CSUN Engineering Students Race to the Finish Line

  • 2015 SAE mechanical engineering team suiting up for race car testing. Photo by Richard Chambers.

The air is filled with the smell of gas, hot metal, cleaning solution and new rubber tires. Sparks fly, as blocks of metal are molded into solenoids, shafts, gears and carbon fiber wheels. In this state-of-the-art California State University, Northridge mechanical engineering classroom, students work tirelessly on the latest model for this year’s Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) race car design project.

The goal is to design, fabricate, assemble, and test a race car built from the ground up, and for almost a decade now, CSUN has consistently been ranked within the top 20 to top 10 of schools competing in the competition.

“It’s not just a project to graduate, or simply to say you completed a project,” said Jorge Molina, one of this year’s race car team members. “It’s the most intensive project in our four years here, not to mention that we’re competing with schools from around the world.”

This year’s competition will host 224 different universities such as Texas A&M, MIT, USC, Cal Polytechnic State University and Universities from Brazil, Canada, Japan, India and Mexico. The competition will take place at the Lincoln Airpark, in Lincoln, Neb., this week.

With one year to complete the car, supervised by mechanical engineering professor Stewart Prince and sponsored by companies such as Boeing and Disney Imagineering, the team, comprised of underclassmen volunteers and senior engineering students (working for a grade), started in July 2014, before the fall semester began.

“Each year, the car is different,” said Molina. “We saw last year’s car and thought, instead of throwing everything away, let’s take bits from it. It’s a very similar design but with smaller packaging, and an aero component.”

Adding an “aero package” means the team adds “wings” to the car. “Think about what an airplane wing does,” said Jonathan Baumgarten, the team’s captain. “It picks up air resistance so the plane can be on top of the air. What we’re adding to the car does the exact opposite — picture flipping the airplane wing. It changes the airflow on the car, helping us go faster and take turns more quickly.

“Lots of teams have had aero components for years, but we haven’t,” he continued. “This year it got a lot more restrictive as far as rules for building the car, and a lot teams had to completely redesign their car. Since we had never done it before, we saw it as an excellent opportunity to step in for the first time.”

Students design all the components of the race car, and present their initial designs and trade studies at a preliminary design review.

Subsequently, the design is finalized in the critical design review.

Once the manufacturing steps are planned, a review of manufacturing processes is held. Then, the various components are manufactured and the race car is assembled. Finally, the car is tested at local facilities before being shipped to the competition.

By entering the competition and working in the mechanical engineering department, many students receive job opportunities at companies leading the way in mechanical engineering, with starting salaries between $80,000 to 100,000 a year.

But according to Baumgarten, the “best part of the project is seeing it through, beginning to end.

“It’s not just designing a car,” he explained. “There’s a business and marketing side of it that we are judged on, to see if companies could use it as a viable plan for mass production. So, we apply all the knowledge we learn from curriculum, from manufacture and design, and then you get to actually make something. What you learn is that you can design anything — but manufacturing it is another story, so you learn a lot. And at the end of the day, it’s a race car, so it makes all of it really fun.”

For more information on CSUN’s Department of Mechanical Engineering please visit http://www.csun.edu/engineering-computer-science/mechanical-engineering. For more information on CSUN’s latest race car visit http://www.ecs.csun.edu/sae/, https://www.facebook.com/CSUNFSAEand for SAE’s competition, please visit http://students.sae.org/cds/formulaseries/west/