A solar-powered learning experience

Competition challenges ASU engineering and technology students to design and build a car that runs on solar energy

June 21, 2022

In the Valley of the Sun, Arizona State University students are embarking on a journey to build a solar-powered car from the ground up. As members of the Solar Devils student organization, they are in the driver’s seat for a unique, hands-on experience unlike anything they’ve done in class.

The finish line will be at the 2023 American Solar Challenge, where the Solar Devils will put their car to the ultimate test in a multi-day, cross-country race covering more than 1,500 miles. ASU students and members of Solar Devils meeting around a conference table, discussing ideas. Ayman Hangalay (right), a recent mechanical engineering bachelor’s degree graduate and the 2021—22 president of Solar Devils, works with mechanical engineering majors Christina Sturgeon (left) and Denisha Nez (center) during one of the student organization’s design meetings. Photo by Erika Gronek/ASU Download Full Image

Ayman Hangalay, who graduated from the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at ASU in May with his bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering, was the team’s president for the 2021—22 academic year. He helped start the team in the summer of 2021 because he wanted to get more practical engineering experience and build something from scratch.

“I was fascinated by the vehicles other universities in the same competition were able to create,” Hangalay says, “and that inspired me to rise to the challenge of trying to emulate that at ASU.”

In the organization’s first year, Hangalay and the team of approximately 30 students learned a lot, and the experience has fueled their interest in renewable energy and solar technologies.

Navigating a steep learning curve

So far, the team has completed a mountain of background research to learn how to design a solar-powered car, created digital models with computer-aided design, or CAD, software and started purchasing sample parts to begin testing.

Some of the work requires students to apply the skills they learn in their majors. Hangalay drew on his experience as a mechanical engineering major to help design the solar car.

“Designing components of the vehicle relies on the fundamentals of structural mechanics: the exterior shell on aerodynamics and fluid dynamics, the battery system-to-solar panel hookup on circuitry knowledge, and CAD skills to perform all computer-designed models and simulations for testing,” he says. “The engineering curriculum at ASU does a good job of teaching the fundamentals that end up finding their way into all aspects of the building process.”

He says the process of working on this unique and complex project also involves applying many concepts that he never would have learned in class.

“Some of the biggest skills that we had to obtain were understanding how to design for assembly and manufacturing, the necessary implementations for cars like crumple zones in the chassis design, and considering the economics of sourcing and manufacturing,” Hangalay says.

In addition to all the regulations to which their car has to adhere, the Solar Devils team has also had a lot of design decisions to make, from three-wheeled to four-wheeled configurations, and how they contributed to the car’s weight, stability, construction simplicity and surface area for solar panels.

“Making a racing car from scratch that runs on solar power is a huge project with lots of logistics to take care of,” says Anoop Grewal, a lecturer in the Fulton Schools who serves as the Solar Devils faculty adviser. “The students get to learn a lot of practical lessons they will not get in classes, such as how to source parts, how things fail in real life, manufacturing issues and more.”

In addition to all the testing and trials of each system, the team also must work with sponsors to get the necessary funding to build such a car, which could cost as much as $30,000.

Grewal recalls a talk that a Tesla Motors engineer gave to the group. The engineer emphasized simply making a car that works in the first attempt and saving the performance optimization for the second attempt. Grewal and Hangalay believe Solar Devils students are doing just that — learning the necessary skills on the fly and taking it one step at a time.

“It is one thing to learn concepts in the classroom and an entirely different thing to go from the initial brainstorming stage all the way to the manufacturing and testing stages of a car you helped build by hand,” Hangalay says. “Students will experience many challenges and learn how to overcome the natural failure that they will experience in industry.”

Collaborating with a multidisciplinary team of all skill levels

The Solar Devils team includes primarily mechanical and aerospace engineering majors, but Hangalay says students in all majors are encouraged to join. Some students on the project are in the civil engineering, computer science and computer systems engineering programs.

The members also range from first-year students to graduate students.

“This creates a really important dynamic because students with more experience in specific areas are integral for teaching and explaining the more complex topics,” Hangalay says.

Christina Sturgeon, a rising mechanical engineering sophomore pursuing a minor in sustainability, joined Solar Devils in her first year to get more hands-on experience, apply her classroom knowledge and pursue her passion for sustainability and renewable energy. She has been able to apply both the problem-solving skills and technical skills she has already learned with new skills she gained.

