Divergent 3D and PSA Group Overhaul Auto Manufacturing with 3D Printing
Michael Molitch-Hou posted on September 22, 2016 |

While an electric car may be touted as a key solution to the worsening global climate crisis, recent research indicates that the manufacturing of vehicles, electric or otherwise, may actually be an even greater contributor to climate change than the emissions of the autos themselves.

Rather than tackle the fuel used by everyday autos, Los Angeles startup Divergent 3D is looking to overhaul the entire manufacturing process with a modular, distributed form of production dubbed the Divergent Manufacturing Platform.

Divergent 3D isn’t the only one that believes in this idea. The startup recently received an investment from global R&D firm Altran before signing a partnership with the PSA Group—owners of Peugeot, Citroën and DS Automobiles—to develop modular cars together. ENGINEERING.com spoke with Divergent 3D CEO Kevin Czinger to learn what it takes to one-up Henry Ford and replace the assembly line with something greener, cleaner and fit for an increasingly intelligent and interconnected civilization of the 21st century.  

Unclean at Any Speed

In a 2009 report, National Academy of Sciences researchers analyzed the lifecycle of automobiles from material extraction to production and tailpipe emissions. The results indicated that, while electric vehicles (EVs) may not be responsible for direct greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions via tailpipe exhaust, other factors related to producing EVs put them on par with gas vehicles in terms of the overall effect on the planet. 

A chart depicting the amount of emissions associated with manufacturing and operating vehicles, including those from Divergent 3D on the far right. (Image courtesy of Divergent 3D.)
A chart depicting the amount of emissions associated with manufacturing and operating vehicles, including those from Divergent 3D on the far right. (Image courtesy of Divergent 3D.)

Not only are the materials for electric batteries sourced using ethically problematic labor practices, but the factories that produce them put out much more GHGs than the vehicles themselves. This doesn’t even take into account the effects of discarded lithium batteries on the surrounding environment. A 2013 IEEE Spectrum article titled “Unclean at Any Speed” provides a great breakdown of just how damaging electric vehicles can be for the environment.

Outside of environmental damage, manufacturing a car requires significant upfront capital investment to create metal tooling from which to mold parts. Once this investment has been secured, the vehicle design remains fixed, with each new car model requiring additional funding to create additional tooling.

In 2009, Czinger founded CODA Automotive, among the most recent generation of manufacturers to produce all-electric cars. The firm sold, in total, 117 EVs before eventually filing for bankruptcy in 2013. From startup to shutdown, Czinger learned that the auto industry suffers from a number of issues, from the high barrier to entry to design flexibility and environmental impact. Rather than simply replace the drivetrain and fuel of a vehicle, Czinger determined that the manufacturing process itself needed to be replaced.

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Divergent?

To address these issues, Czinger realized that vehicles would need to feature modular designs and lightweight materials. This led the CEO to fiber-reinforced plastics like carbon fiber, such as the carbon fiber tubes already used in the aerospace industry.

“As I was thinking through how to develop these modular structures,” Czinger said, “there were features that would be needed like alignment and self-fixturing and ways of bonding these materials that couldn’t be produced using traditional manufacturing methods. So, we started in 3D printing and that got us to think up some novel ideas about how to build modular structures without hard-metal tooling and stamping that allow you to connect these materials with a 3D-printed interface that we call a NODE.” 

A 3D-printed NODE aligns and self-fixtures carbon fiber rods for the chassis of Divergent 3D vehicles. (Image courtesy of Divergent 3D.)
A 3D-printed NODE aligns and self-fixtures carbon fiber rods for the chassis of Divergent 3D vehicles. (Image courtesy of Divergent 3D.)

Carbon fiber rods are then connected to one another with 3D-printed, metal NODEs, similar to how one might build an IKEA bedroom set. 3D printing proved to be the ideal process for fabricating NODEs, as the technology does not require the same high cost of metal tooling and simultaneously enables geometric freedom of design for custom vehicle structures. Divergent 3D partnered with SLM Solutions, now a part of GE Aviation, for its quad-laser direct metal laser sintering technology.

As such a modular design process for auto manufacturing had never been done before, Divergent 3D also had to develop software for connecting custom car design to a real-world structure. This software component allows Divergent 3D to optimize structures in terms of aerodynamics, materials and safety while connecting the design of a car to the carbon fiber rods and 3D-printed NODEs that will be used to construct the vehicle. 

The Blade features 3D-printed nodes and carbon fiber rods to create an ultra-lightweight chassis. (Image courtesy of Divergent 3D.)
The Blade features 3D-printed nodes and carbon fiber rods to create an ultra-lightweight chassis. (Image courtesy of Divergent 3D.)

As a proof of concept, Divergent 3D first created the Blade supercar, unveiled last year. Using lightweight, yet rigid, carbon fiber rods and 3D-printed NODEs, the Blade can go from 0 to 60 mph in 2.2 seconds, faster than a McLaren P1, with two times the power-to-weight ratio of a Bugatti Veyron. If the Blade wasn’t an ideal demonstrator for the Divergent Manufacturing Platform, then who knows what is.

Standardizing the Specialized

For such a unique approach to production to become feasible for vehicles that might be manufactured en masse and thrown onto public roadways, it was necessary for Divergent 3D to find an existing car company willing to take on this unique approach. The PSA Group proved to be just such a partner.

