3D-Printing the Czinger 21C Supercar Shows Us the Future of Car Making

·10 min read
Photo credit: Czinger
Photo credit: Czinger
  • The Czinger 21C supercar is fast and a little revolutionary, but the manufacturing process that went into it could change the world.

  • Czinger uses additive manufacturing, or what we call 3D printing, to make parts that are then glued together by robots.

  • The Czninger manufacturing method is being exported around the world.

At first glance, it was just another supercar being hyped by its millionaire maker as the fastest thing since Warp Factor 6. Granted, the Czinger 21C was fast—the tandem-seated carbon-fiber-over-aluminum-spaceframe hybrid superbeast had lapped Laguna Seca in 1:25.446 seconds. There was no disputing that, it said so right there in the press release:

“Czinger, the trailblazing company that uses revolutionary design and manufacturing technologies to build state-of-the-art, homologated high-performance vehicles, has set a new lap record at WeatherTech Laguna Seca Raceway, smashing the old record by an astonishing two seconds!”

Note the exclamation mark! True, the 21C had a proprietary 2.88-liter twin-turbo V8 located right behind its two tandem seats, aided and abetted by an 800-volt electric drive system with one motor for each front wheel making a total of 1233 bhp. So it could do it.

Having seen so many such releases, however, we were skeptical. For instance, the release said, “lap record.”

“We don’t record lap records outside of sanctioned race laps,” said the WeatherTech Raceway track spokesman we called.

The lap record at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca is held by Helio Castroneves, who turned a 1:07.722 in a Penske Indy car during the CART race in 2000. That’s quicker than 1:25.446, isn’t it? Well, this record is for production cars, see, and the Czinger beat the Randy Pobst-driven McLaren Senna by two seconds. The difference is that McLaren actually manufactured 500 Sennas and sold them to customers. Czinger hasn’t made any 21Cs that you can buy and won’t before 2023 or so. We could nitpick semantics like “lap record” and “production” all day.

But it would be a mistake to dismiss the Czinger 21C supercar just because of some over-anxious publicity stunt.

The biggest news about the Czinger is not how fast it’ll go, but how it and its maker will change the way cars are manufactured. For the last 118 years, since Henry Ford built the first assembly line in Highland Park, Michigan, cars rolled down a line and had parts added to them by human workers. Those parts were cast, stamped, extruded, sintered, or machined. Then all the parts were bolted, riveted, welded, or even glued together. Once you did enough of that, you had a car.

Kevin Czinger, for whom the lap-record supercar is named, has a different idea, making him potentially the Henry Ford of the new millennium.

Instead of all that extruding, stamping, bolting, and riveting, Czinger has developed a system based around additive manufacturing, or additive-layer manufacturing, which is the industrial production name for 3D printing. AM is a computer-controlled process that creates three-dimensional objects by depositing materials in layers in whatever shape they’ve been computer-programmed to become. In the case of car making, the material is usually some kind of aluminum alloy, but there are many, many materials that can be used.

Czinger didn’t invent additive manufacturing, 3D printing, or robots, of course, but he has a new way of bringing them all together.

Photo credit: Czinger
Photo credit: Czinger

Wait, who’s Czinger? Kevin Czinger is something of a manufacturing revolutionary. He has a manufacturing facility in Torrance, California, unlike any you may have seen. In one huge room are a number of large, industrial AM machines printing parts, or adding layers until they’ve printed a part. In another room is a circle of robots centered around whatever it is they’re manufacturing. As the parts are printed and then delivered to the robots, the robots grab them in their computer-controlled hands and glue them together. Glue enough of them together and you have a car.

Czinger is putting together not only the manufacturing process and facility I saw in Torrance, but has plans to set up similar, custom-built facilities all over the world. In most applications, you get a much more efficient part in terms of increased strength and decreased weight. In the conference room where we were talking there were a number of automotive assemblies, all looking a little like the creature in the Alien movies. I said that I like the look of a brake assembly, for instance.

“That’s taking almost 50% of the mass out of a combined subsystem,” Czinger said.

On the end of the conference table was an entire rear assembly of a car. Czinger walked over and picked the whole thing up. By designing everything through CAD, then downloading the design to the AM printer, the part can be made much lighter, with less material, and in a truly optimized shape.

“This is digital manufacturing, as it will be in the future,” Czinger said. “Today, we’re printing at a rate that if you took the very fastest machine on the planet, we’re printing 15x faster than that.”

He worked with the makers of AM machines to get the speed and accuracy he wanted. He sees what he’s doing as a revolution akin to the move from typewriters to computers—specifically, the first IBM Selectric typewriters that had two lines of memory.

