Rapid advances are being made in the manufacture of vehicles using additive manufacturing, with the pace being set by a “Blade” supercar “printed” by Los Angeles-based Divergent 3D for the centerpiece of the 2015 Solid Conference.
The car was built using the company’s proprietary Divergent Manufacturing Platform™, which incorporates 3D printed connectors called NODEs™ that join standardized, lightweight materials to form a modular chassis structure. Modular chassis design and manufacture is incorporated into an end-to-end production system that can serve as the basis for a faster, smarter and greener way to manufacture vehicles at volume.
OEMs are taking note: In September 2016 the PSA Groupe (Peugeot, Citroen and DS brands), inked a long-term development agreement to implement Divergent 3D’s technology. Carlos Tavares, Chairman of the Managing Board PSA Groupe, said: “This has the potential to dramatically scale down the size and scope of our manufacturing footprint, reduce overall vehicle weight and build complexity, while also giving us almost limitless flexibility in design output.”
Another French company, Altran Group, also entered into a strategic partnership with Divergent 3D in September, as a preferred development partner. Altran is a global leader in engineering and R&D services. Dominique Cerutti, Chairman and CEO of the Altran Group, said “this alliance is fully aligned with our ‘Complete Vehicle’ strategy, completing the group’s know-how in prototyping, special engineering and development.” Automotive Industries (AI) asked Kevin Czinger, CEO and Founder of Divergent 3D, how additive manufacturing will revolutionize automotive manufacturing.
Czinger: If we successfully execute our initial vehicle programs we believe that the economic, product cycle, innovation and environmental benefits will be so dramatic that we will be able to drive large scale adoption of our production system by automakers. The Divergent Manufacturing Platform™ uses 3D metal printing to reduce the upfront capital cost required for hard metal tooling and stamping equipment (along with the associated factory costs) by up to 10 times.
The platform can produce a standard five-seat passenger car with a vehicle structure weight that’s 50% lower than conventionally-produced counterparts and reduce the number of parts per vehicle structure by over 75%. The compactness and efficiency of our platform also enables vehicle manufacturing to be localized and right-sized. Finally, our model for decentralized manufacturing frees up automakers to experiment with new designs and inject more creativity into vehicle design and production as well as respond more quickly to market demands and regulatory changes.
AI: Why is what you’re doing important for the greening of the whole automotive industry?
Czinger: According to the UN Environment Program, vehicle manufacturing has the most intensive adverse environmental impact of any industry in the world—that includes agriculture, coal mining and steel manufacturing. With the number of autos being manufactured expected to triple within the next 35 to 40 years, we aim to reduce those environmental impacts with our 3D printing approach by dramatically reducing the energy and raw material inputs conventional manufacturing requires.
And because our platform produces much lighter vehicles, they are significantly more fuel-efficient than conventionally-produced cars, regardless of whether the vehicle’s drivetrain uses fossil fuels or electricity. In short, our technology produces vehicles that meet a higher standard of sustainability, from the first step in their production to the last mile they drive, which is why we call it Planet-Saving Manufacturing™.
AI: Are we talking about microfactories?
Czinger: We are not focused on microfactories, but on a new production system that replaces the one-size-fits all scale and capital intensity of the current way of manufacturing. We are starting with lower volume vehicles, but believe our system can scale to high volumes with far less up-front capital and far more flexibility than the conventional systems to profitably build a wide range of different vehicles at whatever volume the market demand dictates.
AI: How flexible, cost effective and simple is the platform to use?
Czinger: Fundamentally, the current system “freezes” a design in machined hard metal tooling that is then used to stamp and weld together hundreds of pieces of sheet metal. Once the design is frozen in the tooling, changes cannot be made without a great expenditure of time and capital; and even if successful, the design can’t significantly change for 7-10 years because of the long period needed to pay back the massive capital invested.
We intend to replace that system with one where the design change is a data change and the manufacturing equipment – 3D metal printers – are capable of manufacturing almost any range of production designs. Non design-specific manufacturing is then coupled with assembly that is also non design-specific (requiring little or no refixturing or reprogramming of equipment and robots when different vehicle designs are manufactured). That production system should enable much more flexible and profitable manufacturing with far shorter product cycles and far more innovation.
AI: What does your partnership with PSA signify?
Czinger: PSA Groupe is on the cutting edge of automotive manufacturing technology. They are looking to a future where advances in 3D printing will radically change the industry. We believe that once PSA starts manufacturing cars using 3D printed parts, they will begin realizing enormous economic benefits almost immediately, which will in turn stimulate broader adoption of the technology and attract attention from other automakers. At the same time PSA will be able to demonstrate that they are taking steps towards reducing waste and meeting or even exceeding their ambitious sustainability goals, which include becoming the global leader in efficient automotive manufacturing.
AI: What will your partnership with Altran do to further the technologies Divergent 3D has developed in areas like automotive and aerospace?
Czinger: Altran is a global leader in engineering, research and design services (ER&D). They bring invaluable manufacturing contacts and expertise in the automotive industry and others, like aerospace, to the partnership. Their investment in our company will support efforts to accelerate implementation and licensing of our manufacturing technology platform across the industries. In addition to investing in Divergent 3D, Altran has signed on as our development partner—an important signal that our platform can produce vehicles that meet all the engineering and safety requirements for mass production and distribution. As we continue to work with Altran we intend to bring their extensive expertise to bear when it comes to making improvements to vehicle design and structure and solving engineering problems that are hindering manufacturing.
AI: What’s ahead for automotive manufacturing?
Czinger: The automotive industry is seeing a revolution. Fundamentally, the industry structure will move from scale and scope manufacturing defined by the constraints of very high capital intensity, to a much more creative design-driven business with far lower capital barriers and far faster product cycles and innovation. Software and hardware product cycles will begin to converge rather than having a time and capital chasm between them. Thanks to 3D manufacturing and a range of new technologies, we will see localized, smaller scale automotive manufacturing, with drastically smaller carbon footprints and expanded manufacturing operations. Because capital costs will be so much lower, look for new entrants — likely including the major technology companies — to join the automotive industry and myriad new car models to meet new demands from consumers. Why isn’t there a car designed just for mobility companies like Uber or to meet the specific needs of senior citizens? And we’ll see experimentation with a lot of different layouts for autonomous cars—enabling everything from work stations in the cars to “platoon” capabilities on highways to even providing sleeping accommodations like a rail car. Also, look for Machine Intelligence to get into the game to help us make smarter, faster and more creative design decisions and establish more efficient supply chains. We are building our platform to integrate Machine Intelligence technology or whatever else comes next into development, so carmakers can continue to run with the latest technological advancements in the industry. It is going to be fun and exciting.