Drive it to break it

Photo provided by Dalton Colen.

Photo pro­vided by Dalton Colen.

Recent mechan­ical engi­neering grad­uate Andy Benn isn’t used to having time on his hands. Spending an after­noon playing tennis and eating lob­ster rolls, is well, unprece­dented for the former Baja team cap­tain who said he was clocking 80 to 100 hours a week in the auto shop in the base­ment of Richards Hall before grad­u­ating ear­lier this month.

In case you haven’t heard of it before (and I hadn’t), Baja is an inter­na­tional com­pe­ti­tion spon­sored by the Society for Auto­mo­tive Engi­neering in which under­grad­uate engi­neers design, build, and race an off-​​road vehicle three times a year. The son of an ama­teur car racer, Benn said that when he applied to col­leges back in 2007, he only con­sid­ered schools that had a team.

Benn told me that Northeastern’s team is nearly 20 years old and boasts a long his­tory of success. But their most recent com­pe­ti­tion marked its best finish ever. They placed third overall and second in the endurance por­tion of the race. The team was also one of six teams (out of 82) to progress to the “design finals” in Ten­nessee a week and a half ago.

While I don’t claim to be an auto junkie by any stretch of the imag­i­na­tion, I do know how to drive stick, which I’m extremely proud of. So you can imagine my embar­rass­ment when I forgot what a trans­mis­sion was and had to ask Benn and his former team­mates during our inter­view last week. You see, Benn designed and built one this past spring. For fun. In between designing and building a new sus­pen­sion for his Cap­stone project.…in between, you know, classes…and co-​​op.

Benn seemed to have a hard time not looking at me like I was an alien when I asked about the trans­mis­sion. All of this just comes so nat­u­rally to him. It’s as if off-​​roading is just an extended ver­sion of walking for him. Incoming team cap­tain Matt Nuss­baum, on the other hand, first heard of the Baja race during a freshman activ­i­ties fair in 2009. For Nuss­baum, Baja orig­i­nally pre­sented a unique way to sat­isfy his love of hands-​​on work, machining, and tooling. He liked the idea that he would have to even­tu­ally make the parts that he designed on the computer–not always the case when it comes to class­room design expe­ri­ences. He joined for the valu­able engi­neering skills Baja pro­vided, but he hasn’t left because he too has become obsessed, just like Benn.

After Nuss­baum joins the ranks of alumni advi­sors like Benn and hun­dreds of other team mem­bers from the Baja days of yore, third-​​year stu­dent Dalton Colen will take over as team cap­tain. Benn has already begun grooming him. As a kid, Colen and his dad built a “project car,” an expe­ri­ence that, in some respects, sealed his fate as an engi­neer. That was fun he said, but Baja is better. Here he gets to make deci­sions, engi­neer solu­tions to real con­crete challenges.

And what are some of those chal­lenges? Baja cars have to endure a series of hard-​​core assaults during the three day com­pe­ti­tions, including a four hour endurance race and a brake-​​neck hill climb. To be suc­cessful, the cars need to be light­weight and durable, they need to be able to handle the bumps and sur­prises of an off-​​road course. They also need to use cost effec­tive designs and be based on sound engi­neering decisions.

And what better way to ensure that your car will suc­ceed in the offi­cial race than to do every­thing you can to make it fail before­hand? This is the strategy Benn has taken with Northeastern’s car over the past couple of years. After showing up to a race the day after assem­bling their car for the first time the team decided to get every­thing done as far in advance as pos­sible and spend a month “dri­ving it to break it,” as Benn said. In this way they manage to iden­tify the weak links and design solu­tions to mit­i­gate them next time. This year’s car clocked thirty hours of dri­ving time before it ever hit an offi­cial course, a stat that  dropped the judge’s jaws in Tennessee.

It paid off though, of those 82 cars I men­tioned before, Northeastern’s was one of two that never broke down during the entire race. Benn says the secret to this suc­cess isn’t great engi­neering ideas, although those are of course impor­tant. Rather it’s good project man­age­ment. “Being able to con­cep­tu­alize what you can get done, the fea­si­bility of it,” is crit­ical, said Benn. No matter how great an idea you’ve got, if you don’t have the time or resources to see it to fruition, it will only hold you back, he explained.

The next race is this weekend in Rochester, NY. Stay tuned for the results on that one. We’ll be cheering for you here in Boston, Baja!