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No brake: ASU team powers through to edge closer to race car

With classes in the rear-view mirror, student engineers go full throttle and spend all their time in the workshop

A student engineer works on the chassis of a race car.

December 17, 2015

Editor’s note: This is the latest installation in a yearlong series about ASU's Formula SAEFormula SAE is a student design competition organized by the International Society of Automotive Engineers (now known as SAE International). team. Find links to previous stories at the end of this article.

Final exams are over, and it’s a chilly damp Saturday morning on the almost-deserted Tempe campus of Arizona State University. The malls and lawns are empty and silent.

But in a machine shop in the Psychology North building where about 20 student engineers have gathered to resume work on a Formula-style race car, it’s anything but quiet.

Metal screams and exudes the tangy smell it does when it’s cut. Krispy Kreme boxes and McDonald’s bags litter tables. One table is covered in laptops, electronics and power cables.

The past few weeks have been dominated by final exams (“School comes first,” one student said), but now the dedicated students of the Formula Society of Automotive Engineers have a full week cleared to do nothing but work on the Sun Devil Motorsports 16.

Their goal is to get the car running by January so they can test it, improve it and train drivers in time for the national competition in June in Lincoln, Nebraska. Auto manufacturers — many of which won’t hire automotive engineers unless they participated in their campus FSAE chapters — have scouts at the competition.

Cars are judged down to the number of times a single bolt is tightened — and every detail and choice has to be carefully documented.

Team manager Troy Buhr is heading fundraising. “This year it hasn’t been as many big sponsors,” he said. Buhr’s strategy has been to focus on getting all 110 team members to reach out to individual sponsors.

Money has been trickling in by $100 donations. The team had about $5,000 in the bank, but they bought a Taylor differential for $2,500.

“That one was expensive,” said Buhr, a junior in mechanical engineering. “We’re getting by.”

Arik Jacobson, a sophomore majoring in automotive engineering and team manufacturing manager, is working on the chassis.

“The biggest issue we have is taking stuff from SOLIDWORKS (a computer-aided design program) and turning it into something tangible,” he said.

The chassis builders are working to incredibly tight tolerances — a 32nd of an inch. Chris Hughes, team treasurer and a senior in mechanical engineering, explained another difficult problem: places on the chassis where three tubes meet. The tubes have to be cut to fit, but less tube means a weaker joint.

“It’d be easier if they were spaced apart,” Hughes said.

The chassis is ready to be welded, which will take all week long. “I’m going to need two or three people to go nose to tail on it today,” Jacobson tells the group.

Chief engineer Wes Kudela has everyone in the shop assemble outside. Today’s biggest goal is getting the new engine control unit — the car’s brain, essentially — to mate to last year’s wiring harness. After going over the day’s plan for each team in the shop, he gives an "attaboy" to everyone who is giving up vacation time.

“I want to thank everyone who’s here working over break,” said Kudela, a senior in mechanical engineering. “I know it’s a break, so I really appreciate your dedication. Now let’s get going.”

Curtis Swift is the systems team lead. Systems covers the steering wheel, headrest, restraints, driver enclosure, seat, “pretty much anything the driver interacts with while driving,” Swift explained.

Swift’s team is mulling the choice between a carbon fiber seat or a bead seat. The latter is like taking a bean bag, emptying it, putting the beads in a trash bag with epoxy, vacuum sealing it, and forming it to the driver’s body.

“The carbon fiber would be good for looks, but the bead seat would be easy to manufacture,” said Swift, a senior in mechanical engineering. “We could do it in half a day. … We’re really just waiting on funding.”

Today he has brought in the SDM-16’s steering wheel, which he made for a class project. It’s a black rectangle with rounded corners and finger holes on the edges. It doesn’t look like the steering wheel on your car. (Nothing on this car looks like the parts on your car.)

“I made the holes big so big dudes can drive the car,” Swift said. He’s making the grips today out of some foam that’s lying around the shop and tennis-racket grip tape. The steering wheel is a thin sandwich of wood between two carbon-fiber plates. “It’s lighter and harder than steel,” he said.

“One of the big things in systems is ergonomics,” Swift said. “You want the driver feeling comfortable going around the track at 40 miles per hour.”

Students work on a steering wheel.

The race car's steering wheel is a thin sandwich of wood between two carbon-fiber plates. “I made the (finger) holes big so big dudes can drive the car,” said systems team lead Curtis Swift.

Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

To that end the student engineers have built an ergonomics rig. It’s an adjustable wooden model of a car interior. It’s the brainchild of Brandon Butterfield, a senior earning a degree in mechanical engineering and the systems vice team leader. At the competition in Nebraska last year he asked another team why their car was so comfortable. They told him about their wooden erg rig.

“Our old car turned out to be a little uncomfortable,” Butterfield said. “We wanted to design the car around the driver, instead of the other way around.”

Colin Twist, a junior majoring in mechanical engineering, is the brakes team lead. His team is responsible for the brakes, rotors, cylinders and brake lines. Today he’s testing the rotors in a computer program to make sure they’re strong enough and can handle heat loads.

“We’re here to come up with a rotor design all our own,” Twist said.

The SDM-16’s rotors are very thin and carved with holes to save weight. Since the car isn’t very heavy and won’t produce a lot of heat when stopping, they don’t have to be solid like the rotors on a mass-produced car. The holes were cut out with water jets in a Chandler shop.

“We’re moving right along, knocking deadlines out,” Twist said. With an entire week in the shop, “we’ll get a lot done,” he said.

All eight of the specialty teams on the car have been working so hard they haven’t had a good look at what the other teams have accomplished.

“I didn’t know they were so far along,” Twist said glancing at the chassis.

Next week the student engineers will take a real break, heading home to spend the holidays with their families.

A word of thanks from the team to their sponsors:

To support the ASU Formula SAE team, click here, then select the “write-in” circle in the “supporting” category and enter the following in the box: "ASU-Society of Automotive Engineers 30006731".

Previous stories in this series:

Oct. 14: Tempe Drift: How an underdog student engineering team is building a race car from the ground up.

Nov. 4: Racing time and money to build a fast car.

Dec. 10: Braking bad: Pressure is on for ASU student engineers building race car

Look for the next installment Jan. 21.