“The work in Solar Devils has also given me exposure to topics I had yet to learn about as a freshman,” she says. “It is really exciting to get to work on an actual project and apply skills from all different classes to create something new.”

Sturgeon says she has benefited from working on the interdisciplinary, multi-level team so early in her academic career.

“You have students at all different age levels who are contributing knowledge,” she says. “As a first-year student, I learned so much from upperclassmen while working on this project.”

The difficulty of learning so much new information is also one of the biggest rewards, Sturgeon says.

“It is intimidating at first, but once you get into it and do more research, it is so exciting to learn more,” she says.

Hangalay says that first-year students are eager to learn new concepts, noting that through Solar Devils, many first-year students started to practice designing with SOLIDWORKS CAD software a year before they learn about it in the engineering curriculum.

In addition to their faculty adviser’s knowledge, the group can also learn from the many solar power experts among the Fulton Schools faculty members.

“ASU has a lot of great professors who are really knowledgeable in the solar industry to provide advice and feedback whenever we need it,” Hangalay says. “They provide great support to engineering clubs.”

Working toward a bright renewable energy future

Hangalay is proud of the progress the team has made by working together every week to achieve their shared goal.

There have been many surprises along the way, and Hangalay says the biggest revelation for him was seeing the simplicity of electric vehicle motors compared to gas-powered vehicle motors.

“This project has made me more confident in the future of electric vehicles as a whole,” Hangalay says.

Based on their experience with the project, Hangalay and Sturgeon say they see the possibility down the road of using solar power in electric vehicles.

Upon his graduation, Hangalay passed the steering wheel to president-elect Mateo Oliveras, a mechanical engineering major. Hangalay is excited to see where the organization will go in the coming years — through the American Solar Challenge, and maybe even to the Bridgestone World Solar Challenge, an 1,800-mile race across the Australian Outback.

“This is such a special project because it not only gives students an opportunity to engage in a challenging and incredibly rewarding experience,” Hangalay says, “but we’re also helping shape future engineers who will hopefully gain interest in renewable energy and change the world for the better.”

The Solar Devils experience helped Hangalay land a job as a mechanical design engineer with Boeing in Seattle. The project is preparing others for their careers as well.

“Ultimately, (this experience) makes students great candidates for amazing job and internship opportunities,” Grewal says. “It also makes the students a lot more entrepreneurial. They will have the necessary skills to start their own thing if they want to.”

Sturgeon is excited about pursuing opportunities to do solar power research and a career in the renewable energy sector. Solar Devils is giving her and other students the skills to achieve such goals.

“This project is so much fun and I believe anyone interested in renewable energy and engineering would love working on it,” she says. “Solar Devils provides a lot of experience with vehicles in general, as well as in electric vehicles, and we have areas of work for anyone in engineering to make a contribution.”

Interested in joining Solar Devils? The team is looking for new members to join the electrical team — especially upper-division students, but all are welcome. Join the Solar Devils Discord and follow the team on Instagram @asusolardevils to find out about upcoming general meetings and work meetings.

Monique Clement

Lead communications specialist, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering


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Missing the mark on marketing?

June 21, 2022

An ASU business expert explains the review process for products before they hit shelves

Companies are constantly exploring new concepts for products.

Sometimes, those concepts are axed way before the product is mass produced, for various reasons. 

Then there are times when a product hits the shelves, outraging consumers.

In a recent example, Walmart recalled Great Value’s Juneteenth ice cream, meant to celebrate the federal holiday commemorating the emancipation of enslaved African Americans in the United States. Consumers weren’t having it: literally and figuratively. The company apologized and quickly listened to consumers, pulling the product from shelves.

But this isn’t the first product mishap you’ve likely read about, and it likely won't be the last.

ASU News wanted to understand more about the strategy and review process for products that make it to market by enlisting the help of Charles (Bret) Giles, a professor of practice at Arizona State University's W. P. Carey School of Business, whose areas of expertise include branding and marketing.  

, marketing professor at ASU

Charles (Bret) Giles

Question: Sometimes companies miss the mark on new products. How does this happen when so many eyeballs have been on the product from development to marketing to release?

Answer: Most product launches fail. In fact, depending upon your source, 70 to 95% of new products fail to reach viability. 

The product management and marketing process is different among companies, and some of the most significant differences stem from when consumer feedback is introduced in the process, as well as the type of feedback that is derived from those consumers.

