Developing electric vehicles (EV) from scratch is a stressful endeavor, even for experienced engineers in an ideal environment. For the Formula Student team at the University of Hertfordshire, the pandemic threw a unique spanner in the works.
Charles Wilman and Will Ashford interview Ricky Poole and Alex Wood, undergraduate team leaders, and Howard Ash, their faculty advisor, about how their team adjust to engineering remotely and how MIGSO-PCUBED provided project management guidance to get their car on the track.
Charles Wilman: Hello, and a very warm welcome to you all from us here at MIGSO-PCUBED. I’m Charles Wilman, and today, we’re bringing you a special podcast as we welcome our friends from the University of Hertfordshire, and in particular, the UH racing team. I’m delighted to introduce Howard Ash as faculty advisor and Alex Wood and Ricky Poole as undergraduates.
Ricky is team leader with Alex as deputy team leader. They will be talking to us about the sponsorship and support we provide to the team as they prepare for the Institute of Mechanical Engineers Formula Students competition. So, without further ado, I’ll hand over to my esteemed colleague Will Ashford to explore further. Please take it away.
Will Ashford: Thanks, Charles. And thanks for joining us today. Howard, maybe I can start with a question to you in terms of what Forumla Student is. I know MIGSO-PCUBED have been supporting the UH racing team for a number of years, but would you be able to just give our listeners a bit of an insight in terms of what we do and what you guys do more to the point?
Howard Ash: Absolutely. Formula Student is a design engineering competition for undergraduate students. The competition is organized by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. And the idea is that it’s giving them a real-world experience where they’ve actually got to work together in a team to create, design, build, then compete with their own single seater formula car.
And so, at the end of an academic year, teams would have been working on this car, and then they’ll come together, and then compete. And so, the competition for many years has been taking place at Silverstone. So, the home of British motor sport, and there’ll be competing against teams, not only from around the UK, but also from around the world.
And it’s an amazing competition because the students get the chance to put a lot of the engineering theory and know-how into practice and then compete with teams from all around the world.
Will Ashford: As an ex-UH student, I’ve got firsthand experience of understanding the competition and the benefits it brings to the team, but it’s been fantastic to come back and see the students and support you over the last, I think, 10 or so years, we’ve had this relationship with the University of Hertfordshire.
Would you have to just kind of spare a few minutes just to talk through the things that we’ve done in the past to help the students and bring some of the experience that we have as a consultancy into the team and help them in the entry to the competition.
Howard Ash: Absolutely. What we find is that for the majority of our students, and it it’s really the first time that they’ve been experiencing managing the project directly.
And so, it does bring a number of challenges to the team. We’ve previously had limited systems in place if you like to manage the project. And what we’ve found in the past, that’s been quite difficult is to really be able to have really good visibility of the team’s progress and the team’s goals. And so really the help that MIGSO-PCUBED is being able to bring in, being able to teach the students a range of different project management techniques.
And so for example, Lean Six Sigma principles, and that’s been blended typically with Agile and project management ways of working, which has been really helpful for the team to be able to help visualize the project a lot better, to be able to allow better visibility of what’s happening, but also allow students to be able to engage more, to be able to pick up tasks that need to be done.
And really that’s been able to help the team be able to progress well throughout the course of the year, because one of the big challenges is to be able to actually create this race car that they’re starting from scratch, to be able to get that built on time, because they do need a lot of time to test it, find out what’s going to go wrong with it.
And so, the better organized we can be as a team, then it just means that we’re going to have more time to iron out any of the issues, any of the bugs or anything like that. And so it means that the student’s going to go into a competition confident and hopefully do as well as they possibly can.
Will Ashford: It’s always fantastic to come back and see the students and see yourself Howard, with the challenge that they take on with this venture. So, it’s always a pleasure personally, and it’s always a real source of interest within the MIGSO-PCUBED community to come back and see actually what exciting, innovative ideas that the students have in terms of competing against all the other international teams.
Will Ashford: Maybe, Ricky, I could turn to you for my next question. So, with the idea and the excitement around what’s coming next, can you share an insight with our listeners in terms of what this year’s team are planning and hoping to achieve at the competition?
