Ask any educator and they’ll tell you the United States needs more engineers. However, it’s tough to get students to undertake the years of hard work to attain a degree. It might be an easier sell if those students were told about the various competition programs managed by the Society of Automotive Engineers. The organization’s International Collegiate Design Series offers college students the chance to develop their own vehicles and compete against teams from other universities. SAE competitions allow teams to travel the world and test their work against the best from other nations. Now 3D printing is helping teams deliver their best work.
SAE sponsors competitions in eight categories, including combustion-engine and hybrid racecars, electric racecars, autonomous vehicles, snowmobiles, Baja-style off-road racecars, super-high-mileage vehicles, and model aircraft. The idea is to give engineering students real-world hands-on team-based experience to prepare them for the demands they’ll face in their professional careers. The teams must build their vehicles, and also manage budgets and schedules.
Teams from universities around the world build cars to demonstrate their engineering skills. The cars are judged for quality and innovation, and then raced. (Photo: Global Formula Racing)
Global Formula Racing
One of America’s leading Formula SAE teams is based at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon. The team is appropriately named Beaver Racing after the school’s mascot. Oregon’s team is partnered with a similar team from Duale Hochschule Baden-Württemberg-Ravensburg in Germany. The two teams are the first international collaboration in this series, and they compete together as Global Formula Racing.
Together with their German counterparts, the Oregon team developed a combustion-engine racecar, an electric racecar, and an autonomous car. For 2019, the captain of the Oregon-based part of the team was Nathan Rust, a graduate student in mechanical engineering.
“I have to finish my thesis, build a racecar, and then go find a job,” Rust says. “I want to work in the automotive or aerospace industries, or perhaps in racing.”
To build a winning racecar, the Oregon team turned to tech giant HP (formerly Hewlett-Packard) for help bringing the latest rapid prototyping and production technology to bear.
3D printing a racing vehicle
Getting from the drawing board to a working vehicle is one of the biggest challenges an automotive engineer can face. The Oregon team decided to use the latest in three-dimensional (3D) printing to bypass many of the difficulties that come with old-fashioned fabrication.
The car developed at Oregon State University uses 3D printing for critical components such as the fuel tank and aerodynamic elements. (Photo: Global Formula Racing)
“We’ve been using 3D printing for maybe 7 or 8 years,” Rust says. “The last three to five years have been incredible with the introduction of metal jet printing, laser sintering, and powder bed printing. We’ve been able to do a lot of things we couldn’t do before. We’d like to get to the point of using 3D printed parts wherever possible.”
The team used computer-aided design (CAD) software to design parts such as the air intake and the fuel tank to fit in the limited space available inside the racing car chassis. The process was identical to what happens in any automaker’s engineering design studio.
“3D printing has given us the opportunity to use more complex geometry,” Rust explains. “We’re able to do really tight packaging of the air intake in our engine bay while still conforming to the rules.”
Using a fuel tank printed out of nylon also solved some fabrication problems.
“It means we don’t have to weld up an aluminum tank,” Rust says, “That’s heavier than we want, and through 3D printing we were able to be lightweight, have a really close fit, and get good performance.”
Working with HP’s 3D printing
Advanced 3D printers are outside the budget of what is essentially a school club, so the team relies on sponsorship from HP.
“We make our CAD drawings and export them,” Rust explains. “The nice thing about 3D printing is that we can design it, send it off, and then it arrives in the mail and we’re good to go.”
Oregon’s team finished in second place at the German Formula Student competition. (Photo: Global Formula Racing)
Rust is adamant that the team could not have achieved what they did without HP’s help.
“Our contact at HP is John Greeven,” Rust states. “He’s awesome, and he’s doing everything he can to help us push their technology as far as we can. We try to give back everything we’ve learned to help their business. It’s huge to have a contact who’s willing to do whatever we want.”
Greeven is the customer success manager for 3D printing at HP’s Corvallis installation.
“The university is a big part of our community,” Greeven responds. “We have close ties and over the past few years we’ve been supporting them with 3D printing and teaching them a little bit about what you can do with it. A lot of this is emerging thinking, so it’s great to sit down and brainstorm with them.”
One of the latest technologies HP is developing is the ability to make metal parts with a printer.
“HP has a metal jet printer,” Rust says. “It only prints in stainless steel right now, but we want to do a lot more metal printing. We’re working towards integrating more 3D printing into the car, especially where we can get weight savings and topology optimization. The more we can integrate that into our designs the better, because we can maximize our potential while minimizing our materials use.”
Taking the design to competition
The Global Formula Racing team took their combustion engine racecar to compete in Michigan, Austria, and Germany in 2019. After overcoming the late arrival of the car with a marathon prep session, the team scored design points for their innovative use of 3D printing. Then the car performed well enough to earn the team a second-place finish at the event. The team had previously finished 5th in Michigan and 12th in Austria. Starting from a 6th place world ranking in 2018, the team is optimistic about their chances this year.
“We’re hoping for an increase in our world ranking spot,” Rust says.
One benefit to the team’s competitive position is the reduction in the time it takes them to have an idea, develop and test the design, and then create the part they need through 3D printing.
“One of the biggest contributing factors to success in an environment like that is the speed at which you can develop,” Greeven emphasizes, “because you have a certain amount of time until you hit your competitions, which for them is summertime. They have to get a lot of things done and tested and revised. The faster they can turn those cycles, the better they are, and 3D printing helps tremendously with that.”
2019 is the final year for a combustion-powered racecar for Oregon State’s Formula SAE team. (photo courtesy of Global Formula Racing)
Looking to the future
The 2019 season was the last chance for the team’s combustion engine racecar, which will now be retired.
“Our 2019 combustion car is the last combustion car we will build as a team,” Rust declares. “We’ve also been building an electric car for the past nine years and last year we introduced our first-ever driverless vehicle, so we went to Germany with three cars. That’s a big deal for us. Now we’re going to focus our attention only on electric and driverless cars.”
The reason for the change in focus is simple – it’s what the students’ future employers are looking for.
“We’re motivated by industry and what is wanted commercially,” Rust explains. “People want electric cars and driverless cars, so the competition conformed to that. In the end it’s about preparing engineers for those challenges by the time they reach industry.”