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September 12, 2002 innovation on a shoestring: automotive engineers draw attention



SAE engineers

The SAE Formula 1 car at a display for Engineering Week last winter.

Photo by Andrew Dobrowolskyj

by Barbara Black

For auto enthusiasts at Concordia, summer means car competitions. The undergraduate branch of the SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers) is an interest group of about 20 or so students who test their skill and ingenuity in competitions, often against much better financed university teams in the United States.

One subdivision of the Concordia SAE, called Formula, concentrates on the design and manufacture of a scaled-down Formula One- style race car. The challenge for this group of 15 students is to develop a racecar that can feasibly be mass-produced for the average weekend racer. At the competitions, held in the Detroit area, the car is judged on design, aesthetics, performance and endurance.

In 2000, the team had an awful time — “We were still working on the race car in the cube van while we were travelling to Detroit,” said team member Taro Dicks — but it was a learning experience that focused their ideas for the 2001-02 car.

Their hard work paid off this year. Most of the other teams stuck to the traditional downscaled Formula design. Instead, the Concordia team upscaled a go-cart with automatic transmission to better conform to the requirements of the track, which includes many tight turns and short straightaways.

As a result, it was under-powered but had excellent handling capability and a suspension design that caught the attention of many officials and corporate representatives.

The young designers used a 500-cc 1-cylinder Polaris ATV engine, smaller than the 610-cc 4-cylinder engine used by most teams. “We used the small engine to save weight and improve handling and fuel economy,” Dicks said.

“The only drawback was that the regulation air-intake restriction caused the mono-cylinder more choking problems than it would have had with more cylinders.”

Polaris representatives at the competition were excited to see the Concordia team using their products, and promised a free 610-cc 2-cylinder engine for the following year as well as technical help on the tuning of the CVT (continuously variable transmission). The team was thrilled to see the coverage they got in the international magazine Racecar Engineering, which published a feature on the SAE competition in Detroit.

It’s expensive work. The team got $36,000 from the Engineering and Computer Science Students Association (ECA), for which they are very grateful. The Formula team received $8,000, a fair share, Dicks allowed, but the students were on such a slender shoestring that they crammed the whole team — all 14 — into one Detroit hotel room!

Dicks has tinkered with machines for years, starting with his bicycle, then his car, then his parents’ cars. He says he has four cars in his yard at the moment.

Although belonging to the SAE is voluntary, Dicks says that it’s great work experience and looks good on your résumé. In past years, he said, members of successful teams have been hired by industry executives.

Dicks said he especially valued the experience of working with machinists, and he gives credit to the three employees of the Department of Mechanical Engineering’s Machine Shop, under the supervision of Brian Cooper.

Although he graduated in the spring, Dicks is sticking with the SAE team for another year. His current project is the redesign of the chassis.