Friday, February 25, 2011

A Visit to Some Student Engineers

A couple weeks ago I was contacted by an engineering student at Arizona State University.  He told me that he and his fellow students had been working on a Geo Metro, trying to turn it into an electric dragster.  An unusual choice I thought, but they'd bought the car after someone else had already converted it to electric drive, and they were simply going to modify it and improve it.

He asked if I'd be willing to bring the Z3 down and let them look at it, and perhaps give a short presentation on the car.  I wondered what I could possibly share with engineering students that they didn't already know, but I said I'd go. 

When I arrived, I pulled the car around to a spot outside their work shop and opened it up.  As a crowd started gathering around, they started asking questions about the car.  Soon an older gentleman joined them, clearly not a student.  His name was Jim, and he explained that he was the head of the program.  Once all the members of the team showed up, I started running through the various systems, explaining how each worked and why I built them the way I did.  I tried to be as honest and informative as I could be, showing the things I thought turned out well, and detailing the mistakes I'd made along the way.

The group was clearly interested and began asking more questions.  There were the normal question, "How long to charge it?", but also more technical questions like "How do you keep the motor from going over it's RPM limit? Do you have a sensor on the motor?"  Occasionally Jim would prod them, "See how he did that?", or "Look at that."  All the while, he took careful notes.  A couple of times, the group would say, almost in unison "Ohhh" leading me to believe that they'd seen the answer to a problem or question they'd had.  In general, it seemed to be worth their time to look it over.

After I'd shown them everything I could on the car, they offered to let me see their project.  The car had come with a Netgain 9" Impulse motor, powered by a Zilla 1K controller and a bank of AGM (absorbed glass mat) batteries; a type of flooded lead acid battery.  I don't know what the original configuration of the batteries was, but I gathered they were going to re-do the layout with all the cells in the cabin on racks along the floor of the car.  It was now going to be a single seater; after all, you don't need a passenger when you race. They've got everything out of the car and their cleaning it, prep-ing it for paint and to receive all the components again.

After wards, Jim offered to give me a tour of their facility.  That's when I found out these students weren't part of any average engineering program.  ASU has put together an Automotive Engineering program designed to address all aspects of the automotive trade.  Jim is a retired GM employee who had worked at GM proving grounds on the Corvette team.  He took me through the building showing me the CNC machines, their full machine shop, automation and electronics room, materials lab, welding shop and casting shop.  Yes, a casting shop where they cast parts in sand molds with molten metals.  How cool is that!?  I walked through the building with an increased sense of wonder and jealousy of all the students there.  Jim's been hired to build out the program and part of that is building and supplying the facility with all the tools the students will need to learn what goes on in the industry and how to fit right in to it.

All in all, it was a great visit.  I was very grateful for the opportunity to see the facility and what they do.  I hope the students learned a thing or two looking at the Z3 that might help them with their project.  They promised to invite me back when it hits the road.  I sure hope they do.

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