Monday, June 4, 2012

F1 factories

The following article is aimed at describing the 'average' Formula 1 factory and the processes happening behind the walls of these buildings. I'm even going to talk about specific vendors and introduce you the solutions that they offer to F1 teams.

When we discuss F1 teams and the way they engineer/produce parts, we should note that some choose to outsource the car's development to a different extent. For example, the brakes for Mclaren MP4-27 are provided by Akebono (since 2007).
Image credit:

Certainly, Mclaren don't have to invest time in creating that component, since there's already a good product on the market. That's the case with Brembo as well, which is provider to 6 of the teams. Nevertheless, that doesn't mean each team gets the same product - instead, there are custom solutions, "tailor-made", as they say.
Also, we are not going to talk in depth about the case where the respective team manufacturers its own engine, gearbox and KERS inside the factory, since it's only Ferrari (and former Toyota) who choose to build entire car (100%) at their own factory.

What's inside a typical F1 facility

Before going into details, we should note that different factories will vary in what type of machinery is inside, but most are having design offices, fabrication and assembly area, wind tunnel, CFD center, autoclaves (Red Bull have two, for example, the bigger one is from USI) and supporting areas.
Often you will find that some parts are produced with high precision in isolated areas with no external access whatsoever (3D printers), exhausts are being welded behind closed walls (single pipe takes about 40 hours, one exhaust set lasts around 1000 race kilometers, material is Inconnel), but sometimes you will just find screwdrivers hanging around together with boxes of bolts close to adjustable jigs - purely human environment.
Enstone Virtual tour, Renault F1 engine

Rapid prototyping / stereolithography

3D Rapid prototyping is very intriguing process where scaled-down parts are produced in shorter periods of time than the usual carbon fiber components being 'baked' in autoclaves.
Those type of machines allow the teams to produce testing parts (for the wind tunnel) directly from the CAD design, i.e. you draw your advanced geometry feature on the new front wing for the next race, send it to the printer where the new front wing is produced in just a few hours, as opposed to the real one, which can take days. Brake ducts, winglets, full-scale wind tunnel models - literally anything can be created. The pure magic happens inside that 3D printer where the object is created by laying down successive layers of material (epoxy resin) via ultraviolet laser. 
Here's a short video from NASA's tool lab, printing a wrench:

Essentially, this is a technology that is becoming more and more popular in the recent years, even though, depending on the size and the purpose, a complex of such machines can cost several million US dollars.

Another interesting F1 example would be creating a wheel rim with rapid prototyping methods:

Wind tunnels

A lot can be said about the aim of the wind tunnels and their leading role in aerodynamic analysis, but most of the talk will be self-explanatory, so let's just watch this video, courtesy of Sauber F1 team (HD):

Let's recall that no wind tunnel testing may be conducted using a scale model which is greater than 60% of full size, as the rules say, just as well as: No wind tunnel testing may be carried out at a speed exceeding 50 metres/second, which is 180 km/h or respectively 111 mph for those who prefer Imperial units.

A company named "Wind Shear inc" is citing the following interesting facts about wind tunnel anatomy here:

  • The air in this wind tunnel design flows from the fan to the vehicle, then is collected and returned to the fan in a closed circuit
  • The circuit will cover an area of 160,000 square feet
  • It will take an estimated 20,000 tons of steel and 2,000 cubic yards of concrete to construct the circuit
  • The main fan has a diameter of 22 feet, and is rated at 5,100 hp
  • The fan is capable of producing a maximum air speed of 180 mph
  • At maximum air speed, the fan produces an air flow volume of 2.85 million cubic feet per minute, and its total power consumption is 7 megawatts (one megawatt is equal to one million watts)
Finally, a word about costs - an average wind tunnel installment can be estimated to tens of thousands of US dollars (40 to 50).

CFD / Computing power

Generally, F1 teams will use the Computational Fluid Dynamic (CFD) as primary step for a new design, which would allow more flexibility in the early testing process. Certainly, most teams are using CFD in conjunction with wind tunnels to correlate the produced data, but some have tried CFD only approach, such  as Virgin with Nick Wirth. However, it turned out that CFD is not a sole replacement for wind tunnels, simply because it relies on approximations and assumptions by solving Navier-Stokes equations. Therefore, exhaust gases and turbulence are hard to model with CFD. Still, as soon as you have the results (having created the mesh prior to running the simulation, often a time consuming task) you can visualize the flow.
In order to get those results, you need a huge computational power, if you want them as fast as possible. Let's drill down into some technical details.

A research made by students from Brigham Young University a while ago is stating:
The CFD analysis was performed with the help of the BYU Fulton Supercomputing Laboratory (FSL).
The BYU FSL contains 9592 core processors and a total operating memory of 27.1 TB. A simulation took approximately 22 hours and 30 minutes to reach the set.
More on that subject follows, again from Sauber and the vendor that supplies their super computer, DALCO, the information is from 2009, but the idea is to grasp the ballpark figures:
The system, based on Intel Technology with a total weight of 21 Tons, was already one of the most powerful supercomputers in Formula 1 when it was launched. Albert 2 featured 256 compute nodes, each with two Intel Xeon 5160 dualcore processors, which gave a total of 1024 processor cores. The capacity of the main memory was 2048 GBytes and the maximum compute power was 12,28 TFlops (12.288 GFlops). An extension of 32 more compute nodes to a total of 288 nodes or 1.152 processor cores was added soon afterwards.
Now, BMW Sauber F1 Team has launched the next step by extending the existing system. A further 384 nodes, equipped with Intel Xeon E5472 quadcore processors (four cores per processor) and related Intel technology where added to the existing system so that the new supercomputer, Albert3, now has 4224 cores. The main memory grew to 8448 GBytes and the peak compute power is now at 57,7 TFlops, that's 50,700,000,000,000 arithmetic operations per second.
This is Albert 3, the super computer that runs the CFD software from ANSYS - the same vendor that Red Bull is working with, too. Pat Symonds says that the governing body sets limits on what can be used with CFD technologies, and the max peak is 40 TFlops.

