Since the beginning of 2016, Airbus has been working with an American vehicle technology company that could revolutionise manufacturing by finally fulfilling a long-held industry promise. This is the story of Local Motors, the first recipient of investment capital from Airbus’ Silicon Valley-based venture capital fund.
Small company, big impression
It’s June 2011. In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, President Barack Obama takes to the stage to speak at Carnegie Mellon University, one of the country’s top research facilities. He’s here to discuss the next generation of manufacturing. One of the cutting-edge pieces on display backstage caught his eye, Obama says – and he wasn’t the only one. He describes how a “small company in Arizona” had made a big impression on the Defense Department recently by designing and building the new combat support vehicle prototype on display in under four months. The company was called Local Motors.
“They solicited design ideas on their website, chose the best out of the 162 that it received, built and brought this new vehicle here ahead of schedule,” says Obama. No more multi-year lead times: this approach could revolutionise manufacturing, save “billions of dollars”, he adds, and make better products and services available more quickly.
Co-creation and engineering?
As endorsements go, they don’t come much more prestigious than the White House, and, since then, Local Motors’ star has continued to rise. The company has gone on to produce the world’s first 3D-printed electric car, the Strati, and collaborated with blue-chip names like Shell, General Electric and Siemens on a diverse range of projects, from mobility solutions to kitchen appliances. And now you can add Airbus to that list. The two have been working together since the beginning of 2016, with Local Motors the first recipient of investment capital from Airbus Ventures, the Group’s venture capital fund.
So how did a small American automotive business come to partner Europe’s largest aerospace company? “As we were looking for companies doing interesting things in 3D printing and manufacturing, they kept popping up,” explains Tim Dombrowski, Head of Airbus Ventures. “But why Local Motors really blew me away is what they’re doing with co-creation and engineering. It’s a promise that has been made in the industry for decades – that engineers will one day come together from around the world and collaborate on a product. And it’s hard to do. But you know what? They’ve nailed it.”
At the core of Local Motors’ approach is a global co-creation community spread across 130 countries and comprising over 50,000 professionals and hobbyist innovators. They can submit designs for new products to the company’s online platform, where they can discuss and enhance them with the Local Motors staff and other community members, before a winning design is selected and built. It’s this mutual desire to create the best idea together that takes co-creation beyond just crowdsourcing.
“To a certain extent, this has been done in software before, but not in engineering,” explains Local Motors co-founder and CEO Jay Rogers.
“It’s the culmination of a few factors: we’ve got widespread access to fast internet connections, powerful collaborative software, and a better understanding of liability and laws to protect and reward user-generated content. We’ve also now got the hardware to turn these ideas into reality – fast.”
The advantage of microfactories
The second key part to Local Motors’ approach is its ‘microfactory’ concept. This allows for the local creation and production of new vehicles based on concepts that fit the geographical location: so its Rally Fighter, a muscular off-road beast, is produced in the company’s base of Phoenix, Arizona; while in its new lab in Berlin, Local Motors is working on autonomous urban transport solutions. 3D printing is an important part of this concept: “It means we don’t need to invest significantly in tooling and it reduces the complexity of the product, which massively simplifies the supply chain,” says Rogers. Standard cars have more than 20,000 different components; the Strati has less than 50. The total time from design to prototype on the LM3D Swim, the follow-up 3D-printed vehicle to the Strati, was just over two months.
It’s precisely this kind of speed and agility that Airbus is hoping to inject into the aerospace sector. “We’re a car company at heart, but the passion and expertise of our community in areas like design, powertrains, aerodynamics – that’s synonymous with vehicles in general – land or air,” states Rogers, who served as a former US Marine, before attending Harvard Business School and then founding Local Motors. Proof can already be found in the Airbus Cargo Drone Challenge, the first co-creation project between Airbus Defence and Space and Local Motors that was launched in April. Based on the Group’s existing Quadcruiser hybrid concept, 423 participants from around the world have submitted their ideas for a commercial drone solution capable of carrying a small payload such as emergency medical supplies. A potential Airbus industrial programme awaits the winner, who will be announced in June.
Just the beginning
For Alejandro Gonzalez, Airbus Defence and Space project manager for the challenge, it’s an intriguing new approach. “I still get asked, ‘Why are we doing this? Don’t we have the expertise?’ But this isn’t about outsourcing Airbus key competences, it’s about opening the door to breathe in the fresh air outside and seeing what happens. The element of uncertainty when you open up the challenge to a worldwide community is incredibly exciting.”
As is the potential for the partnership between Airbus and Local Motors. Some of the capital invested by Airbus Ventures will go towards a microfactory in Germany used primarily for Airbus projects and dedicated to aerospace. “We’re looking at a number of things, from drones to motors and avionics,” says Rogers. “This is just the beginning. We won’t be satisfied until we’re making vehicles together and putting them into the commercial market.”
Open door policy: other companies that embrace co-creation
A leader in the field of open innovation, GE has run a number of open innovation challenges, ranging from a more effective reuse of water to the future of office lighting, wearable technology concepts and material use in onshore oil and gas production. It worked together with Local Motors to set up FirstBuild, a co-creation community that designs and builds next-generation home appliances.
The Samsung Strategy and Innovation Center works with entrepreneurs around the world, giving them access to both software and hardware in order to develop new solutions. Areas of focus include cloud infrastructure, digital health, the Internet of Things and smart lighting.
Much like Local Motors, LEGO Ideas invites fans to submit their own ideas for new LEGO sets, with community members able to vote and give feedback. Ideas with a certain amount of support are then reviewed with the potential to become new products. A percentage of the product’s sale goes to the innovator.
The Airbus Cargo Drone Challenge
Brief: Design a lightweight cargo drone based on the existing Airbus Quadcruiser concept
Submission period: 22 April – 22 May
Entries submitted: 423
First prize: $50,000, with potential to become part of Airbus’ industrial programme
Winner announced: At 2016 Farnborough International Airshow localmotors.com/dronechallenge
Check out our latest FORUM magazine issue and discover how Airbus is preparing the future of urban mobility transport.Read more