In the A521 from Alpine F1 Team, the main structural elements are a carry-over from last season, as dictated by the regulatory changes agreed last year in response to the global pandemic.

Drive for innovation: the role of 3D printing in Formula One

Image credit: Alpine

E&T spoke to US-based company 3D Systems about its collaboration with the Formula One (F1) team Alpine and the role 3D printing plays in driving innovation and sustainability in the world-renowned motorsport.

The cars raced in Formula One are engineering marvels fuelled by relentless innovation. Teams work tirelessly to reach and beat an ever-growing standard of peak performance and the Alpine F1 Team is no exception to this.

In between seasons, teams alongside Alpine (formally known as Renault Sport) design and build a new car responding to rule changes outlined by the motorsport’s governing body, the FIA. This period paves the way for the natural research and development cycle aimed at improving car performance.

Once the racing season begins, teams may have to deliver engineering changes to their cars every racing weekend. Each race presents engineers with its own challenges related to architecture, climate and asphalt type, varying from purpose-built circuits to bumpy and tortuous street tracks.

As the team prepares for each circuit’s unique challenges and uses what little downtime it has between races to do further development work on its cars and equipment, Alpine believes that 3D printing can add value to this process. The team requires new components at every track and the benefits of using additive manufacturing are becoming increasingly relevant.

“The team at Alpine tune parts for various tracks and their associated attributes,” says 3D Systems’ Kevin Baughey. “This is the reason rapid iterations and testing need to be conducted throughout the series.”

Catering to these constant changes and to reach its performance goals, it is imperative there is constant R&D into new technologies and that contributions from technical partners continue to play a role in helping the teams create faster, lighter and stronger cars. Engineers at Alpine have been using an array of 3D printing technologies and expertise from the company 3D Systems to allow for ongoing innovation and collaboration.

Baughey, 3D Systems’ Transportation and Motorsports segment leader, spoke to E&T about the company’s partnership with the Alpine F1 Team. “One thing that’s been amazing about the partnership is the applications engineers, the knowledgeable consultants and so on, across multiple industries, and really combining all of those together to create a comprehensive workflow,” he explains. “All the way from the design aspects to the build preparation, the actual printing itself and then all the knowledge and applications that go into developing that into a solution.”

Baughey added that the company views itself as a technology partner for Alpine: “Working with them has allowed us to leverage all new kinds of technologies and applying that application consultative knowledge in the industry we’ve built up working with F1, and motorsport in general, has helped us to embed these advanced applications to help drive innovation faster.”

Based in Oxfordshire, Alpine has been using 3D Systems’ technologies in its operations since 1998. As an early adopter of 3D printing for rapid prototyping, a method which resulted in the invention of additive manufacturing (AM), Alpine’s use of 3D printers has allowed for early uses such as function and fit design verification and jigs and fixtures – a manufacturing staple that comprises additive manufacturing being more readily available, cost-effective and performance-oriented – for accurate assembly. 

As the partnership has blossomed over the years, 3D Systems application engineers have helped the Alpine team understand and seize the materials and methodologies available to them. The partnership has also allowed the team’s cars to undergo testing in its wind tunnel facility. It has also helped to create new innovations in on-car parts through 3D printing for investment casting, which are digital processes, and AM technologies poised to cut time and cost in production workflows, and explorations in direct metal printing (DMP).

Motorsport teams such as Alpine are continuously changing, testing, evaluating and refining their cars on and off the race circuits. This results in a cycle of opportunities for the team to learn from past mistakes, either in the wind tunnel or on track. “With each new application they’re advancing the science and we’re learning to understand the fundamentals,” Baughey says. “We also try to make the process efficient and effective, so we can replicate those and bring the parts into production.”

3D Systems printers in Alpine's Technical Centre in Enstone, UK

Image credit: 3D Systems

As part of its collaboration with 3D Systems, the Alpine F1 Team has set up a high productivity Additive Manufacturing Centre in their Technical Centre in Enstone, Oxfordshire. The production fleet fuels its wind tunnel programme with up to 150 parts per day, printed with performance material specifically developed for this application.

