posted May 4, 2010

Student-Designed Car Participating in International Competition

Hope College students have been working from the ground up in designing and building a race car to participate in the international Formula SAE Michigan competition at Michigan International Speedway on Wednesday-Saturday, May 12-15.

The car will make its public debut a few days earlier, featured on a float in the Tulip Time Meijer Muziekparade on Saturday, May 8.

The Hope team is one of more than 120 from around the world, including from Asia, Europe and South America, competing in the Formula SAE event.  Hope is the only undergraduate college among the 10 schools from Michigan that are fielding teams.

The concept behind Formula SAE is that a fictional manufacturing company has contracted a design team to develop a small Formula-style race car.  The prototype car is to be evaluated for its potential as a production item.  Each student team designs, builds and tests a prototype based on a series of rules whose purpose is to provide standards while promoting clever problem solving.

The Formula SAE competition is not just a race.  Instead, the teams are evaluated in a series of static and dynamic events, including presentation, design, cost analysis, acceleration, cornering ability, maneuverability and handling, fuel economy and endurance.

The Hope team began planning during the 2007-08 school year, and following some initial designing during 2008-09 has done most of its work during the current school year.  The students have been designing and building the car on their own time as well as in conjunction with their academic program.  In this spring's senior-level design course in engineering, during which students develop projects of their own choosing, two groups worked on the body structure and electrical system respectively.

"It really is a great example of real-world design," said Dr. Roger Veldman, associate professor of engineering.  ""The car is a great example of a complex design project, because it has multiple subsystems that all have to come together."

The international Formula SAE organization provides a variety of design parameters within which the participants must work, but beyond that the teams make their own decisions.  Some of the parts are pre-fabricated, like the 600cc Honda motorcycle engine that provides the power.  Others - like the frame itself--have been developed by the group, starting with initial concept, and then moving through design and theoretical testing using the computer and ultimately to fabrication and construction.

"Pretty much any critical element you see in the car, unless they've been purchased, have all been tested and designed by students," said senior Matthew Labaza of Rochester, who with senior Benjamin Barkel of Birmingham has been leading the Hope team this year.

More than 20 area firms have been assisting with the project by providing either in-kind or financial support, from Hudsonville Ice Cream and Creamery, the car's primary sponsor; to Energetx Composites/S2 Yachts, which manufactured the carbon-fiber skin that covers the car; to IXL Machine Shop and Louis Padnos Iron & Metal, which welded the frame.  Campus support has come from beyond engineering as well, with the Student Congress providing financial assistance, the student development office providing additional funding and logistical support, and faculty member Billy Mayer of the department of art providing space for the group in the sculpture studio for much of the school year.

The Hope team's faculty advisor is Dr. John Krupczak, professor of engineering and chairperson of the department.  Also serving as an advisor to the group has been Dr. Richard Frost, who is vice president for student development and dean of students and has been an advisor to the group.

Frost noted that he has appreciated the educational value of the project from start to finish, from the lessons students have learned by interacting with the artisans at the companies that have assisted them, to the interaction that the project has fostered between different members of the campus community, to the hands-on, research experience that students are gaining.

"All the way along, this has been Hope College at its best," Frost said.  "The faculty inspired the students' interest, and once inspired the students began to live into the best that is possible."

Formula SAE promotes careers and excellence in engineering as it encompasses all aspects of the automotive industry, including research, design, manufacturing, testing, developing, marketing, management and finances.

From that perspective, regardless of how things go later this month, the Hope team has already won.  Labaza noted that he's appreciated the opportunity to put his academic program to use so concretely - and to learn other lessons along the way as the team has coordinated the project from start to finish.

"You have to apply everything you learn," he said.  "That's really what you want to be doing."

"It's been a great experience, especially for engineers who don't necessarily take management courses - which is definitely something that engineers need to learn," he said.  "Everyone that's had a hand in this has learned life lessons not necessarily related to engineering."