After demonstrating the validity and safety of the Divergent Manufacturing Platform to the PSA Group through extensive testing, the company jumped on board.

“You need to look at materials to see if laser sintering will allow you to have the kind of tensile and fatigue performance necessary for a vehicle that’s going to be out on the roads for more than a decade,” Czinger explained. “We’ve done lots and lots of material testing, database creation and structure testing and now we’re putting that all together. PSA asked us to replicate our test results for them, which we did at multiple levels, so that they can have confidence that [our process] would enable five-star crash-certifiable structure”.

Inside the Peugeot FRACTAL Concept Car from PSA Group. Over 80 percent of the interior surface is 3D printed. (Image courtesy of Peugeot.)
Inside the Peugeot FRACTAL Concept Car from PSA Group. Over 80 percent of the interior surface is 3D printed. (Image courtesy of Peugeot.)

Divergent 3D will first work with PSA Group to design and build a vehicle that will be thoroughly tested before the final model is ready for production, a process that Czinger anticipates will take approximately three years. Ultimately then, PSA Group will be able to produce ten to twenty thousand vehicles per year with the Divergent Manufacturing Platform.

By working with PSA, Divergent 3D will be able to standardize and certify its process, ultimately resulting in a model that can be replicated by other auto manufacturers, large and small. “The idea is that we’ll have a vehicle program that, say three years from now, is actually producing fully safety-certified vehicles in large volume,” Czinger said. “We hope that in three or four years, we’ll have validated the model by having worked with a handful of original equipment manufacturers and put cars out on the road, thus creating a standardized platform.”

The Divergent Evolution of Auto Design

Czinger pointed out that the upfront investment required to manufacture a car is extremely high, both for large companies and individual entrepreneurs. On top of that, tooling and stamping limits the speed of design.

“[Our] process does completely away with that,” Czinger explained. “Once you radically reduce the upfront capital costs, then, from a capital standpoint, there’s a much, much, much lower bar to entry. Basically, entrepreneurs in every major city in the world in five years should be able to afford the capital to go into business and do this, once the platform is standardized and validated.”

With the Divergent Manufacturing Platform, Czinger envisions an evolution of auto design similar to the divergent evolution described by Darwin when studying the Galapagos. Just as Darwin’s finch subspecies evolved independently in relationship to their respective microenvironments, Czinger believes that new vehicle designs will begin to emerge around the world. 

“Then you can create all kinds of super-efficient combinations,” Czinger said. “Somebody up in Washington state near the Grand Coulee Dam could have an enormous printer farm that just takes data from all over the United States and build structural connectors and ship them out. You have multiple designers in cities designing complex structures for cars, motorcycles, trucks, busses and other things.”

Divergent 3D already incorporates sensors into the design of its automobiles, but Czinger believes that data from throughout the lifecycle of a vehicle will be essential to speeding up design. From material sourcing and production to the life of the vehicle, this feedback will inform the next car that is designed and assembled. This will be particularly true as 3D printing technology develops.

For instance, the body of the Blade supercar was made from aluminum tooling. New, larger and more powerful metal 3D printers, however, will be able to fabricate custom molds for new auto bodies, while improved fiber-reinforced plastic 3D printing could print the bodies themselves. As artificial intelligence matures, design and material optimization could be automatically factored into new vehicle concepts as well.

Czinger added, “My belief is you’re going to have a replacement of an old technology base from the 20th century with a new technology base from the 21st century that combines the cloud processing with additive manufacturing and scalable, non–design-specific manufacturing using modular structures.”

Sustainable Manufacturing

While the ability to design and manufacture custom cars may be exciting in itself, no technology is valuable unless it contributes to the larger human project. With the Divergent Manufacturing Platform, Czinger believes his company can significantly reduce the carbon footprint of our species.

The CEO pointed out that, over the past 113 years, the world has produced about two billion cars and, based on current projections, we will triple that amount in less than half the amount of time so that four billion more cars will be made in 30 to 40 years. If that really is the case—barring an explosion in ride-sharing, automated mass transportation and city cars—Divergent 3D aims to reduce emissions related to the manufacturing process and the energy efficiency of the vehicles themselves.

In addition to removing the energy-intensive process of metal stamping and assembly lines, Divergent 3D can reduce the weight of a five-passenger sedan by over 50 percent and the number of parts by over 75 percent. This ultimately makes the vehicle that much more fuel efficient, regardless of the fuel it uses. 

As to whether or not that fuel should be electric, biofuel, gasoline or otherwise, Czinger said, “My own personal desire is that you should obviously minimize the amount of damage you do to the environment. We’re not a car company, and we’re not going to compete with car companies. We leave it up to the car company to choose what kind of drivetrain they’d like.”

As our global civilization evolves to become more sustainable and peaceful, there are a number of areas that will need to be reformed. Some groups may challenge the dependence of the global electric grid on air-polluting fossil fuel. Others might promote sustainable energy as a means of curtailing military conflicts over petroleum. Los Angeles–based Divergent 3D is focused on the way we make cars, but not just how to produce the next “it” vehicle. Divergent 3D wants to overhaul the auto industry completely in order to reduce its massive carbon footprint and possibly save the environment.

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