Written by Justin Head
For the University of Victoria’s Formula Hybrid Team, one of the fundamental goals of the 2017 season isn’t building the top ranked SAE International’s Formula Hybrid vehicle, as it did in the spring of 2016. Beyond that, the goal of the Hybrid Team is to take a group of engineering students and turn them into professionals. Many of the members who signed onto the team as engineering students in years past have been hired by the likes of GM and Tesla. It’s this outlook – prioritizing the skills development of each engineering student over getting the vehicle built as quickly as possible – that has become the focus for the 2017 Hybrid Team’s project leads.
And it’s an outlook that becomes apparent when talking to the team’s senior members. I spoke with Isaac Cormack, a second year mechanical engineering student and the 2017 Hybrid team’s new mechanical lead. Isaac is overseeing a number of projects: the packaging for the accumulator, which acts as an energy storage device for the electric motor; the motor mounts; and the cooling system design, to name a few. Isaac explained that the electric motor in last year’s vehicle was powered by ultra-capacitors, and that the team had planned to implement a lithium ion-powered motor in this season’s vehicle. But this year’s Hybrid Team is made up of 80% new members. As a result, designing, fabricating and testing the new accumulator will take longer than anticipated, and will have to be implemented next season. This will be a more viable time to implement it because, Isaac says, it will give the team “the time to create a high quality and thoroughly tested accumulator.” Before learning what this design change means for the individuals on the team, I had to learn what separates a lithium ion cell from an ultra-capacitor.
So what’s the difference between these two power storage devices, and why does it matter? These questions were answered by Dan Wigen, a third year electrical engineering student who is working on the accumulator management system. The accumulator is an energy storage device for the electric motor, while its management system, Dan says, “is the circuit board that monitors the voltage and temperature of the accumulator just to make sure nothing goes wrong.” And there are a few things that can go wrong with lithium ion batteries that aren’t an issue with ultra-capacitors, the main difference being that ultra-capacitors “don’t heat up, whereas lithium ions do. If the cells start getting too hot the lithium cells will explode or light on fire.” As a result, lithium ions are meant to discharge less power over a far longer period of time. While lithium ions discharge energy at 100 amps and can power the motor for about 15 minutes, ultra-capacitors discharge at 7000 amps while powering the motor for about 45 seconds (with most of that energy output not being used, as the motor is only rated for 400 amps, Dan has told me). In other words, the electric motor, powered by ultra-capacitors, is capable of discharging a lot more power in a shorter period of time than is possible when powered by lithium ions.
But I was still confused as to why the team plans to change the accumulator’s power source, given that the vehicle had performed well enough to earn the UVic Formula Hybrid Team a first place spot in last season’s competition. Isaac said that, apart from wanting to try something new, most electric motors in commercial cars are powered by lithium ion cells, so there’s an obvious motive there to gain some practical experience that has implications in the job market, beyond the Formula Hybrid competition. But it also revealed to me the scope of what the UVic Formula Hybrid Team is doing: there are goals in perspective here that will be achieved in a relatively short amount of time; goals that will take about a year to achieve; and there are goals that will take longer than a year to achieve. The short term goals are to: a) to build the vehicle, and b) to build the team. This is why the decision to postpone the implementation of the lithium-ion powered accumulator was made – most of this year’s team is made up of new members. Ideally, in a year’s time, those new members will be familiar enough with the vehicle that they will be tackling not just the fabrication of the vehicle’s components, but the design of the vehicle as well, making for a smoother transition to a lithium-ion powered accumulator. For now, building the vehicle and those new members’ skillsets are the priorities. In a year’s time, each engineering student will have had real hands-on experience with the kinds of technologies that are being used in commercially available hybrid cars, which ties in with the University of Victoria’s Formula Hybrid Team’s long term goal – to increase the employability of its members. For Isaac, it’s also a chance to get his peers excited about working in a sustainable industry.
