Divergent 3D seeks to radically 'dematerialize' auto manufacturing with 3D-printing & microfactories
The company's Blade, the world's first 3D-printed supercar, has 1/3 the emissions of an electric car, requires 1/50 of the factory capital cost, and has twice the power-to-weight ratio of a Bugatti Veyron.
The former CEO and co-founder of Coda Automotive, Kevin Czinger, believes his new venture, Divergent 3D, has the ability to "revolutionize" auto manufacturing, by 'dematerializing' and democratizing the process, which could radically decrease not only the amount of pollution directly related to manufacturing, but also reduce the cost and amount of materials needed for each vehicle.
According to one of the authors of a study about the hidden costs of energy, the discussion about which kind of car is cleanest isn't as simple as it seems, and tends to gloss over one big factor, namely the impacts not directly related to operating it:
“Whether we are talking about a conventional gasoline-powered automobile, an electric vehicle, or a hybrid, most of the damages are actually coming from stages other than just the driving of the vehicle." - Maureen Cropper, professor of economics at the University of Maryland.
Auto manufacturing, and hence vehicles themselves, may be getting a bit cleaner overall, thanks to incremental improvements in supply chain management, plant operations efficiency, zero-landfill initiatives, the adoption of renewable energy sources, carbon offsets, yadda yadda yadda... And vehicles may be getting cleaner as well thanks to this same incremental process, through such improvements as increasing the efficiency of gas engines, reducing tailpipe emissions, lightening the weight of vehicles, and adding a hybrid electric drive component to (mostly) conventional vehicles.
The next big step in cleaning up vehicles appears to be coming from the sector of fully-electric vehicles (EVs), as they definitely avoid tailpipe emissions, although they are still predominantly reliant on fossil fuels for electricity generation (depending on where and when the electricity is produced), and EVs do require a substantial amount of resources and energy for manufacturing. Hybrids with higher fully-electric range may have the potential to reduce local tailpipe emissions, but with the added complexity (and related environmental footprint) of having to engineer, source, build, and repair two drive systems. And unfortunately, it seems that until battery technology hits the sweet spot for capacity, cost, and weight, the mass adoption of true EVs and high-range hybrids doesn't seem likely.
But there's another solution in the works from Divergent 3D, which uses aluminum 3D printing and carbon fiber to reimagine the manufacturing of vehicles from the inside out.
“Most people are unaware just how much environmental damage occurs as a result of auto manufacturing and its devastating impact on our health and nature around us. We are here to change that. We’ve created a platform that stands to revolutionize auto manufacturing as we know it.” - Kevin Czinger, founder & CEO, Divergent Microfactories
To showcase Divergent 3D's approach to manufacturing, the company used its technology to create Blade, which is described as the world's first 3D-printed supercar, and its frame is based on a unique 'Node' building block system which radically dematerializes the vehicle. In fact, its entire frame can fit into a dufflebag:
According to Divergent 3D, Blade has 1/3 of the emissions of an electric car, requires 1/50 the factory capital cost, twice the power-to-weight ratio of a Bugatti Veyron, weighs just 1,500 lb (contrasting the 4,700 lb of a Tesla Model S), and has just 50% of the lifecycle emissions of a standard car. It's powered by a (relatively) small 4-cylinder engine running on gasoline and compressed natural gas, which delivers some 700 hp and propels the Blade from 0 to 60 in 2.5 seconds, thanks to the car's incredibly light platform.
Of course, the Blade, cool as it is, isn't the company's true product, which is instead the manufacturing technology itself. By using the 3D-printing technique for the aluminum nodes in addition to the use of carbon fiber tubes to join them, Divergent 3D claims it's possible for car manufacturers to drastically reduce tooling and manufacturing costs, as well as cut development time and capital investment "by a factor of 20-50x relative to traditional methods," while also delivering lighter-weight (and hence more efficient) vehicles. These 3D Microfactories, which are said to cost about $4 million (compared to the hundreds of millions for a traditional car plant) may allow for a lot more diversity in auto manufacturing by lowering the financial bar to entry for startups and small-batch car makers.
"The key enabling technology we’ve developed is what we call a Node. A Node is a 3D-printed alloy connector that joins aerospace-grade carbon fiber tubing into standardized building objects. This simple tool can enable a small team to design and build car chassis that range from two-seat sports cars to pick-up trucks. Just like with ARDUINO, the Node hides its underlying complexity behind a simple, easy-to-use interface." - Kevin Czinger
Google’s Solve for X community thinks Divergent 3D is on to something good, and has awarded it "Moonshot" status (the first and only vehicle manufacturer on the Moonshot list), not just for its vehicle manufacturing implications, but for dematerializing other manufacturing processes as well.
"Divergent’s technology, though first applied to automotive, has broad-reaching implications for many types of manufacturing. Industrial strength complex structures are ubiquitous in modern manufacturing, from trucks to ocean ships to airplanes. Any industry that requires a light, strong, and rigid structure can benefit from our technology. Divergent aims to make manufacturing lighter and more nimble, and ease the burden on our planet."
And like so many software-based processes, it's possible to make changes in vehicle production by changing the software, allowing for a much more flexible manufacturing operation, so that "the same machine can print both a sports car and a minivan." According to this piece from Mark Harris, Czinger says his company's process creates structures that "can be very quickly assembled in a modular way to build anything from a two-seater to a pick-up truck… and do it at fraction of the capital cost of what hard metal tooling and stamping require.”
I'm not an auto manufacturing expert, and I've never even played one on TV, so I'll let the lifecycle analysis experts argue it out in the comments, but if you're interested in learning more about the environmental impacts of Divergent's alternative manufacturing process, there is a series of posts about it on its website.