Here we can add the numbers for Toyota Motorsport facility and services in Cologne:
  • Up to 80 million hexahedral cells making up a complete vehicle model
  • 600 CPUs and 1,200 cores cluster
  • With a typical full-car model of 60 million hexahedral cells, calculation, including automatic generation of post-processing movies, can be performed within 24 hours and three cases of this size can run simultaneously.

Lotus, for example, are using CD-ADAPCO and a system provided by Boeing Research and Technologies. Still, let's not forget that even though you have supercomputer at your disposal, the price and the number of calculations are limited in order to fit into the Resource Restriction Agreement (RRA).

On a related note, it is my guess that the teams are also using pressure sensitive paint in the wind tunnels in order to have a backup for CFD results, but at this point I have no solid evidence about that.

Design office

In general, design offices in F1 factories are the usual places with many people in open area sitting close to each other behind at least two large computer monitors, working on CAD designs.

For example, Red Bull Racing's solution for Product Lifecycle Management comes from Siemens.
They say it's essential to have good tools when you want to assemble about 4,000 pieces and make a race car out of them. 
A sneak peek inside their design office (over engineer's shoulder):
And a shot from the assembly area (race bay):
2010, RB6

Suspension, stress and other rigs

Some factories have suspension rigs where they simulate the loads coming from the track and forces acting on a car - downforce, pitch, roll, etc. Usually, these hydraulic rigs transfer collected data from previous races and then it's being replayed in order to fine tune the different components. The vibrations and the pressure that chassis and individual components take is enormous (simulating real bumps with high speeds), but this is not unusual for a stress test. The results are collected from sensors and subsequently displayed for analyzing potential weak points.
The potential cost of some of these machines is in the 100 - 200,000 US Dollars range.


Unlike the usual sterilizers that are used in the medicine, the typical automotive autoclave acts like a giant pressure cooker where the carbon fiber parts are being 'baked' with temperatures about 140C. Prior to that, the carbon fiber comes at the form of a sticky cloth, which is then laid over the respective part. The whole process could take about 7 to 12 hours.  
In order to get a good grasp of the sizes, here's a picture from the autoclave in Mclaren Technology Center: 
Photo credit:
These large ovens (7-8 m2) are one of the least expensive parts in F1 factory - around 1 million US dollars considering that the teams that build their own engines are investing lot more.

Here's another shot, this time from Red Bull Racing factory at Milton Keynes:


Simulators are another type of extremely sophisticated machines that you may find in F1 factory. Usually they are built to recreate to a maximum extent the driver experience while driving the car, sitting in a real racing tube.
More on the subject comes from Ferrari: 
Photo credit:
This is a picture of their simulator, a giant spider, created by the company "Moog". You can read the entire press release here involving words from Marco Fainello, Head of the Car Performance Department, who says:
The dynamic driving simulator completely meets our specifications and expectations for a system that can test car designs as well as train drivers. Working closely with Moog during the two years of development on this system has helped us realize the maximum benefit from high performance simulated motion control.”
The simulator cost can really vary, but let's say that a number of 3 million US dollars would not be unusual.
In the meantime I was reminded by my Polish friends from F1 Talks that there's a video footage of the simulator in action:

Clearly you can see the red prancing horse tube inside the spider's cabinet.
Further explanation from Moog's engineers:
The test pilot is seated in front of a screen providing a viewing angle of more than 180°. Ten multiprocessor computers control the system with a total 60 GB of RAM producing around 5 GB of data per day. It features a 3,500 Watt Dolby Surround 7.1 sound system

Other stuff inside a typical F1 factory is paint shop (more further down the article), large CNC N-axis milling machines for chassis creation or engine parts (example is HURCO, used by Williams), metal engineering machines like these ones by Mazak:

Photo credit:

Another interesting example is the partnership between Mitsubishi and Sauber. In the picure below we can see a wire-cut EDM machine, which is being used for rapid prototyping parts:

or a sneak look around in Milton Keynes, RBR factory
Photo credit: CNN

  • Painting
    The paint on an F1 car is around two kilograms, and we already know that each kilogram costs around 0.05secs per lap (depending on the track). Apparently, the paint department can't afford too much paint while the rest are trying to engineer low-weight components. 
    When it comes to time frames, painting the chassis, for example, is a very lengthy process - it can take about  three full days! You can imagine how much time does it takes to build/assemble a completely new car from scratch. 

    One of the most prominent partnerships in this paint department is between Mclaren and AkzoNobel - a move mostly driven by Ron Dennis in 2008. Back then, he decides to pursue a unique silver/chrome appearance for Mclaren, and this turned out to be a great challenge for painting company. Not only they managed to reduce the weight of the paint, but the base coating was no longer required and the chroming process took only four and a half hours instead of six. 
    The next speed performance gain was achieved in the drying process - a normal road car bonnet is cured in about 40 minutes (at 60C), while the high-tech ultra-violet LED gun by AkzoNobel does the same in just 7 minutes. 
    While this may seem fairly marginal interval for us, the mere mortals, in F1 speed matters a lot - both on the track and in the factory.

    I'm glad that you made it all the way down here. The sources of that article are purely available to the public, though some a bit more cryptic, so you just have to know where and how to search.
    Some special people have contributed for the accuracy of that article, and I'd like to take the chance to thank them, although they prefer to stay comfortably hidden.

    All multimedia and facts are used under "Fair use" doctrine for purely educational purposes and best efforts are made to credit the original owner.