The tech F1 banned: Simply complicated

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3D printing has moved on from producing little plastic parts

They’re not pretty, the racing machines coming out of Formula Student, but they’re innovative. In fact, they are so advanced the students are utilising technology outlawed in Formula 1, according to Joe Panik of Oxford Brookes University.

The technology in question is 3D printing with threads of carbon fibre. “You get a continuous fibre reinforcement,” he says. “I believe it’s banned because they were concerned teams would build these huge machines effectively to print whole aerodynamic parts. In terms of design, the impossible is becoming possible.”

3D printing is nothing new. It’s been around in Formula Student for a few years, predominantly in the big-budget universities in Germany and Holland – institutions that give students a year’s leave to contest FS.

But Oxford Brookes and Bath University are introducing it, too, with the former working with 3D specialist RPS and the partly government-funded Manufacturing Technology Centre. “MTC’s aim is to bridge the gap between academia and manufacturing in the UK. Graphene, for example, was invented at Manchester University but the UK doesn’t capitalise on that technology,” says Panik.

The product of this partnership is electron-beam melted titanium uprights (read 3D-printed titanium uprights). “We’ve made a 50 per cent reduction in unsprung mass with this process. That’s quite staggering. These technologies transform the way you design parts, you can now do things that were previously unthinkable in terms of geometries.”

Its 3D-printed air intake has shed 53 per cent of its previous weight, using that banned-in-F1 tech. It sounds far simpler than it is. “It’s not a case of designing a part and just clicking print,” adds Panik. “Once the part comes out it’s far from ready to go. You have to design and support the whole of the part as it is semi-molten – you can’t print on top of air. When it comes out it’s still rough around the edges, you then machine it using traditional methods.”

Yet mobile printing labs are appearing at race tracks with teams – McLaren, for one. “It’s happening, although not in metals. With plastics? Absolutely.

“Last season we at Oxford Brookes were very, very behind with our front wing – the aerodynamicists got very carried away – and we weren’t able to do proper mechanical design and assemble things correctly. We ended up 3D printing a lot of our front wing and wrapping it in carbon fibre. It wasn’t ideal, and was quite heavy, but it meant we could get the shape and design we wanted.”

The biggest benefit for F1, reckons Panik, is in the creation of wildly complex front wings. “People forget those little intricate parts need to bond and connect to other elements. That is just as much work as designing it in the first place. This can solve that. In our front wing, RPS has 3D-printed parts with carbon-fibre powders and fillers in the plastic they print. They are working with F1 teams to do that.”

3D cars are reportedly not far from hitting the road – and the next generation of engineers is ideally placed to champion them in racing.