Hands-On Experience Catapults Mechanical Engineers into Workforce
by Thomas Guengerich
Right: New Mexico Tech's 2008 Mini Baja Team. Standing, from left: Hollis Dinwiddie, Tim Ramirez, Ryan Davis, Ryan Waggoner, Matt Tibbetts, Fabian Vigil, Cody McFarland, Nathan Cunningham, Rick Holets and Derrick Monroy. In front are Aaron Dawson and David Boyd-Gerrells.
SOCORRO, N.M., June 11, 2008 – The recently resurrected Mini-Baja team at New Mexico Tech put on an impressive performance, finishing 17th at the national competition May 26 to 30 in Illinois.
Senior Ryan Davis led the 11-member team during its yearlong quest to build the best durable all-terrain race vehicle. The other seniors on the team were Tim Ramirez, Cody McFarland, Fabian Vigil and Ryan Waggoner. The juniors on the team – expected to be the team leaders next year – are Aaron Dawson, Nick Karler, Nathan Cunningham, Rick Holets and David Boyd-Gerrells. One sophomore was on the team – Matt Tibbets.
The Tech students proved that they can compete along side well-funded teams from larger universities, such as Michigan, Oregon State, Purdue, Northeastern, Villanova, Arkansas and many others.
Left: Tech's Mini Baja vehicle undergoes testing.
The Tech team’s vehicle performed admirably in the tests of acceleration, maneuverability, the rock crawl and the hill climb. The Tech squad was in 10th place heading into the fifth and final competition – the four-hour endurance race.
“That’s the hardest part,” Ryan Waggoner said. “After you beat the crap out of your car in all the other events, you have to drive it for four hours.”
The Tech car had one small design flaw – the CV shaft proved to be too weak. During the four-hour race, the CV shafts broke eight times. The CV shafts were problematic in earlier testing, so the team had two spares. “When the first two broke, we put the spares on,” Waggoner said. “A few of us stayed back and fixed the broken ones. The car was running well and we were passing people, but we kept having to return to the pits and repair the CV shafts. We were working frantically.”
Davis said the team realized the CV shaft represented a weakness during testing. They redesigned the shafts and thought the problem was fixed. Nevertheless, the Tech team logged enough laps to score 204.44 points in the endurance run, but still slipped to 17th place overall.
Right: Tech's Mini Baja vehicle of 2008.
“It was a great trip and we impressed a lot of schools with our design,” said Tim Ramirez, a native of Cuba, N.M. “We pushed the limits and went small with everything.”
“Most of the other cars were longer and wider,” said Cody McFarland, an Alamogordo native. “We thought we could be more efficient by being smaller. We built it so we pushed the envelope, but we stayed within the rules.”
Prior to the performance tests, the vehicles were ranked in three static categories: cost, design and sales presentation.
“I was really proud last year when they finished 33rd,” professor Warren Ostergren said. “To finish 17th is really great. I’m really proud of the fact that the team is headed in a really good direction.”
Left: "We're not in New Mexico anymore." Tech's mini-Baja races through Illinois.
The Tech team scored 663.04 points, just behind Iowa State University and just ahead of the University of Michigan’s Maize Team.
Cal State Poly-Pomona was the class of the competition, scoring 893.61 points and winning by 58 points.
The Mini-Baja project is an option for students in the Design Clinic class in the mechanical engineering department.
“They enter the class as juniors and learn from the seniors,” Ostergren said. “The seniors are great mentors for the juniors.”
The two-year cycle allows Tech students to maintain a bit of continuity in the Mini-Baja program â€“ in theory. The program was dropped in 2004, just two years after the Tech Mini-Baja team finished fourth overall nationally and was second in the endurance race.
“When I became chair of the department in 2006, I decided to start the Mini-Baja program again,” Dr. Sayavur Bakhtiyarov said. “I think it is natural to have this at New Mexico Tech.”
Through Ostergren’s class in Design Clinic, Tech offers 13 different design projects. Mini-Baja is just one of the options for upper-level students to learn the process of collaborative mechanical engineering design.
