The Czingers disrupt manufacturing at top speeds
The first thing people typically know about the father-son team of Kevin Czinger ’82, ’87 J.D and Lukas Czinger ’17 is the car.
Known as the Czinger 21C, it’s sleek, sporty, and extremely fast. And it has the numbers to back up its futuristic look: 1,350 combined horsepower, an acceleration of zero to 60 miles per hour in 1.88 seconds, and a top speed of 253 miles per hour (a speed for professional drivers on authorized racetracks only!). The flagship product of their company, Czinger Vehicles, it has set records and earned such superlatives such as “the world’s first human/AI-designed and 3D-printed hypercar.” And, as Kevin Czinger puts it, the 21C will be the “fastest street-legal car when it’s delivered later this year.”
And as impressive as the 21C is, the car also demonstrates the even greater ambition of the Czingers’ other company, Divergent 3D: changing how motor vehicles are made, from their design and development to how they’re assembled. With a combination of innovative software and 3D metal printing, the Czingers have created a system to radically speed up and streamline the process of making vehicles, and potentially transform the automotive industry. It applies artificial intelligence to develop car parts, and 3D printing to manufacture them.
The Los Angeles-based company’s own Divergent Adaptive Production System (DAPS) was developed by a team that includes engineers formerly from Tesla, Apple, and other tech heavyweights. It’s a complete software-hardware solution designed to replace traditional vehicle manufacturing. With artificial intelligence, it can computationally design any structure, no matter how complex. The system then additively manufactures and assembles these parts, optimizing every component for minimum weight and maximum strength. And it can seamlessly switch from manufacturing cars to drones and beyond.
“That software designs the parts and designs it to be its most efficient and to print in the most effective way on our hardware,” said Lukas Czinger, who majored in electrical engineering as a student at Yale College. “Then it also designs it to be assembled in the lowest possible cycle time while meeting all the requirements of our modular, fully fixtureless assembly process. Those three things together — design software, printing, and assembly — is really what Divergent is.”
The company, which began only six years ago with Kevin as its sole employee, now employs almost 300 people and has received more than 550 patents. And it’s getting noticed: The company has garnered more than $500 million from investors. Board members include John Thornton, lead director of Ford Motor Company and former Goldman Sachs president (and a 1980 graduate of Yale School of Management), and retired General Peter Pace, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The company currently has vehicle and structure production programs with Aston-Martin, Mercedes, and five other major auto OEMS (original equipment manufacturers) as well as with General Atomics and several other U.S. aerospace and defense companies.
“These larger companies, like Mercedes for instance, they’re saying, ‘We have all of these EV platforms, and we need lighter, more efficient vehicles,’” Kevin Czinger said.
With the advance of 3D printing, the potential form that parts can take is unlimited, and the software-hardware system ensures that there’s no wasted material. The difference between conventional car parts and those made by Divergent is apparent at first glance. Instead of the smooth, geometric structures of your typical motor vehicle, Divergent 3D’s parts look like they could have grown out of the ground (minus the metallic hues), honed by millennia of evolution.
“We’re using neural networks and machine learning to reduce the processing power by coming up with solutions sooner and in some cases, coming up with novel solutions,” Kevin Czinger said. “No human could engineer these structures. They’re perfectly optimized. We’re literally taking 20% to 40% of the mass out of structures.”
Adding to the sustainability of the process, each part is made from used metal and can be broken down and recycled into another component.
From an environmental standpoint, the implications are huge. One of the big selling points of electric vehicles is that they run on clean energy. But the amount of resources spent at the manufacturing level also needs consideration. As the global demand for motor vehicles increases, Kevin Czinger notes, society is at risk of being locked into an “economically and environmentally broken” system of manufacturing that wastes materials and is fundamentally bad for the planet.
“Nothing is optimized for material and energy from a product design or materials input standpoint, so you're consuming more and more per product,” he said. “More people are consuming less efficient, heavier, more material- and energy-consuming products, which in turn need more power generation, fuel creation, and consumption.”
If you’re interested in getting behind the wheel of the 21C, it’ll be out soon. With a $2 million price tag, you might not see many of them, but its benefits could greatly outweigh its sales numbers.
“Really, the car does two things for Divergent,” Lukas Czinger said. “One is application-specific technology: We get the guy that knows brake system design or transmission design, or knows combustion engines very well — he's going to feed that back into the Divergent system that knows software, 3D printing, and assembly. Then you're going to end up with some sort of unique transmission that's never been seen before. And it’s the brainchild of Czinger engineering, and the Divergent system.”
The second benefit is that it “attracts a lot of eyes”— particularly of people who Divergent wants to work with, he said.
“It goes really fast, and it looks really cool, and it has all the 3D-printed parts. When you pop the engine bay, that's when McLaren and Rolls Royce and Bentley CEOs walk by and definitely take notice as well.”
