Divergent Microfactories, a startup based in the Silicon Valley city of Palo Alto, California, plans to use 3D-printing technology to empower small companies with small budgets to build cars locally, without unduly taxing aging infrastructures or fragile ecosystems.
Chief executive Kevin Czinger points to a US National Academy of Sciences report indicating that more energy is used producing cars than driving them. With three billion vehicles expected to be cruising the planet in 2050, energy-intensive production practices are not sustainable, he argues.
“If we continue to manufacture the way we have been, we are going to destroy our health, our children’s health and the health of our planet,” he says.
Touting a new, leaner manufacturing process is a good way to enthrall an engineer, if not the public at large. Divergent has consequently applied its technique to build a single-seat super sports car. As a single-seater, its spec sheet reads like those of a Formula 1 racer: 700 horsepower and 1,400lb (635kg) weight, combining for a run – purely theoretical, mind – from zero to 60mph (100km/h) in less than two seconds.
The Blade’s curvaceous carbon-fibre bodywork is as genre-correct as the car’s claimed performance is shocking. Beneath it all is a tuned version of the gasoline four-cylinder screamer found in cult rally car the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution. However, in this application the engine runs on natural gas, which not only burns cleaner than petrol, but also could tread more lightly on the planet because it typically requires less extensive refining.
Czinger may score enthusiast points with the Evo engine choice, but he emphasises that the Blade is “powertrain agnostic”. Microfactory-built cars, then, could be propelled by any current or future power technology.
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The company’s aim is to spread the world about its low-cost, low-impact manufacturing technique and to license that know-how to would-be entrepreneurs. Meanwhile, Divergent expects to build small numbers of relatively expensive cars in the next 18 to 24 months to demonstrate the potential for the technology. Czinger declined to predict pricing or sales volume.
Divergent’s build technique differs from others in this space – particularly the open-source Local Motors – employs what the company describes as “nodes”. These are complex 3D-printed aluminium junctions that are connected by carbon-fibre tubes, like the wagon wheels and wood rods of Tinkertoys.
Lotus and Aston Martin use a similar construction technique, which allows the companies to build different-sized models by varying the length of the connecting tubes between the junctions.
But those companies use aluminium castings rather than 3D-printed junctions, Czinger notes. Some of Divergent’s printed parts would be impossible to craft with a traditional casting. These features improve the adhesive bond between the nodes and the carbon-fibre connecting tubes.
This is important, because we all remember the problem of too-loose connectors causing our Tinkertoy creations to fall apart.
The resulting chassis is lightweight, inexpensive and, importantly, requires no expensive tooling to assemble. Czinger says that models of different sizes and body styles will be able to retain 80% shared parts, helping keep costs down.
Further, because this chassis carries the car’s loads, the bodywork can be made of something cheap and lightweight, such as injection-moulded plastic, Czinger adds, further contributing to the car’s already lightened environmental footprint.
The picture grows more muddled under the hood. Despite Divergent’s distaste for heavy industry, foundries are still needed to cast engine blocks, transmission cases, brake calipers, brake rotors and other fundamental parts. So while the company can rightly claim advances in some manufactured parts, other bits must yet be made the traditional way.
It remains to be seen whether the Blade’s comely wrapping paper comes along for the ride.
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