Nuclear leader General Atomics has been pursuing a lot of trend setting projects with 3D printing lately, including a drop-in heat exchanger upgrade made by Conflux. The company also extensively uses 3D printing in tooling to save money. I would hazard a guess that its involvement with additive manufacturing (AM) technology extends significantly beyond what has been publicly discussed. Now, through its subsidiary General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, the legacy nuclear power firm is working with Divergent Technologies to manufacture drone components.
From Supercars to Drones
Divergent is most well-known for the making of supercars and luxury vehicle parts. To do so, it relies on over six SLM Solutions NXG XII 600 12-laser metal 3D printers, which Divergent actually helped design. The firm also recently landed a $100 million investment from Hexagon. In a nutshell, Divergent is selling not cars or car components, but a kind of modern-day reinvention of the assembly line. 3D Print.com Editor-in-Chief Michael Michael Molitch-Hou describes the, Divergent Adaptive Production System (DAPS) thusly, it ¨automates and optimizes key processes throughout the entire production chain: artificial intelligence (AI)-driven generative design helps create the end model to be 3D printed and then assembled by industrial robots.¨
“Divergent has invented the first industrial digital manufacturing system. Leveraging innovations in artificial intelligence, 3D printing, and automation, DAPS can be used to build the underlying structure for virtually any vehicle – whether land, sea, air, or space – better, faster and more cost efficiently than traditional manufacturing,” said Divergent CEO Kevin Czinger.
General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, a leading manufacturer of unmanned aerial systems (UAS), now wants to deploy Divergent’s technology to produce drones automatically. The two teams have been working together since 2022 in order to industrialize Divergent´s approach to aviation and to qualify components. Concretely, they’ve built a small, topology-optimized aero structure weighing less than 500 pounds, with part count reduced by 95%. Using a digital twin of the drone, the component was assembled by robots in under 20 minutes.
The team is looking to use this capability to make drones near the front lines of future conflicts. Key advantages aside from manufacturing close to the front-line is the reduction in costs and lead times, while also allowing for more iterations. In our Drone Swarms series, we point out that this kind of a close-to-battle iterative production could be a real-war winning technology.
“Throughout our 30 years of designing and developing advanced UAS, GA-ASI has been focused on implementing new capabilities into our manufacturing process. We’re working with Divergent to integrate their technology as part of our Additive Design and Manufacturing Center of Excellence strategy, with the goal of optimizing our design and manufacturing processes and providing next generation UAS at the lowest cost,” said General Atomics Aviation President David R. Alexander.
From Hype to Hyperproduction
Divergent is either a hype smoothie or a completely new way to make components using cutting-edge technology. Based on the fact that Czinger claims to be a supplier to eight of the top ten global auto OEM groups. With the firm having gone public about Aston Martin as one of them and now taking on General Atomics as a customer, it would seem that DAPS may be less hype and more reality.
I’m extremely split about Divergent. At times, I’m intensely skeptical about the startup, finding it to be very hype-buoyant. There are currently several firms doing portions of what Divergent claims to do. It is essentially a systems integrator that is performing work that others could undertake, if they took the time. Branding this approach and selling it seems to be have led to success for Divergent so far.
On the other hand, the company is forging ahead and, each day gone by, establishes itself more surely in the field of automated, topology optimized, assembly fabrication. I’m reminded of CELLINK where my initial conclusions were that the company had no technology. They then went into turbo-charged hustle mode and bought themselves a bunch of companies that do have technologies, growing them considerably.
One thing I do like very much about what Divergent is doing is the fact that it is essentially accelerating the adoption of additive in a new way. There is no partner currently that can help you adopt industrialized additive for aviation as an end-to-end solution. You’d have to stuff your own clown car full of other companies to do it for you or have a lot of patience to do it by yourself.
I’ve decried the lack of proper systems integrators in AM for years now, lamenting that with such players the progress of the field would be accelerated. Maybe Divergent is the integrator we need, with the inertia and skills necessary to cajole large firms into producing 3D printed components at scale. If we see the company solely in that light, then a few choice partnerships would be enough to give it the scale it needs to be a very efficient producer of airframes, chassis, and other components. That would be enough to ensure that, if Divergent competes directly in a chosen field, whether it be automotive or personal aviation, it would have cost advantages.
Then, the right way to think of Divergent may be as an analogue of Gore. When a merry bunch of climbers took mountaineering gear and put it on everyone’s backs, Gore-Tex fabric managed to become the premier branded textile of this development, led by North Face, Patagonia and others. In other words, in a gold rush, sell picks and shovels.
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