3. Formula Hybrid’s lessons in teamwork

From its start more than one hundred years ago automobile racing was all about innovation and improving the breed. Early pioneers of the sport like Marcel Renault, Henry Ford and the Chevrolet brothers built racing cars to showcase their products, demonstrate their reliability and develop their automobiles amid the white heat of competition.

Over the decades many of the concepts that have made today’s automobiles deceptively effective and reliable were developed on the racetrack, including pneumatic tires, rear view mirrors,  independent suspension, monocoque and crash-resistant chassis, rear engines, disc brakes and turbochargers.

At the same time companies like Ferrari, Peugeot, Jaguar, Porsche and Audi built their brand names and reputations by competing successfully on the world’s race courses. In recent years Audi and Peugeot have developed and showcased their clean-burning, direct injection turbo diesel engines by competing in and winning France’s renowned Le Mans 24 Hours endurance race.

These days all the world’s auto makers are grappling with developing more efficient cars from all-electric to hybrids to turbo diesels so the Formula Hybrid competition is a perfect training ground for young engineers. Formula Hybrid also helps teach them about teamwork and the practical application of engineering concepts.

Competition is the best and quickest way both to push boundaries and break down barriers and this spirit reverberates in Dartmouth’s Formula Hybrid contest. It was a great pleasure for me recently to meet the key members of Dartmouth’s Formula Hybrid team and enjoy a close examination of their latest car. Thirty-five Dartmouth engineering students are involved in Thayer School of Engineering’s Formula Hybrid project. Leaders of the program are Eric Mann, Adam Marano, Philly Croteau, Frank Fortin-Houle and Christian Busch.

Mann obtained his bachelor of engineering at Thayer and will complete his master of engineering management next spring. Marano is in the second year of his masters studies and his sixth year with the Formula Hybrid team. Croteau is a Thayer bachelor of engineering graduate who’s in the first year of his masters program. Fortin-Houle will complete his bachelor of engineering studies in March and Busch is an exchange student from Hamburg, Germany, who’s doing his research thesis at Dartmouth.

“The Formula Hybrid program is about the whole process of designing something and then building, testing and driving it,” Philly Croteau explained. “You get the whole spectrum. When you’re in the real world you’re doing one of those things. You’re designing it, building it or testing it. But the Formula Hybrid class allows you to experience the whole spectrum.”

Eric Mann expanded on Croteau’s observations. “Dartmouth does a good job of exposing you to systems so you’re not necessarily involved in just one area of engineering,” Mann said. “Doing the hybrid project teaches you a lot about interdisciplinary engineering.”

The Formula Hybrid team comprises five groups each with three members. “Adam has been particularly engaged in the electronics,” Mann reported. “Frank has been in charge of the administrative work and Philly and I develop the mechanical stuff. We develop a team strategy as a group. Each group is doing the big systems that are associated with their course work so a lot of work comes out of that.

“We have four captains and we’re lucky to have Christian who’s done Formula SAE with his team back in Germany. We have four or five other dedicated members who are volunteers who have done either a five-year bachelor of engineering program or a more senior level, maybe their masters.”

Mann has no doubt that the Formula Hybrid program helps build communication and interdisciplinary skills. “There’s so much communication required between the five teams because they’re so interrelated,” Mann observed. “The three of us who work on the front electric motors for example are mechanical engineers and we had to learn all about electrical motors and a little bit about power electronics. So you interface across disciplinary fields and that builds skills that you might not get from the regular curriculum.

“We’re trying to get more freshmen and sophomores involved,” Mann added. “We have a good group of ten or twelve freshmen and sophomores who are learning and are excited about it. We have volunteers who are part of the club team and we have a core group who are part of the culminating experience here at Thayer.”

A weekly meeting takes place to keep everyone informed of the latest developments. “We do tech talks every week on Wednesday nights,” Croteau said. “Everyone comes from the ‘ENGS 89-90’ bachelor of engineering group as well as the volunteers. We might do a quick overview of vehicle dynamics about why they are important and why it’s important to keep weight down. We might do another tech talk on the internal combustion engine, how it works and how we try to optimize it. We’ll discuss what the differences are in using ethanol and 93 octane fuel. That’s one of the learning pieces where we can come together and hash out the next week’s goals and plan out what we’re doing for the test day.”

