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A San Francisco start-up has become the latest outsider to try to challenge the automobile industry’s traditional approach to manufacturing, with a “supercar” that relies on 3D printing for its central structural components.

The company, Divergent Microfactories, was due to show off a prototype on Wednesday of a high-performance, lightweight car designed to be built in small volumes in low-cost factories around the world.

The method echoes one pioneered by another US start-up, Local Motors, and highlights the potential of new manufacturing techniques designed for low production runs and flexible designs to challenge the economics of large-scale auto plants.

Divergent says its car, called the Blade, is built on a chassis that is 90 per cent lighter than traditional cars and can accelerate from 0 to 60mph in about two seconds.

Kevin Czinger, founder and chief executive, said the company is looking to raise $10m to to build a plant over the next 18 months to hone the tooling needed for the vehicle. It will then sell its formula to entrepreneurs able to raise the same amount to build their own plants to make the car.

Divergent, like Local Motors, relies on 3D printing to avoid the high costs of stamping equipment needed to form its car’s chassis. Also known as “additive manufacturing”, the technique involves building up layers of material — in its case, aluminium — to form parts.

The Blade is based on a central, 3D printed joint, into which carbon fibre rods are inserted to form a light and resilient chassis, Mr Czinger said. Companies licensing the technology could buy most of the other components they need from local suppliers, using a modular design to create their vehicles, he added.

Local Motors unveiled a prototype earlier this year with a 3D printed “unibody” comprising both the chassis and outer shell. Its vehicle is also designed to be assembled in local plants using components from many different suppliers. Justin Fishkin, chief strategy officer, added it could be made in facilities costing $10-$20m to build. The plant being built to make the 3D printed car, in Knoxville, Tennessee, is designed to reach break-even with a production run of 2,400 vehicles a year, he added.

Microfactories using 3D printing among other techniques have started to attract the attention of entrepreneurs thanks to the rapidly falling costs of equipment.

“The big advantage is its low capital intensity,” said Tim Lawrence, manufacturing expert at PA Consulting. “The thing that costs huge amounts of money is setting up the manufacturing and assembly lines and the specialist tooling. 3D is additive — you’re not pressing into a tool — so you’re not needing as much of that capital equipment.”

While additive manufacturing is widely used in aerospace and on some Formula One race cars, it has been slow to catch on in the wider motor industry, where its use is limited to the development stages of production.

Carmakers use 3D printing for prototypes of plastic components — such as interior knobs, speaker grilles and air vents — as well as various metal parts. Some low-volume vehicles feature 3D-printed components, such as the variable turbo used by Swedish hypercar Koenigsegg.

But use of the technology in mass production is seen as some way off. At the scale required by factories producing several hundred thousand vehicles a year, conventional carmaking methods are faster and more cost-efficient.

Mr Czinger was also co-founder of an electric car company, Coda Automotive, that filed for bankruptcy in 2013. He said that experience had led him to investigate new and more flexible forms of manufacturing, since the high cost of tooling to make Coda’s vehicles left it unable to respond fast enough to changing circumstances.

Additive manufacturing also allows greater variety and customisation for the consumer, without raising the cost of production for the manufacturer, and could significantly reshape the market for spare parts.

The potential to produce hollow structures at sufficient strength also means big weight savings would be possible.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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