Tech Watch/March '17

Divergent

“Blade,” a 3D printed supercar that startup Divergent 3D showed as a proof of concept at the LA Auto Show and later at the Consumer Electronics Show, attracted lots of attention. In late January, it also attracted plenty of capital, which the Los Angeles startup says will help commercialize its platform, which among other goals, would do away with vehicle mass production.

Divergent closed $23-million from venture capital fund Horizons, with additional funding from strategic partner Altran. 

To create the Blade and would-be vehicles like it, Divergent says it 3D-prints alloy joints to create a chassis that is both stronger and lighter, with fewer energy inputs. It mates those metal joints, which Divergent refers to as a “NODE,” to a carbon fiber structural material. 

As the company sees it, this technology would give way to a “microfactory” or regional production plants that would build from a handful to 10,000 vehicles a year. That practice would cut out the need for metal tooling and stamping equipment. Divergent presents a value proposition weighted toward reducing the environmental impact of automotive manufacturing. 

“The time has come for a new model of decentralized car production that fosters pioneering car designs and lowers costs while alleviating environmental damage,” said Kevin Czinger, CEO of Divergent 3D.
PSA, the company behind Peugeot and Citroen brands, also has a strategic partnership with Divergent 3D to build vehicle structures using the startup's manufacturing platform.


Suspended Energy Captured 

Whether it’s carbon-based or renewable, most of the fuel that goes into a vehicle goes out as energy waste. Regenerative braking technology has been thoroughly studied and executed across many hybrid and traditional vehicles. That’s why Ruichen Wang, a researcher at the University of Huddersfield in the U.K., looked into ways to corral energy otherwise lost in shock absorbers and recirculate it. 

After working on the math, computational analysis and design, Wang developed a full-sized prototype. Affixed to suspension systems, the prototype is designed to recover energy and use it to power air 
conditioning systems, recharge hybrid vehicle batteries or serve virtually any other task where power is needed. Wang completed the project as part of his doctorate at the university. He published his findings in a paper titled “Modelling, Testing and Analysis of a Regenerative Hydraulic Shock System,” which is found in the journal Energies. His system uses piston rods and recovers 260 watts with an efficiency of around 40 percent, according to the paper.   
 


Intel Wants to Get There From … HERE

Current generation navigation technology can provide pinpoint accuracy in geo-locating cars on busy highways, side streets or isolated dirt roads. But “pinpoint” often means within several feet. For fully autonomous driving to live up to its promise of maintaining supremely orderly highways, vehicles will need to keep a buffer zone of just a few centimeters.

In purchasing a 15 percent stake in HERE, the digital mapping and location-based services company, closing that gap is a big goal for Intel (intel.com). HERE was purchased for over $3-billion in 2015 by a consortium of car companies that includes Audi, BMW and Daimler. 

Intel says it will develop a proof-of-concept architecture with HERE for high-definition mapping that relies on HERE’s cloud service to provide immediate updates on traffic and road conditions. 

“A real-time, self-healing and high-definition representation of the physical world is critical for autonomous driving, and achieving this will require significantly more powerful and capable in-vehicle compute platforms,” says Edzard Overbeek, HERE CEO.


Additive Partnering

The partnerships of most interest in the automotive industry seem to involve automakers and internet/software/telecommunications/ride-hailing companies. But the autonomous partnerships of the relatively distant future shouldn’t overshadow the physical additive manufacturing tie-ups of the nearer future. 

Audi AG and 3D printing company EOS (eos.info/en) have begun a development partnership, whose focus appears to be on just about every level of production. “Additive Minds,” the in-house consultancy at EOS, will support Audi in implementing industrial 3D technology by developing an additive manufacturing center in Ingolstadt, Audi’s hometown. EOS said it will train Audi engineers to become “in-house AM experts.” That expertise will first apply to equipment and prototype building at Audi, as well as for its motor sports division. The partnership also will encompass tool manufacturing and complex assemblies that can be 3D printed in a single step, compared with multiple steps in traditional production.  

“With this technology we are able to integrate internal structures and functions in tools that we have not been able to create so far with conventional manufacturing methods,” said Jörg Spindler, Head of Toolmaking at Audi. “Especially with components in small batches, we can now produce components using lightweight construction, quickly and economically, based on this technology.”

Audi noted it is focusing on the production of inserts for die casting molds and hot working segments through additive manufacturing, which can create very small cooling channels inside components. That faster cooling time, literally embedded into parts, means a more energy efficient production process that cuts cycle times by 20 percent, the companies note. 

Further to the west, McLaren Racing and 3D printer maker Stratasys (stratasys.com) also penned a partnership, under which Stratasys will supply technology and know-how to the McLaren Honda Formula 1 team. 

Under the agreement, Stratasys will provide McLaren Racing with its latest FDM and PolyJet based 3D printing machines and materials for visual and functional prototyping, production tooling including composite tooling and customized production parts.

“It has become clear that motorsport’s reliance on rapid prototyping and additive manufacturing, and the ability to radically cut time to market, is increasing, and we look to being well served by our new alliance with Stratasys,” says Eric Boullier, racing director of McLaren Racing.


More Balanced Cells

Everyone knows that batteries are incredibly flammable. And if anyone needs a reminder, look no further than the fairly combustible Samsung Galaxy Note 7 smartphones. 

Although faulty voltage sensors have not been given as a reason for the fires (Samsung has blamed them on poor battery designs), their value is critical to monitoring and regulating battery cells. That’s especially the case for dense lithium-ion batteries in electric vehicles. EV batteries are arranged in blocks, usually containing a dozen cells, each with their own voltage sensor and current sensor. 

That design adds both cost and weight to already hefty battery packs, part of the motivation for researchers at Ruhr-Universität Bochum (ruhr-uni-bochum.de/index_en.htm) in Germany, who developed a single voltage sensor and a single current sensor capable of monitoring the entire battery system.  

The researchers reported the innovation can do more than monitoring. The voltage and current sensors can also work to adjust the distribution of energy, also known as cell “balancing.” As a result, cells that happen to carry less charge than others do not end up draining the overall system and instead help to wring out the maximum energy possible.

The monitoring and balancing technology exists as a lab prototype, but it has the potential to scale, not only for EVs, but also in tablets, wireless tools and critical power supply systems, such as those found in hospitals, according to researchers. They announced they plan further enhancements to bring the systems up to automotive standards.