However I’ve just had a glimpse into the future – and this time it is something I can talk about. While it might be a little way off for the retail car industry, like so many good ideas this technology is already being put to good use in the world of Formula 1 – and by the military – and is sure to filter through to us in time.
I saw it at Red Bull Racing’s headquarters in Milton Keynes this week. As you know, my last position was with Inifinti, which has close ties to the F1 team and they were kind enough to let us use their facilities for a management meeting.
During a tour of the facilities there was one piece of equipment that really caught my eye. It has a complicated name, but essentially it’s a 3D printer. You may have heard of these clever things – they’ve been around for a while – but it was how RBR was putting them to work that got me thinking.
There were three types of units in action. One ‘printed’ prototype car parts out of resin using a laser to harden liquid material at a fraction of a millimeter at a time. The second did the same thing using a stronger type of composite, and the third used an ever stronger laser to melt and instantly forge titanium. The Red Bull team uses them because they can make the most intricate of parts that can’t be pressed or milled. Small bearings with honeycomb interiors, fashioned from ultra-light titanium are only possible because of these ‘printers’.
But our guide explained that the American military uses them on the battlefield too. Instead of carting around a warship load of spare parts, should something on a jet or tank break (or get shot at!) the engineers simply pull up the CAD design file on a computer and hit Ctrl + P.
Sounds like science fiction doesn’t it? But it’s not. I’ve seen it working with my own eyes. Can you imagine having this technology in your parts department? No more shelves full of bits, no more ordering of parts – if you need a spare for a job you simply print it off! I bet it’s only a few years away.