Ricky Poole: Yeah, of course. So firstly, thank you for inviting us in to come and talk to you today. So, I think there’s two important things to think about when we talk about what we’re planning and hoping to achieve.
Firstly, is that 2020 and 2021 – they’ve been very difficult for everybody. And so, this is a very, very different year of university, very 30 different year of Formula Student. And what’s really interesting is a lot of the things we’re having to work around is no different to what the companies are working around in the industry right now – dealing with working from home, dealing with people, going off with self-isolation, getting messages from test and trace and so on.
And the second thing to remember is that the 2020 competition was canceled, which has meant that our transition from an internal combustion engine car to a EV car has actually taken two years rather than one year that it is. And what this means is that the UH 23 car that we’re currently building doesn’t just represent the work of one team.
It represents the work of two IMechE teams and two full teams of students with a number of us who have transitioned from one team to the next. Now, last year we achieved second in the Virtual Static Events of Former Student UK. And so, our overall ambition this year is to deliver the results that we know we can.
Obviously, we finished very, very strong last year in the virtual competition. The plan this year is to build the car as well as we know that we can be built. We’ve had a lot of extra time, and especially with what’s going on at the minute with local lockdowns and working from home, we’ve taken that time to really go back and look at some areas of the car at a lot finer detail.
And so, the plan is to deliver the car to the best possible standard we can and to go to the competition, and we’re hoping to achieve results as strong as we did in the virtual competition. But of course, in whatever form that may take.
Will Ashford: Thanks, Ricky. And you talked around the exciting idea of an EV car at the beginning. I’m not sure all of our listeners will be the petrol heads that you and I are, maybe in terms of listening to the engines and knowing the difference between an EV car or an electric car. But could you maybe give some indication of what performance and what we could expect from the V car when you go to the competition?
Ricky Poole: Yes, Formula Student EV cars are very, very quick. So, typically the former student teams sort of a run some form of motorbike engine around 600 CC, something like that. And you’ll normally run about 80, 85 brake horsepower. So, between 50 and 55 kilowatts. But for this year, we’re moving up to four-wheel drive EV.
So, there’s a motor in each wheel assembly. And actually, we’ll be running the absolute maximum. The rules allow, so 80 kilowatts of power or about 110 horsepower. So, this is the same amount of power that you’ll have in a decent road car, but this weighs around 200 kilos to the car rather than the 1.2, 1.3 tons that the road cars do. It will certainly be very quick.
Will Ashford: I always get the hairs on the back of my neck standing up when you start talking about the performance. It’s really mind-blowing. I think back to this, when I was a student , thinking that how you’re doing it now, but in the course of a year, you’re going to turn something from a piece of paper and some theory into a car that is really fast and a real performance example of what engineering can deliver on a track, or even statically in the CAD simulated well that you did last year.
I think that the work that every team go through to get to the competition is absolutely immense. So, I do always applaud the teams that are doing that. What’s coming up next? What’s the big, next biggest thing on your plan to get to Silverstone in July?
Ricky Poole: So, where we are at the minute is we’ve got a lot of components sat around. We’ve got a lot of assemblies that we’re ready to jump in and build. And so, I think as we now come out of the lockdown that we just have, and as we start to ramp up our manufacturing a bit more, we’re planning to start getting more progressed with our chassis.
So, at the minute, our chassis is in a welded state, but it doesn’t have any brackets fitted at the minute. So, as we talk today, I’ve been designing some jigs to try and get some of the brackets positionally much, much more accurate. And alongside that, we’re then hoping, as well, to progress with the build of some of our HV component.
So, there’s a lot of safety procedures for building a 600-volt battery. And so, we’re in the process of procuring some extra PPE just to make sure everyone’s as safe as possible when doing it, starting to bring that together, which is a challenge, because it’s something that as a university we’ve never done before on this scale as a team. So, it’s certainly exciting times in the near future.
Will Ashford: Certainly sounded like you’re going to have your hands forward over the next few months. Have you started to plan out and think about the static events?
Ricky Poole: Yeah, absolutely. I think we’ve got a number of people on the team who are experienced enough to know, inform the student if you leave the static events to the last month, last few days, it all goes badly wrong. We’ve got people who’ve competed in concept class, a more formerly class too. And so they’ve been through that experience where you do only static event. We have the experience last year where things stopped and we had nothing, but the static events from kind of April onwards.
