Can 3D Printing Give Us the Future Cars We Really Want?
Fabless manufacturing could save the auto industry from numbing uniformity.
One assumption popular among business thinkers is that cars are evolving to become software-defined and device-like. In the future, the thinking goes, vehicles will be differentiated not by mechanical characteristics, like powertrain and driving dynamics, but by “soft” traits like user interface and application design.
That’s where my car enthusiast friends tune out. Many of them would rather study pig viruses of the Junggar Basin than confront the technological convergence of hardware and software we’re hurtling toward. But what if there was a less-bleak forecast for digital disruption in the auto industry? What if it didn’t unfold like the smartphone revolution did, with hyper-mass production, homogeneity, and software engineers owning the user experience?
What if the future favored affordable, small-batch vehicles that defied mass homogenization? What if highly efficient, decentralized production allowed car companies to react more quickly to demand, spread out their production facilities regionally, increase profit margins, and meet sustainability goals, all without high setup costs like tooling? Most importantly, what if automakers could pull off digital convergence and still build cool shit? To quote actor Martin Landau in Entourage, “Is that something you might be interested in?”
It’s the promise of building cars with the Ctrl + P command. That is, using additive manufacturing, which has become the umbrella term in heavy industry for technologies like 3D printing that can deliver a digital model in solid, three-dimensional form.
It’s a massive leap from the current car-building method, which requires automakers to make large, upfront investments in setting up factories to produce a particular model, with an additional outlay for any mid-cycle changes. Those costs must be recouped over a car’s production life before a company registers profits. Naturally, all of the automakers’ product decisions pivot on making the most of this massively resource-intensive, competitive, and margin-squeezed business.
Microchip companies like NVIDIA and Qualcomm use a model called fabless manufacturing; they design, engineer, and own the IP of their semiconductors, but outsource the fabrication to specialist manufacturers. Outsourced production isn’t new to the auto industry—Porsche, for example, once handed over the assembly of the Boxster to Finnish production company Valmet, and the new Toyota Supra and BMW Z4 are built at Magna Steyr's Graz plant in Austria—but a few people both inside and outside the industry are looking forward to a day when an end-to-end digital process, including additive manufacturing and 3D printing, will extend game-changing flexibility to vehicle production at scale.
Of course, the hurdle for additive manufacturing—and a monumental one at that—is to build cars in the quantity the auto industry demands. There are other challenges as well; we’ve already gotten a sobering taste of how concentrating microchip fabrication in a single region can bungle the supply chain and jam a wrench into the world’s economies. How might automakers avoid a similar fate?
Kevin Czinger is one of those forward-looking people working to solve the auto industry’s fabless-production puzzle. Czinger is CEO of Divergent 3D, an additive-manufacturing startup that landed $160 million in a Series C round of funding this past April, as well as Czinger Vehicles, maker of the 21C hybrid hypercar, built using 3D-printing technology and, Czinger says, a full digital production system. In effect, it’s a showcase of Divergent’s technology, and of the auto-manufacturing business model its technology could unlock, operating under the same roof.
The Czinger 21C, which recently ran at Goodwood Festival of Speed, is a full-on hypercar in the realm of the McLaren Senna and Mercedes-AMG Project One. Powered by a 2.9-liter, flat-plane-crank, twin-turbo V8 producing 900 horsepower, and electric motors generating 300 horsepower to the front wheels, the 21C has in-line seating for two, like a fighter jet, and an aero package that generates, in its highest-drag configuration, 5,626 pounds of downforce at 200 mph. Czinger says it can get from zero to 186 mph in 8.5 seconds, 3.6 seconds quicker than a Bugatti Chiron Super Sport.
Its specs and the blistering, record-setting laps it ran at Laguna Seca and Circuit of the Americas, are only part of the 21C’s story. It is largely 3D-printed, with engineers using AI to generate component designs that minimize weight while retaining strength. Many of its parts have wild, organic shapes that would have been impossible to produce using traditional processes.
The 21C is the first expression of Czinger’s expanding vision for auto manufacturing that upends the current process, which has remained the same fundamentally for more than a century. Naturally, changing the course of the auto industry is more than just disruption—it may require a complete teardown and rebuild—and, just to keep things interesting, we’re talking about some of the largest, most powerful corporations on the planet.
They’re also companies under pressure from Wall Street to reform their smokestack-era business models. Still, these companies are very good at building cars, and would prefer to evolve the $2.7 trillion auto business at their own pace.
Nonetheless, automakers are beset on all sides, with a new challenge emerging from consumer brands, like Sony, Apple, and Chinese search engine giant Baidu, who want in on those trillions. Czinger says some OEMs have begun implementing his company’s additive manufacturing tech in the course of vehicle production, and Divergent 3D has gathered hundreds of millions of dollars to try and prove it can integrate even deeper into the process. Its goal is to make automotive R&D, design, and manufacturing a fully digital enterprise.
