Industry

Local Motors: Building a community, and cars, in the cloud

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(Photo: Local Motors)

A new kind of car manufacturer relies on the cloud to keep its virtual community of designers in sync

If you’ve heard of Local Motors, it may be because of an audacious stunt the company pulled at Detroit’s North American International Auto Show in January, using a giant 3-D printer to print a car called the Strati right on the show floor. But what really sets Phoenix-based Local Motors apart is its crowdsourced approach to designing street-legal automobiles specifically tailored to niche markets. Its best-known car, the Rally Fighter, is an off-road and racing machine that looks a bit like Mad Max’s very own Camaro.

Local Motors’ approach to crowdsourcing goes much deeper than simply polling people about ideas for new features or even raising money on a site such as Kickstarter. Local Motors uses cloud-based technology to host a community of designers, engineers, fabricators, and enthusiasts who collaborate to design Local Motors’ vehicles. Local Motors regularly posts design challenges on its web site, and community members work together or separately, often on Local Motors’ own platform, to devise creative solutions. Community members then vet each others’ ideas, and Local Motors gives payment and full credit to those whose brainstorms are incorporated into the final products. The Strati, for example, is based on a design by Michele Anoé of Italy; in return Anoé received $5,000 and a ticket to the Detroit auto show.

Before the development of the cloud, says Alex Fiechter, Local Motors’ head of product development, “You could have got together a decentralized global team and mucked your way through product development, but you would have had people coordinating online, the going off into their individual silos to create something, and then coming online again to report back. It would have been a very staccato experience.” And not at all what Local Motors has built, where community members collaborate on designs and get feedback “on a very tight basis,” says Fiechter.

Making Design Fun

While some of the cash prizes are substantial – a recent challenge to build a lightweight car carried a grand prize of $60,000 – Fiechter says that most of Local Motors’ community members participate simply because it’s fun. That means the user experience has to be as straightforward as possible, and must minimize the chances that a community member encounters technical glitches. “If we’re doing a lot of work with this decentralized workforce, and they’re participating in this virtual space, we need to lightweight the experience for them, so they can get excited about the really core stuff,” says Fiechter.

Local Motors’ cloud-based platform enables the company to make all sorts of digital assets, such as CAD files, available to its community members, and also to track progress in all time zones in all types of formats. There’s an emphasis on visualizations, which means 2-D pictures appear in galleries on the site, 3-D models are available as CAD files, and the site has full markup functionality. “You’re able to pull up a CAD file and measure it on the spot,” says Fiechter.

Other times, a member might want to validate someone else’s CAD model. “You don’t need to download, translate, and use your own authoring platform,” says Fiecther. Instead, it all happens in the cloud. Local Motors is even talking with a cloud services provider that would allow CAD access to community members who don’t currently have a CAD license on a local machine. That will be a boon to members who might have CAD licenses at work, for instance, but not on their personal computers.

There is more collaboration coming. Another cloud services provider (again, Fiechter won’t name it) is working on a tool that would let multiple engineers work on the same CAD file at the same time. That would be useful not only in preventing engineers from stepping on each others’ toes, but in allowing engineers to better coordinate, and to finish models faster. “That going to be happening this year,” says an enthusiastic Fiechter. “The progress is huge.”

A Better 3-D Print

Local Motors has also signed on as the first large-scale industrial partner of Spark, Autodesk’s cloud-based collaboration platform. As with many of its other technology and product development partners, Local Motors tries to get involved early so that it can have some influence on the tools’ development, and hopefully add some value.

Fiechter believes Spark’s work in print optimization will be especially useful to Local Motors. “Contrary to popular belief, you can’t just make any shape you want in CAD and expect the 3-D printer will pop it out Star-Trek style, and everything will be hunky-dory,” he says.

As an example, Fiechter says it’s easy enough to 3-D print a straight vertical wall, but shapes with more overhang are tougher for some printers to handle. “There’s a particular degree at which you’d be extruding plastic and it would droop and not come out right,” he says. A cloud-based tool being developed by Spark would analyze the model and automatically indicate the danger zones. “It could be really helpful to have something like that looking over your shoulder,” says Fiechter.

Fiechter also points out that engineers often have relatively little control over how 3-D printers form the inside of a seemingly solid object, an issue he expects Spark to address. With many 3-D printed forms, “The skin might be solid, but the inside might be more of a honeycomb,” he says. “More people are realizing it’s advantageous to have control of what shapes are within that build,” especially when the pieces are being used for structural support.  Fiechter is looking forward to seeing how Autodesk and Spark will tackle that issue, and to seeing where a virtual community of designers, powered by technology that didn’t exist only a few years ago, will take Local Motors next.

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