“This is part of the learning process,” Bakhtiyarov said. “We have 13 design projects and they are all from the real world. … The Mini-Baja team is a big help in recruitment too. They bring the car and demonstrate it during Engineering Weekend and during Research at Tech Day. That’s a big help to the department and to the campus.”
Hollis Dinwiddie, a former Mini-Baja team member with two Tech degrees, is the team’s academic advisor. The project is equally divided between theory and practicality.
The team brainstorms on ideas and concepts, then picks the concept and the direction. Then the team sets out to manufacture a working vehicle.
“As a student engineer, you don’t understand how it works until you start doing the machining yourself,” Ramirez said.
Every team uses the same engine – a 10 horse-power engine by Briggs and Stratton, which is the major sponsor of the event, along with the Society of Automotive Engineers. The team designed and built everything – the chassis, pedals and steering and drive train. After deciding on a concept, they conducted computer modeling and analyses, followed by building a prototype.
“The best part is seeing everything come together,” Waggoner said. “You spend a whole year designing this project. When if finally comes together and you get it running, it’s a lot of fun.”
The team spent $10,650 to build its vehicle, which was about average. However, Bakhtiyarov said the Tech team is one of the poorest in the competition, financially speaking. Ostergren said some schools have immaculate high-tech machine shops. Bakhtiyarov said some schools have as many as 100 students contributing to a Mini-Baja team.
Davis and his team members spent thousands of hours working in the machine shop north of the campus police station. The team often worked on their vehicle past 2 a.m., including during finals week.
“They’re actually working on real-world design problems,” Ostergren said. “Employers are interested in bringing up students quickly – not just in design work, but the design process too. Students need the technical design skills, but if they know the design process, they can step into a job anywhere. … When these students look at job offers and internships, you can see the effect of this program.”
Each team member said their Mini-Baja experience was more than just a resumé builder. The experience was a critical to getting internships and job offers.
Fabian Vigil has accepted a job as a design engineer with Honda Research and Development in Columbus, Ohio. He said his experience with Mini-Baja design and implementation in a team environment was crucial to landing that job.
"The most gratifying part is the learning experience of design and working with others," Vigil said. "In a lot of engineering jobs, you only have to do one part of a project. We got to see the whole thing."
Cody McFarland, the team’s salesman, will be working for aeronautics firm Lockheed Martin in Las Cruces. Waggoner will soon start work for the Lee Ranch Coal Co. near Grants. Davis will work for Merrion Oil and Gas in Farmington. Ramirez, who did an internship with GM in Lansing, Mich., accepted a job offer from global mining company BHP Billiton in Farmington.
“The Mini-Baja project prepares us for the real world in a lot of different aspects,” Waggoner said. “One is working on a team. … We have different subcommittees and we have to integrate our work and the systems have to be compatible.”
Vice President of Academic Affairs Peter Gerity has a special connection with Mini-Baja. He spent many years involved with professional racing teams and spends his free time restoring sports cars at home.
A mechanical engineer, Gerity enjoys working with the Mini-Baja team at Tech.
“They are learning the most valuable lesson they can learn in higher education,” he said. “It absolutely requires total teamwork. They recognize through real life, hands-on experience that each team member is important. You don’t learn that from reading a book. For mechanical engineering students, Mini-Baja is the gold standard. It really gives students a leg up as they enter the industry.”
Each team member also was responsible to help find sponsors. The major sponsors were BHP Billiton, Merrion Oil & Gas, M&R Trucking and Sun Loans, all of Farmington, and Socorro businesses First State Bank and Gambles True Value hardware.
The team had numerous other business sponsors in Socorro that offered free or discounted merchandise or small donations.
The team was also assisted financially by vice presidents Peter Gerity and Van Romero, and president Daniel H. López.
Dinwiddie was on the Mini-Baja team in 2001 and 2002. He now works as a mechanical engineer at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory.
“This is the closest thing to having a cutting edge project with real deadlines,” Dinwiddie said. “This is a make-or-break project. You have to succeed or your failure will be really big. They spend a year working on a project that culminates in one weekend. The intensity is extremely high.”
“The most challenging part was the long hours and the hard work,” McFarland said. “We spent a lot of late nights in the shop fabricating parts and putting it all together. … but when you go to nationals and do well, it’s all worth it.”