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Formula 1’s latest technology: 3D printing

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Formula 1 is a sport of perpetual innovation. We’re used to seeing teams and manufacturers showcase the latest developments in engines, tyres, aerodynamics and safety as they battle for the World Championship. Now, one team is making use of advances in a technology less often associated with motorsport: printing.

McLaren has recently begun using 3D printing to build new parts for its cars at Grands Prix. It has had 3D printers in its factory for a while, but bringing them to the racetrack allows the Woking-based team to fit improved or replacement parts for use in that weekend’s race, without having to wait for them to be built at the factory and shipped around the world.

On the McLaren website, you can see some examples of what its Statasys 3D printers have produced, from a rear-wing flap for extra downforce to carbon fibre ducts to cool the brakes. Each is made to precise specifications from advanced materials, and they look very impressive. But, this being Formula 1, the most crucial factor is speed.

When Fernando Alonso hits the track in qualifying, being fast and accurate is essential. It’s the same when it comes to manufacturing new parts back in the garage, and that’s where the advantages of 3D printing are clearest. For example, McLaren tells of a hydraulic line bracket that ‘was produced in just four hours compared to an estimated two weeks to create using traditional manufacturing processes’.

3D printing can speed up production greatly and cut the costs of retooling machinery to build to different specifications – giving the team much greater flexibility to innovate. It can build and test a few different variations of a part to find the best, whereas previously it would only have had the time or money to try one.

Take just the smallest part for example: a rubber-like boot McLaren had to make to keep radio cables out of the way of its drivers. According to the team, ‘three different designs were iterated and 3D-printed in one day and the final component was 3D-printed in just two hours’.

McLaren isn’t the only F1 team to be exploring the potential of 3D printing. In January, Autosport revealed that Ferrari were considering using it to build pistons for its new engine. ‘Using this technique allows engineers to build up thin layers on material one at a time,’ the magazine reported. ‘So it is possible to create complex shapes that have not been possible before using traditional casting and machining methods.’ And Renault 3D-printed the cockpit of its ‘RS 2027’ concept car – the French manufacturer’s vision of what F1 cars could look like in ten years.

This matters for all of us. As we’ve written before, technological advancements on the Grand Prix circuit often find themselves into the vehicles we all drive on the road – and that’s no less true for 3D printing. Renault Trucks is already experimenting with it to improve the performance of its engines, and Honda showed off an entire 3D-printed car in October. Now that this innovation is being accelerated to the breakneck speeds of Formula 1, it surely won’t be long before it’s part of motorists’ everyday lives too.

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