From F1 to Route 1: 3D printing shows mainstream potential

3D printing has earned its place in the high-pressure world of motor racing. Can that same technology and know-how be scaled up for the mainstream auto industry? Michael Nash investigates

Car factories have changed drastically since Henry Ford decided to adopt the belt-driven assembly line approach for the Model T. From what was once something of a dirty, labour-intensive and hectic scramble, modern assembly lines are now typically pristinely clean, automated and highly efficient.

A handful of advanced manufacturing technologies is becoming increasingly commonplace on the most modern production lines, and one much talked about, but still very much in its infancy, is additive manufacturing, or 3D printing.

The value of 3D printing to motorsport is undeniable; where it sits in mainstream vehicle manufacturing will become clear in the coming years. What is already certain is that 3D printing will have a role to play, and as with many other technologies, motorsport is the perfect test-bed. Here, Megatrends looks at the potential trickle-down from race track to production line.

Ford is one of the few vehicle manufacturers speaking openly about its work in 3D printing. “Automotive has really embraced trying to have a more flexible manufacturing environment,” Ellen Lee, the OEM’s Technical Leader of Additive Manufacturing Research was quoted as saying in a recent special report on 3D printing. “For an industry that has these cycles of upturns and downturns, being able to very quickly modify the manufacturing floor to change the product in a very quick and easy way lends itself well to some additive manufacturing processes.”

“Getting from the production of low-volume, niche parts to medium- or high-volume is definitely a bridge that is possible to cross” – Jeff Schipper, Proto Labs

To date, however, while 3D printing has been used to great success in vehicle development and in motorsport, its application has remained limited as a manufacturing option in the mainstream automotive industry. It is an increasingly common technique used by OEMs for prototyping or in low-volume production runs, but a variety of factors have prevented it from being used to build components used in mass-market vehicles. These include the quality of the finished part when using some existing 3D printing techniques, the cost of the processes and the materials, and the time it takes to print a single part.

“However, getting from the production of low-volume, niche parts to medium- or high-volume is definitely a bridge that is possible to cross,” Jeff Schipper, Director of Special Operations, Proto Labs, tells Megatrends. “I don’t think it’s realistic for us to dream of making millions of parts a year for vehicle manufacturers, but a figure in the tens of thousands is realistic.”

One of the developments that could help bridge this gap is the use of new 3D printing processes – several of which are already showing benefits over existing techniques.

Promising techniques

“When considering automotive, I think most of our technology will initially be adopted in low-volume, high-value products,” says Andy Middleton, President of Stratasys EMEA. “Our work with McLaren is a great example – the volume is relatively low but the value is high, which makes it economically viable to use additive manufacturing. Today, the cost structure of using additive manufacturing as opposed to conventional techniques in high-volume applications doesn’t quite stack up.”

In January 2017, McLaren Racing and Stratasys announced a new four-year partnership that would see the expansion of the Formula 1 team’s rapid manufacturing capacity at the McLaren Technology Centre at Woking in the UK. The facility now houses the latest fused deposition modelling (FDM) and PolyJet-based 3D printing solutions, which are used to create a variety of race-ready parts – from hydraulic line brackets to rear-wing flap extensions and carbon fibre brake cooling ducts. Shortly after the expansion, McLaren Racing said that it would use the solutions to produce components for its 2017 MCL32 race car with the goal of accelerating design modifications and reducing weight.

Scott Crump, Founder of Stratasys, invented FDM Technology over 20 years ago. It works by heating thermoplastics to a semi-liquid state before depositing layers in small doses along the extrusion path.

PolyJet 3D printing works in a similar way to inkjet printing, but instead of applying ink on paper, it layers UV-cured droplets of liquid photopolymer onto a build tray. These accumulate and harden to form the 3D printed part straight out of the machine, with no post-curing needed.

 “Today, the cost structure of using additive manufacturing as opposed to conventional techniques in high-volume applications doesn’t quite stack up” – Andy Middleton, Stratasys

Various 3D printing solutions are in use by a number of other companies. Proto Labs, for example, uses stereolithography (SL), which involves focusing an ultraviolet laser to draw on the surface of liquid thermoset resin, turning it solid. The process is repeated thousands of times, layer upon layer, until the final part is formed.

“This is a very accurate process,” Schipper confirms. “However, it’s not really viable for production parts because the end result isn’t engineering grade. So we use it for marketing trials.”

Other processes used by Proto Labs include selective laser sintering (SLS), whereby a CO2 laser fuses layers of nylon powder into a solid, and direct metal laser sintering (DMLS) which involves a fibre laser system to draw on atomised metal powder, welding it into a solid. Like SL, both of these processes involve building up the material layer upon layer.

“SLF results in very high quality parts that are functional, but it’s expensive,” Schipper reveals. “DMLS is probably the most exciting and the most production-friendly. It also opens up new design freedoms, although it’s still quite expensive at the moment.”

Another process that holds significant potential, adds Schipper, is multi-jet fusion. At Rapid + TCT – a 3D printing exhibition held in April 2017 in Fort Worth, Texas – Proto Labs and HP announced that they were collaborating on developing the multi-jet fusion technology. “It’s a much faster and more economical process, and represents a huge step forward in making 3D printing production-friendly in mid-volume applications,” he affirms.

Taking low-volume motorsport applications…

Neil Oatley has over 25 years’ experience working with McLaren, and many more as an engineer in F1. As the Design and Development Director at McLaren Racing, he is tasked with identifying new methods of manufacturing that enhance the company’s race cars.

