The production of our cars will undergo enormous changes in the future. This was proved by the EDAG study "Genesis" at the beginning of 2014. The prospect of of using additive manufacturing to "print out" not just individual parts but also complete vehicles according to requirements and taste is now becoming a very real possibility, and offers unthought of potential for the construction of lighter and better cars.
Attention does, of course, focus initially on production: the new manufacturing processes are the gateway to a world of ideas that will bring with it a great many challenges. Logistics, for instance: what changes will occur there when suddenly there is no longer any need to transport parts, as they are now being produced on-site? What will the future of suppliers look like when products and spare parts are no longer manufactured in factories, but instead in the shop itself? And what happens to copyrights when the goods being traded are no longer actual products but the file that serves as the basis for printing? Although these are future questions, they still need to be answered. The present, however, shows that this future is not improbable: low-cost 3D printers are already available for home use, and large mail order companies already offer print shop services for people's own product ideas. But not cars just yet. On the other hand, who would have thought just a year ago that it would be possible to print out individual jewellery or soles for hi-tec sneakers adjusted to fit your own feet?
Not only in production, however, does additive manufacturing open up new ways of increasing efficiency. The styling and design of products, automobiles in particular, will undergo dramatic changes in the future. One thing is clear: if cars can literally be "printed out", then there will no longer be any call for metal drawing tools and dies. The restrictions imposed on design by classic manufacturing methods will no longer count. Suddenly, it will be simple to create the most complex of shapes - there can be a complete rethink on the stability and lightweight qualities of cars. And what could be more appropriate than to turn here to forms and designs that have stood the test of millions of years?
Even though bionics - the application of biological principles to engineering - is not a new design principle, it was still not possible to put it to unlimited use in the past: free though nature may be, technology has always had its limits. Of course Leonardo Da Vinci applied the principle of a bird's flight to machinery, and tongs were of course inspired by a crab's claws, as were suction cups by the octopus and Velcro fastenings by the burr. But whereas it was previously only possible to take a principle and translate it into engineering, today's additive manufacturing means and methods make it possible to take entire structures and use them. The EDAG Genesis is proof that this can be done.
"At the very beginning, we had to justify our decision to take a ponderous turtle as the basis of an idea for a car," explains Johannes Barckmann, chief designer and bionics innovator at EDAG. "Under water, turtles are skilled swimmers, but on land they are not the fastest of creatures. But what really persuaded us to take the turtle's shell as the inspiration for Genesis was the simple fact that what we are talking about here is a kind of passenger safety that nature has perfected over the course of millions of years. No engineer could come up with an idea like that!"
Barckmann sees Genesis and the subject of bionics as the start of a new design philosophy at EDAG, one which thinks of lightweight construction and safety in completely new dimensions and, thanks to the almost unlimited chances offered by additive manufacturing, is able to implement them. "Not just production, but also the development process will undergo lasting changes," comments Barckmann. "Having said that, the way forward still needs to be paved." One stumbling block is a lack of interdisciplinary communication. Bionics is after all not not just some pointless inspiration, but a field of design that calls for the systematic recognition of suitable solutions. "The bionics scientist sees a leaf on a tree, sees the structure of the leaf and gives it some thought. But it takes a completely different angle to be able to take this and apply it to engineering. Just because somebody is an engineer doesn't mean they think in terms of bionics." This means that the literally endless possibilities of taking nature and applying it to technology must be recognised and then researched - not just by engineers and designers, but also by scientists, architects and, last but not least, philosophers.
A further challenge - and this might be hard to believe - is the software. "Due to the fact that is has so far never been necessary to apply Nature's structures to a classic CAD environment, and that the production processes previously used were also incapable of handling this kind of data, there is no software that can be used for bionic development. Although models can be made, it is not yet possible to reproduce load cases. However, I am sure that this is just a question of time."
Barckmann merely implies that EDAG has already made advances here. "Of course we want to follow up the idea behind Genesis at the 2015 Geneva Show. No matter how good the idea of the turtle might be, there is no point in thinking about armour plating when the subject we really want to push is lightweight construction. If everything goes to plan, then in 2015 we will be able to offer not just an outlook, but measurable results to demonstrate how it really is possible to achieve considerable savings of resources by applying bionic design. More than that I cannot say right now." Whether or not the EDAG developers are working with leaves rather that turtle shells is nothing more than speculation at the moment. What is clear is that, like Genesis, it will be a small (r)evolution which will (once again) move the world.