By Jody McCutcheon
At first glance, the Blade supercar looks to be little more than eye candy, another gimmicky vehicle from another startup company. A bobsled-style two-seater with gull-wing doors and 0–60mph acceleration in 2.2 seconds on the basis of a 700 horsepower engine sounds pretty amazing; but really, presenting as more of a Formula 1 racer than something sensible and street worthy, how practical could it be? Heck, it’s still just a prototype.
But the brainchild of Divergent Microfactories founder and CEO Kevin Czinger is far more than just a high-performance novelty act. As the world’s first 3D printed supercar, it represents a new model of automotive production. First, consider the Blade’s engine. It runs on compressed natural gas (CNG), which burns cleaner than gasoline and requires a less-extensive refining process, making CNG a more sustainable fuel option.
More significantly, Czinger’s ultimate goal goes beyond producing an amazing supercar. He wants to reduce the costs and ecological impact of car manufacturing worldwide, and his Blade may be the road sign pointing the way. He cites a US National Academies of Science report that suggests producing cars consumes more energy than driving them. Couple those results with the forecast of four billion new vehicles on the road by 2050, and it’s clear the automotive industry needs to clean up its act.
Enter 3D-printing technology. It’s already revolutionized the aeronautics industry by creating lighter, stronger materials (at a fraction of the time and cost) with which to build. The Blade will be constructed around a chassis built from a proprietary, 3D-printed aluminum alloy “Node” joint technology. Carbon-fibre tubes will plug into these Nodes, Tinkertoy®-like. Around this strong, lightweight frame, the rest of the vehicle will be assembled. According to Divergent, this 3D-printed chassis reduces the vehicle’s overall weight by ninety percent. All in, the Blade will weigh about 1,400lbs, which translates to superior fuel economy and a car that’s gentler on roads.
The company boasts that a vehicle built from Divergent’s Node technology generates one-third of the emissions produced by the manufacture of an electric car, at one-fiftieth of the factory capital cost. In theory, 3D-printed cars will reduce cost, resource use, energy consumption and pollution associated with traditional car manufacturing. As such, Czinger sees his new method as an attempt to democratize the industry; instead of a few large corporations producing all the vehicles, lots of smaller companies will be producing them. This model would allow vehicles to be made locally and built to last. Automakers in the US and Asia are starting to recognize the technology’s benefits and hope to incorporate it into production in the next few years.
As for the car itself: before being production-ready, the Blade has already received several accolades. As well being granted Google Moonshot status and named to Popular Science’s 2015 Best of What’s New list, the Blade has also won the Frost & Sullivan 2016 North American Technology Innovation Award, a nod to its “disruptive” manufacturing process and dramatic reduction in pollution and production costs.
Even so, the Blade isn’t drawback-free. As mentioned, it remains in the prototype stage, with no proclaimed price or availability date, although an Architectural Digest article suggests production will begin in 2017. And while the chassis will be 3D printed, the rest of the vehicle (engine, body, seats) will be traditionally manufactured. Hopefully costs—financial and environmental—remain as low as Divergent believes they’ll be. Furthermore, safety tests have yet to confirm the company’s assurance of durability.
Let’s hope the Blade is a success. If so, the ramifications will echo not just across the automotive industry, but the whole planet.