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Opinion: 3D printing unlocks new possibilities in duplicating cars

By Tim Keen, 30 Dec 2018 Features

Opinion 3D printing unlocks new possibilities in duplicating cars feature

Imagine the possibilities of downloading a car. What a time to be alive

If you're of a certain vintage, you’ll remember that old “Piracy – it’s a crime” ad that said, “You wouldn’t steal a car”, and therefore you shouldn’t download that BitTorrent of Blade: Trinity. It always seemed a pretty wobbly piece of finger-wagging.

Calling it “piracy” made it seem glamorous and exciting – the ad came out only months after the first Jack Sparrow movie – and also that the guy stealing the old 1970s 280E in the ad actually looked pretty badass. But the point is, we’re finally ready to put that ad to the test.

Because pirating cars is suddenly possible. If you’re unlucky, you’ve seen a 3D-printed electric motorbike designed and produced by a German company called NOWlab.

It looks like a motorbike designed by a blind person who has not only never seen a motorbike, but hates everyone who has, and is trying to get back at them by making their eyes hurt. It is, as the Germans would say, hässlich, not to mention unschön and widerwärtig – or, in English, fugly. On a scale of Clive Palmer to Idris Elba, it is a solid Steve Buscemi. It’s all jagged shapes and jarring angles, mounted on a pair of honeycomb wheels with run-flat tyres. It’s awful.

But of course, there’s no real reason it has to look like that – it’s just the overwrought result of a NOWlab geek watching Akira while eating a tainted weisswurst.

If they wanted, they could 3D-print any sort of motorbike they wanted... as could you, if you had the AMF (Additive Manufacturing Format) file – the 3D computer model that the printer recreates. If you pirated it, even. Hell, there’s no reason they would have to limit themselves just to motorbikes.

Geek Speak: 3D printing car parts

Which quickly and inevitably turns the mind towards thoughts of 3D-printing one’s self an Aventador. It wouldn’t be the first entirely 3D-printed car. Local Motors, based in Arizona, USA, touted the 2015 Strati as the world’s first 3D-printed car, an ugly little thing that looked like the lovechild of a dune buggy and an electric shaver.

The difference is how fast 3D printing has evolved. The Strati looks like it was hacked out of plastic using a gardening fork: it has no smooth surfaces, just thousands of lines and ridges. It is, frankly, balls.

But just a few years later, material printing has taken some great strides, like a shoplifter in an RM Williams store. HRE Performance Wheels makes swanky rims for expensive cars in sun-baked Vista, California.

Well, HRE has unveiled the HRE3D+, which they are calling the world’s first 3D-printed titanium wheel. It is a thing of wonder: smooth, structurally impregnable, and since it requires vastly less metal than a Monoblok wheel (where each wheel is carved from a huge forged block, 80 per cent of which is removed as waste), it’s more efficient and (theoretically) cheaper to make.

So if you could get your hands on the AMF file of a car... well, there’s theoretically nothing stopping you from pirating yourself a new ride. Out of titanium! And just like when you’re looking for knock-off Chanel handbags or a social media network purged of pro-democracy commentary, China might be the answer.

Staggering amounts of counterfeit goods come out of China – $200b to $600b worth per year, according to the US Commission on Theft of American Intellectual Property. The US Trade Representative, Robert Lighthizer, says that Chinese telecom companies may be “hijack[ing] Internet traffic and direct[ing] it through Mainland Chinese servers for possible collection and analysis”, just for the purpose of copying intellectual property. So every time a designer in Sant’Agata, or Maranello, or Stuttgart, or Bowling Green, Kentucky, sends a CAD model to the factory… well, there’s a chance that data is being hoovered up in Beijing, ready to be sold on the dark web, to an amoral car-pirate who has always wanted a 911 GT3 RS made completely out of titanium.

But not me. Because I wouldn’t steal a movie. And besides, there’s no way I’d ever be able to bolt all the bloody pieces together.