Added Mann: “In our weekly meetings we make a presentation about what we’ve done in the last week and what we’re planning for next week so everyone’s on the same page.”

Croteau emphasized that achieving the best teamwork is not easy. “The volunteers and the captains are responsible for blending everything together and making sure the final product is more than the sum of the parts and everything fits,” Croteau said. “It’s a challenge. It’s been done in the past very well and at other times not so well.”

Still, Croteau is convinced the Formula Hybrid program provides a perfect learning environment for working in the real world. “It really works out well as far as the groups in this class because they’re getting the experience of acting as an engineer,” Croteau said. “They’re developing something that’s very much coupled to somebody working next to you who’s developing another system, which is the way it is when you’re working in an industry.”

Mann elaborated on Croteau’s comments. “A lot of the nature of Thayer’s culminating course is about start-ups where the technology is maybe a step removed from being applied so it takes a lot of development,” Mann remarked. “This course is used to get that development. This program provides that instant feedback to see how components are going to react. You might take the car out to the track and it might break for example, so you’ve got to do another iteration. So it’s good experience to get that feedback. For sure it makes you a better engineer.”

Another real world aspect to the program is finding sponsorship. Formula Hybrid has been invited to be part of the 100th anniversary celebrations at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway during the month of May. Dynamic and static events will be displayed at the fabled Speedway on May 7th, the weekend following the fifth annual Formula Hybrid competition at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Mann and Dartmouth’s team are excited about the exposure and sponsorship possibilities afforded by appearing at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“Frank and I have been doing a lot of the marketing stuff and fund-raising, identifying potential sponsors and how to approach them,” Mann said. “This coming year with the event at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway that’s a great marketing tool because it’s a major venue and will provide us with more exposure. So we’re really excited about that.”

The Formula Hybrid team is also building a link with Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business through the MEM program, a master of engineering management program that takes place half at Thayer and half at the Tuck School of Business. Mann is a student in the MEM program this year.

“It’s an industry-related masters degree,” Mann explained. “It’s for people who have a technical background but might be more interested in the business, finance, operations or marketing side, but have the technical background they can apply to something like this. We’ve got three or four people in the program who are interested in cars and this gives them the option to build their management skills.”

Frank Fortin-Houle says he’s learned a lot from the Formula Hybrid project about the real world demands  of engineering. “It can give you the perspective of both an engineer and a fund-raiser,” Fortin-Houle commented. “But as an engineer you’re still an engineer. When we talk about design you dream all you want. Then you turn around and ask, how are we ever going to pay for this? Little details can make almost no difference but add a lot of cost which is why Formula One teams spend so many millions of dollars. This program teaches you about being more cost-effective.”

Added Croteau: “It’s really ours. We’re not building it for someone else. We’re building this for the team and yourself to be able to race, so you really want to do a better job.”

The Formula Hybrid team tests by setting up an autocross course in the parking lots at Timken Aerospace and New Jersey Machine Tool in nearby West Lebanon. They also enjoyed an opportunity last spring through Thayer alum Charlie Nearburg to test on one of Lebanon Airport’s open runways.

“Saturday is a shop day,” Mann said. “We get everybody in here to work on the car and get it ready for Sunday. Then on Sunday we start at ten or eleven and run until dusk so we get five or six hours of driving pending something breaking.”

Adam Marano says everyone loves driving the car. “If spending all day Saturday working on the car is what it takes to drive on Sunday we’re going to be in here all day Saturday until the car is ready to drive on Sunday because all of us really want to drive,” Marano remarked.

Concluded Eric Mann: “We have a blast with it. We all enjoy it. This is how we spend our spare time. Sometimes it comes across negatively because some people at Thayer ask why are we spending so much time on this?

“But Dartmouth Formula Hybrid has gotten people thinking that you have to put in that time. For the culminating course you’re required to put in twenty hours a week and we have some people who have done sixty or eighty hours a week. Sometimes it’s a negative because people feel like you have to do that to work on the car. But we enjoy it so much. We’re always pushing for that extra bit.”

As I said at the beginning, that’s what the spirit of competition is all about.

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