In Stratasys’ RedEye 3-D printing factory in Eden Prairie, computers read the design software and “printed” each car part layer by layer.
Updated: November 9, 2013 - 4:35 PM
Kor Ecologic Inc. founder Jim Kor has been described as a shaggy introvert and hermit.
Yet this Winnipeg engineer is out to change the world with the Urbee, a unique hybrid vehicle that dares to be plastic, can zip across the country on 10 gallons of fuel and is manufactured using a sophisticated 3-D printer.
“We want to create the greenest car on Earth,” said Kor, who designs tractors and city buses for mass production.
Kor snatched the idea from nature. The Urbee, an electric vehicle with ethanol backup, needed to be light and strong like a falcon and fast like a cheetah. But making this happen took a special 3-D printing technology to deliver strength and speed at a low weight.
By late 2011, Kor and his team had designed their dream. They built the car’s body in Stratasys’ RedEye 3-D printing factory in Eden Prairie.
Computers read the design software and “printed” each car part layer by layer. A plastic bumper was born, then a hood and so on. While 3-D printing has long been used to make gears, grilles, tools, parts and prototypes for other manufacturers, it had never been used to build the entire body of a car.
“It became the first car to have its body 3-D printed,” Kor said. “Now it’s the greenest practical car ever made. The Urbee uses eight times less energy than the average little car.”
Stratasys, the leader in the 3-D printing world, is thrilled about the vehicle’s possibilities. “Without 3-D printing you can’t make a car as efficient as this one,” said Stratasys spokesman Joe Hiemenz.
Traditional prototyping takes years of altering designs, tooling and materials. With 3-D printing, designers can tweak details on a computer and click the Print icon.
Once printed, the Urbee car parts were shipped and assembled back in Kor’s lab in Winnipeg. They were outfitted with two electric motors and a small ethanol engine. Today, the two-seater, three-wheeled Urbee is on tour. It’s in England this month, where science and car enthusiasts are going ga-ga over the vehicle.
“One day all cars will look like this. … I’d like to license two-and-a-half billion Urbees,” Kor said with a laugh, noting that there are only 1 billion cars in the world today. The goal is to commercialize his baby and to sell each one for about $16,000, the price of a Fiat 500. “We need a sustainable car like this. But it has to be low-priced and affordable,” Kor said.
Two weeks ago, Stratasys customer service supervisor Ashley Voigt hoisted a red Urbee bumper from one of Stratasys’ refrigerator-sized printing machines. “This one took a straight day and a half to make. We could have made it faster if we didn’t care how it looked,” Voight said. By taking the time to precisely lay each plastic fiber, she got a smooth high-resolution surface that looks like a finished part.
During an industry conference at Stratasys last month, Kor said he has already designed the Urbee 2. The first-generation Urbee gets 70 miles per gallon of fuel, while the Urbee 2 will get 120 to 290 miles per gallon.
But Kor first needs $3 million to convert drawings into reality. Fundraising started Oct. 30. If successful, production will begin in 2014 at Stratasys’ RedEye 3-D printing factory in Eden Prairie. A cross-country drive from New York to San Francisco is scheduled for 2015. On board will be Kor, his son and dog.
“We’ll start with a half-scale model car in 2014. Once we have that tested, we are only a month away from making the full-scale model,” Kor said. Because all the design components are in the computer, it doesn’t take long to scale up.
Hiemenz said Stratasys is excited by Urbee’s possibilities. “Jim is this long-haired and small-town guy with a great idea. This car can be charged from a garage outlet or with power from a solar panel kit attached to the car.”
The Urbee is one of the sexier outcomes of the 3-D printing revolution. Twenty years ago, 3-D plastic “printing” was a garage hobby. Now it’s a $2.2 billion industry enthusiastically embraced by General Electric, General Motors, UPS and by Minnesota-based firms such as GVL Poly, Proto Labs and Anderson-Crane.
“It took 20 years to make $1 billion. It only took five years to grow to $2.2 billion. We predict it will take three years to double again” and by 2021 will be a $10.8 billion industry, said Tim Caffrey, an industry consultant with Wohlers Associates.
With 18,000 customers, 1,600 employees and $470 million in estimated 2013 revenue, Stratasys is the industry leader. It makes commercial and personal 3-D printers, and has a string of “RedEye by Stratasys” factories that act as third-party contractors for other manufacturers.
“We call it the factory of the future,” said RedEye general manager Jim Bartel last month while leading Kor and others on a tour of the 92 machines that print products for customers around the country.
The odorless factory buzzed with a sound akin to an inkjet printer, but these machines dispensed plastic fibers, not ink. “This is literally printing on demand. So we call this our digital factory,” Bartel said. RedEye has facilities in the United States, Belgium, Turkey and Australia, and will soon open a medical equipment printing plant in Shanghai.
Stratasys CEO David Reis said the technology is ideal for quickly turning prototypes or parts for the likes of Kor Ecolgic and other manufacturers. Sales were $324 million in 2012. Reis just boosted his estimate for 2013 from $455 million to $470 million. Beyond that, he said the company is looking at printing metals. “We are in the process of evaluating metal, but if we do it, we would not do this on our own.”
As for Kor, he said “no thanks” to metal. For him, the beauty of the Urbee is its aerodynamic and lightweight structure. “We tried metal. We built a clay car. We scanned and simulated the aerodynamics,” Kor said.
In the end, the strong plastics proved best.
Dee DePass • 612-673-7725
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