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July 18, 2017

Students on SAE Formula Team seize opportunity to grow professionally

Written By: Pat DeFlorin

Every day, hundreds of students, faculty and staff rush through the Engineering Centers Building on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, on their way to classes, careers or other workday commitments.

It’s a typical campus building—yet it houses a not-so-typical enterprise. It is here that the UW-Madison Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) Formula Team, known as Wisconsin Racing, builds its vehicles.

The team’s vehicles are one-third-sized Formula One-style race cars designed and built for a hypothetical manufacturer. The “formula” is the set of rules that dictate the competition—more than 200 pages that dictate the vehicle’s weight, air intake, engine size, and even looks. “It’s like really expensive carbon-fiber pinewood derby,” says Austin Wooldridge, Wisconsin Racing’s business lead.

Wooldridge raced go-carts as a child and touring the student vehicle shop in the Engineering Centers Building was key in his decision to come to UW-Madison as an undergraduate. “When I saw the shop, I knew I wanted to be at this school doing that,” says Wooldridge.

Wisconsin Racing is made up of nearly 100 students who participate in some capacity, with a core group of approximately 40 students. It has two teams, a combustion team and an electric team, and 2017 marks the debut year for the electric team.

Each of these teams are further divided into groups that focus on different aspects of the vehicle. The combustion team is divided into business, electrical, powertrain, aerodynamics, and chassis teams; the electric team is divided into electronics, accumulator, controls, drivetrain, and aerodynamics. All of these teams must work in concert to produce a successful vehicle.

The meeting space

On the second floor of the Engineering Centers Building lies Wisconsin Racing’s office space. It’s a standard office space with equation- and schematic-covered whiteboards adorning the interior walls and paper-strewn cubicles and tables lining the window-side perimeter. At one whiteboard, a group of students discusses the design of its electric motor design; at another, a seasoned team member guides a freshman through some statics homework problems. At a computer nearby, a student writes code for the CNC milling machine, a machine that allows team members to create high-dimensional, accurate custom parts in-house.

Two tables down, there is a desk piled with papers and prototypes. One prototype is a gear for the electric vehicle’s drivetrain, another is a carbon-fiber wheel hub that some of the team members have created as an engineering mechanics and astronautics senior design project.

During the day, the area is generally quiet, with several students trickling in and out, but as afternoon progresses, the calm lifts and the space comes to life. At any given time, there 10 to 15 students rolling in and out between classes, homework and extracurricular activities.

Wisconsin Racing's 2017 electric vehicle
Wisconsin Racing’s 2017 electric vehicle and seats with custom carbon fiber designs. Photo credit: Stephanie Precourt.

Depending on their vehicles’ phase of development, Wisconsin Racing team members collaborate here on many different levels. During the preliminary design phase, for instance, they use the space to plan and mock-up their designs, but later as the project transitions from design to manufacturing, team members meet here to touch base before filtering out to the shop to enact their plans. It’s a safe space for students to take what they are learning in class, bounce ideas off one another, fail and succeed. “It’s a continuation of the classroom,” says James Neville, Wisconsin Racing’s electric drivetrain lead. “An opportunity for us to experiment, make mistakes, and grow.”

It’s not just the Formula SAE team here, however. This is the office space for all of the UW-Madison engineering vehicle teams, and that shared space facilitates cross-team collaboration.

Down the hall from the office, walls of plastic cordon off a construction area, where Wisconsin Racing team members work on the molds for the bodies of their vehicles, called monocoques. Beyond the veils of plastic, bright lights and the heavy chemical smell of the putty-like filler Bondo flood the workspace. A steady chh-chh-chh of sand paper and the drone of a vacuum cleaner sucking up dust drown amidst a backdrop of deafening music as five Wisconsin Racing members work to smooth the mold.

After the sanding is complete and the mold is seamlessly smooth, team members will overlay the mold with a fabric of carbon fiber, vacuum seal it against the mold to ensure a smooth fit, and then bake it at 400 degrees Fahrenheit for 12 hours in a walk-in oven in the basement to set the carbon fiber. “It’s a little bit like papier-mâché,” Neville explains.

Amber Westlund, a sophomore design-turned-engineering major, finds her niche in the team doing carbon fiber work. Westlund discovered Wisconsin Racing through a graphic design position and was lured in by the team’s infectious enterprising ethos. “One of the things that we strongly believe on the team is that there is no one right person in terms of educational background. You don’t have to be a mechanical engineer—you don’t have to be an engineer at all,” says Neville. “What we are really looking for in team members is passion to contribute to something big.”

With that passion, Westlund adds creative flare to the combustion vehicle seat by embossing a carbon fiber skeleton design in it. Her contributions extend beyond the vehicle itself, as she is in the process of creating a mural in the entrance to the first-floor meeting space.

The shop

Down one floor from the office, beyond an unassuming scuffed white door, lies the vehicle shop, where the designs are brought to life. It is here that team members translate what they have learned in the classroom.

Inside, the shop reverberates with classic rock music and swirls with scents of oil, gasoline and rubber. The space is shared by UW-Madison’s clean snowmobile, hybrid vehicle, Baja (an off-road vehicle), and Formula SAE teams. Drills whir in the background and sparks spatter as a pair of students welds the rear frame of Wisconsin Racing’s electric vehicle. Nearby, a group of students thermally loads its combustion motor, producing torque to create heat and then displacing the heat with radiators, fans and water.