“At the moment, we’re using 3D printing to create some smaller components like the blanking panels for cooling outlets,” Oatley explains to Megatrends. “Before we had 3D printing, these would take a couple of days to make with the proper tooling techniques. But now we can make them in about three to four hours.”

When it comes to F1, this time advantage is hugely beneficial because the rate of component development is so quick. He describes a scenario in which the McLaren Racing team demands a small change to a certain part just days, or even hours, before an event.

“We’re using 3D printing to create some smaller components. Before we had 3D printing, these would take a couple of days to make. But now we can make them in about three to four hours” – Neil Oatley, McLaren Racing

“This is by no means uncommon in the F1 space,” he affirms. “We take feedback from the track and use it to modify parts before they are fitted to the cars again. 3D printing allows us to make these small but vitally important changes in very short spaces of time, giving us a type of flexibility that we never had before.”

While he is predominantly focused on F1, Oatley adds that a select few of the components printed at the facility in Woking are now being used by McLaren Automotive in its high-end performance vehicles: “We’ve got about 20 jobs that we are doing for the McLaren Automotive team at the moment, using 3D printing to make parts for their next-generation road cars. And just like for the F1 team, we can make these in just a few hours, whereas before, the road car team would have to wait days for injection moulding and other such techniques.”

As well as cost, time is an important factor for 3D printing, says Middleton. Stratasys, he says, is busy examining new 3D printing techniques to reduce both: “Cost and speed have a huge impact on the use of additive manufacturing for higher volume parts in automotive. It’s not going to fly if we’re printing 50 components an hour, so we need new technologies, and these will come through the forming of partnerships.”

…to the mainstream

In November 2016, Stratasys began working with Siemens to integrate the tech company’s digital factory solutions with Stratasys’ additive manufacturing solutions. “With a seven-axis robotic arm, which is theoretically unlimited in size, we can start moving multiple printing heads,” Middleton notes. “This potentially means we can produce higher volumes of components in a shorter space of time, but we still have to address the cost issue.”

Aside from new 3D printing techniques, Middleton thinks the development of materials could go a long way in making 3D printing more viable for use in the production of mainstream vehicles. “They need to have the relevant properties for each application, which could be thermal resistance for use under the hood, or strength and durability for chassis parts,” he says. “Continued research and development in materials is absolutely vital, and we’ve made quantum strides in this area over the last seven years or so. In the future, I think it will definitely facilitate further adoption of additive manufacturing in automotive.” Indeed, at the time of the Stratasys-McLaren Racing announcement, Ilan Levin, Chief Executive of Stratasys, said, “Stratasys will also gain invaluable feedback and insights from working with ultra-high performance automotive applications, which we can then apply to our mainstream automotive and aerospace customers.”

Fabian Krauss, Business Development Manager at Electro Optical Systems (EOS) also thinks that the on-going R&D in materials will be essential to the success of 3D printing in mass-market vehicles. Looking ahead, he thinks this will open up a variety of different benefits. “We’ll be able to replace parts traditionally made out of metal with high-temperature plastics,” he says. “We’ll also be able to introduce new materials with metal-like properties, but with much less weight.” EOS also works in F1, as the official Technology Partner of Williams F1, and it too sees its motorsport work benefiting its mainstream customers. Speaking in November 2015 when EOS entered a three-year technical partnership with Williams F1, Stuart Jackson, the supplier’s Regional Manager for the UK, said the company’s Advanced Engineering business enables Williams to pursue technical innovation “that transfers Formula One technology solutions focusing on sustainability and energy efficiency to mainstream industries such as automotive, motorsport, transport, energy and other sectors.”

However, the problem with using new materials, says Phil DeSimone, Vice President of Business Development and Co-Founder at Redwood City, California-headquartered 3D printing specialist Carbon, is that they will need to be tried and tested before adoption. This, he thinks, requires closer co-operation between 3D printing technology providers and vehicle manufacturers.

“We’ve got about 20 jobs that we are doing for McLaren Automotive, using 3D printing to make parts for their next-generation road cars. We can make these in just a few hours, whereas before, the road car team would have to wait days for injection moulding and other such techniques” – Neil Oatley, McLaren Racing

“The automation validation cycle is our biggest restriction,” says DeSimone. “OEMs have been using the same materials for the last 40 years. Once they find a material they like, they stick to it… We know the process better than anyone else, and if we want to see further adoption within automotive, we have to take on a consulting role to help them find parts that can be redesigned for the process.”

From F1 to Route 1 – with complements

Ford’s Lee welcomes the idea of closer collaboration between OEMs and providers of 3D printing technology. While this could help to make 3D printing more viable for use in mainstream production, she firmly believes that the technology will remain just one of many options in the vehicle manufacturing process.

“We won’t replace all of the conventional manufacturing that we have today,” the 3D printing report quoted her as saying. “It will likely act as an add-on. There are some cases where it makes sense, and others where it does not. Just because you can print something, doesn’t mean that you should.” Based on existing and anticipated technologies, OEMs need smart decision-making to decide upon which applications to focus.

Middleton shares a similar view. “We can print everything really, but it doesn’t necessarily make commercial sense for everything. I think 3D printing will remain a complementary technology alongside existing manufacturing processes for the next ten years or so.”

McLaren Racing now has around five years of experience in using 3D printing to make parts for its race cars. Looking ahead, Oatley expects this experience to be leveraged by McLaren Automotive as it starts to introduce 3D printed parts into its road cars. “We’ve already learnt a lot from using 3D printing,” he says, “but we’re still learning every single day.” As the technology and materials evolve, he concludes, 3D printing is likely to play a greater role in all types of vehicle manufacturing.

This article appeared in the Q3 2017 issue of Automotive Megatrends Magazine.

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