The following are excerpts of my conversations with Czinger, in which we talked about his companies, his admiration for aircraft engineer Clarence “Kelly” Johnson (head of Lockheed’s famed “Skunk Works,” which built the remarkable SR-71 Blackbird), his ability to get big stuff done quickly, and the next steps in the future of the auto industry as he envisions it.
Mike Spinelli: Last time I visited [the Czinger and Divergent 3D HQ], you gave me a copy of the autobiography of Kelly Johnson. I keep going back to his 14 principles. It's incredible how a management style—or an organizational framework; whatever you want to call it—can deliver such a range of innovations as Lockheed’s Skunk Works did in such short development periods during the Cold War. It seems like the innovation wasn’t just in the aircraft, it was also in the principles themselves. You could see the mind at work.
Kevin Czinger: That's 100 percent spot on. I think if you want to have a super creative, super productive organization, where you're moving at that speed (Skunk Works built the groundbreaking SR-71’s predecessor in 20 months — Mike.), the organizational structure that he innovated, it's fundamental.
It's based on any kind of biologic process you would look at for that kind of information flow. Time performance. One decision maker who everyone can come to, to make a decision or to reverse the decision, and that person makes the decision immediately and because you have production and testing right there; they see the results of it.
And that's the way you have the most direct communication, the most creative interaction of ideas, the quickest expression and iteration of what you're doing. And then feedback and decision making.
MS: If you could turn a knob and skip to the end of the cycle you're starting here with Czinger Vehicles and Divergent 3D, what will automotive production look like in the future you’re envisioning with additive manufacturing processes?
KC: There are three dimensions that you would look across: Volume evolution, architecture evolution, business model evolution.
The architecture at the start is an existing vehicle architecture. You're replacing a structure, say a frame structure or a suspension structure, right? So volume today, hundreds to single-digit thousands by 2025. Volume scales to all segments by 2030.
Existing architecture, existing processes, where somebody is saying—or we're saying to them—you have an existing frame, say, or a suspension. We'll give you something that's higher performing and takes out 20 percent to 60 percent of the mass and allows quick iteration for a variance and you give us the attachment points, the design volume, the keepout zones, all of the load cases, we’ll generate and build that for you on your system.
Your risk is minimized because you can benchmark, apples to apples, against an existing structure all the way through crash [testing] and on-road durability, all of which we've already done with multiple OEMs now.
If you look at the frame that we're going to put out for a major OEM in September. In January, they had a design change, which ordinarily would have required a supplier to scrap tooling, and then it would have been eight to 12 months out and they would have bumped the program. So, we provided them with a newly designed rear frame, you know, in a week and a half.
From there, [it’s about replacing] existing architecture with a full digital system. That is, designing the way Apple designs microelectronics: multi-component, multi-material, functionally integrated structures, which obviously are much higher performing. You know, hydraulic lines, electronics—print all of those conduits into the structure itself. EV battery—cell housing, module housing, pack housing, direct cell-to-vehicle structure.
Then the third dimension is the business model. We'll set up the print assembly factory in the next two years. We’ll own and operate that. That will provide you with all of the design tools so that you can design your structure. I just had a major OEM say to me, “Can you just design the structure for us? I mean, you're going to know as much as we do. We're going to tell you what the product should be. You design it.”
In effect, you're going from super capital-intensive, capital raising to build new models, with new tooling and new factories with new fixturing, to a fabless design company. That is like Apple building a chip. They have a set of electronic design automation tools, and somebody else has the fab.
You're going from super capital intensive to zero capital—from somebody that can only do large volume to somebody whose volume is flexible, who can respond to market demand, who can respond to innovation changes into the market.
We've been working with one of the top five global OEMs by volume—different brands within it—for about five years. They get it. They understand it. We're starting in the hundreds of vehicles, but they see it they see that all of the technology works. Now it's a matter of execution that feeds into those different dimensions. Our business model is like Amazon Web Services, but for manufacturing infrastructure.
MS: The time frame for these phases, dimensions, is like now, then 2025, 2030 to reach scale, and then when’s the business model shift?
KC: I think these things will happen by 2030. I mean, it's pretty quick. It's pretty damn quick. When you asked about the business model, Czinger Vehicles is already there. When you look at free cash flow conversion, it is as good, if not better, than a luxury brand. If you took the free cash flow—most car companies have no free cash flow, right? It gets reinvested into capital equipment immediately. These will become like luxury goods cash-flow companies, instead of capital destruction companies, which have never made money on their cost of capital.
MS: But, you know, carmakers have become very good at building cars in this capital-intensive environment. This is the operating domain they’re accustomed to, right? Will OEMs on the positive side of the experience curve be able to adapt to a new model as quickly as your time frame suggests?
KC: I think that when people see two things: they see Czinger Vehicles and what it's able to do with a tiny fraction of the capital in a tiny fraction of the time and they see other major OEMs, starting in September, putting vehicles on the road using this technology. They're going to say how do we implement it?
Then I'm going to say to them, as a Tier One supplier, we'll do some replacement structure so you can understand it through all of your processes, where I minimize risk with a milestone-based invoice approach, and an apples-to-apples comparison. And then the next thing is to say, if you've qualified this, how do you apply it to vehicles yourself? Set up a separate digital manufacturing arm and allow it some autonomy to do this because it's not going to be using the same processes as the rest of the company. In the meantime, you know you have a heritage business you have to run, so run that as a heritage business. Yeah. And I think that's the way to do it.
