3D Printing Takes Pole Position in Formula One 2021 Season

Additive manufacturing serves as an important tool in the toolbox for F1 engineering teams.

Williams Racing FW43B-01. (Image courtesy of Williams Racing.)

Williams Racing FW43B-01. (Image courtesy of Williams Racing.)

For some engineers, motorsports, such as NASCAR, Formula One, Rally or Gymkhana, are what made them want to become engineers in the first place. These sports combine mental and physical athletic skills with engineering as teams strive to squeeze maximum performance from the machine and driver. Like all sports—and indeed, engineering challenges—there are constraints. The art and science of motorsport is in finding the strategy and skill to outperform the competition while remaining within the constraints. That is why motorsport teams, including Formula One, are always looking for ways to improve.

Additive manufacturing (AM) is well-suited for performance automotive applications, such as rapid prototyping, because it can be used to build complex, one-off parts relatively inexpensively. According to Robert Fernley, former Deputy team Principal at Force India—now known as Racing Point F1—F1 teams are increasingly moving toward 3D printing for end-use parts rather than just prototyping.

However, the use of AM is also constrained in Formula One, with restrictions mainly applying to production parts for the racecars. There are fewer restrictions on prototyping and testing. According to AM industry experts, restrictions on additively manufactured parts in the sport seem to mainly aim for leveling the playing field between richer teams with more money to spend on high-tech and advanced materials. For example, F1 technical regulations prohibit the use of the following as pertains to AM:

  • Metal matrix composites, except where allowed under article 15.3.2
  • Shape memory materials, except for piezoelectric materials used in electrical sensors
  • Titanium alloys for fasteners with a male thread less than 15 mm diameter
  • Alloys with a combined weight of platinum, ruthenium, iridium, rhenium and gold more than 5 percent
  • Components produced by foil metallurgy
  • Intermetallic alloys
  • Additively manufactured materials containing beryllium

Going along with this idea of using restrictions to level the playing field in terms of financial resources across teams, F1’s governing body, the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), has banned the use of 100 percent size models for wind tunnel testing due to the high cost of manufacturing these models. Most teams use 60 percent models, and polymer AM has a role to play in this application too.

The 50 percent scale F1 2021 model in Sauber’s wind tunnel testing facility. (Image courtesy of Formula 1.)

The 50 percent scale F1 2021 model in Sauber’s wind tunnel testing facility. (Image courtesy of Formula 1.)

As F1 heads into the beginning of the 2021 season, AM is increasingly being used, and strictly regulated, in not only prototypes and testing but also in production parts for the track. Longstanding 3D-printing partnerships exist between Jabil and Renault, Stratasys and McLaren, Williams and EOS, Sauber and Additive Industries, and Ferrari and Magneti Marelli.

Recently, polymer additive vendor Nexa3D announced a partnership with Williams Racing. 

Beginning this month, Nexa3D’s NXE400 photoplastic 3D printer will be available to manufacture functional wind tunnel parts for aero-testing purposes. The company’s NexaX software will enable high-performance AM processes using modern computation architecture to develop light-weighted parts and accelerate the file-to-part process.

Wind Tunnel Parts printed for Williams Racing using Nexa3D NXE400 machine. (Image courtesy of Williams Racing.)

Wind Tunnel Parts printed for Williams Racing using Nexa3D NXE400 machine. (Image courtesy of Williams Racing.)

With Nexa3D’s technology, Williams Racing will be able to design and manufacture complex, light-weighted parts in minutes, compared to hours with traditional manufacturing, while minimizing material usage and waste.

Al Peasland, head of Technical and Innovation Partnerships at Williams Racing said, “We’re extremely excited to announce our partnership with Nexa3D and look forward to enhancing our additive manufacturing capabilities with their innovative high-speed printing technologies. Formula One is a challenging environment that demands a continuous improvement philosophy in order to remain competitive. Our partnership will enable the team to continue to push boundaries in 3D printing and present new opportunities for Nexa3D to further advance their revolutionary technology.”

While sitting on the couch this spring watching open-wheeled, spaceship-like cars glide around corners at 100mph, remember that today’s AM technology deserves a little credit for the performance.

For more stories on emerging engineering applications in motorsports, check out Crossing the Finish Line with a Digital Twin.