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3-D printed car factory planned at National Harbor

The folks building National Harbor on the Potomac River figure it's a fine place to shop, work, eat out, gamble, stay a few nights, ride a Ferris wheel, and — manufacture cars.

Yes, at least as cars might be made in the 21st century, creating plastic-body vehicles using 3-D printing. Local Motors, an Arizona-based company, plans to open an operation including showroom and factory at National Harbor, just south of Washington, to produce the first 3-D printed cars by next year.

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"We wanted to be in a big city, and D.C. was a natural choice," said Lee Herge, chief operating officer for Local Motors, with operations in four states and ambitious plans to build 100 "microfactories" across the world in the next 10 years.

Established in 2007, Local Motors uses conventional methods to make a motorcycle, scooter and motorized bicycle, as well as a custom off-road/on-road car called a Rally Fighter with 430 horsepower that sells for $100,000. Last week, the company made headlines at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit by unveiling a demonstration model of its next venture: 3-D printed cars.

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While a roofless, doorless model called a Strati — more of a glorified golf cart than a car — isn't road-ready, the company intends to create the first 3-D printed cars approved by the federal government for general highway driving.

Herge said he thought National Harbor, a convention center resort where Maryland's sixth casino is to open next year, made sense for a microfactory because it draws millions of visitors a year.

The Peterson Cos., which is developing National Harbor — a 350-acre complex of hotels, restaurants, stores, offices, 180-foot-tall Ferris wheel, and eventually the MGM Resorts International casino — also has become Local Motors' third largest investor, said Jon Peterson, a principal in the developer.

"We're constantly out looking for one-of-a-kind uses in the market," Peterson said of bringing Local Motors to National Harbor.

The National Harbor operation would be housed in a 50,000-square-foot space including a showroom, public space where people can work on car or car accessory designs, and the microfactory equipped with four large printers and four routing machines used for refining plastic parts, Herge said. The project is expected to be completed by late this year, with the first cars to be produced in the next 12-18 months.

With about 100 employees, the whole operation would be smaller than most Target stores and fit inside many contemporary auto assembly plants nearly 40 times. It also would turn out far fewer cars: 3,000 a year, as opposed to 150,000 at the Volkwagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Jan Baum, director of 3D Maryland, the Howard County-based advocate for developing 3-D technology in the state, said Local Motors' decision affirms Maryland as a 3-D center.

"I think it bodes very well for Maryland and the region," said Baum. "I think it's super exciting," she said, adding that she hopes Local Motors' presence in Maryland will spur further innovation.

The body, chassis, dashboard and seats of the demonstration model Strati displayed last week are made of ABS plastic — the same stuff used to make Legos — infused wth carbon fiber for strength.

Once printed, the body is finished with the router, then fitted with metal parts including springs, struts, lights, battery and electric motor.

From melted plastic pellets to finished vehicle, with just 49 separate parts, as opposed to about 25,000 for a conventional car, the Strati takes less than 48 hours to make. It is not being developed for road driving, said Local Motors spokeswoman Kate Hartley.

A road-ready 3-D car is next, to be produced at National Harbor and elsewhere. The project is in its very ealry stages, Herge said.

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The new project will begin with a public challenge to help choose the car design, in keeping with Local Motors' collaborative ethic, including crowd-sourcing design ideas. The challenge won't launch for another four to six weeks, Herge said, but the company is looking for something along the lines of Ford Focus or Honda Civic.

Local Motors' goal is to have the first cars approved for all road driving by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and ready to be sold by 2016. Herge said the company hopes to cut production time for each down to 12 hours and sell them for between $18,000 and $30,000, depending in part on the type of motor.

Terry Wohlers, president of the consulting firm Wohlers Associates, which follows the 3-D printing industry, said big car companies have used 3-D printing extensively for decades in designing cars, but he does not envision a mass market for printed cars anytime soon, as it would be too expensive.

For "limited edition type products it makes a lot of sense," he said.

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