This article has been taken from the Autumn 2014 issue of Aston Martin's official AM Magazine. Available now in Print and App format.
Aston Martin constantly adopts new technologies in its production processes. Jonathan Bell reveals how the marque’s creative team uses 3D printing to help design the world’s most beautiful sports cars.
Aston Martin can lay claim to a broad spectrum of technological mastery. At one extreme, the historic Aston Martin Works site in Newport Pagnell employs craftsmen adept at hand-forming aluminium panels using wooden bucks, rollers and traditional tools. At the other, state-of-the-art production lines at Aston Martin’s headquarters and factory in Gaydon feature the latest car-making technology alongside bespoke processes that have been developed and honed over decades. Technologies at the cutting-edge — 3D printing, rapid prototyping and rapid manufacture — are changing the way that Aston Martins are designed and, increasingly, built.
Take a look at any contemporary Aston Martin and the sheer complexity of the surfaces and forms is unquestionable, as is the level of skill required to create the most beautiful and evocative sports cars in the world. Just like the factory’s blend of old and new, so Aston Martin’s design studio uses every available tool, combining the age-old method of hand-sculpting clay styling models with the instant technology of 3D prototyping.
Marek Reichman, Aston Martin’s Design Director, oversaw the creation of the marque’s first standalone design studio back in 2007, a sleek, modern, purpose-built space that sits alongside the Gaydon factory. Reichman and his team assembled the latest technology to supplement the traditional rendering and sculpting skills.
“3D printing is an integral part of what we do — it’s become one of the essential modern tools of car design,” says Reichman, who has just returned from unveiling the full-scale model of Aston Martin’s new DP-100 concept at Goodwood.
There are various methods of 3D printing, all of which involve the heat-driven transformation of a raw material into a pre-defined shape, whether through the gradual addition of layers, the removal of extraneous material or the fusion of a granular material into a solid form. In basic terms, 3D printing means that computer models can be swiftly rendered into physical objects. For the car designer, the possibilities are unlimited.
“We’ve had the technology since we moved into the design studio,” Reichman explains. “It helps us to verify a part very quickly, particularly in the interior. We design the A-surface — which is typically something like leather or veneer — and then use 3D printing to create the substrate beneath it so we can see precisely how it works.” Despite being behind-the-scenes, this kind of ultra-rapid model making has transformed the way key components, surfaces and forms are created. For bodywork, it’s equally valuable. “On the exterior of the car we can quickly create complex items like headlights to insert into the clay and verify the design,” says Reichman. “You can have much more detail in the design.” That speed translates directly into the personalisation of design.
Aston Martin is leading the way in bespoke manufacturing: Q by Aston Martin is much more than a layer of personalisation and hand-tailored craftsmanship. Q by Aston Martin can go deep beneath the skin of the car, creating interior and exterior elements that are truly innovative and unique. The new generation of rapid prototyping and manufacturing is central to this, not only speeding up the process of realising and verifying designs, but also in shaping the essential underpinnings that contribute to a bespoke automobile.
“In the past you would struggle to make a complex model — now you can have concave, convex, split surfaces… Everything is possible,” says Reichman. The latest Aston Martin concept cars demonstrate not just the extreme flexibility of the technology, but also the ways in which it can allow for far greater design and engineering integrity. “You can personalise more,” explains Reichman. “You don’t have to make a special tool for a central armrest, for example. Instead, you can rapidly prototype a custom part for a bespoke order, so that the car fits just right and the personalisation is there.”
The possibilities are limitless, once one factors in essential (but surmountable) details like the structural integrity and safety performance of rapidly manufactured parts. Already, there’s a direct path from CAD to composite, as body panels and structural elements are shaped on screen then sent to be spun, woven and baked in carbon fibre. Much of the CC100 was made in this way, with 3D prototyping acting as a crucial verification stage between screen and autoclave.
“With the CC100, we were half way to real 3D manufacturing,” says Reichman. “All those carbon-fibre pieces of bodywork were 3D printed first. Some parts of the car went directly from a CAD file to a physical piece of carbon.” Designed to celebrate Aston Martin’s centenary year, the CC100 was created in remarkable time. “It really speeds up the process,” says Reichman. “Without 3D printing, we couldn’t have turned it from sketch into reality in just six months. It took part in the parade lap ahead of the Nürburgring 24 hours in May and we’d only started design work in November.”
Speculate on the future of 3D printing and myriad opportunities open up. Some suggest we’ll be able to print everything from clothes to cars — transforming waste plastic into new consumer goods — and shopping only for downloadable CAD files. It’s true that consumer 3D printing seems to hover on the fringes of the mainstream, without a “killer application” or even the genuine need for people to create three-dimensional objects within their home. We should tread carefully, however, for bad predictions have a habit of lingering in the cultural memory; hindsight is a wonderful thing. The hapless IBM executive who once allegedly suggested that the world potential market for copying machines is “5,000 at most”, simply inspired his audience to go off and set up Xerox (although IBM’s Thomas Watson’s remark that there would only ever be a global market for just a handful of computers is almost certainly apocryphal). You can be sure that if someone has imagined it, it will eventually happen.
In the home, the obvious markets for 3D manufacturing are entertainment and education; printing plastic toys makes more sense than shipping them, while learning how to make things yourself will help mould the engineering and designer minds of tomorrow. Future developments in the printing technology itself will almost certainly play an even greater role in the ways cars are designed and built.
Reichman says: “We follow technological developments closely — whether it’s in aerospace, marine or motorsport, not just automotive,” explaining how his team has to stay ahead of a fast-moving industry. “Think of all the parts that go into an America’s Cup yacht, for example, and the role that rapid prototyping and manufacture plays.”
And the immediate future? Design integrity, engineering excellence and supreme attention to detail and quality will always be central spokes of Aston Martin’s identity. Some things can’t be rushed and there will never be a substitution for meticulous craftsmanship or the experience, expertise and artistry that underpins every line, curve and shape that comes out of Aston Martin’s design studio. But innovation never ends and Aston Martin is committed to exploring new ways to design — and build — the world’s most acclaimed sports cars.
Images: Ben Johnson