So, the advantage of that and how well we did last year is we’ve got a lot of really good material that applies to this car. And we’ve got feedback on how to improve that material, which is really our starting point for this year. And in the background, that’s something we’ve been working on during the local lockdowns.
And when we’ve been working from home is how to better prepare even better than we did last year for those static events, because they’re really, really important for picking up points, come July.
Will Ashford: Having a strong score across all of the different events is definitely a key to getting in the top five.
Will Ashford: Alex, maybe I could turn to you now in the different question but linked to what Ricky was saying at the beginning. So obviously, we’re in a very different time at the moment with COVID and restrictions. What’s been the biggest challenge that you’ve overcome and what have you learned from it?
Alex Wood: I think the biggest challenge for us and probably for everyone during this time is with communication.
I think within the team and previous years, communication has mainly been in person, we always have our meetings in person. We tend to work together in person, in computer labs or in the Formula Student lab that we have working on the car and transferring all of those levels of communication across into online forum is definitely been one of the biggest challenges we’ve had to face.
And we’ve done various things from mixing our meetings from in-person and online at the same time. And then obviously, when we’re in lockdown, we’ve had to move them completely online. I think one of the biggest challenges going along with that is the sharing of the information, what you’ve been working on, the design changes you’ve done. They’re quite hard to convey through remote desktop system and through video calls. They’re quite hard to show what you’ve been doing and explain your thinking behind what you’ve been doing is definitely more difficult on those online services.
In terms of departmentally, it’s quite hard to work on specific areas of the car as a group. Normally, you might be in university and a couple of you will be working on a specific area of the car, and you’ll be able to talk and work collectively on a single thing, at the same time. When you’re online, it’s quite hard to take the video call and someone else in the video call and work on the same thing at the same time.
It’s quite challenging from that perspective. Generally, the communication is quite a big challenge to overcome during these times.
Will Ashford: I can completely understand and relate to that. Just trying to think in terms of what you’ve taken away and learn from the experience. Is there anything you’re going to keep in place as a team and continue to adopt as part of the team structure and ways of working?
Alex Wood: Definitely. What we’ve found from communicating online is as we go out of this lockdown, we’re still having a certain level of restrictions on certain parts of what we do. So we’re going to have to keep the online communication alongside what we do in person. And I think it works quite well for certain things, communicating online.
So, I think it’s definitely something we can keep within how we do our meetings and how we work with each other. I think for larger things, for example, we’ve started doing these seminar sessions with larger groups of the team and our concept class team. And I think that works quite well online due to the large number of people, and people can obviously come in and out when they wish.
And I think that works quite well online when compared to in-person as well.
Will Ashford: I can definitely understand how a very difficult and challenging competition has become even more demanding and stressful for you guys to actually get from a concept through to a working design. I’ve been seeing in the updates that IMechE have been providing for that.
They’ve tried to keep a level of flexibility in the rules to allow and then to repair and run the event with whatever shape or form and participation possible. Have you been able to keep up to date with those changes and how’s that impacted your preparation?
Alex Wood: Obviously, the risk of them changing the competition and what the competition might end up as is obviously concerning.
And we need to consider what’s going on. But I think as a team, we hope that the competition is as normal as possible. And I’m sure every other Formula Student team thinks the same regarding that. What we’re trying to do as a team is just keep enthusiastic about the idea that we’re going to have the car and it’s going to be able to go off and race in the competition.
And I think as much as we can obviously look at the different levels of what might happen and see our way through to certain changes that might happen, I think we need to just work on the car as if we will have that final competition in a normal way. And then that will keep the enthusiasm up within the team.
And that will give us a proper goal to work towards if we don’t. Otherwise, we’re going to start trying to work towards something that might not happen or something like that.
Howard Ash: Yeah, just to add that as well, actually, I think it’s great that the Institution of Mechanical Engineers are also providing a bit of an alternative, so a backup plan.
