Sometime later this year, a handful of deep-pocketed car enthusiasts will take long-awaited delivery of the Czinger 21C, a hybrid, all-wheel drive, 1,233-hp “hypercar” that is said to reach 62 mph in 1.9 seconds and a top speed of 253 mph in the time it took to read this paragraph. It’s damn fast—and, surprisingly, street legal.
It’s so fast, in fact, that Los Angeles area police departments are sure to make their speeding ticket quotas in late 2023 and beyond, as will any traffic cops patrolling the neighborhoods of the 80 automotive overachievers who’ve placed a deposit for the 21C.
Why L.A.? That’s the home of the car’s manufacturer, Czinger Vehicles Inc., and its parent company, Divergent 3D. The latter developed the Divergent Adaptive Production System (DAPS), which makes the 21C’s construction possible. Both were founded and are currently owned by inventor Kevin Czinger.
Karl Benz, Nikolaus Otto, Preston Tucker—given his current trajectory, it’s entirely likely that Czinger will one day join these and roughly 300 other industry pioneers whose names are on the walls of the Automotive Hall of Fame in Dearborn, Mich. And while he has good reason to be proud of his many motor vehicle achievements thus far, it’s also possible he might decline such an invitation. “On a global basis, automaking is easily the largest, most impactful industrial system ever devised,” Czinger cautions. “Unfortunately, it has yet to find a solution to offset the numerous environmental problems it has created.”
This Marine reservist, Yale Fellow and serial entrepreneur plans to change all that. While metal additive manufacturing (AM) plays a key role in his endeavor, there’s much more to this story than another “look what I can print” narrative.
“When I started this journey, my intent wasn’t about leveraging additive or any other manufacturing technology, but rather developing a clean sheet digital solution to a defined problem, one where you’re hitting a certain price point and can offer a compelling value proposition,” Czinger explains.
Granted, that “certain price point” is much higher than most of those reading this can afford, but here again, that’s not the story. Czinger and his dedicated team are breaking a sad, century-old stereotype that car manufacturers continue to embrace, despite the availability of novel technologies that promise to change everything about automaking.
What’s the stereotype? It’s called “tooling up,” a process that requires years of design and manufacturing effort, countless fixtures, molds and dies, endless miles of machine code to drive cutters through steel, fleets of robots to lay weld beads and paint body components, and thousands of trained workers to assemble it all.
It’s largely the amortization of this tooling and fixturing that drives car prices, Czinger notes, just as it does for any other mass-produced item. The key to more efficient manufacturing, then, is to make it as “toolless” as possible, shaving months and even years from development cycles while making the process infinitely more flexible, much less wasteful and, above all, good for the planet.
“It’s an industry where you have to spend tremendous amounts of capital upfront and must then sell very high volumes over a long period of time to attain payback,” he says. “Yes, automakers rely heavily on automation to reduce costs, and many are beginning to look at design optimization and additive manufacturing for prototyping and tooling development, but none of them have changed their fundamental approach.
“Until they step back, digitize their processes for material and energy efficiency, and take a hard look at the entire manufacturing process from a lifecycle assessment perspective,” Czinger continues, “the auto industry will continue to be one of the world’s primary drivers of greenhouse gases.”
How are they doing it? The first thing to know is that every component produced there is 3D-printed on a custom-built, metal laser-powder-bed-fusion (L-PBF) machine of his design, one that is “probably 30 times more productive than existing, commercially available solutions.”
Once printed, parts move to a laser and camera-equipped robotic assembly system that relies on tongue-and-groove joints and a proprietary quick-set epoxy rather than traditional welds. A massive five-axis Zimmerman bridge mill performs the finish machining that all metal AM parts require (although Czinger would argue it’s minimal in this application).
To generatively design, optimize, simulate and execute the many components used to build one of Czinger’s automobiles (which is still far less than in a traditional motor vehicle), Divergent has developed a comprehensive engineering and manufacturing software platform that takes parts from concept to delivery.
It took Czinger, his son Lukas and their 300 employees five-plus years and many millions of dollars to build a fully digital manufacturing system. And while it was clearly an impressive feat, you might be left wondering about the “planet-saving” statements on the company’s websites.
After all, it’s still a car. It still consumes massive amounts of energy and raw material (at least once it reaches production levels), and because Czinger doesn’t manufacture a powerplant, it begs the question: What makes DAPS and the 21C environmentally sustainable?
One big piece of the “green” puzzle should be evident. By eliminating reliance on the fixtures and other tooling described—tools that are dedicated to specific vehicle brands and models, and will at some point become waste—the process saves enormous amounts of raw material, energy and human effort.
It also brings to the table a virtue that only AM can provide. “We’re able to deliver a car that meets all of the industry’s crash and durability criteria in a fraction of the time needed for traditional automobile manufacturing and do so with a fraction of the part count,” Czinger asserts. “What’s more, the parts we produce have optimized topologies—for example, we’re able to integrate the brake caliper into the suspension upright, which cuts its mass almost in half.”
Drastically shorter development cycles, far fewer components, virtually no tooling—all of these check the boxes under the “environmentally friendly” column. So does the raw material used to print many of these parts, a proprietary aluminum alloy that Czinger is reluctant to share too many details about. What he will say is that it’s called Z301—a metal that boasts greater elongation, yield and tensile strength than the industry darling 6061-T6—and was developed specifically for the company’s own L-PBF process.
“In order to generate the desired print speeds, alloy microstructure and subsequent strength, we developed many of our materials in-house using machine learning,” Czinger says. “They account for a significant percentage of our 550-plus patent filings. And many of them—Z301 included—can be gas atomized into new powder at the end of their lifecycle.”
Czinger’s work has gained the attention of far more than wealthy car collectors. The company is working with about half a dozen “major U.S. defense contractors” that have responded to government requests for proposals that, if accepted, will leverage the same technology currently standing the hypercar industry on its head, according to Czinger.
One example of this is an attritable (i.e., unmanned, reusable and expendable) drone for defense giant General Atomics. Measuring roughly two meters in length, the legacy design contained about 140 pieces and required weeks of manual labor to construct using traditional carbon-fiber layup methods. Within three months of receiving the CAD data, the Czinger team delivered a four-piece, 3D-printed drone that can be assembled automatically within hours.
Czinger is also working on lower-priced cars than the $2M 21C, although it will admittedly be many years before models for the masses come into reach, if ever. And that’s okay. If the company can continue its forward momentum—a prospect that seems quite likely, given the current perfect storm of advanced technology and environmental pressures—the DAPS concept will easily meet any number of manufacturing needs.
“Respectfully, I would assert that we are the first and only company to actually have a full end-to-end industrial digital manufacturing system,” Czinger declares. “Think of it as a Foxconn plant, but one that can produce far more than electronics.
“You could feed multiple automotive OEMs and even different industries from the same regional factory, producing components for their various models and brands on the same equipment, shifting seamlessly from one product to another, one design change to another, all without investing huge sums of money in tooling or worrying about amortization based on certain production volumes,” he continues. “And because we leverage the design freedoms that only AM and advanced software systems can provide, these products will be more energy efficient and circular. This is what Industry 4.0 means to me.”