Photo credit: Czinger
Photo credit: Czinger

“IBM said they’re going to digitalize the typewriter,” Czinger said, picking an analogy a writer/reporter could grasp. “I’m 62, so I remember when they had the IBM Selectric, and they’re like, ‘We’re digitalizing! We’re adding two lines of memory!’ Right? No, you have to architect desktop computing and desktop publishing if you want to have an actual digital system. We have 150 engineers and scientists here under one roof, like an old-school, Cold War skunk works, like the original Kelly Johnson skunk works. We architected an entire system for design, print, assembly, with what that really means, which is that all of the constraints are computer generated, including how you manufacture and how you assemble equipment that prints at the right rate and quality with the right materials. And then (we have) an automated assembly system that’s completely fixtureless, the assembly system can go from doing a full-scale large drone to a battery electric SUV with zero switchover time. None of the hardware ever changes.”

I got to see the system, but much of it is proprietary, so I can’t discuss a lot of details. But he had me sold. Sure looked like the future to me.

“We had a first principle idea which was to remove all of the hard tooling from the (manufacturing) process so that we could have a hardware base that adapted to any design,” said Kevin Czinger’s son Lukas Czinger, a Yale graduate in electrical engineering. “We can do that rear frame, do a customer rear frame, do a full chassis, just by changing the software, no hardware changes.”

About a year ago, in October 2020, the Czingers birthed a beta version of this new process. And it seems to do what it was designed to do.

“For our OEMs, we were able to show a print rate 50% faster than they needed for value production and an assembly rate about 35% faster than they need for full-volume production,” Kevin said. “We have a dozen programs for multi component structures,” said Kevin. “Our first production programs are going to be in vehicles on the road in early 2022. And these are with brands that are within groups that are in the top five global automotive groups by annual volume.”

So, just to review, it’s: computer-designed parts, 3D printers making those parts, which are assembled by robots, in a much smaller space than typical assembly lines.

So no more River Rouge. The Czingers say that carmakers could replace assembly lines that had been a mile long with assembly stations like the one I saw, greatly reducing the lead time, cost, and complexity of car making. And you can switch the car model that you’re building with every new assembly. No more downtime during model-year changeover. And all those spare parts carmakers have to keep in warehouses for 10 years? They will be replaced by instant 3D printing of whatever spare part you need.

Photo credit: Czinger
Photo credit: Czinger

So is this really a brave new world that has such robots in it?

“3D printing offers the chance to pretty dramatically reduce how much effort you have to put into assembly,” said Peter Zelinski, editor-in-chief of additivemanufacturing.media. “So something like a car’s chassis or even just a component like the assembly around the wheel, the wheel carrier, you think about all of the little parts from many different places that are riveted together or welded together or held with fasteners, and you could take that entire complex form and just 3D-print that as one solid metal piece.”

While carmakers have used additive manufacturing or just plain old 3D printing for years, it’s never been optimized on such a large scale.

“Additive Manufacturing has been used in the auto industry for some time, but the last few years we have really seen accelerated growth in the technology,” said Ali Shabbir, GM engineering group manager for additive design and manufacturing, via email. “General Motors sees value in three key areas. Prototype parts allow for rapid, iterative development of components and greatly reduces tooling costs while increasing agility in providing functional pre-production parts. Manufacturing tools can be printed to be lighter and more ergonomically designed for assembly operators, all while significantly reducing lead times. Localized printing is also promising technique, as additive manufacturing engineers in Warren, Michigan, could design a part and then send the designs to be printed at assembly plants around the world. Production parts are the latest application of additive manufacturing we have implemented. Based on volume, cost, and build complexity, a business case for each production part needs to be made.”

Photo credit: Czinger
Photo credit: Czinger

“For our prototyping and prove-out we use it a lot,” said Andre Hudson, head of product design at INDI EV. “But in the production, there’s just so many challenges, it’s a whole different thing—the materials, the thicknesses of materials, the process—to make it durable enough to actually be to put in a product that you’re going to sell to somebody to use. I still think we’re quite a ways off.”

Limitations of AM include the size of AM machines right now, which limit the size of parts that can be made. You can’t AM and entire automotive space frame, for instance.

Kevin Czinger agrees that massive adoption of a system like his in the global auto market is still in the future.

“3D printing today is not even a baby step,” he said. “It’s not even born. We had to design the materials and the machines to actually do it at an industrial level.”

I asked Zelinski if he thinks we’re in the middle of a revolution in manufacturing.

“I think we are, actually. We are in the middle of the beginning of it,” Zelinski said. “But the revolution won’t be a change in the types of parts we see today and how they’re made. It’s an utter rethinking of A) part designs and B) manufacturing enterprises. So the part designs change because, as you saw how he lifted up that component (the big rear subframe). There’s all kinds of design freedoms now to use way less material, far fewer fasteners, to have lattice structures on the inside instead of a solid form, to make things lighter and to utterly rethink how manufactured parts are designed and what they look like.”

So expect to see lighter cars made from less material at what could be a lower cost. But maybe not this week.

Do you think we’ll see 3D-printed cars in any real volume in the near future? Or will it remain a niche manufacturing process? Share your thoughts in the comments below.