During HxGN Live 2023, Hexagon CEO Paolo Guglielmini used his keynote to highlight Divergent, a Californian company of around 300 employees, that aims to revolutionize the automotive and other industrial sectors through 3D printing technology and autonomous manufacturing.
“By virtue of 3D, they’re not only aiming to change the economies of these industries but also their carbon footprint,” said Guglielmini.
Away from the main stage, I sat down with Lukas Czinger, the COO of Divergent, for an engaging discussion about the intersection of technology, industry, and sustainability.
Divergent has been on the radar of the 3D printing world for approximately seven years, with the first four dedicated to tackling the core engineering challenges associated with establishing digital production. As Czinger explains, work on materials and printing parameters has been critical.
Developing a means to join parts without fixtures seamlessly and making robots sufficiently accurate to perform the assembly process have been part of the formidable tasks faced by Divergent. But the past two and a half to three years have shifted toward commercialization.
Read more about Hexagon Live 2023 here.
Czinger targets aerospace and defense
The company has its sights firmly set on the automotive and aerospace sectors. “We’ve added a significant amount of auto customers, but now also looking heavily at aerospace and defense,” revealed Czinger. The strategic move to initially concentrate on automotive manufacturing paved the way for achieving a higher production rate and lower costs. As Czinger puts it, this approach “battle-hardened” their DAPS platform for high-rate manufacturing, leaving them well-positioned for the stringent demands of the aerospace and defense sectors. Their strategy appears to be paying off, with the COO confidently stating, ” We’re ready.”
These are two of the largest industrial manufacturing segments globally, and as Divergent’s COO, Lukas Czinger, pointed out, they are fraught with environmental and economic challenges that digital production can help mitigate.
But what exactly is “digital production”? In simple terms, it is a process that replaces hardware with software to create a product-agnostic system. A hypercar, an aircraft structure, or an automotive frame can all be manufactured in the same factory without downtime between jobs. It’s a model of manufacturing agility, Czinger pointed out, that after six years, 600 patents, and support from Hexagon, is now running smoothly in their Los Angeles factory.
That support includes a $100 million investment by Hexagon. Looking at the most recent funding gives Divergent a value of $1.3 billion. The Hexagon investment in Divergent seems comparable to its earlier construction of a 40-hectare solar farm in Archidona, Spain – to understand the technology and to subsequently offer better solutions, it’s not enough to observe at a distance.
The Divergent digital production system is based on three integrated pillars: an automated design software system, an in-house developed 3D printing system, and a robotic assembly process. The software system begins with human input in the form of product requirements and uses machine learning and AI across topology optimization and manufacturing simulation to generate optimized structures. According to Czinger, the efficiency is such that “not me, not even Paolo [Guglielmini, Hexagon’s CEO], could take a gram out of that structure and not affect its requirements.”
Addressing the business model, Czinger describes Divergent as a “tier-one supplier” of their end product to large companies such as Mercedes and Aston Martin. Divergent’s approach also allows for a shift in the capital structure of manufacturing. Instead of substantial upfront capital expenditure, Divergent’s digital production system, they say, transforms it into a variable cost-driven equation, thereby encouraging faster design cycles, more flexible capital structures, and the entrance of startups into the industry.
Regarding sustainability, Divergent’s digital production system promises significant environmental benefits. “Our structures are 30-40% lighter than those they replace, which equates to the most direct way to be sustainable – using less material,” Czinger explained. The system’s lifecycle analysis covers the full gamut from material extraction to disposal, which ensures it consumes less energy than traditional manufacturing. Lastly, since most structures are engineered from recyclable aluminum-based alloys, they can be melted down and reprinted when their useful life is over.
The Divergent tech stack
The company’s high-profile clientele includes the likes of Mercedes and Aston Martin, with the former witnessing the installation of the first 3D printed rear frame of the Aston Martin vehicle just three and a half weeks ago. Furthermore, Divergent has also collaborated with General Atomics and SLM Solutions. The rear frame was printed on an SLM Solutions NXG 3D printer, a product of their joint venture with SLM. As Czinger elaborates, “We took a spec to them, they engineered that machine and I’d say we run a special version of the NXG. We run some unique hardware on it and some unique software.”
An earlier relationship with Dyndrite, a software company, hints at Divergent’s broader strategy for future developments. As additive manufacturing evolves, this collaboration and the company’s internal focus on developing manufacturing workflow software exemplify the necessary interplay between hardware and software innovations.
Czinger tells me Divergent has an ambitious tech stack comprising a “fully automated and in parallel process” for designing parts. “We focused on topology and geometry, and so we built our own topology engine from scratch. And we built our own geometry engine from scratch,” Czinger revealed.
Employing off-the-shelf software for data and mesh conversion, Divergent’s novel approach comprises an automated workflow in which the part design, the additive manufacturing (AM) process simulation, and the manufacturing and assembly processes are simulated concurrently.
Moving on to the assembly process, Divergent has opted for a unique method: bonding. “We do 100% bonding as our primary and secondary joining methods,” Czinger said. He elaborated that this approach uses in-house developed adhesives that have proven to be stronger than welds, allowing for wider structures to be designed. The bonding approach also mitigates the need to analyze complex welding properties, simplifying the design process.
Furthermore, Czinger says this adhesive has the added advantage of acting as an insulating layer, preventing metal-on-metal contact. “You can join a printed aluminum to a molded composite with this adhesive,” he says. This property enables the joining of dissimilar materials and results in a multi-material structure without any galvanic interaction.
Regarding materials, Divergent primarily uses aluminum alloys, which Czinger describes as cost-effective and highly desirable from an engineering perspective due to their lightweight and strong properties. Unique to Divergent’s process, different printing parameters can manipulate the same aluminum chemistry to yield parts with varying stiffness and elongation.
He notes, “I’m going to print it so it’s going to be stiffer, have lower elongation for my suspension, printed with a different parameter set that makes it a little less stiff but has more elongation for my crash structure.” In essence, Divergent’s use of AM allows a single material to be processed in diverse ways, serving distinct applications in a single vehicle.
In the engine bay, where very high heat is generated, Divergent employs specialty materials such as Inconel and cobalt-chrome, with other materials currently undergoing R&D.
By focusing on robust material selection, innovative adhesion methods, and parallel design processes, Divergent believes it is fundamentally rewriting the manufacturing playbook, setting a new paradigm in the era of 3D printing.
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Featured image shows Lukas Czinger joining Hexagon CEO Paolo Guglielmini onstage at HxGN Live 2023. Photo by Michael Petch.