In anticipation of 3D Printing USA 2015, IDTechEx Technology Analyst, Rachel Gordon, interviewed the founder of Divergent Microfactories, Kevin Czinger, about his company and their 3D printed supercar, The Blade, which will be exhibited next week at the Santa Clara Convention Centre.
Image: Kevin Czinger in the Blade, which is built using 3D printed nodes
What inspired you to found Divergent Microfactories?
On co-founding Coda Automotive, I realized that the key enabling technology was the battery system. We entered into a battery design and manufacturing joint venture with China's largest lithium ion battery manufacturer, Lishen. The joint venture was called Coda Energy and is located in Tianjin, China. It was the auto battery "giga-factory" before the Tesla "giga-factory". In 2010, we opened that joint venture for production. Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke, high-level Chinese officials, and the world press was on hand for the opening. I thought we were changing the world for the better.
But that same year, the US National Academy of Sciences came out with an environmental lifecycle analysis on cars (see The Hidden Costs of Energy). It stated very clearly that the vast majority of a greenhouse gas impact of cars (hybrid, electric, or gas) comes from manufacturing, not tailpipe emissions. I then set out to create a company focused on the real issue in automobile environmental damage - manufacturing. Divergent dematerializes auto manufacturing, removing weight to create high performance and environmentally friendly vehicles.
Are you pleased with the worldwide media attention that your first automotive prototype, the Blade, has received?
The response from the press has been wonderfully strong and positive. We are on the cover of Popular Science for November 2015. Divergent's Blade resonates with the press - a beautiful vehicle, among the fastest in the world, that also has very low environmental impact. More than that, the mission of Divergent stokes a fire in a lot of people - fundamentally rework a manufacturing system that hasn't changed much in the first 115 years of the auto industry.
What are the main advantages of 3D printing in your business?
Automobile manufacturers are facing some very strong challenges. They have massive amounts of capital locked up both in factories and in vehicle platforms, and that capital is locked for up to a decade. Vehicles are also getting heavier, sometimes north of 5,000 pounds.
Divergent and its car manufacturing partners benefit in six major ways from 3D printing:
- Fast innovation cycles that enable new designs and responsiveness to consumers
- Reduced capital cost of an auto factory, by an order of magnitude
- Decreased cost of a vehicle
- Ability to build both lower- and higher-volume vehicles, with higher margins
- Higher vehicle performance due to lighter weight
- Ability to timely and economically comply with government regulations on greenhouse gas emissions
I understand that the nodes used in the car chassis are 3D printed. Which 3D printing technology do you use and why?
Yes, the nodes in our chassis are 3D printed using a Direct Metal Laser Sintering process. This process afforded us the best combination of material strength, flexibility, print speed, and cost.
Did you need to do any of your own development on 3D printers, or was the available technology good enough for your purposes?
We work with 3D printer manufacturing partners to advance the technology to fit our needs. Great strides have been made in DMLS technology in the last 2 years, and the pace of innovation is very fast.
What materials are they made from?
The nodes are made from an aluminium alloy in the DMLS process. We have tested various materials, done material characterization and work with our printer manufacturing partners on developing optimal materials.
Would you like to make more extensive use of 3D printing? If so, what is the limitation?
One of the biggest gains in light-weighting a car was for the chassis, so we are proud to have a 3D printing solution to one of the largest problems. We have 3D printed a number of other parts in the Blade, from steering components to intake covers. However, given the advantages of 3D printing we talked of earlier, we'd clearly like to use 3D printing in more and more parts. One of the biggest limitations is the print size - it will be a while before we can print the entire body of the car, or even some of the medium-sized panels. The other major limitation is the range of lightweight materials.
Have you had, or do you anticipate, any problems with regulations or qualification?
Safety certification is never easy. That said, my team and I created the first Chinese-manufactured vehicle homologated for use in the US. Certification takes work, but there are features incorporated into our development platform that enable safety compliance when using our node technology.
The media attention on 3D printing is mostly focussed on the Maker Movement, are you interested in collaborative design?
One of the goals of Divergent is to create a tool set that can be put in the hands of small, dedicated teams that want to build a vehicle. Similarly to Arduino, we are building a hardware and software library where pieces and parts can be combined in new ways.
What's the next step for your business?
There are three major steps for Divergent in the near term. As always for a startup, we are raising money to accelerate our operations given the highly positive media and industry responses. Two, we are advancing our node and related technologies, building a larger library of components. Three, we are working with major OEMs to develop partnerships to get widespread adoption of Divergent's technology, creating higher performance and lighter vehicles.
Do you have any plans for a commercially available vehicle?
We will build and sell a limited number of vehicles directly. The first set of vehicles will be based on the Blade design. Primarily, we are a technology development and licensing company, and will help other companies design and manufacture lightweight vehicles.
Do you ever plan to work on producing an electric vehicle?
Divergent is powertrain and fuel agnostic. The Blade is currently a bi-fuel vehicle that can run on CNG or gasoline. Our main goal is to create lighter vehicles. And that can be a hybrid or an all-electric vehicle.
What most excites you about speaking and exhibiting at 3D Printing USA?
Additive manufacturing is going to revolutionize the fundamental structures we live in and use every day. And it's only at the beginning of its influence on design and manufacturing. It's great to see all that energy come to one place. It can both radically reduce manufacturing's impact on our environment while maintaining or increasing a product's functionality and radically enable more people to be able to economically design and manufacture even complex industrial products.
Divergent Microfactories are exhibiting the Blade at IDTechEx Show! and Kevin Czinger will be giving a presentation on "Dematerializing Auto Manufacturing" at 3D Printing USA at Santa Clara Convention Centre, CA on Nov 18-19.