A Race to the finish

Rapid prototyping enables stock-car racing company to stay on track and in front of the competition

This year marks 20 years of competition for Hendrick Motorsports. In just two decades Hendrick Motorsports has garnered five NASCAR Winston Cup Series (now NEXTEL Cup) championships, three NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series titles, and one NASCAR Busch Series crown, making it one of stock-car racing's premier organizations. Rick Hendrick is the second team owner in NASCAR's modern era to earn more than 100 Cup Series victories.

In 1986, just two years after Hendrick entered into competition, an innovator in Sylmar, CA, introduced to the world an exciting and revolutionary technology known as stereolithography. That innovator, Chuck Hull, not only invented the stereolithography process, he also launched an industry known as rapid prototyping. Since the introduction of stereolithography, 3D Systems, the solid imaging company, has been changing the way people design, develop, and manufacture products. The solid imaging systems manufactured by 3D Systems are used for various applications throughout various industries. Companies like Hendrick Motorsports use solid imaging systems for design communication, validation, rapid prototyping, and direct manufacturing.


Header package produced using stereolithography.
Click here to enlarge image

In a recent interview, Jim Wall, engineering group manager, Hendrick Motorsports, explained how technology has changed the way cars are developed and their use of solid imaging technology.

Goode: "Jim, 2004 marks the 20th anniversary of Hendrick Motorsports. How has technology overall changed the way cars are developed?"

Wall: "Racing is a process of continual change and it can be very difficult to manage that change. Technology has allowed us to do things faster, be more creative in what we develop and use our creative abilities at a higher level rather than just our skills at reproducing components.

"The computer has become a serious business tool and with that it has become a powerful engineering tool. The advancements made with computers in general have given us the means to communicate through email, manage basic information, and collaborate with people on the other side of the world. The use of CAD/CAM has permeated the industry from the standpoint of design, research, analysis, and manufacturing. The advancements made in computers created an industry of more advanced software tools that are used in every aspect of business. By the same token, coupled with the design analysis testing, we [Hendrick Motorsports] have other advanced tools, such as stereolithography, that can participate in producing 3-D parts. Just this morning I was holding 3-D printed pieces up to the engine for verification.

"It (stereolithography) allows you to manage change and produce change at a faster rate. When you can change things quicker you are more competitive. Everyone in NASCAR has the same amount of time to produce parts. To remain competitive you need to reduce that time and produce parts quicker, ultimately getting you to the track quicker than your competition.

"The fundamental pieces that have impacted what we [Hendrick Motorsports] do is moving from CAD (wireframes) to the 3-D solid world. Being able to analyze the components on the computer is one thing, but being able to build a prototype and physically check the functionality can make the difference.


Close-up of the header package print out designed using the selective laser sintering (SLA) process.
Click here to enlarge image

"We can contract work out but you need lead-time in order to do so—we don't always have the time. We brought in the manufacturing components [into Hendrick] so that we can save time and gain a competitive advantage. We can compress the amount of time it takes to get a task done, going from two or three weeks to a couple of days. We have to do this in order to remain competitive in this environment.

"One of the manufacturing capabilities we brought in-house is metrology. You can design and produce components but then you have to measure them. Metrology for us means quality control—it means digitizing. It is related to airflow—external aerodynamics or airflow through the engine. These complex shapes are not parametric solid and have to be quantified.

"One of the tools we use is a portable machine that has a laser scanning head on it that can be used to produce computer models. It can be a shape that we want to capture for manufacturing purposes.

"Another technology that we have brought into Hendrick Motorsports is rapid prototyping (stereolithography). This is the process of taking a 3-D CAD model and reproducing (printing) it as a 3-D solid part. One thing about stereolithography is that it allows engineers to make their mistakes faster than ever, which results in end-use parts that are produced quicker.

"Everybody makes mistakes but stereolithography allows you to make your mistakes on the front end of manufacturing. It is a timesaving procedure. If you can eliminate that wasted time on the front-end it allows you to move quicker—beat the competition to market. That is the bottom-line for us.

"Our marketplace is the race track, and these tools allow us to get there quicker and beat the competition from a performance and reliability stand point."

Goode: "Unlike traditional reductive methods of manufacturing, solid imaging systems, such as the SLA system, is an additive process that uses a laser to solidify layer-by-layer epoxy material to produce ("print") a 3-D part. How does Hendrick use a laser processing method in car development to improve overall car performance?"

Wall: "We have been able to use the stereolithography (SLA system) to produce new designs, eliminate mistakes and problems in manufacturing (such as pistons, headers, oil pans, chassis suspension, parts, etc.), and redirect a strategic design process based on rapid prototyping the parts before manufacturing the parts.

"Things that we could not do before, such as CAD header designs, are being done in a revolutionary way. Complex 3-D tubes are difficult to reproduce as accurate prototypes, but with the SLA system we are able to design, print, and manufacture new headers for testing and production. For example, there can be design interference issues in the chassis. Rather than designing the tubes in the computer and then going straight to production before we have verified it will fit, we can take a 3-D CAD design of the header and print it on the SLA system. This gives us a beautiful 3-D part made out of an extremely accurate plastic material that can be used for mock-up in the actual race vehicle.

"I never thought about using stereolithography for this application until we had the technology in-house. We always did reverse engineering because of the tight fit issues of routing the tubes. Now we can forward engineer the header and many other critical components with confidence.

"Essentially what you have is a three-dimensional blueprint."

Hendrick Motorsports uses various laser technologies to produce components: cutting lasers (Haas Z4-500 CNC 500-watt CO2 laser cutting machine for sheet metal), measuring lasers, and rapid prototyping (SLA 7000 system from 3D Systems) lasers.

Elizabeth Goode is with 3D Systems, Valencia, CA. Visit www.3dsystems.com.

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