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Thriving in the most Grueling Desert Race in the World with the Help of 3D Printers

Team BRX and Prodrive leverage MakerBot METHOD for mobile manufacturing in the middle of the desert as they set a record for highest finish for a newcomer at the Dakar Rally

A WINNING PEDIGREE

Prodrive has a long history in motorsports, competing and winning its first event, the Qatar International Rally, in 1984. Since then, Prodrive has been unstoppable, winning a multitude of titles across a wide range of motorsport disciplines. In 2021, the company entered the Dakar Rally in partnership with the Kingdom of Bahrain, under the new team, Bahrain Raid Xtreme (BRX). The Dakar Rally takes place over two weeks, with stages covering hundreds of miles across a range of challenging, off-road terrain in Saudi Arabia. 

The Prodrive legacy stretches back to 1984 where they won their debut race at the Qatar Rally.
The Prodrive legacy stretches back to 1984 where they won their debut race at the Qatar Rally.
Co-Driver Daniel Elena and Driver Sébastien Loeb pose in front of their Prodrive Hunter rally car at the 2021 Dakar Rally in Saudi Arabia
Co-Driver Daniel Elena and Driver Sébastien Loeb pose in front of their Prodrive Hunter rally car at the 2021 Dakar Rally in Saudi Arabia

To prepare for the event, the BRX team began development on the Hunter T1, its new two-car factory team driven by 9x World Rally champion Sébastien Loeb, and 25x Dakar Rally legend Nani Roma. Roma secured 5th place overall in the 2021 race, the first time any team has achieved such a high ranking on their first attempt at the Dakar Rally.

BUILDING A RACING TEAM FROM SCRATCH IN 2020

Nani Roma's Hunter zips across the Saudi desert landscape of the Dakar Rally.
Nani Roma's Hunter zips across the Saudi desert landscape of the Dakar Rally.

With work only just beginning in late 2019, the BRX team suddenly came up against what would be one of the biggest challenges that hit the industry thus far. “We often put ourselves in tough positions, time-wise. But COVID-19 really threw a wrench in our already-tight timeline,” said Paul Doe, chief engineer at Prodrive. “In the UK, there was a lockdown that effectively forced us to close the factory for a while. Development that should have taken about a year was compressed into nine months. Instead of testing in July, we didn’t end up turning a wheel on a car until October 2020.”

With the Dakar Rally scheduled for the first two weeks of January 2021, this put an immense amount of pressure on the whole team. Although BRX includes 40 people to design, engineer, service, and operate the Hunter T1 vehicles, the team was stretched thin with an atypically shorter timeline. Additionally, although Prodrive offered in-house manufacturing, fabricating, and machining capabilities, the team was competing for resources with other projects.

FINDING AN INDUSTRIAL 3D PRINTING PLATFORM FOR FINISHED CARBON FIBER PARTS

When Doe decided to add the MakerBot METHOD X® 3D printer, recommended by DSM, a global supplier of carbon fiber materials, to his team’s toolbox, it became a game changer. The METHOD X enabled his team to prototype and print much-needed parts quickly and conveniently as well as experiment with different applications, on and off the course. With the unlimited possibilities of additive manufacturing, prototyping and part production became much more streamlined and cost-efficient.

Innovation has always been a core tenet at Prodrive. The company utilizes a wide range of technology to ensure it stays on top of the competition. Adding METHOD X to its repertoire of cutting-edge technologies afforded the company an added opportunity to save even more time during its shortened production schedule. 

Paul Doe and his team of engineers build the Hunter cars which will be shipped to the desert for two months of rigorous testing ahead of the race.
Paul Doe and his team of engineers build the Hunter cars which will be shipped to the desert for two months of rigorous testing ahead of the race.
MakerBot METHOD X was used early on in Prodrive's UK facility for the design and production of complex Nylon Carbon Fiber parts for the Hunter.
MakerBot METHOD X was used early on in Prodrive's UK facility for the design and production of complex Nylon Carbon Fiber parts for the Hunter.

“There is a massive list of benefits from using the MakerBot METHOD X compared to a normal production, such as speed and responsiveness. When it came to designing parts on the car, the first thought often starts with printing a part off the 3D printer to see how it would turn out. The ability to try the part first before committing to the final product allows us to make changes easily and quickly. This rapid iteration also allows us to stay pretty close to our production timeline, while also saving us a ton of money,” Doe noted. 

With two METHOD X 3D printers, the BRX team was able to engineer some parts at the factory in the UK as well as on site at the Rally.

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FROM THE WORKSHOP FLOOR TO THE OPEN DESERT

The desert environment of the 12 day long Dakar Rally is extremely demanding on every component of the vehicles that race in it with extreme temperatures and brutal terrain.
The desert environment of the 12 day long Dakar Rally is extremely demanding on every component of the vehicles that race in it with extreme temperatures and brutal terrain.