Baughey also stressed that the Alpine team produces associated race car surfaces with other methods. “The materials developed and produced for this application have strong influences from the wind tunnel application,” Baughey explains. “The materials and processes they [Alpine] would use in absence of these would be composite materials, but produced with more traditional means, without the rapid iteration and fine details/surface needed to optimise the test process and fidelity of results.”

The machines used at the centre include stereolithography (SLA) printers and selective laser sintering (SLS) machines. Such technologies use materials from the company’s Accura range to build jigs and fixtures, fluid flow rigs and investment casting patterns. It also helps make wind-tunnel parts and supplies DuraForm PA (a durable thermoplastic) and DuraForm GF (a glass-filled engineering plastic) for parts used on the car itself, such as electrical boxes and cooling ducts.

Motorsport engineers have long proven 3D printing for rapid prototyping to be a useful tool in a sport where aerodynamic surfacing panelling requires tightly packed and constrained internal race car components. When aerodynamicists at Alpine saw the complexity of the components 3D Systems’ machines could produce, they saw the potential of 3D printing technology for fit and function testing. With this awareness, the use of 3D technology grew, gradually expanding from rapid prototyping to wind tunnel model manufacturing. 

Wind tunnel testing in Alpine's technical centre

3D Systems test multiple design iterations of a specific part in the Alpine F1 Team wind tunnel to investigate and improve aerodynamic performance.

Image credit: 3D Systems/Alpine

In terms of productivity and efficiency, 3D printing has also increased the team’s ability to respond to the challenges presented in consistently new racing environments. Using SLA and SLS, 3D Systems technologies can produce complex jigs and fixtures, fluid flow rigs and car components in hours rather than weeks, making 3D technologies ideal for the logistical challenges of F1 racing.

As well as the large quantities of components tested in the wind tunnel, Alpine builds several race car parts directly. 3D Systems’ technologies allow the team to have an effective new manufacturing process, enabling them to reduce both cycle times and cost.

“Additive solutions have allowed the Alpine team to cut cost and time in producing parts for the cars. Being able to reduce the time parts are going through a workflow, and get it rapidly on track week-by-week, is fundamental,” explains Baughey. “It has also allowed, from a technical perspective, to help reduce the design constraints, increasing the degrees of freedom for designers and engineers.”

3D printing has helped the team achieve lighter-weight parts that increase speed and fuel efficiency, and accurate and informative flow testing for better engine performance and reduced wear and tear. “The materials used and the geometry dictate weight and performance,” Baughey says. “The key is understanding the form that best delivers the performance while minimising weight.”

Regarding what parts the team can and can’t print for such applications, Baughey says the properties of these materials determine this: “The key decision point is whether the end material can withstand the ‘use’ conditions. The printing technology being used (e.g., SLA, SLS, DMP etc) can also drive this and has been a positive point for 3D Systems, as we have a wide portfolio of both technologies and materials to use for many applications.”

Alpine and 3D Systems are also looking to become more sustainable, following the motorsport’s 2019 announcement of its ambitious sustainability plan to have a net-zero carbon footprint by 2030. At the time of the announcement, Jean Todt, president of the FIA, welcomed the initiative. “Our commitment to global environmental protection is crucial,” Todt said. “It is not only very encouraging for the future of motorsport, but it could also have strong benefits for society as a whole.

Baughey adds, “There’s a big push for sustainability in the sport and I think our partnership with Alpine perfectly aligns with the vision the team, and other teams, have for this initiative. But if you think about the advancements F1 is bringing to the table overall, creating the lightest-weight, highest-performing capacity to the power of the engine, to improve its ability to perform, as well as its ability to stay on track using the least amount of energy that it can, are all still related to sustainability.”

Baughey says 3D Systems are excited to continue their relationship with Alpine, developing parts and driving innovation that not only applies to F1 cars but also across other sectors such as healthcare, consumer automotive and aerospace. “Because there are a lot of technological innovations already out there to us, this can easily translate to unique designs and iterations, no matter the sector,” he concludes.

“Additive manufacturing allows manufacturers to keep that window open as they develop the science and product through its life cycle.”

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