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Hi-Tech Hot Rod Is The Ultimate Learning Lab

January 27, 2005
University Of Arizona
Hot rods have led many students to mechanical engineering careers and these days a high-tech hot rod — UA's screamin' formula car — is keeping some students in school.

Dustin Wright, formula car team manufacturing director, explains some of the car's features during a presentation to sponsors in December.

Hot rods have led many students to mechanical engineering careers and these days a high-tech hot rod — UA's screamin' formula car — is keeping some students in school.

"I would not be an engineer and I would not be in school right now if it weren't for this (SAE formula car) club," said Dustin Wright, the team's director of manufacturing. "When I ran into this club, I was so frustrated with engineering and college in general that I was ready to quit. I was spending all this time in class and getting nothing out of it."

"These student projects (formula car, mini-baja vehicle, solar car, etc.) keep people in school," Wright added. "They keep students motivated, and they give them an outside interest that they learn from."

The Ultimate Lab Class

In fact, the UA formula car just may be the ultimate lab class.

Freshmen and sophomores learn complex computer analysis and other sophisticated skills from the club's upper classmen. And when they meet these concepts in class as juniors or seniors, the classroom work is more like a review than a new learning experience.

"We've developed our own computer tools that we teach team members to use," Wright explained. "And we also teach fundamental things. For instance, we have a welding class that I teach every morning at 8 a.m., where our members learn TIG welding."

The club also extends its teaching to Tucson's grade schools and middle schools, where team members explain and demonstrate the car.

Educating Younger Students

"One of our biggest goals is to educate younger students, as well as the community, about what we do and how they can get involved in higher education and engineering," said formula car Team Captain Ryan Kanto. "We also talk about alternative fuels because our car runs on ethanol, which is made from corn."

A lot of learning also happens as the 140 or so formula car teams that participate in the annual SAE formula car competition share test data, tools and other information.

"All of the teams realize that this isn't a competition with other teams," said Ryan Kemmet, marketing director for UA's formula team. "Maybe the top ten teams are going to keep some of their information proprietary and aren't going to share it, but most teams will gladly share information because building a formula car is a learning experience, not an all-out effort to win."

"We've already shared really valuable information and tools with other teams, and it's only to our benefit because they help us in return," Kemmet added.

Engine Tests Improve the Car

Many teams even post vital design information on the Internet.

Among other things, UA team members picked up valuable test data on the Suzuki motorcycle engine that powers their car. Four teams from other universities ran similar engines on test stands, twisting them and measuring critical clearances, as well as engine life.

"Basically, they found that the engine is perfectly fine when used as a stress member in the frame," Wright said.

Last year, UA's team didn't use the engine as a stress member because others had told them it couldn't stand the abuse. With this new data, the engine crankcase in the 2005 car has been included as a load-bearing member in the frame. This and other changes have helped cut the frame weight from 67 pounds to 45 pounds.

The team also has developed an accurate computer model of the engine as part of an overall effort to reduce development time.

No More Mistakes

"Our primary goal at the end of last year was to say, 'Look, we don't want to make any more mistakes,' " Kanto said. " 'Mistakes are great and we learn from them, but if we're going to build a car, let's try to build it right the first time so that we don't have to waste our time with rebuilds.' So everything now is run through the computer. The parts are tested and weighed. We do finite element analysis on everything so we know the parts are not going to break before we build them."

Often these parts are then tested in the 2004 car, which has become the team's rolling test bed and driver-training vehicle.

The team also has used the engineering college rapid prototyping equipment to quickly build mock-up parts to be sure that parts will fit before they're machined. In other cases, the rapid-prototype parts have served as male molds on which carbon-fiber parts are built. Once the part is completed, the mold is dissolved out leaving the carbon-fiber shell. The team used this method to build the formula car's intake manifold.

Simple Solutions to Complex Problems

Concentrating on computer modeling and project engineering instead of cut-and-try fabrication has given the team more time to find elegant solutions.

"We've had more development time this year, and we've been able to find simpler solutions to complicated problems," Wright explained. "It's really easy to find a complicated solution to a simple problem: doing the opposite is very difficult."

"But that's not to say that this car is low-tech," Wright added. "It has a carbon-fiber stressed skin and riveted aluminum seat. We've taken aircraft technology, a lot of aerospace industry technology, and applied it to this car."

All of which has been a great learning experience.

"All I can say is that building this formula car has been the most fun I've ever had in school," Wright said. " I've learned almost more from working on the car than I have from my engineering classes.

"For me, this is the closest to industry experience that I've had in school. I've had internships and things like that and, to be quite honest, none of them were as rewarding as this. With internships you do get a paycheck and we don't get paid for working on the formula car. But this car has really motivated and driven us.

"Internships feel more like work and building this car just feels like fun."

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University Of Arizona. (2005, January 27). Hi-Tech Hot Rod Is The Ultimate Learning Lab. ScienceDaily. Retrieved April 27, 2017 from
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