Motors could be onto something with the potential to save both significant time and money during development and manufacturing. This combination of CAD software, along with 3D printing, could eventually pave the way for other companies to follow.

According to Popular Mechanics, the company has already shown the approach to original-equipment manufacturers. Local Motors CEO Jay Rogers explained to Popular Mechanics that "One of [The OEMs] said, 'This would be great for prototyping,' ". Rogers then said "Forget prototyping! This is how you make the car!"

Interestingly, it was this idea that led to Popular Mechanics awarding Local Motors with a Breakthrough Award. There's a good chance this could be the first of many.

In a matter of years, people could be hopping into new 3D printed vehicles tailored exactly to their specifications.

Open source innovation and reducing development time

Across the globe, the slow electrification of the automotive industry continues. While the number of available models is small, consumers are slowly starting to realise the benefits of clean and powerful electric vehicles.

CAD software and tools such as 3D printing will certainly continue to play a crucial role in the development of future electric vehicles, and across the manufacturing industry as a whole, but other measures will prove equally beneficial.

In an effort to push the development of the electric car market, Tesla Motors announced in 2014 that "All Our Patent Are Belong To You". Basically, the company decided to release every Tesla Motors patent in the spirit of open source innovation. For those in need of a refresher, the patent system is often seen as an inhibitor of innovation, as large companies essentially hold huge libraries of designs and methods close to the chest, preventing other businesses from building on past work.

This means other automobile manufacturers will now be able to take advantage of the developments made at Tesla, in order to better their own electric car offerings. Given the collaborative nature of new CAD software offerings like SOLIDWORKS, it's not hard to see how professionals and manufacturers alike could easily share designs for components and related systems with ease.

In order to reduce development time, electric car makers will also be able to learn from Local Motors and Tesla and take advantage of some of the other benefits of 3D prototyping. As noted above, simulation can help designers and engineers to identify design flaws before a product is assembled in any capacity. Such technology can prove especially useful during aerodynamic testing, where multiple designs can be put together and tested in a short space of time.

Using powerful new CAD software throughout the design stages of projects will continue to rank as something organisations need to consider. Certainly, there's no avoiding the fact that using such tools can speed up the process and reduce the complexities associated with designing new products.