During the months leading up to the current Formula One racing season, engineers in a modest factory building in Oxfordshire were deeply engaged in using 3D printing to hone designs for the fastest road cars on the planet.
The Caterham CT05, powered by a Renault V6 RS34 engine, is encased in carbon fiber and epoxy resin bodywork to make it slice through the air at maximum efficiency. The motor itself is capable of an astounding 18,000 rpms and generates approximately 950 bhp.
Grand Prix cars like the Caterham entry, and it's hardly the fastest car on the track, represent the cutting edge in racing technology. Each car on the grid at an F1 race is capable of reaching 100 mph – and then slowing back down to 0 mph – in less than five seconds. The outlandish cornering ability of Grand Prix cars is due to wild levels of grip and downforce which test the neck muscles of F1 drivers to the limits of human endurance.
In that kind of competitive arena, the margins are razor thin, and that means testing is an everyday fact of life for F1 teams and designers.
Caterham bought a pair of 3D printing machines to cut costs and speed up their design process, and it worked like a charm. According to Prince, the technology saves his company nearly $67,000 each and every month.
"An F1 team (is in) constant cycle development all year round," Prince said. "We need these machines to improve the performance of the car."
Prince said parts are designed and printed at 60 percent scale before being tested for aerodynamic efficiency in the wind tunnel at the Caterham plant. He says that process allows his team to adapt and improve each part before it's manufactured and incorporated into the full-scale racing car.
Other F1 teams, including Infiniti Red Bull, are also using 3D printing technology to manufacture metal parts on racing cars in the ongoing scrum to take the checkered flag.
"Give it another five years and it will take off massively," Prince said. "We're using 3D printing on our full-scale car already. There will be no boundaries on what you can make out of 3D printed metal."