Often misrepresented and misunderstood, rapid prototyping (RP) is finally coming of age as an industrial process. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the field of motorsport, where advances in prototyping technology have proved particularly beneficial to an industry where speed – not necessarily just on the track – is critical.
Engineers in all sectors are used to having to get products to market quickly. But the ability to accelerate the time taken to develop and manufacture new components is particularly crucial in Formula One, where the two-week span between races during the season places an unusually extreme level of time pressure on design teams.
The rapid turnaround of new designs, in response to changing demands and challenges on the circuit, can make the difference between a great season and a mediocre one.
For rapid prototyping technology firm 3D Systems, F1 has become an essential part of its business. Worldwide, motorsport accounts for about 10 per cent of the company’s income. It claims that nine out of the 11 F1 teams are using its stereolithography and laser sintering technology for component testing, the production of tooling, and the direct production of master patterns for investment casting. Stereolithography, widely used for aerodynamic development, is closely allied to wind tunnel projects.
For the Renault F1 team, rapid parts have become critical in the aerodynamic testing process. A 50 per cent scale model is tested in a wind tunnel, and requires the delivery of a constant stream of precisely-engineered parts.
Even the most skilled team of model makers cannot keep up with demand, so 3D Systems technology is crucial in order to continually improve the aerodynamic performance of the vehicle.
The fully-fledged technical partnership between 3D Systems and Renault F1 entered its latest phase last month with the opening of Renault’s Advanced Digital Manufacturing (ADM) Centre in Oxfordshire. ADM is now 3D Systems’ acronym of choice: the term RP is set to become redundant as more and more parts for actual use on the cars are manufactured using the technology.
Rather than rapid prototyping being an intermediary stage in the development process, advances in materials meant that a couple of seasons ago certain basic components (boxes for electronics, for example) began to be manufactured through a rapid process and fitted directly to the vehicle.
This is something we will see more of in the near future: the lifeblood of RP, like any other product development process, depends on incessant technological advancement. As the durability of parts produced through RP increases, we may eventually see major elements of an F1 car’s body being made in this manner. Already, components that affect the aerodynamic performance of the car are being manufactured through rapid processes.
According to 3D Systems managing director Mike Kelly: ‘It’s moved on from things like battery boxes and covers that are buried deep inside the car to actual structural parts now – particularly for aerodynamics, because of the need to react to local track conditions. A team can typically send data back to the factory and build some parts overnight. They can be sprayed, shipped back out to the team, and fitted with a 24- or 48-hour turnaround. So between that first Thursday run, and the last test on the Saturday, they can get some fresh parts on the car.’
Kelly wants to see 3D Systems’ technology move further down the F1 supply chain and into other, more generalised automotive areas such as powertrain, gearbox development and hydraulics.
Advances in technology are likely to come in the materials used for rapid processes. ‘The long-term vision for us – bearing in mind that that’s really only three years now – is to be able to deliver significantly better material properties such as direct metal components.’
Kelly is not worried that the increases in computing and software power will ultimately render rapid processes redundant as companies move to an entirely virtual approach.
‘There’s no doubt that computers and software will continue to advance at great pace.’ he said. ‘But it means that we have to continue to develop our technology at a similar rate. That way we won’t fall by the wayside.’
It seems that the car developed by entirely virtual processes – often mooted by CAD companies eager to trumpet the effectiveness of their packages – is still some way off.