But the reality is, the capital cost playing field and the experience curve playing field, those things will go away as barriers, or be minimized as barriers.
MS: How will it all work?
KC: Imagine there's a global network of adaptive manufacturing systems, which are iterating themselves, they're always current. They're always upgrading the data. You as a team, what you want, are the tools and the data. And if you can get the tools and data without a barrier to entry anywhere on the planet, as AWS (Amazon Web Services), for example, provides to people on the digital content software side, right?
Then you're going to see the same kind of innovation, untapped everywhere on the planet. And the auto industry may not be one company selling 500,000 of something. It may be companies that are localized, building for a local set of requirements.
The name Divergent itself was chosen because I looked at when Darwin first went to the Galapagos, he saw an ordinary finch go to 34 different niche environments and adapt. And if you're localized, you can adapt and you can then take that stream of materials and cycle it through that localized manufacturing system. You know, that to me, is the real future.
The real big idea that I'm after is diversity, diversity of ideas without a capital barrier, without a geographic barrier that allows people to put together a high-performing team anywhere in Toledo, Ohio, Toledo, Spain, Lagos, you know, in wherever Singapore, you know, and, you know, I don't know Kyoto, wherever there's a team, put that together and be able to express it as a product and see the see whether the market thinks it’s right. Yeah. I think that's the only way we kind of ascend to the next step, you know, as a civilization is if we're able to do that with the built environment (i.e., all of the physical components of society, cars, buildings, infrastructure, etc. — ed.) around us.
MS: That's fascinating because I hadn't thought about that kind of, I don't know if you would call it fragmentation or relocalization? Whatever, however, you want to think about it. What's that?
KC: Democratization. You go from like, vanilla ice cream to gelato in Italy and boba in China. All of a sudden, the built environment can start adapting itself. And you have a much more rich, diverse environment.
MS: Yes. So like, if there's a region that really wants an El Camino to exist in some way, just you build the El Camino?
KC: If there's demand, then you're sending data to the manufacturing node. You’re saying there's X demand. If demand turns to Y, then you change it to Y. You're not like, “No, we've got seven years of amortizing the, you know, Pontiac Aztek” or you're not having hundreds of thousands of vehicles parked in different places around the world because they've been produced but not sold.
Think about it. Twenty million of the same thing created by the same thing: That's not a world I want to live in. I want to live in a world where you're in something like an Alpine meadow, where every imaginable flora and fauna is cross-pollinating, living, you know, creating, changing, adapting, cycling materials. That's why the process itself that we're using is biologic as well. Obviously, it maximizes diversity through democratization.
For the tools of adaptation and innovation, closed-loop, recycle all of the materials and then make things super energy-efficient. So you're minimizing environmental impact through efficiency, the efficiency of manufacture and efficiency of operation of a much more efficient product.
MS: So, diversity of product, and hyper-efficiency of production, and lowering capital cost expenditures, and sustainability, that sounds like a Wizard of Oz thing. Like I don't know, I mean. It would be incredible to live in a world like that.
KC: The first step of it has already been done. Well, two things. You will see vehicles now entering the market starting in September, and you see a fully homologated vehicle that, you know, has an architecture that's fully optimized, you know, with a fabless production business model. That is Czinger Vehicles. Right? And so, you know, all I'd say is within a year you're going to see these things out as part of consumers’ built world.
And then, things can have a huge impact by starting to scale and be adopted, and I think those initial programs will be a huge catalyst for the OEMs coming to us. And, you know, Czinger vehicles will also be a catalyst where they'll look and say, if we're not that company in 10 years, we're not competitive. We're not competitive from a product architecture. We're not competitive from, you know, economic model. We're not competitive from manufacturing and operation that's based on circular economy principles. Of dematerialization and closed loop recycling of materials. You know, there's just the playing field’s completely changed and if we're not there, we're not on it. Period.
MS: One of the storylines we’ve been hearing about a lot is the software-defined car, that software will increasingly dictate a car’s defining characteristics. That sort of assumes the platform becomes almost homogenous. What you're saying is that, in this environment you're talking about, homogeneity is not a fait accompli.
KC: I mean, think about what you've been saying over the course of this conversation, which is you have large corporations with a certain type of organization. Right? You have them looking and saying, what can we market, what can we do? What we can do is software, talk about software, talk about these systems, and so we'll do that. None of that is fundamentally rethinking anything.
When you create diversity, where you're taking biologic adaptation over eons, and using high-performance computing and AI, guided by humans to vastly accelerate that diversity? And you democratize that diversity? So it's equal access anywhere on the planet to that data for diversification and innovation? That's a very different world. That's the world I believe we're actually going to get to.
Mike Spinelli has covered cars and car culture in print, online, and on family cable TV, which is as glamorous as premade pancake batter. Send him tips, comments, and story ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org.