The off-road vehicle is showroom clean, a paean to perfection. The engine shines, and the side panels glisten. “Do Not Touch!” signs ring the chassis, inviting visitors to admire the work of art at a distance. But looks can be deceiving. This car was designed to play in the mud, to climb hills, to ignore bumps and bruises and to outmaneuver its competitors. In a matter of days, its creators will try to reclaim the title of Baja SAE champion. If they do, they will owe their success to the dozens of ideas that sprang from the imagination, took shape on a computer and were brought to life in a lab filled with hulking machines, shelves of tools and the faint scent of motor oil.
The Mechanical Engineering Projects Lab is a second home for students who are part of the Baja and Formula SAE international team competitions. In late spring, as the events edge closer on the calendar, the lab becomes the primary residence for team leaders.
“I haven’t seen my girlfriend in two weeks,” says Zach Limas, the rear suspension expert on the 14-member Baja team. “But, yeah, this is worth it.”
“This” is the annual event sponsored by the Society of Automotive Engineers, which gives college students from around the world — not all of them engineers — the hands-on experience of creating a vehicle virtually from scratch.
“It’s an engineering design competition, not a race,” says Clifford Stover, director of the engineering projects lab, SAE faculty advisor and mechanical engineering professor.
He points out that some well-funded teams from Europe focus exclusively on their computerized designs and pay others to handle the manufacturing and assembly.
But this is Cal Poly Pomona, which places a premium on students rolling up their sleeves and putting their ideas into practice. Team members not only conceptualize, design and test their vehicles on highly specialized software, but they also bring them to life in the lab, using an array of machines to hone steel, aluminum and carbon fiber. Moving from the classroom to the back shop gives them a decided edge in the professional world.
“A lot of these kids didn’t grow up around garages,” Stover says, “but they don’t mind getting their hands dirty learning what it takes to turn ideas into reality.”
Stover, who worked as a tool and die and mold maker for 10 years and as an engineer for five more before entering academia, can speak the language of a shop foreman as well as a professor, and he makes sure his students know what they’re doing. But he realizes that mistakes can be instructive. Flawed parts, which sit atop some of the mills and lathes, serve as talismans, reminding students of the need for precision.
Long before SAE team members fire up a machine, they click on a computer. Using a program called SolidWorks, they create three-dimensional designs for the parts that will eventually form their vehicle. Every member has a specific duty, ranging from brakes to suspensions to belts, and all must mesh like the instruments in an orchestra because a finely honed machine will perform only as well as its least perfect part.
Ryan Harrison, captain of the Baja team, is responsible for ensuring that every part passes muster. The “tech inspection” sheet for the competition is 111 pages of ratios, clearances, specifications and requirements for every element of the vehicle. He and Stover pore over the lists to make sure nothing is overlooked.
SAE rules require that at least 30 percent of a vehicle’s design is changed annually, to encourage innovation and make certain that the best teams do not simply re-create their winning cars year after year.
“We’ll have no problem with that,” Harrison says, pointing out significant changes to the chassis and rear suspension. Like all vehicles in the competition, Cal Poly Pomona’s runs on a 10-horsepower Briggs & Stratton engine — in essence, a lawnmower engine — which puts a premium on the other components.
The Baja event, hosted this year by Western Washington University, tests the all-terrain vehicles in a series of track events, such as maneuverability, acceleration, rock crawl, endurance, as well as technical inspections and design and sales presentations. Some teams gear up for just one or two, but Harrison says his team wants to be competitive in all categories.
“We should do well in Baja,” says Stover, whose team won the competition in 2008 and finished ninth last year out of more than 100 teams. “We’re from Southern California. Off-road is in our genes.”
Fifteen feet behind the practically preening Baja car, atop a work table, lies a carbon steel skeleton. It isn’t a design gone wrong or the remains of a previous contraption. It’s the nascent Formula SAE vehicle, which is scheduled to compete at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana in mid-June. And if you ask team member Warren Van Ryzin, everything is going according to schedule.
“This weekend is going to be huge,” he says. “We should have close to a running car in a couple of days.”
Virtually everything for the Formula car has already been built, tested and stored inside The Box, a large shed in the lab. At this point, team members know the assembly procedure by memory, though they will operate like skilled surgeons. They’ve come too far to slip up.
Van Ryzin exits The Box cradling a one-of-a-kind radiator whose design was based on data loaded into an Excel spreadsheet. “Feel how light it is,” he says, gently handing it over.
Nearby, a package arrives, and three students huddle around the contents like kids at Christmas. “They’re sweet,” team captain David Whitaker says, holding up and inspecting two small devices. He’s talking about the master cylinders, which are smaller and, more importantly, dramatically lighter than previous incarnations. Later, he points to the Baja vehicle’s frame, which was treated with Tool Black rather than painted. The super-thin coating of oxidation is virtually weightless.
“We’re going to do the same thing,” he says. “We did the calculations, and the paint would have added 4 pounds.”
Like a jockey preparing for a big race, the Formula team is obsessed with weight. Last year’s vehicle totaled 435 pounds, and the goal this year is to come in at an even 400, despite the larger than average 600-cc Suzuki GSX-R engine. The combination of agility and power could prove to be a powerful combination.
For now, a quiet confidence fills the room. Whitaker, Van Ryzin and other team members are aware that the unexpected can leave them scrambling at the competition, but if misfortune strikes, they’ll know how to respond. After all, they’ve not only designed the parts, but they’ve also manufactured and assembled most of them.
“We’ll be ready,” Whitaker says.
Editor’s note: The Baja team finished sixth at the competition in Washington.
Top photo: Andrew Tan, a senior mechanical engineering major, welds joints on the SAE Formula car on April 10, 2009.
Second photo: The 2010 SAE Baja car leaps over the dirt terrain on June 14, 2010.
Third photo: Ryan Harrison machines a part for the SAE Formula car on May 11, 2010.
Bottom photo: Cliff Stover, the advisor to the SAE Formula car team, machines a part for the car at the Projects Lab on May 13, 2010.