Breaking this down, companies that involve consumers in their process late or not at all  — and there are plenty that release products with absolutely no feedback from the ultimate users of the product — are more likely to face a situation where the mark is missed and a launch is unsuccessful. Conversely, those companies that involve the consumer early and often in the process are more likely to succeed, particularly when using both qualitative and quantitative research in uncovering product viability.

In other words, if a company interviews those people it intends on serving and becomes educated around what they need and want in their lives, a company can then learn if the new product actually fulfills the “job” the people are “hiring” you to do. If so, a company can then use that information to create surveys that quantitatively measure a broader group of people with statistical significance. 

Q: With social media, it seems like the complaints are more amplified. How do companies decide when it’s time to recall a product because it’s controversial/offensive? What’s the threshold?

A: Generally speaking, marketers welcome amplification of a product message from consumers, as it extends any promotional work the company itself might be doing and at the same time is more credible. That means when a product is released that is seen as offensive or controversial, the exact same thing can happen in a negative way to the company. 

But is it necessarily negative, or is it a way to learn, take immediate action and pledge to do better the next time? The time to recall a product that is insensitive or offensive is not based on a formula. It comes from a company acknowledging the product doesn’t align, not only with the values of its consumers, but also with the values of the company itself. It should be a very easy decision to recall a product, but just as people vary in their effectiveness of apologizing for insensitive remarks, so too do brands and companies. 

If we look at Walmart and their response to the Juneteenth ice cream flavor they inappropriately introduced, it was swift, it took full responsibility and it offered immediate action. That is really all people on social media could logically expect from a company, even if those people continue to discuss it negatively in open forums. But usually, if the apology is genuine and not performative, people respond accordingly and the matter is out of the social media fray rather quickly. 

Continuing on with this example, this course of action should have been an easy decision for Walmart because it completely aligns with who they are as a company. Over 21% of the Walmart workforce is Black and African American, and over one-third of its management are people of color. Years ago, they started a Center for Racial Equity and have committed $100 million in donations to address racial disparities in the United States. In 2021, the year before the ice cream gaffe, they donated $14 million of those funds to such organizations. 

Basically, if a company knows what it stands for, it is easy for it to look inwardly and acknowledge its missteps when social media influencers and users call it out. The action it takes at that point, if swift, genuine, apologetic and acknowledging of its own misstep, will usually go a mile in how the brand is perceived ongoing with consumers. 

Q: What kind of checks and balances exist in companies to test whether a product will be well received or be controversial? Does this process vary, and is that part of the problem?

A: Most companies complete some sort of consumer testing prior to the launch of a product or a product extension — another product within the same brand or family of products. This research could be qualitative or quantitative, or both, depending upon the significance of the product to the overall company. In most research, a company would be interested in determining product market fit; that is, how well consumers would receive a product and change their existing behavior to give it a try. If research shows the product will not be well-received for a multitude of reasons, the company might rethink the product before introduction, scrap the product altogether or continue with the launch of the product regardless of the research findings. 

If the research does not ask the right questions in the first place or if the company opts to ignore findings they don’t want to hear, the checks and balances that come with consumer research are significantly nullified. While I believe most companies do some sort of research prior to product introductions, the quality and amount of that research varies considerably, which can lead to products making it through a process that really should never have been introduced in their current form. 

I might add that sometimes a company does everything right but still a product that is introduced has an unexpected consequence. This is where a swift, genuine and action-oriented response by the company can really pay off.

Q: How badly will a company’s brand suffer if it releases a controversial product and then is forced to recall it?

A: Brands release products frequently that do not make it for one reason or another. One of those reasons might be because they were seen as insensitive, inappropriate or ill-aligned with the consuming public. If a brand then elects to recall the product, the fate of the brand really depends upon a number of factors. How long did it take the company to respond? Did they only take action because they were forced to by consumers? Did they apologize? Did it seem like they walked away from the experience having learned something and would make an effort to do better the next time? Did their response seem genuine and transparent? Did it come from a top executive and did employees support the company and its decision through their social media channels? Did the company take time to engage with top customers to learn from them?

There are other things to consider as well, but in the end many companies will make mistakes with brand and product introductions. The mistake is more easily forgiven and forgotten based on the response from the company. It was once said that “all PR is good PR,” and while I do not believe that to be true, I do believe that it is human nature to forgive and to move forward if you feel heard and if you feel real action will come. The role of the brand is to listen very closely and carefully when adding or launching new products, and then to respond very quickly and decisively when your expectation is not matching with the market reality.

Top photo courtesy Pixabay

Jimena Garrison

Media Relations Officer , Media Relations and Strategic Communications