Solar car design benefits from 3-D printing, inspection technologies

Z Corp.'s 3-D scanning and printing technology helps University of Michigan students apply composite materials to solar-powered car ahead of World Solar Challenge race.

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Z Corp. (Burlington, Mass., USA) reports that The University of Michigan team that built the recently unveiled Infinium solar car used Z Corp. 3-D printing and scanning technology to quickly and affordably create prototypes, molds and vehicle models.

Michigan’s solar car designers used a ZScanner 700 to inspect prototypes against digital designs to ensure accuracy for wind tunnel testing. The scanner was also employed to capture the engineering data from previous solar car prototypes, built throughout the team’s 20-year history.

The Michigan team used a ZPrinter multicolor 3-D printer to create prototypes of parts like Infinium’s ergonomic steering wheel and also its motor housing. The prototypes help the team to conduct form, fit and functional testing before production. The team also “ZPrinted” molds for lightweight carbon-fiber parts and car models for display.

“Each time we use the ZPrinter to create a part prototype, mould or car model we reduce development time by weeks and save thousands of dollars by not sending the work out to a service bureau,” said Steve Hechtman, 2009 project manager, recent graduate and four-year member of the University of Michigan Solar Car Team. “Each time we use the ZScanner we know we’re capturing precise engineering data to help us to make critical design decisions. We’re able to work faster and smarter and build a better car. Infinium is the result!”

Infinium will contest the World Solar Challenge, an 1,800–mile race across Australia in October 2009. Co-sponsored by Z Corp., the Michigan team is a perennial high-performer and has won the North American Solar Challenge (a 2,400-mile race from Dallas, Texas to Calgary, Alberta, Canada) five out of nine times. It has also finished as high as third in the World Championship three times.

Thanks to slippery contours shaped by a super-computer, The University of Michigan claims that Infinium is five times more aerodynamic than a Corvette sports car. The vehicle employs space-grade gallium arsenide solar panels that convert sunshine into power. That power is stored in highly efficient lithium batteries, which are capable of carrying the car 300 miles in the pitch dark. Their high level of efficiency means that they can even recharge on sunny days while the car is being driven. Infinium has a top speed of 87 mph and weighs just 400 lb/181 kg.