The University of Wollongong (UOW) has turned to 3D printing to gain an edge in the annual Formula-SAE race car engineering competition.
The university's Formula-SAE team leader, Nathan Tarlinton, told Computerworld Australia that 3D printing has improved UOW's results and the experience has convinced him that the technology will be revolutionary for manufacturing.
"A long way down the track, it's probably going to take over conventional machining."
Formula-SAE is a worldwide competition sponsored by the Society of Automotive Engineers in which students from 500 universities worldwide build a racing car. Most Australian universities with engineering departments participate.
In the competition, students must build small, high-performance race cars that would be suitable for mass production and sale to the amateur autocross market. The program culminates with a design competition and a race on a real track.
The competition was formed in the '80s in the United States by Ford, GM and other major car manufacturers to give real-world experience to engineering students. The University of Wollongong (UOW) has participated in Formula-SAE's Australasian competition since 2000.
Each year at UOW, a group of students set up and run a micro-business within the university to produce a car. This year's group of students is already under way preparing for the next race in mid-December.
The program is open to all years of students at UOW. There are usually about eight core team members and an additional 20 to 25 students with supporting roles, said Tarlinton.
In 2012, UOW installed two 3D printers by Stratasys to assist with vehicle production.
"Originally, it started off with looking for ways to do things better," Tarlinton said. "After that, once we got our heads around it, the options available to us really opened up."
In the first year, UOW started small, printing parts like enclosures for circuit boards. Later, 3D printing produced more complex objects including a brake light enclosure, he said.
"It looks very sleek and black when the lights are turned off, but when the brake lights shines through, it shows our university logo as the brake light itself," Tarlinton described with some pride.
In previous years, these parts were purchased form Jaycar and other stores. By 3D printing their own parts, students have been able to do much more customisation on the vehicles, he said.
Last year, the university used 3D printing to produce the engine intake. Before, this had to be fabricated from steel or aluminium. This process of cutting, bending and welding the metal was time-consuming and not always accurate, he said.
With 3D printing, students have been able to do more complex and tightly integrated designs on the intake that help the engine to perform better, he said.
He also pointed to significant time savings from 3D printing the parts.
"Previously, fabricating an aluminium intake would take probably two to three weeks."
With 3D printing, it takes about one day to produce the intake and another day to assemble, he said. "Within two days, we'll have gone from a model on a computer to a part on a car."
The end result has been better performing cars.
In 2012, the university's first year using 3D printing, the university finished in third place, its best placing in three years, he said.
While this year a mechanical failure unrelated to the 3D-printed parts upset the university from a strong finish in the race, it saw its highest result since 2006 in the pre-race competition for vehicle design.
Tarlinton said that shifting from the traditional manufacturing approach requires learning "how to open up your mind to the complexity of 3D printing." He predicted that each successive Formula-SAE team at the university will find new and innovative ways to incorporate 3D printing into race car production.
"We're still coming to grips with using the current technology to its full potential," he said. "We're nowhere near the full potential of the printers yet."