By Lucy Steffes
No engineer can complete their best work alone. See how this idea is exemplified in the College of Engineering’s largest student organization.
What good is an engine, a wheel, a transmission, and a set of brakes, sitting all alone in a workshop? They have no greater purpose without the whole host of parts that make up an expertly built race car. Just as these parts cannot function alone, the members of the Formula SAE Team must work together to reach their goals.
In the largest engineering student organization on the UW-Madison campus, 120 members work together each year to design, build, test, and compete with two Formula One race cars at international competitions. Approximately 60 students work together on one electric car (or E-Car) and one combustion engine car.
Beginning at the start of each school year, abiding by the new year’s rules and guidelines, teams set out to redesign their race cars. All rules are geared toward increasing driver safety, focusing on the dimensions of the car, the volume of the engine, the height of the cockpit, and the extent to which drivers’ hands and arms are covered. While many purchased components are reused from year to year, particularly for the combustion car, everything else is built from the ground up.
Such a hands-on project, drawn out over an extended period, allows members to participate in real engineering work and teaches them far more than they could learn in the classroom alone. Amir Shukle, the Team Principal, and a fourth-year mechanical engineering student, explains: “When I started school, I thought I was learning a lot. And when I joined this team, I was learning even more.” So many concepts from a variety of classes apply to different facets of these two cars, and the team accomplishes things that even the brightest student could not dream of doing alone.
But the true benefit of joining Formula SAE is the exposure to the breadth of skills of the members, and the sheer number of students who devote their time to accomplish a unified goal. From mechanical engineering students to data science, computer science, and business majors, the skills of these students encompass everything the team could need.
“Anyone can join the team, and put in as much time as they want,” emphasizes Shukle. While there is no real time commitment, there are still deadlines to meet and projects to get done. Most students spend as much time as they are able—usually one to three days a week in the lab. “You get out of it what you put into it,” Shukle explains, who himself spends nearly every day working on some aspect of the racecars.
All of the hours of work on these cars culminate in May and June as the teams head to the Michigan International Speedway to compete against teams from not just across the country, but across the world. Contests involve design presentations, static and safety tests, and dynamic tests. During static events, every aspect of driver safety is thoroughly inspected to ensure that the design meets all requirements released that year. Even the thickness of the carbon fiber is put to the test.
Then, the teams’ drivers take the cars out for an acceleration test time trial, skid tests that involve driving in a sharp figure 8, and a 35-kilometer endurance test. When the dust and exhaust cleared, last year the UW Formula SAE team placed fifth out of 111 teams with their combustion engine race car. They were also the only team to fully customize and build their own electric engine.
Looking to this upcoming year, the team will be replacing their single-cylinder combustion engine with a two-cylinder engine. They will also be working to decide on what will improve their design the most, already aware of what brings them the most success: their spirit of teamwork and impeccable work ethic.