Growing SAE teams offer fun and learning
When Associate Professor Emeritus Mike Philpott became the Society of Automotive Engineers faculty advisor ten years ago, Formula and Baja were the only Illinois automotive teams. There were approximately fifteen students per semester enrolled in the credit courses ME 199 SAE, ENG 491 SAE, and ME 470 SAE.
Since then, the program has grown to include six SAE teams with around 200 students per semester enrolled in each course.
Two of the newer teams, Eco Illini SAE and Illini EcoConcept, recently competed in the annual Shell Eco-Marathon. Eco Illini SAE currently has 15 active members. The team focuses on building a fuel-efficient gas prototype car and competes in annual SAE Supermilage competitions.
“Eco Illini SAE is a great place to learn hands-on work while applying theories and principles taught in the engineering classes here on campus,” said Shie-Jene Shan, current president.
Among other projects this semester, the team did an engine rebuild and tune, steering/wheel alignment, and body design through CAD and CFD software. The team has taken 4th place in the Supermilage competition and 5th in the eco-marathon.
With a similar goal of reducing the consumption of fossil fuels, Illini EcoConcept builds concept cars that run on hydrogen fuel cells and currently has 25 active members.
This semester the team focused on improving its vehicle’s steering, suspension, and powertrain system in order to reduce weight and rolling resistance, and improve the acceleration and top speed capabilities. Other projects included body refurbishments and building a treadmill to use for future testing.
“I have gained the kind of hands-on skills that are absolutely necessary to turn something from a design to a working prototype,” said Matt Bandyk, the senior technical advisor for the team. “I have also learned an enormous amount about being a leader, managing projects, reaching out to corporate sponsors, and interacting with the department on a more intimate level.”
The team consists primarily of mechanical, electrical, and computer engineers, but also has jobs open to other engineering or non-engineering majors. It sent eight members to London last June for the Shell Eco-Marathon Driver’s World Championship race.
“The value in this team not only comes from the innovative hydrogen fuel cell technology and our continued efforts to improve fuel efficiency, but also from the unique opportunities offered to students beginning freshmen year,” Bandyk said. “If you have the drive and determination, you can have a big and immediate impact on the team no matter your age or experience.”
Illini Solar Car also strives to conserve resources. The team has 50 active members and spent this semester building its latest car’s electrical system and carbon fiber shell and chassis, as well as developing solar arrays.
“Every circuit board used on the car is designed and coded in-house,” said Jye Sze Lee, current vice president. “The monocoque chassis is designed, analyzed, and built from scratch. Members encapsulate solar arrays in the university’s clean lab facilities. The aerodynamics team runs CFD iterations to design a more efficient car.”
The team participates in the World Solar Challenge and the American Solar Challenge. In both challenges, teams race their cars cross-country at the highway speed limit for nine hours a day. Illini Solar Car will compete in the WSC in Australia this coming October and in the ASC in July 2018.
“Despite being a renewed team, we challenge ourselves to build a car with higher standards,” Lee said. “We provide students with a well-rounded and in-depth experience by designing and making most of the parts ourselves.”
On the other end of the spectrum, Illinois’ Baja team Off-Road Illini races in rugged terrain courses.
“This team has helped to bridge the gap between the theoretical topics that are learned in class and the real-world applications that you see in industry,” said Tyler Ditman, current president.
The team, with 20 active members, designs and builds a new car each year. Additional projects from this year included modification of old cars as well as building rigs for torsional and shock testing.
“A great example of the opportunities available to our members is the alumni network we have built,” said Dustin Schrieber, current chief engineer. “Between alumni and (companies that) value the experience we give, our students have the first choice of internships and jobs.”
The team recently competed in Gorman, California, and has upcoming competitions in Pittsburg, Kansas, and Edwards, Illinois. Students looking to join need no prior experience and will be taught everything they need to know.
“Those who are involved in Baja stick together and form a community where we teach each other, guide each other, and make sure everyone is living up to their potential,” Schrieber said.
“Members gain experience in manufacturing, design, testing, and assembly,” Ditman said. “If a member stays involved enough, they can become a team leader where they will gain experience in team management and project management as well as sourcing funds for the project.”
The Formula SAE team, Illini Motorsports has approximately 80 active members, 25 of which go to competition.
“The common qualities that allow (members) to succeed are perseverance, consistency, and a curiosity for learning,” said Rex Gu, current president.
During the fall semester, the team designs a car that will be built starting during the winter break through March. Then the car goes through testing and adjustments until competitions start in May.
“Formula SAE exemplifies what companies look for in an extracurricular activity, one that involves getting hands-on experience, real-life application, and project management,” Gu said, noting that the team’s alumni network has a 100% employment rate.
The team will be competing at the Michigan International Speedway May 10-13 and again in Lincoln, Nebraska, in June.
Illini Formula Electric also participates in the Nebraska competition. IFE has roughly 20 active members.
“The experience from designing a part to manufacture and (then testing) is something that greatly helps me as an engineer,” said Greg Danielson, current mechanical captain. “The value of being on the team is the hands-on experience in design and manufacturing as well as the leadership experience.”
This semester the team designed a new chassis, suspension, battery box, power distribution, and driver interface.
“With all of these new projects happening at once, it was a difficult task to coordinate them so that they would integrate together,” Danielson said. “But in the end, our car this year is a substantially better design than in years past.”
While members primarily consist of engineering students, the teams are open to everyone regardless of major. To get involved, students are encouraged to check out their websites, contact them through Facebook or email, or visit their booths during Quad Day.
Students interested in learning more about a team are also welcome to attend a regular meeting. Those who are unsure about joining are encouraged to try it.
“The value of being on these teams is clear and many large companies understand that,” Danielson said. “There is a reason that Ford, SpaceX, Orbital ATK, and many other companies specifically recruit from SAE teams.”
Philpott echoes this sentiment. “Almost everyone finds joining a design/build/competition team an extremely rewarding educational experience regardless of the focus,” he said. “Employers know that students who do this are a valuable commodity.”