To get people excited, the project leads this year have taken a more active role in ensuring that the newer team members understand the design process. This is a task that is being spearheaded by Forrest Trenaman, a fourth year mechanical engineering student who joined the team in January of 2016 after having completed two co-ops in the University of Victoria’s mechanical engineering machine shop. He joined during the manufacturing stage, and told me that he had very little to do with the car’s design and was mostly fabricating parts for the vehicle. After the 2016 competition, most of the Hybrid team’s project leads had graduated. So Forrest, now a seasoned team member, is taking it upon himself to not only manufacture parts and oversee the various mechanical projects around the shop, he is also focusing on building the team. In our conversation, Forrest told me how he aims to do that, saying, “I want to create a toolbox of resources that you can access to see how the team operates, to see the design process, how it works, and how to organize the various files – just a lot of resources to get new team members up to speed. And that’s because I found that when I was the mechanical lead, I spent so much time going over repetitive stuff that could have been better put together and better documented.” It’s this focus on the smooth integration of new members into the team that this season’s project leads share. For Forrest, his interest has little to do with the specific projects themselves. Having already spent the bulk of last year in the machine shop, Forrest knows the manufacturing process intimately and is already familiar with the projects he’ll be tackling. His interest this year, he said, is in seeing “how a successful team is built up.”
Since the project leads from last season moved on from their degrees, the task of building up a successful team has become a priority for this year’s project leads – so much so that it might be more appropriate to say that this year’s seasoned team members are not project leads so much as project mentors. This is the case for Rhye Rolls-DeWolf, a mechanical engineering student who joined last season as a Computer Aided Design (CAD) practitioner. This season she finds herself guiding and overseeing some of the newer members who are working on the mechanical packaging, which she said entails “everything that fits into the back of the vehicle.” Rhye continued that those parts “can’t just be thrown in there, there are rules dictating how far apart things can be from each other. A lot of those components have a lot of forces on them, so however we mount them, we have to make sure they’ll stay in place and do not fail.” Rhye wants her protégés to understand where the decisions in the design of the parts are coming from, because it’s an aspect of the project that, if done hastily or incorrectly, can lead to critical failures in the vehicle. By taking the time to ensure that each team member understands this process, Rhye is hopeful that more team members will take on the task of mentoring newer members in future projects.
Rhye found herself in a similar position to Forrest last season in the sense that she was not involved with the design process, though she wishes she had had the confidence to ask why certain decisions were being made with regards to the vehicle’s design. She said, “I didn’t understand where the design choices were coming from. I’d be told, ‘we need this project done,’ and the series of events that followed would be me fulfilling their idea of what that project was.” She plans to change that perspective this season by including the newer team members in the design discussions, but despite that it has proven a challenge to fill the vacuum left by the absence of last year’s project leads. Most of the team’s knowledge, Rhye said, had left with those people, along with their leadership capabilities. Rhye explained that “the last six months have been us figuring out ‘how to team.’ It’s been a process. A lot of people have been pushed into a position of leadership that they didn’t necessarily want to be in. A lot of people’s positions didn’t align with their passions.” This is an issue that she says has affected the team’s membership retention. While the senior members want to give new team members projects that are suitable to their abilities and inclinations, there are so many projects that need to get done that aren’t necessarily congruent with the strengths and interests of each team member. Rhye herself is no longer working on the technical projects, which is the area she feels most comfortable working in. But Rhye said that, having already done last year’s projects, she knows her job intimately and could do in a few hours what a new team member might take weeks to finish. What she’s getting out of the team this year isn’t so much the practical knowledge that she was yearning for a year ago. This year, Rhye said that the biggest lessons so far have been in project mentorship – in other words, how to build a successful team.
This is what distinguishes the University of Victoria’s Formula Hybrid Team from a strictly competition-focused team. Building the vehicle and winning the competition is not the end goal. If it was, then Forrest, Dan, Isaac, Rhye, and the rest of the team that stayed on from last year would build the vehicle in a matter of weeks. Instead, team leads take the time to give newer members the opportunity to understand the design process of building the vehicle. Ideally, in a year’s time, the four project leads I interviewed, and the others I did not, will be accompanied by a larger pool of experienced members, which will allow for more collaboration, more design freedom, and greater employment prospects. Perhaps the biggest benefit of the team is that students receive an education that is absent from the academic curriculum. Here, students don’t undertake assignments that have artificial constraints and instructions. Here is an environment where there are many avenues and possibilities, and where constraints aren’t at first obvious. Here, students learn to gauge the strengths and weaknesses of the team as a whole in order to realize what those constraints are. And as time goes on and the skills of each team member develops, ideally, those constraints become diminished, allowing the team to make grander design choices and increase their employment opportunities. It’s this aspect of the University of Victoria’s Formula Hybrid team that benefits new and seasoned members alike: new members develop individual skills and put into practice what they learn in theory from the academic curriculum; seasoned members learn mentorship and team building skills, making them better educators and better leaders. If I had to sum up my time talking to the team’s project leads in one sentence, I would say that they present a mutual work environment where the success of each individual contributes to the success of everyone on the team.