Tortoise, Hare, Bulldog

Member of UNC Asheville Motorsports sits in the race car in STEAM Studio

The race is not always to the swift and as a first-time entrant in the Formula SAE® Electric, scheduled for June 21-24 in Lincoln, Nebraska, UNC Asheville Motorsports hopes to have built a car that will endure. Of course, speed is a challenge too.

This competition, sponsored by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE), has attracted teams from 30 campuses across the country that are designing and building electric cars from scratch. UNC Asheville’s SAE chapter is a student activity, with members designing and building the car as an extra-curricular activity. UNC Asheville Motorsports, a first-time entrant, is focusing on effective, affordable and sturdy design, and some 10 members of the team will go to Lincoln for the competition.

Student in welding helmet works on the car“There was only one team [last year] that finished the endurance challenge,” said Dean Shipman, a junior mechatronics student and president of UNC Asheville’s SAE chapter. Additionally, only eight teams passed all inspections and were cleared to run on the track. “I believe we have a chance to do both of those, and I really hope so because it would show that a small school can be right there to compete with the larger ones.”

UNC Asheville’s car is powered by two fork-lift motors and a battery pack put together from Nissan Leaf modules. Next year, the team hopes to be able to purchase and add more powerful motors, but for this year, the hopes are for passing all inspection points and scoring well in categories like cost, design and endurance while learning in the process. To afford new motors, the team, which received substantial contributions this year from donors like Brightfield Transportation Solutions and Blue Ridge Energy Systems, will be seeking additional donor support.

The Overview

Tim Boulet sits in the test mule in STEAM Studio as (from left) Paul Guenette, Dave Erb and Patrick Johnson look on.

“There’s an application aspect to this, giving you real world experience,” said Lindsi Jones, a May 2017 engineering graduate who served as the team’s business manager and is headed for a Department of Defense job with Naval Air Systems Command. “The first and foremost thing we learned is that before an engineer can go design or build, you have to budget, and that’s hard because you have these delusions of grandeur, but then you look at the bottom line and see you only have so much to build the entire car. You need an engineering background to know how to distribute the budget, to know what components are the most important and to speak that language with each other.”

While Jones was responsible for the financial overview, rising senior Timothy Boulet and Samuel Julian worked on the big picture in terms of mechanics. “My main job is to connect all the dots,” said Julian, now a full-time student who began his studies part-time while part of a formal co-op program at BorgWarner Turbo Systems. “Tim and I work really closely – he’s the manufacturing lead – so between the two of us, we try to organize everyone so all the subsystems everyone is designing will go together nicely, and that what we’re designing actually can be built. A lot of people design something and then see, ‘oh, I can’t build that.’ [We] are in the position to be the checks in that system. We’re the ones to figure out which tubes come first, the thicknesses we need, and we’re making sure we’re going to bring this to life.”

Hands On

Part of bringing the car to life was cutting its internal metal tubing system very precisely. “We cut some tubes to length the old-fashioned way just to see how long it would take, and the result wasn’t great – it took several hours,” said Paul Guenette, a May 2017 engineering graduate. “Tim Boulet and I just looked at each other and said, how much time would it take to design a computer-controlled machine, how much would it cost – is it reasonable to try to do it and the answer was ‘yes.’”

Sparks fly as a the student-built, computer-controlled machine cuts pipe in STEAM Studio.

So working in UNC Asheville’s new STEAM Studio, the two designed and built what they needed. “It’s a real time-saver because we can pull the models straight from our CAD (computer-aided design) so there’s no set-up time,” said Boulet. “Machinery like this does exist, but it’s much more expensive, so we decided to make one.” Boulet wants to improve the machine next year so it can work with tubes of different diameters. “This is version one. I’m looking forward to building version two.”

“Every little thing that you do that is hands-on teaches you something in some way about engineering,” said Guenette. “We were having noise issues with the machine – we would turn it on and electromagnetic ‘noise’ would get in and cause it to misbehave. So we had to diagnose that, break out the evaluation tools, figure out what was going on, and you can carry that on into industry – ‘oh yeah, I’ve seen that before, let’s go get the oscilloscope.’”

June and Beyond

Dave Erb, faculty advisor to the SAE chapter, has urged the students to update and bring their resumes to Lincoln, Nebraska for the Formula SAE® Electric competition. SpaceX, the aerospace firm Guenette says he might like to work for, is one of many that come to the SAE competitions to observe and recruit, according to Erb.

Dave Erb of the engineering faculty works with students on computer-aided design in the new STEAM studio.

“The contest itself is designed by SAE to mimic business, to mimic what students will face in their jobs,” said Erb. “The premise is that this group of students is a group of engineers and entrepreneurs who are going to start a company that is going to build this car to sell to weekend autocrossers – weekend racers. They need to make the case that the car is fast and that they can manufacture it cheaply enough that someone can make a profit on selling to those hobbyists. And safety and endurance are absolutely critical.”

Next fall, the mission for the SAE team will be to try to make its vehicle faster, not just by increasing its power, but by making the car lighter without sacrificing durability and safety. Erb hopes the team will attract more students from other disciplines like management and mass communication to help raise the team’s public profile and raise more money.

New mechatronics students are ready to fill the places taken by the SAE team’s graduates. “I want to stay involved in something where I use my hands – that’s something I’ll be losing when I quit my job,” said Jonathan Remein, who will become a full-time student in the fall. “Having the opportunity to get in here [the STEAM Studio] and put your nose to the grindstone is a rare opportunity and very worthwhile.”

Inside of wheel and brake assemblyKeeping hands-on is also part of the SAE team’s attraction for Zachary Thomas, a 30-year old sophomore who is leaving a job with Outrider USA, a local electric vehicle start-up, to attend UNC Asheville full-time in the fall. “I came back to school after hearing about the UNC Asheville mechatronics program when some students did their senior design project at our start-up company. SAE is a natural for me. This is right up my alley – electric vehicles.”

And while the SAE team works this fall to build a better, faster electric race car, team member Ian Arlen who graduated in May hopes to be at work professionally in the electric vehicle field for environmental reasons. “I feel very strongly about that,” said Arlen. “I’d like to see a world that our kids and grandkids could drive around in, or have cars drive them around in – they won’t need to drive them, right? That’s going to be a thing of the past soon.”

In the meantime, UNC Asheville Motorsports will be vanning its vehicle to Nebraska in June, with hopes of driving the car to racing (or at least endurance) success. To learn more about the Formula SAE® Electric competition and track UNC Asheville’s progress, visit students.sae.org/cds/formulaseries/electric.