Think of pollution from cars, and you probably imagine gas or diesel exhaust. But manufacturing a car, alone, can add up to an even bigger carbon footprint than years of driving around. So one startup is taking a new approach to building a greener car: Instead of focusing on tailpipe emissions, they’re radically rethinking what happens in the factory.
Inside the Divergent Microfactories lab, building a car chassis looks a little like playing with super-strong Tinkertoys. The company has pioneered using 3-D-printed nodes to connect carbon fiber tubes and panels, a process that gives manufacturers new flexibility to quickly redesign cars–and dramatically reduces the energy and materials needed to make them.
“If there’s ever going to be a change in the automotive industry, it has to start with how car chassis are built,” says Divergent Microfactories CEO Kevin Czinger. “Chassis manufacture is where the real materials, energy, and capital are invested.”
Building a typical car involves massive machinery and bulky, heavy, energy-intensive materials. “Imagine the energy needed to take a a massive coil of steel which gets shipped somewhere, cut that steel, put it on a line, and stamp that steel with a stamping machine,” Czinger says. “At Tesla’s factory, they have five-story tall machines to stamp aluminum. Then it all needs to be welded together. You have all of those inputs, and then the inputs from mining.”
The chassis for Divergent Microfactories new supercar, by contrast, is simple to assemble–it goes together in about 20 minutes–and weighs only around 100 pounds. The 3-D printed nodes can fit inside a backpack. Not only is the process more energy-efficient, it makes it possible for small-scale, low-cost car factories to emerge almost anywhere.
The modular node can easily be adapted into different forms, so manufacturers don’t have to invest in the usual complex machinery for each specific car. “Once you spend $1 billion for a factory, and you have hundreds of millions of dollars of stamping machines, you’ve frozen your design in time and you’ve imprisoned yourself in a billion dollars of capital of repeating that design at as high a volume as you possibly can,” says Czinger. With the 3-D printed car, a design change means changing software, not physical equipment.
The startup plans to license its technology to other car manufacturers to help the industry move towards flexible, greener future factories. “In the last 113 years we built about two billion cars,” he says. “Because of the developing world, in a less than a third of that time, we’re going to build another 4 billion. We’re going to triple the number of cars. The vast majority of that pollution is going to be manufacturing related.”
The prototype supercar runs on gas or CNG, rather than electricity. The light weight means it doesn’t need much fuel. When the company crunched the numbers, it realized that adding a heavy electric battery would actually lower the car’s overall environmental performance. But its chassis system could easily be used in a Tesla to help make it lighter weight.
“We’re agnostic on drive trains,” says Czinger. “The thing about it is there are too many people who are ideological instead of being logical. I’m not against electric cars, I just think you need to look at it holistically, add up the total impacts … But we’re agnostic, and focused on the chassis. We think that’s the leverage point for getting the industry to move in another direction.”