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3D Printing In Motorsports Paves The Way Toward Greater Innovation In Transportation

The Alpine F1 racing team's Formula 1 car. It's one of the teams that collaborates with 3D Systems for AM-based innovation. Image courtesy 3D Systems Corporation

For motorsports, whether or not a team is on the cutting edge of the innovation race can be the difference between winning and losing. Race teams are constantly working to improve on two basic factors: speed of the car and time on the track. Those improvements call for constant tweaking of the technology that goes into the race car.

But think of the almost infinite number of variables that play in those two basics. Everything from the aerodynamics of every square inch of the car’s surface, to the reliability of every component, to the durability of the tires, to the design of the processes for refueling and servicing the car in the pits (to name just a few) has its own part in adding up to the team’s overall performance on the track.

Legacy technology improvements have made racing a completely different animal today than it was not that many years ago. Now new technologies like 3D printing (also known as additive manufacturing, or AM) are opening up whole new opportunities for breakthrough innovations.

3D Systems, based in Rock Hill, South Carolina, has been involved with motorsports for over 20 years now, and works with Formula 1 teams including Alpine F1 and Sauber to refine the designs of their vehicles. Kevin Baughey is their Segment Leader for Transportation and Motorsports. “My job is the coolest on the planet,” he said. “I talk to our customers, understand their challenges, and co-develop solutions with them.”

A 3D printed stainless steel oil pump pulley. Image courtesy 3D Systems Corporation

As with so many AM applications, those solutions started with prototyping and manufacturing aids. Early AM allowed easy production and tweaking of models for wind tunnel testing, for example, and of tooling and jigs for parts production. “We got our start in stereolithography prototyping,” Baughey said. “Rapid prototyping has long been a focus, and now we’re going to rapid functional prototyping. But now we’re also getting much more into real-world use parts too.”

To make improvements in overall performance, those real-world parts improved using AM include metal structural components, body exterior parts and panels, powertrain and engine components, performance cast metal parts, and air, fluid and energy management components. Improvements can be upgrades to a part’s design that leverage AM’s ability to create shapes that can’t be made with legacy technologies, enhancements to materials that make parts lighter or more durable, or combinations of all of those.

An AM-produced plastic wind tunnel test part for Sauber F1 Team. Image courtesy 3D Systems Corporation

“There are still tons of advancements on the process side, but material development is a huge part now too,” Baughey explained. “Materials are a big focus area. We’re making advances of all kinds, in both metals and plastics. In-vehicle components are focused on metals now. And with the advent of new propulsion technologies, there are almost two markets being served now, materials development and application development. Everyone knew how to build an internal combustion engine. Now it’s all about how you build a hydrogen fuel cell.”

3D printing has opened up whole new areas of advancement as well. “3D printing is a good long-term fit in motorsports and transportation,” said Baughey. “It serves current focus areas of high-value energy and thermal management, along with the longstanding focus on inertia and lightweighting. There have been lots of advances in maintaining pressures in small areas, and in managing energy. I don’t think we’re nearly done with advances in scientific development, and additive is perfect for solving design problems.”

Obviously, racing teams won’t ever stop searching for ways to create advantages for their cars and drivers. With AM’s unique capabilities, that means it can open up paths for improvement that simply couldn’t be done before. And improvements in motorsports often wind up creating downstream improvement in overall transportation technology. With that world facing increasing pressure to reduce emissions, the racing business can lead the way to much bigger things. “Relying on traditional manufacturing processes for solving these heavy environmental problems is not a good approach,” Baughey said. “We in the 3D printing business allow more degrees of freedom to innovate and solve.”

Baughey sees the long history 3D Systems has in motorsports and transportation as a big advantage. “There will be overcapacity in the commodity of 3D printing,” he said. “To differentiate, you have to offer real advantages and get to market faster. That’s what we do. We have applications know-how that can’t be commoditized. There’s a lot to know in how best to apply the technology. We bring our customers the ability to produce parts on demand, and our applications group can embed with our customers to bring them the solutions they need.”

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