METHOD X was loaded onto one of the BRX team maintenance trucks that they had set up in the desert. It was used on-site to print fabricated parts, or to fix a part that would have required steel or aluminum fabrication.  “We carried this machine with us in the truck and printed remotely in the middle of nowhere; literally where you can’t see traces of civilization, yet here we are using this kind of machine with that industrial 3D printing technology. We took advantage of the speed of 3D printing parts in the middle of our test program,” said Doe. 

At the Dakar Rally, Team BRX operates out of a basecamp called "The Bivouac" filled with over a dozen vehicles, support personnel, and equipment. The team is one of the largest and best equipped to participate at Dakar in 2021.
At the Dakar Rally, Team BRX operates out of a basecamp called "The Bivouac" filled with over a dozen vehicles, support personnel, and equipment. The team is one of the largest and best equipped to participate at Dakar in 2021.
METHOD X operates conveniently on a support truck where parts can be printed as need during trials and the race itself. The enclosed heated chamber protects the parts from the harsh environmental conditions while printing.
METHOD X operates conveniently on a support truck where parts can be printed as need during trials and the race itself. The enclosed heated chamber protects the parts from the harsh environmental conditions while printing.

The BRX team used METHOD X to print over 30 parts on the Hunter T1, including a mount for a suspension position sensor and a sculpted nozzle mount for the cockpit’s fire suppression system. The suspension position sensor allowed the engineers to look at the damper performance, vehicle dynamics, wheel alignment, drive shaft, and more. The sensor generates data and relays information back to the team for better analysis, which can then be used to improve vehicle performance. The mounting system was printed with MakerBot’s nylon carbon fiber and was one of the ideal applications with which to utilize METHOD X. The entire process to get the suspension mount just right took only one and a half hours, from having the 3D printed mount on the ground sheet in the middle of the desert, to observing it, to making updates and reinforcements to the design in the truck, to launching production on METHOD X. With the new part in their hands, the team was ready to put it on the car and continue collecting data. 

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“That was new for us. In the past, we’ve used additive manufacturing, but we didn’t have the capability to do this so immediately,” stated Doe. “In addition, the materials we used on METHOD X, particularly the nylon carbon fiber, exhibited higher performance than what we had experienced in past years. There are quite a bit of parts in the car, such as the engine bays and wheel side near the brakes, where the environments reach up to 120°C and where traditional FDM materials start to struggle, forcing us to revert to aluminum which is costly. In this case, we were able to print parts in nylon carbon fiber which is able to reach very high temperatures. The carbon print heads on METHOD X really opened up access to a lot of new applications for us.”

Co-driver Alexandre Winocq works to install a 3D printed bracket to hold an on-board sensor in-place. Critical for providing real-time race data back to the engineers.
Co-driver Alexandre Winocq works to install a 3D printed bracket to hold an on-board sensor in-place. Critical for providing real-time race data back to the engineers.

Doe continued, “With the density of the materials we used being so low in comparison to traditional aluminum or steel fabrications, we were able to make parts that were much lighter than what a typical part would have been. And it allowed us unlimited freedom to effectively test our parts.”

PARTS THAT PERFORM, BUT LOOK GOOD TOO

Using the nylon carbon fiber, the BRX team also printed a lightweight sculpted mount for one of the nozzles of the fire suppression system located at the center of the cockpit. Due to the sheer size of the cars, each vehicle was outfitted with two fire suppression systems. With an extremely hot turbo engine, 500 liter fuel tank, and other highly flammable materials, fire suppression is critical. Typically, the team would have needed to create that nozzle out of traditional heavy metal, like steel or aluminum, which can be time-intensive and costly. Nylon carbon fiber is an ideal lightweight alternative to metal due to its high strength, heat resistance, and stiffness properties. 

Dakar parts 5 -edit

“We wanted to move away from the typical folded aluminum bracket as much as we could, and instead have a more premium feel in the cockpit. METHOD X allowed us to experiment with a new type of nozzle. The sculpted mount was a nice balance of form and function. In fact, it looked 10 times better than what we had in the past, and with no egregious costs,” said Doe. 

LOOKING TO 2022 AND BEYOND

311 Roma Nani (esp), Winocq Alexandre (fra), Hunter, Bahrain Raid Extreme, BRX, Auto, action during the 2nd stage of the Dakar 2021 between Bisha and Wadi Al Dawasir, in Saudi Arabia on January 4, 2021 - Photo Frédéric Le Floc’h / DPPI

“With the METHOD X 3D printers nearby and a digital inventory of parts and tools, we’re able to print on-demand and work more agilely and efficiently. We have very ambitious plans to increase the number of vehicles on our roadmap in the coming years. As we continue to scale up, we may need more than a couple of machines in our collection. The cost is relatively low compared to other kinds of manufacturing processes, but the investment will pay off in the long-run. We have loads of projects coming, so there will be more opportunities to test the METHODs,” Doe concluded.

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