Philosophy of the Anti-Gigafactory

Pictured above is the Blade, a demonstration of what is possible with Divergent 3D’s new approach to manufacturing.

This post will be a part of a series of ongoing conversations between Kevin Czinger (KC), the Founder and CEO of Divergent 3D, and Alex Teng (AT), an environmental scientist at Divergent 3D. In this post, Kevin discusses the vision for the future of automotive manufacturing enabled by metal 3D printing. He points out that the elimination of hard metal tooling and design specific equipment results in 10x cheaper tooling and factories. Kevin and Alex go on to describe their personal journey to Divergent 3D. Learn more about Divergent 3D.

AT: Tell me about what Divergent 3D does. People may or may not know that we are designing a manufacturing system for vehicles that’s leapfrogging the current state of art. So why vehicles? Why manufacturing?

KC: Vehicles are the fulcrum point. As the world scales up, all of these resources are flowing. Material and energy are primarily flowing through your vehicle manufacture and operation. The vehicle structure determines the initial trajectory and magnitude of all those material and energy vectors like infrastructure, use, extraction of natural resources, disposal, all of those things. So you want to create a system that is going to have the biggest impact on all of those vectors.

So we created software and databases that can design and engineer almost any vehicle structure, assess that structure on cost performance criteria and then generate the subsequent engineering data for that design. In the current state of the art in manufacturing, engineering data gets embodied in hard metal tooling and other design specific equipment. In our system, that data doesn’t get embodied in tooling requiring many months to create or hundreds of millions of dollars. You simply send that data to a 3D metal printer. Those metal printers are flexible and can make parts for a motorcycle or SUV or bicycle.

So you’ve got non-design specific software to design basically anything, nonspecific manufacturing hardware, i.e., additive manufacturing. And if you design for it, non-design specific assembly. That eliminates the design specific hardware in the factory like jigs and fixtures. Then you have a total non-design specific system.

And then we design it so it is a low cost system that can scale up and down production. It’s also distributed. Somebody runs a printer farm. Somebody runs an assembly farm. All the teams need is the software that gets provided. This is completely different than the current way vehicles are made which is concentrated, capital intensive, and works only at huge volumes.

AT: When I first joined, one of the things that struck me was how large the vision was. You’re trying to re-write the way a two trillion dollar industry operates. So give me the recipe for how you could realistically create change in one of the largest manufacturing industries on the planet.

KC: You start with the need to be commercially successful. So you need to target a pain point, some large economic problem for businesses. Vehicle structures happen to be both an economic and environmental problem. But it’s not enough to just target a pain point.

You really need to have some killer app that solves it. By killer app I mean you need to have one factor that’s a 10x reduction in cost. For Divergent 3D, we reduced both factory and tooling costs by 10x. So it is fundamentally disruptive.

You want to use technologies that are exponentially improving, so not only do you start with a big cost advantage, you’re also rapidly increasing that cost advantage over time. That’s what computational power, additive manufacturing, materials science advances, and robotics breakthroughs give us.

You want to start from a clean sheet of paper and look to solve that big problem with a compelling new technology solution.

You want to be technology and brand agnostic in what you’re doing, and not get sucked into the cult of any particular technology.

You want to put all of these technologies together in some economically compelling application like vehicle structures.

And we make it a core objective of our system to dematerialize transportation. That means, to accomplish the same utility and function with less mass and less material. Environmental lifecycle analysis, which looks beyond the tailpipe to include mining, manufacture, and final disposal/reuse, tells us dematerialization has huge benefits because not only does it take less material and energy to manufacture a vehicle, it also takes less energy to move it.

I call our manufacturing process Planet-Saving Manufacturing because we let the science tell us what’s best for the environment, rather than going strictly by tailpipe numbers. We let the science tell us what the impact of our designs and our manufacture is, and we use that science to tell us where the biggest improvements can be made.

AT: I think that’s what hooked me to the company. The idea that we’re going to put planetary guard rails into the tools for creation and production of vehicles. We’ll create a manufacturing system that also simultaneously analyzes and minimizes over time the impact on the environment. Before you build a factory, run the lifecycle analysis and check to make sure the product isn’t terrible for the environment. Before you build the vehicle, run the lifecycle analysis. Whereas now it seems like people just design and build commercially successful products, and then find out sometime later that that was a bad choice. It’s our goal to allow people to, from the ground up, design a vehicle to be as dematerialized as possible, with the smallest environmental footprint to fit the requirements.

KC: Right, and also build a system where if you built something bad, you can quickly say, “Oh, my bad, I built something not so good. Let me take those pieces, re-atomize and create something new.”

I’m curious about you. What influenced you to become an environmental scientist?