If the Czingers’ vision for Divergent pans out, the benefits will extend well beyond one car model, no matter how cutting edge it may be. The Czingers see the technology used to make the car as eventually democratizing manufacturing.
Growing up, Kevin Czinger remembers watching the automotive industry get wiped out because its manufacturing equipment couldn’t adapt to changing needs. “So rather than rebuilding in Cleveland,” he said, “all of that got moved to some low-cost area.”
A system like theirs, though, could prevent that kind of job loss, the Czingers say. “This is a machine that can be set up regionally, collapses the supply chain, collapses the number of parts, optimizes material and energy, and provides a permanent manufacturing footprint,” Kevin Czinger said.
The DAPS system entails a series of printer modules and assembly modules that are completely design-agnostic. And unlike a traditional assembly line, the Czingers’ system can take on entirely different tasks with no trouble.
“One minute you're going to be sending data for a drone, the next minute for a Mercedes SUV, the next minute for a Ferrari,” Kevin Czinger said. “The same thing on the assembly side. So you're just looking at volume into a structure. You can set that up regionally. It’s a multi-customer, multi-industry facility.”
They saw that no one else was building software to optimize parts or the assembly process. In four years, they had built the system that has given the company its niche.
Two generations at Yale
Kevin Czinger, who grew up in Cleveland, was the first in his family to attend college. He places attending Yale — alongside meeting his wife, Katrin (at Yale as a visiting scholar from the Freie Universitaet Berlin), and having the opportunity to work with his son — among his greatest blessings. When he was young, his older brothers taught him the basics of auto maintenance. “I’m a kid who grew up in a working-class family building American muscle hot rods.”
He was recruited to Yale for the football team in 1978, and by the time he was a senior he was named Ivy League Player of the Year. As an undergrad, he majored in classical civilization and premed. After graduating, he attended Yale Law School, and later studied electrical engineering at Arizona State University. His career took a circuitous path: He was a federal prosecutor in New York City and a senior executive with Goldman Sachs in Europe and Asia before embarking on a 25-plus-year journey as a technology company founder, inventor, and CEO, including a stint as entrepreneur-in-residence at Benchmark Capital in Silicon Valley. Prior to creating Divergent, he co-founded a pioneering elective vehicle company and an electric vehicle battery manufacturing company as joint ventures in China. He was also an infantry rifleman in the U.S. Marines Reserves.
At Yale, he approached academics pretty much how he approached everything else — he found something that interested him and threw himself into it. “I never thought you couldn’t do anything,” he said. “You want to learn something? You just teach yourself and learn it.”
Like his father, Lukas Czinger also excelled at sports, and played varsity soccer at Yale. And he applied a similar attitude toward academics.
“I’ve always been best at just throwing myself into the deep end and then coming out with quite a lot of knowledge from some torture and some learning and a lot of experience,” he said.
For him, that meant taking on electrical engineering as his major. He figured it was one of the tougher majors, but also one that could be most widely applied and provide him with valuable knowledge in mechanical engineering, physics, and math.
“The professor I probably spent the most time with was Mark Reed [the late Harold Hodgkinson Professor of Electrical Engineering & Applied Physics],” he said. “He had a couple of classes that really got to me, and I was interested in photovoltaics and all of that. That was really good learning for me.”
Jeffrey Brock, dean of the School of Engineering & Applied Science, noted that the Czingers’ radical overhaul of how things are done in the automotive world reflects a paradigm-shifting vision that is infused with a depth of understanding of global norms and constraints that limit innovation.
“The Czingers’ disruptive innovations will impact the industry, and likely the entire world, for generations,” he said. “We’re eager to see what they do next, and to bring their example into practice at Yale.”
After graduation, Lukas Czinger was already establishing himself in a career in finance when he decided to attend a talk that his father was giving at a tech conference about Divergent 3D. Impressed, he approached his father about coming to work at the company.
Working as a father-son team wasn’t something either had anticipated. In the six years since, though, it’s worked out well.
“We both have a very logical thought process that allows us to usually be on the same terms,” he said. “But we also have pretty unique differences that allow the company to operate in the right way.”
Kevin Czinger sees the family dynamic as one of the things that tempers the “megalomaniacal craziness” that sets the tone for many other ambitious start-ups — “especially in this era of ‘I’m the genius that’s going to save the entire world.’”
“Lukas is going to be 29 — he just squeaked in for the Forbes ‘30 under 30,’” the elder Czinger said. “But, you know, to have somebody as a partner who is that talented, that you can totally trust — that’s unique, and obviously it’s fun. When things work right and when they don’t work right, it’s a strengthening thing because you know you can trust the person.”
Lukas Czinger also has no regrets about teaming up with his dad. For one thing, they don’t have to navigate the internal politics and bureaucracy found at a lot of other companies.
“When you’re working with family, there's absolute trust,” he said. “And you're just trying to move the ball forward and make the company a success, and there's no politics around that. So I feel just very fortunate to be in that sort of position.”