KSU: Learning in the Crucible of Motorsport

Through competitions like Formula SAE, teams of college student engineers gain practical, industry-relevant experience

As the semester winds down before the holiday break, the clean, bright halls of Kennesaw State University’s Engineering Technology building are unusually quiet. Dr. Randy Emert, an assistant professor in the Mechanical Engineering Technology department, sits undisturbed in his office, the shelves around him proudly displaying precision-machined objects manufactured from a variety of unique alloys.

Team members gathered in the KSU Motorsports shop on a Friday afternoon. Photo Credit: Henri Hollis

As an expert in multi-axis machining and additive manufacturing, better known as 3D printing, Emert teaches his students to design and create many of the complicated parts and pieces on his shelves.

Because he’s already given his final exams of the semester, Emert doesn’t expect to have many visitors – but he knows he’ll see a few of his favorite students in the building, even after the campus closes for the winter break.

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“Oh, some of the motorsports team will be in here, using the shop and the labs,” he says. He’s talking about KSU Motorsports, a student organization for which he serves as the faculty advisor. The student-run team competes in Formula SAE, an international design competition that gives college students the opportunity to build, test and race a prototype autocross race car. Like any other college students involved in elite levels of competition, holiday breaks and typical school hours don’t apply to the most dedicated KSU Motorsports team members.

The premise of Formula SAE is this: a fictional manufacturing company has requested bids for a standardized racing vehicle that can be driven by non-professionals in autocross-style competitions. Each college team must build a working prototype race car from scratch, balancing the performance of the car against many other considerations, from budget to ease of manufacturing to marketing. It combines nearly every aspect of motorsport, starting with car design and ending with both a driving competition and sales presentation to the fictional buyer. There’s no limit to the number of students who can join the team, but for KSU Motorsports and other Formula SAE groups around the country, there is typically a core group of 20 to 50 students who truly make the project go.

The rear wing of the KSU car. Photo Credit: Henri Hollis

“I think one of the biggest things for me is project management,” says Jordan Ruiz, president of the 2018-19 KSU Motorsports team. “At competitions, I’ve talked to some other team presidents who have says they learned the hard way: you can’t trust project management to anyone else.” Because teams must build a new car from scratch each year, they only have about nine months from the start of the school year until competition time in May.

The first steps include recruiting new members and analyzing the latest Formula SAE rule changes for new vehicle specifications. Then, the design phase begins as members are sorted into different sub-teams who will each tackle a different portion of the project. New members will typically apprentice under a more experienced teammate who can show them the ropes, whether they’re responsible for aerodynamic design, tuning engine performance or organizing team events.

“I figured out really quick that the team president can’t design the car,” says Patrick Curtis, the team’s vice president in 2013. Back then, the team operated out of Southern Polytechnic University, which later merged with Kennesaw State. According to everyone interviewed for this story, the division of labor and team communication are crucial to delivering a working car to the actual end of year competition.

Team members wheel their car back into the shop, located in Kennesaw State University’s Engineering Technology building.
Photo Credit: Henri Hollis

These days, Curtis is a mechanical engineer with Vista Metals, where he works in an aluminum casting facility that produces high-end metal for aerospace-grade applications. Most of his clients are in the aerospace industry, but they work with automotive companies as well.

As team members design the car, they use advanced CAD programs and physics simulators to create and test their concepts. While most students will first be exposed to these programs and concepts in their mechanical engineering classes, they often find that their FSAE responsibilities push them to master skills faster than the curriculum requires. Some students are able to use regularly assigned class projects to work through design challenges they face with Formula SAE. Likewise, concepts that are confusing in a classroom setting can suddenly make sense when students encounter them in the real world.

Once they begin to physically build the vehicle, students must use a wide variety of manufacturing techniques to make their designs a reality. Emert gives a tour of the Engineering Technology facility’s impressive labs and workshops, many of which he laid out himself.

KSU Motorsports team members build their design with a variety of tools and processes, including multi-axis CNC machines, welders, water jet cutters, a variety of different types of 3D printers, and old-fashioned hand tools.

Team members BJ Barclay (left) and Zack Selgrath calibrate a CNC machine in a lab at KSU’s Engineering Technology facility. Photo Credit: Henri Hollis

“Formula SAE is actually where I got my first experience with additive manufacturing,” says Seth Harris, another mechanical engineer at Vista Metals. He was the motorsports team president alongside Curtis, and the two college friends have remained close. Curtis recommended Harris for his current position at Vista Metals.

Prior to his work with aluminum casting, Harris spent several years with citim AM, a company making 3D-printed metal prototypes. There, he was a project engineer and the shop supervisor.

“I worked with direct metal laser sintering additive manufacturing, and I got to travel the world doing that,” says Harris, whose former company is headquartered in Germany. “That was directly related to the team and the exposure to that technology.”

How was 3D printing used for the car that was built by Harris’ team?

“We were fortunate to be sponsored by an industrial 3D printing company,” says Harris, “So we actually designed and 3D-printed an intake manifold that had the injector bungs molded in, the tail light housing, all the wire paths for the tail lights, and the throttle body itself were all 3D printed into one monolithic piece.”

Their team’s design started a legacy that lasted several years, though the team today makes a similar part built from a carbon composite layup with some 3D printed pieces. The process gave Harris practical experience that helped him secure his job in additive manufacturing after graduation, but it was the bonds he built with teammates that helped him find his current job. Curtis gives a good bit of credit to the motorsports team for helping his career, as well.

“I can say that the hands-on experience I got through Formula SAE, as well as my personal hobbies, are a couple of the main reasons why I got my job – and I’ve been here for about three and a half years,” says Curtis. “We recently had an opening, and I recommended Seth. We were on the team at the same time – he was president, I was vice president. So I told them, ‘he’s just as good as me – interview Seth.’ Now, he’s working here.”

Other friends from the competition went on to work for Honda, Panoz and Textron. Ruiz, the current team president, says that his ideal job after graduation would be in engineering for a motorsports team. Emert proudly lists the prestigious companies that many of his students have gone on to work for. And while every team member may not end up working in the automotive industry, everyone involved appreciates the skills and experience gained from the motorsports team. That includes the practical knowledge and lessons learned from the competition, but they never fail to mention the “softer” skills that the experience instills.

This SPSU Motorsports car competed in the the 2013 edition of Formula SAE.
Photo courtesy of Patrick Curtis

“Honestly, Formula SAE for us was not about building a car; that was secondary,” says Harris. “Of course, building a good car with a good team while passing all your classes – that was the goal. But it isn’t just about the car. I get to work with my best friend. He’s from the team. And all the guys we hang out with on the weekend, they’re from the team. So, you can build a car – but it was never just about the car.”

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