Wisconsin Racing's 2017 electric vehicle
Wisconsin Racing’s 2017 electric vehicle. Photo credit: Stephanie Precourt.

In an adjoining room, a student machines parts; in another, a pair of students runs engines to collect data. It’s happening all at once and when all of the teams’ shop nights sync up and competition is on the horizon, the shop is beyond bustling. In such times, all-nighters are not uncommon.

The team builds new vehicles each year from the pavement up—the carbon fiber, the frame, everything. While members recycle certain parts and use older cars to test new components in development, almost everything is new.

Starting from scratch each year affords team members the freedom to design anything they desire if they’re able to acquire the resources and knowledge necessary. For example, in the past few years, the team created its first electronic clutch actuation, servo-actuated electric shifting, carbon fiber monocoque chassis, novel engine controls, lightweight aerodynamics package, and sophisticated electronics. And in 2017, they created an entirely new vehicle architecture for their combustion vehicle, overhauling the geometry of the chassis to make it lighter and stiffer and redesigning the rear frame to reduce component fatigue failure. They do nearly all of this creation in house, and enlist their Milwaukee-based corporate sponsor Accurate Pattern to machine large molds for them. “We want something that is small, light, and powerful,” says Neville.

The team raises funds—approximately $100,000 annually—by recruiting corporate sponsors and pitching to private organizations. It’s an entrepreneurial endeavor that allows members to learn important “soft” skills as they train to become the next generation of automotive engineers and business people.

“We’re running a startup every single year, getting sponsors, making a car, and designing it in a very short amount of time,” says Wooldridge.

On early-spring weekends as the competition nears, Wisconsin Racing heads to the airport in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, to test, and invariably break, their vehicles. When there is a critical failure, they start repairing immediately. “We do whatever it takes to get the car ready to go by the next morning,” says Neville.

The competition

All of this hard work—hundreds of hours meeting remotely over the summer, designing in the fall, testing in the spring—is in preparation for the Formula SAE World Championship, held annually at Michigan International Speedway in May (over finals week, Neville notes). The competition hosts 120 teams from around the world and in 2016, Wisconsin Racing placed 6th overall and 2nd of the American teams; in 2007, the team placed first overall.

The pinewood derby metaphor falls apart here. At the Formula SAE World Championship, the vehicles are scrutinized on all levels by experts from the motorsports, automotive, aerospace and supply industries. The judging is broadly grouped into two categories of events: static and dynamic.

The static events are cost report, business presentation and design review. In cost report, all components of the vehicles are priced out and the vehicle with the lowest cost wins. Business presentation is a Shark Tank-style start up evaluation of the vehicle, in which competitors try to convince judges how their vehicle is viable from a business standpoint. This prepares competitors for real-world industry. In design review, teams justify their design decisions as judges critique the overall design of the vehicles. Wisconsin Racing has placed in the top three worldwide in design for past four years.

The dynamic events test the vehicles’ performance in acceleration, skid course (to test vehicle dynamics), autocross (to test speed through cones), endurance (to test performance over 22 kilometers) and fuel economy events.

Wisconsin Racing’s electric team also participates in a national competition of approximately 80 U.S. teams that is held each year in June at Lincoln Airpark in Lincoln, Nebraska.

The results

Trophies or not, Wisconsin Racing team members walk away as winners.

Over the course of the season, students reinforce their education and grow professionally. How do heat transfer equations from class hold up when you’re rejecting heat from the motor or engine? How do design of machine elements equations hold up on the test course? Students pose these questions to discover answers just as they will be doing as professionals. Through this process, students cultivate a strong engineering intuition very quickly, making them highly pursued by automotive, aviation, and space industries. For instance, Wisconsin Racing alumni have gone on to careers at Chrysler, Ford, NASA, Tesla and Space X. “Recruiters from these companies know that Formula SAE students are pretty much experts already,” says Neville.

Steve Krug, a Wisconsin Racing alumnus (BSME ‘16) who was recruited by Tesla, says the work designing structural hardware, manufacturing, analyzing data and simulating vehicles he did with Wisconsin Racing translated directly to work he later did during internships and now at Tesla. “Wisconsin Racing fosters core members who are invaluable in the workplace based on their ability to get things done, be smart, communicate effectively, and aim to have fun in the process,” Krug says.

With professional development comes personal development. “The time and resource-constrained technical problems we face on the Formula Team provides us with the fortitude necessary to tackle difficult and new situations in all areas of life,” says Krug.

Wisconsin Racing’s philosophy centers upon the growth of the team member, and the team has created a community of mentorship and knowledge transfer, populated with students who crave success beyond coursework. When newer team members join the team, veteran members take it upon themselves to get to know the new students and find meaningful work for them based on their interests. “Instead of being focused on the design of our systems, we’re focused on the integration of people into the design of our systems,” says Neville.

The result is a close-knit group of students supporting one another in vehicle design, coursework, and in life. “You have built-in friends,” says Wooldridge. “When you’re spending hundreds of hours per semester with the same people, even when things go badly, you’re all suffering together.”

With its World Championship title of 2007 still in the rearview mirror, Wisconsin Racing team members are driven by a desire to innovate and to improve. Inspired by this past success, they drive forward, challenging themselves to capture that title once again. “We know that we will forever be a world-championship team,” says Wooldridge.