Formula One racing breeds a pace of innovation as speedy as the compact race cars which zoom around the track. With margins of mere seconds separating each ranking, slimming down the slivers of time between a win and a loss is imperative for each team.
Computerworld UK visited the Williams Formula One headquarters to find out how the team is using 3D printing technology to test and manufacture their race cars, and how you might encounter Formula One technology in places you wouldn't expect - walking down the aisle of a supermarket for instance.
(Note: throughout this article, the terms '3D printing' and 'additive manufacturing' are used interchangeably).
How Williams F1 uses 3D printing technology
The requirement of Formula One cars to be lightweight (but not too lightweight) means they are currently formed from metals such as aluminium alongside parts made from carbon fibre. At the Williams F1 base, there are on-site 3D printing machines that can create polymers, however metal parts are still created off-site.
At the moment, the majority of the 3D printed polymers are used in the test models for the racing cars. Currently, the team carries out only four or five real-life tests a year. To get around this, and also allow the team to have a faster and cheaper way of testing out car parts, they use a wind tunnel model. This test involves a vehicle that is 60 percent of the size of a real car and is placed on a treadmill which goes at 55 metres a second to try to recreate the high speeds the cars will get up to during the Grand Prix.
Meanwhile, wind is also pushed against the car, replicating the downforce factor of air on the car, while many instruments are placed on the vehicle to obtain readings on various factors. Currently, 3D printing is most widely used to create parts to be tested out on this replica race car.
In F1, aerodynamics is the most vital area of innovation and the role of the aerodynamicist an indispensable one.
"The aerodynamicist's job is to come up with the concept of shapes that will allow us to have maximum down force but with very little drag," says Marc Logan, aerodynamics design engineer at Williams F1. They must calculate the various different forces on the car and how they will impact on its speed.
"That is probably the key area in a Formula 1 team - the speed of change of the field of aerodynamics and trying to keep up with the ideas, that gets us the best performance on the track," says Logan. "So the quicker we can get that idea, get it to the tunnel, release it to the full-sized race car and then get it to the track is probably the biggest driver of going faster.
"It's probably the biggest guarded secret between all the teams because it is the main area where you gain performance. It's common knowledge that teams - to quote the race track - spy on each other and look at the concept of what another team's doing and trying to understand why they've done what they've done."
This can then inform the team's own ideas of how they could potentially build on these features, leading to incidences of teams deliberately misleading others by placing eye-catching but useless features to distract them and waste their time - for example, changing the positions of the wing mirrors.
According to Logan, although the end user viewing the race on TV might assume the cars are similar save for the coating of paint, aerodynamically they can be different in a "major" way.
"There's always been the idea that if you painted all the cars white and lined them all up, how would others spot their own car," he added. "But I can pretty much guarantee the team would be able to spot their car. Although I wouldn't be surprised if some of the public struggled."
So what are the main benefits from using 3D printing techniques in the manufacture of the race cars? They are twofold - focusing on both speed and flexibility.
"F1 is about how quickly you can get your performance to the car, and so if the aerodynamics department comes up with a concept, we would like to get that to the car as quickly as possible," says Logan. "That's where additive can come in if it's needed, and if we can use it, it allows us to make those parts quickly and get them on there."
With traditional manufacturing the team were able to have parts made in between a week to a week and a half. Now, they're able to get over 2,000 parts shipped per month. Cost is another imperative, with additive manufacturing allowing the cheaper creation of a large number of parts.
"If you take a single component that you would generally traditionally make as a composite part, you'd have to go through design, manufacture of the pattern, manufacture of the mould and manufacture of the actual part, which is four steps," says Richard Brady, team leader advanced digital manufacturing (ADM) at Williams F1. "In using additive manufacturing (AM) you go straight from the design into manufacture - straight to test - so you're cutting out a lot of time and a lot of manpower."
Where does the future lie? This depends on the materials that are available to print with. Currently, they are limited to using nylon laser sintered plastics, with greater opportunities lying with a wider pool of structural plastics.
"You're just seeing quite groundbreaking changes in short years now of how the materials are going on," says Logan. "So I'd say that as you go forward probably in another 10 years you'll see probably quite a lot of a Formula 1 cars could potentially be [3D] manufactured."
However, as using these parts for the car is still in its infancy, engineers are aware of the necessity of introducing the new tech tentatively.
"There's been a lot of progress in getting AM parts onto the car, both in real terms and as test parts, and we have to be very careful how the parts are used and where they're used, because it's very easy to have a failure, and that would be a major step back for us, and the engineers would lose confidence in the ability of the additive manufacturing process," says Brady.
Applications of Formula One technology beyond racing
To create another revenue stream for Williams F1, the company also has an Advanced Engineering arm, tasked with working with third parties to implement F1 tech in a range of industries from the most obvious - all things car related - to more niche purposes.
"It gives a great proposition for partners or sponsors that you can work with the Formula One team in terms of marketing assets and you can work with the engineering team in terms of developing your technology," says Paul McNamara, technical director Williams ADM. "And Unilever's a great example of that. We've done stuff on spray-drying towers, and fridges for the front of bicycles to sell ice cream. So you get this total partnership vision."
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Organisations they have worked with include the military, universities, the field of aerospace and many more, applying their extensive knowledge of energy, aerodynamics, and lightweight materials including carbon fibre and titanium, the materials the racing cars are manufactured from.
A big area of work for the team has included the electrification of vehicles. They supply all of the car batteries to Formula E, the electric subsidiary of Formula One, and run and operate the Jaguar team for the championship.
Right now, they're also designing Aston Martin's first electric car, the Rapide - engineering the complete system and supplying the batteries. "And the vision there is that there's a bit of a shortage of battery suppliers to people like Aston Martin, Lamborghini, Jaguar, special vehicles, etc. So that's a niche that we can fill," says McNamara.
When it comes to lightweight, super strong carbon fibre technologies, they have developed a product called the Babypod, designed to transport small, critically ill infants. But perhaps most notable for its departure from F1 is William's partnership with British supermarket Sainsbury's, using aerodynamics technology to prevent cold air from fridges leaking out and cooling the whole aisle. The aerofoils technology - due to debut soon - instead directs the cold air back into the fridge, saving the supermarket money on electricity to boot.
In this case, they worked with an engineer who came up with the idea but was struggling to gain traction. Williams lent the concept a little F1 branding magic to allow it to come to fruition. "And of course, you're going to get a lot more traction when you say, 'do you want to come to Williams HQ, have a day out, have a look at this?' Than, 'here I am, I'm a one man band, come to my show in Sheffield'," says McNamara.
The department typically let organisations or companies approach them with a problem that seems suited for F1 technology, while simultaneously spreading awareness about their capabilities. They examine each request on a case by case basis.
"We're looking at it and saying: 'that project, does it fit stuff we know about from F1?' So we can competently do it first," says McNamara. "And secondly, is it a good thing? So electric vehicles, most people inherently think are a good thing at the moment, so we've gone down that route."
Whatever project they partner on, though, cannot compromise the Williams brand. "We are very conscious for pretty much every project we do - is there a narrative of the Williams brand that supports this as well?" says McNamara.