AT: I was a chemical engineering major at U.C. Berkeley. There’s a Chevron refinery right near Berkeley in Richmond. The basis for chemical engineering is the refining of oil. And so naturally you’re curious about the refinery itself. But then you see all of these people protesting the refinery because it poisons the area. Two particular experiences impacted me. The first was when I got a tour by an environmental justice advocate of all the myriad impacts of the refinery. I also had made a friend who shared his experience of getting hospitalized in high school because he was living right downwind of the refinery when the refinery, in an infamous incident, released a toxic cloud of sulfuric acid that sent a large fraction of Richmond residents to the hospitals. But these refineries are really the lifeblood of modern civilization. They create the transportation fuels. They are the source of all the plastics in our world. They really enable modern civilization. They do all that good for us. On the other hand, they enact such a huge toll on people, unnecessarily so. All of these incidents are preventable. We just choose not to prevent them.

KC: Because externalities are not associated with the cost of doing business. And you know what, you might have less profit if you eliminated those externalities. But you wouldn’t be hurting as many people.

AT: Exactly. And it also dawned on me, that because our economic engine doesn’t consider these externalities, it could just drive all of humanity off of a cliff. It is possible that we end civilization as we know it, that we go through a 90% reduction in human life, pursuing a middle class lifestyle for the majority of the planet. And so that’s what got me interested in environmental science and engineering. To try and figure out all the ways, beforehand how not to blindly fly off a cliff.

And the kinds of problems we’re confronting now are these massive collective action problems. We’ve set up society already, so we live where we live, and that informs the need to buy the means of transportation to work, and the choices before us as consumers are really restrictive. The idea of democratizating vehicle creation really resonates with me as a solution.

In college, I taught two semesters of poetry up at U.C. Berkeley in a class called June Jordan’s Poetry for the People. June Jordan had started this poetry program with this vision for a radical democracy whose foundation is crafting of everyone’s voices to be powerful, to make often ignored voices heard. That class taught me the power in the act of creation. Creation empowers people. It also taught me just how much creativity is just pent up in people, and how it comes bursting out once you give it an outlet. So for me, hearing that your vision, from the start, included this notion of democratizing the means of creation, that really resonated with me because I’ve seen the awesome power of human creativity when they can project their own voices and ideas into the world to be seen and heard. Has that aspect of the idea for Divergent 3D really been simmering in the back of your head for the past couple decades?

KC: Yes, finding a way that you could take the manufacturing productive resources and democratize and dematerialize the system and what the system produced. My personal journey touched on finance, politics, law, technology, engineering, and globalization, all of the things that I’ve been through. I synthesized them all around that goal of democratizing creation.

I want to create wildflower innovation. I want to give small teams access to the tools of real production so they can express creativity. In nature, that creative expression is part of the data that gets generated for evolution and exists as part of an entire evolutionary system. I want our means of production to be in an evolutionary system. Nature uses flows of material and energy which are not unidirectional. They loop back. How do we then get the materials we use and loop them back? How do we get the data and the learning we have and loop those back?

That’s the kind of system I want to design. I want to create a new technology base with that new philosophy. And still do it in a practical way that you can actually raise money and go to market and create a business. You have to do all of those things together.

AT: When you look back at your career, is there a particular event that really catalyzed the formation of Divergent 3D?

KC: Coda. That was it. My ego was so bound up in that. And then, that gave me a chance to reassess all of it after that. What did I really learn about manufacturing, lifecycle analysis, human work? Who knows whether you sitting alone, one person, are going to be able to start something, get it going? You’re like an egg hatching into a tadpole, and probably you’ll get eaten in a second. As I reflected more after Coda, I started synthesizing the basis for Divergent 3D.

AT: Is it a fair characterization that Divergent 3D crystallized out of Coda?

KC: Yes. Absolutely. In all different ways. I mean, I did two massive moonshot companies that I was intricately involved with before this one: Webvan and Coda. One was intended to be what Amazon became, and one was intended to be what Tesla became. Certain elements of what we were doing were way ahead of both of them and, in the end, got absorbed and used by them. The core team up at Amazon is the old Webvan team, from robotics to warehouse to merchant. All the key technology went there. With Coda, I came out in 2007 with a super charger station. I said we’re going to build a megafactory, which we did. We’re going to build the first affordable electric car. We even had the ground up build super cool car which got nuked. That was one of the reasons I was pushed out.

AT: The ground up car never saw the light of day, right?

KC: Yeah. After all of that, I just tried to do two moonshots, and two competitors are superstar companies. What has this all taught me? Divergent 3D is the synthesis of all that learning. Here’s my experience, here’s my skill, here is a purpose and a playing field that allows for the expression of all that knowledge that I’ve won. How do I synthesize all of that and express it? So that’s why I started Divergent 3D, trying to take the available technologies like additive manufacturing and reinvent manufacturing for vehicles.

What people don’t realize is that this is just engineering. This isn’t like us trying to figure out nuclear fusion. A metal 3D printer is just the combination of a robotic laser welder and a CNC machine. The buildout of this new industrial base is just like the story of how Apple and Foxconn drove down price and drove up performance of CNC machines and took the installed base from hundreds to hundreds of thousands. And the impact, the planetary impact is totally transformational. If you really understand democratization and dematerialization, data flows and atom flows, and you’re going to loop both in that kind of system, then for human beings, it is totally transformational.