Joe Gibbs Racing Is The First To Leverage 3D Printing In Motorsports

Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR) is known for making 3D printing integral to NASCAR with additive manufacturing (AM) now commonly used for race day preparation. The popular racing team, founded in 1992 by former NFL coach Joe Gibbs, was the first in the sport to tap on AM 15 years ago. Mark Bringle, JGR’s Technical Sponsorship Director, said that the flexibility of being able to print parts that can be used by a car immediately allows changes to be made at short notice, thereby speeding up the development process.

During a circuit season, the window for turning around a car between races is usually 3 days or less when a car returns on a Monday and needs to be hauled off for transportation on a Thursday. To save time, JGR collaborated with Eden Prairie from Stratasys to adopt 3D printing. Thereafter, the NASCAR community followed suit. Since then, Stratasys has been the leading AM provider in auto racing. Teams across the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, Xfinity Series, Formula One, IndyCar Series, and ARCA Racing Series have engaged Stratasys to leverage 3D printing.

Kyle Busch won the Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway in 2015 with a 3D-printed polycarbonate gauge insert mounted on the dashboard of his No. 18 Toyota stock car.
Kyle Busch won the Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway in 2015 with a 3D-printed polycarbonate gauge insert mounted on the dashboard of his No. 18 Toyota stock car. (Photo: JGR).

Pat Carey, Stratasys’ Senior Vice President of Strategic Growth, said that the 15-year partnership with JGR is the longest relationship they had in auto racing. Although Stratasys did not proactively seek partnerships with other race teams, they were pursued by other race teams. With Stratasys’ foray into the automotive industry, its business model changed from manufacturing 3D printers to being customer-oriented experts. Carey said that their customers also wanted to talk to Stratasys instead of just the local reseller.

JGR started out with 1 Stratasys 3D printer for simple one-off prototyping to alleviate scheduling in the CNC department. Bringle said that being able to grow these parts instead of using traditional manufacturing has created better carbon fiber pieces. With technology improvements, JGR’s arsenal of Stratasys 3D printers with fused deposition modeling (FDM) and PolyJet technologies increased to 5 machines that run nearly 24/7 in its 96,000-square-foot production, R&D, fabrication, and testing facility in Huntersville, N.C. PolyJet is primarily used for wind tunnel testing and modeling.

JGR has 5 Stratasys 3D printers (back far left) that run nearly 24/7.
JGR has 5 Stratasys 3D printers (back far left) that run nearly 24/7. (Photo: Gareth Sleger).

JGR’s 10-person AM Department uses 1 Connex3 Objet500 machine, which can load multiple materials at one time while allowing engineers to print parts that require a range of mechanical, optical, or thermal properties; 2 Fortus 450mc machines, one that mainly runs acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) and another that runs an upgraded ABS material with a carbon fiber weave; and 2 Fortus 250mc printers for producing smaller ABS pieces. With surging popularity of the technology, Bringle said that JGR’s AM operation started a carbon fiber shop and built solid molds.

Bringle said that JGR manufactures about 90% of everything that goes into their cars. Thus, they have to control manufacturing internally to stay competitive. After years of prototyping and testing, JGR started using 3D-printed parts in race day cars 4 years ago. They saw an immediate payoff using Busch’s No. 18 car. In 2015, Busch won the Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway with a 3D-printed polycarbonate gauge insert mounted on the dashboard.

Stratasys Connex3 Objet500 machine (left) and Fortus 450mc (right).
Stratasys Connex3 Objet500 machine (left) and Fortus 450mc (right).

Due to strict NASCAR regulations that prevent a team’s pit crew from monitoring a car’s mechanical data with telemetry, the driver is responsible for tracking gauges during a race. JGR recognized an opportunity with AM as each track presents unique challenges. Hence, Design Engineer Brian Levy and other JGR engineers created an integrated dashboard with space for the 3D-printed polycarbonate insert that can be easily modified, making it possible to slot in the appropriate digital gauge instrument needed for each race. For Sonoma Raceway, the meandering road course required a gauge that tracks transmission temperature and room on the dash for a control switch to trigger the front brakes’ cooling fans. According to a Stratasys case study, the polycarbonate dashboard inserts take 3 days to print at an estimated $50. It would have cost $1,000 over 3 weeks via CNC machining.

In the words of Bringle, the ability to apply 3D technology internally to identify what is needed for each team is invaluable.

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