So if teams have been able to, or unable to complete their current car, then they are allowing teams to bring out an older car. And so we are quite fortunate. We do have a couple of older cars that are still sat on their wheels and there is the potential to be able to, to wheel one of those out. But then it’s just managing, you know, the team’s focus there because clearly we want to try and complete the new car and yeah, I guess it’s managing that risk.
So we know that we’ve still got a lot to be able to accomplish. We’re still getting to grips with the new ways of working, given the social distancing, et cetera. And so for example, when students come back, then we’re encouraging them to take lateral flow tests. So, try and minimize any risk of infection, that kind of thing.
And so there’s a lot of things that are going on. It does make the project difficult. But I can certainly say the team are very enthusiastic, really motivated, which is absolutely fantastic from my point of view. Quite often, I’m the one telling them, you know, go home, get some rest, get some sleep, et cetera.
And so, yeah, I don’t know, one way or another, I’m confident that the team will be there at the competition. So, looking forward to it.
Will Ashford: Yeah. And we’ve all got our fingers crossed that everything pans out, that you have that on track competition, really test the performance of your EV car this year. Fingers crossed.
Will Ashford: Ricky, maybe I can turn back to you now for a slightly different question in terms of what you think is going to be the biggest thing that you need to overcome, in terms of getting to Silverstone and in July.
Ricky Poole: Yeah, of course. So, instinct tells me to say COVID, but of course, I think COVID is not a problem for us, but it’s creating problems for us that we need to overcome.
But I don’t think any of the problems that the COVID-19 pandemic and the government restrictions are imposed in the country are still as significant for us to get into competition in July, as they are understanding this EV car. We’ve got a lot of experience with petrol cars, and I’m sure if it was a petrol car, then the car would be completed long ago and we’d be saying, “Well, we can’t wait to go testing.”
The problem is we’ve got four outboard motors connected with a battery or a large accumulator we designed ourselves, with a lot of monitoring systems and a lot of safety systems involved. We got two inverters; we got some problems with electronics. We’ve got to try and get everything, talking to each other.
And so, there’s going to be a long process from actually having all of the hardware fitted to the car, dropping it on its wheels, and saying, “The car is done.” It’s then going to be go to testing and it could be even hours and hours of work just before we can get those wheels to start to slowly rotate.
And then we’ve got a build all the way up from the wheels slowly rotating, right? The way to unleashing the full performance of the car, making sure that we understand everything that’s going on along the way. And all of the predictions we’ve made, all of the models were made and any assumptions that we’ve based things on, we’ve got to make sure that those ring true.
And obviously, you think that’s going to be our biggest challenge because I can foresee a significant amount of problem solving being involved. Obviously, we show up to testing, you know, we could drive a number of miles, we pack everything up. We’re going to want to get the car out of the box, put it on the track, and hit go. And the driver’s going round until we need to come back and charge it.
We’re already aware that won’t be the case, but what we mustn’t do is be frustrated when we’re sat there diagnosing, trying to understand what’s going wrong. So, on that front as well, coming back to, when we talk about COVID restrictions, we’re anticipating that we’ll be testing with social distancing guidelines.
Not because we’re expecting to be extended, but because we’re hoping to be testing before the official government guidance on social distancing being no longer required. So, I do think that may well affect the ability of the team to problem solve, because if we can only have X number of people at the site or we can’t car share significantly to get to the testing site, if we limit the amount of people, then we’re going to be relying again on our online communications to talk to the people that need to be spoken to, if that’s the case. So, whilst I think that will impact our problem, solving a bit, how quickly we get on top of those will determine how good of a time we have in July.
I’m absolutely confident that our team will be able to deal with the problems will be thrown at us during testing. I absolutely believe in everyone in the team. All of the work we’ve done to date has set a really, really solid foundation. And from now until July, there’s going to be nothing but building and understanding. I think the understanding is absolutely going to be the biggest obstacle.
Will Ashford: I can’t get my head around how difficult this is going to be. It was hard enough just doing an engineering degree, let alone trying to think about building a Formula Student car 10 years ago or so. Now, you’re throwing in the mix doing an electrical car and COVID restrictions.
I really think you guys have got a massive task here, and you’re doing a fantastic job to prepare yourself and think about things in such a pragmatic and structured way. So again, all the luck and support we can offer you if you need anything, please ask.