Podcast - Preparing for Formula Student During a Pandemic
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 MI-GSO | PCUBED provided project management guidance to get their car on the track.
- Introduction [00:00]
- What is Formula Student? [01:10]
- How does MI-GSO | PCUBED supports the University of Hertfordshire (UH) racing team? [01:56]
- What the UH racing team hopes to achieve [03:57]
- How do EV perform on the race track? [06:20]
- Preparations for the competition [07:56]
- Engineering challenges in the middle of COVID [10:19]
- What new ways of working from COVID will be kept in place after the pandemic? [12:09]
- Reacting to changes from IMechE [13:35]
- Biggest challenge to overcome to get to the competition [15:59]
- How does Formula Student set students up for success in their careers? [19:36]
- Conclusion [24:12]
Charles Wilman: Hello, and a very warm welcome to you all from us here at MI-GSO | 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.
What is Formula Student?
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 MI-GSO | 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.
How Does M|P Support the UH Racing Team?
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 MI-GSO | 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 MI-GSO | 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.
What the UH Racing Team Hopes to Achieve
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.
How do EV Perform on the Race Track?
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.
Preparations for the Competition
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.
Engineering Challenges in the Middle of COVID
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.
What new ways of working from COVID will be kept in place after the pandemic?
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.
Reacting to Changes from IMechE
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.
Biggest Challenge to Overcome to Get to the Competition
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.
How does Formula Student set students up for success in their careers?
Will Ashford: I guess my last question, and I’d like to turn back to both Ricky and Alex for this is, hopefully the listeners have picked up, but Formula Student is definitely a differentiator in terms of the engineering pathway for the students.
But what I’d like to get a sense of so that the listeners can, is what are your aspirations from competing, and going through this journey, and putting all this extra work in, what is it you want to come out the other side with? So, we can relate to that in terms of your career progression and your aspirations beyond the University of Hertfordshite, and when you enter the working domain,
Ricky Poole: So for me, I think the one thing Formula Student does really, really well is it enriches the engineering course in the sense that it gives you an opportunity to demonstrate what you learn in each module in your course, in a practical sense. Obviously, there are practical aspects of the degree at university, but because of the sheer amount of things that you learn, you don’t necessarily get the opportunity to demonstrate them all in a real scenario.
Whereas you jump into Formula Student, and you take one simple part of the car, and you can do seven or eight engineering calculations on that part, just based on three or four modules, even going back to first year modules.
And so, I find it really nice, almost closure in that you learn all of these things at university. And for those who do the master’s project at level seven, you’ve then almost got an opportunity to demonstrate everything you’ve learned from first year to date, all of the core principles, bring it together.
And even, it just helps train your way of thinking. I know it seems weird to say you think like an engineer, but after doing Formula Student, yeah, you start to think differently. And I think that’s really, really helpful for setting up for going out and getting a graduate job.
So, for me, it’s absolutely certain that having the Formula Student experience played a huge part in me getting my work placement in between levels five and six, and then subsequently getting the graduate job offer that I did.
So, for that, yeah, I’m massively thankful to UH racing and to IMechE for holding the Formula Student event. I just hoped to see my Formula Student experience out on a high, having competed with both concept class and Formula Student class. We have the really strong results last year. I just really want to see it out with a really, really good result, get this car built, get it on the track. We know what the car can do. We just need to understand it as we go along and make sure it can do what it can do.
As we touched on earlier, go back and do not miss a beat on the static events at all. And then absolutely in the future, I hope to come back with the Institute and be a part of the competition in future years because of what it’s given me throughout my university experience, I absolutely would love to volunteer in the future.
Will Ashford: Thanks, Ricky, and Alex, what were your thoughts? How would you see this challenge and your aspirations coming together?
Alex Wood: I think continuing on from what Ricky was alluding to regarding the practical side that Formula Student brings to it, I don’t think I would be near the level of practical understanding that I have now, if I wasn’t doing Formula Student as part of my degree. Obviously, we have some level of practical parts to our degree, but I think Formula Student is a whole nother step on top of that.
And for me, I was very lucky to be involved in the last car we built. And we had some issues that happened to be in the area of the car that I was working on. And it really enlightened me to the idea that you have to be able to design something that we can actually make. And I don’t think I’d have that level of understanding if I didn’t have Formula Student as a part of my life over the last few years. I think any student doing Formula Student will tell you that it’s definitely very valuable to their learning and valuable to the understanding of engineering as a whole.
And it’s very applicable to the real-world engineering that you obviously ended up going into after your degree or in the placement year you might have, I didn’t personally do a placement year like Ricky has done. And I think without Formula Student, I’d struggle if I went into a job when I was designing something that actually had to be made, I don’t think I’d understand the concept of making something that’s manufacturable within the capability of the company that I would be working in. I definitely encourage anyone who is a student at a university with a Formula Student team to get involved, obviously, if they have an interest in motor sport engineering.
I think that would definitely have an interest in doing Formula Student as a thing. And I think to follow on with Ricky said about, helping out the IMechE after we finish our degrees, I think I’d also definitely be interested in coming back and helping out the IMechE competition and helping people like us now in the future to go on the same journey in terms of their learning.
Will Ashford: Well, certainly from every experience I’ve ever witnessed with taking any of my colleagues to the university to see what you guys do year on year, it’s always an amazement in terms of the level of ingenuity, capability, and the learning experience this gives you as a extracurricular piece of work whilst actually trying to get your degree in place.
So, there’s always kudos and credit from us from MI-GSO | PCUBED for the work you put in, and I think even more so you said about the real life experience it gives you in terms of the engineering insight. But yeah, COVID experience we have at the moment just throwing into the mix, the real-life challenges that maybe not always the extreme as this, but you have to overcome and deal with.
And I think anyone who’s part of a Formula Student team going through the preparation, whether it’s one year or two years, or whether it’s just a virtual submission, or actual, physical car on a track, definitely stand out head and shoulders above anyone without that experience. So, all I can say is everyone at MI-GSO | PCUBED’s hoping that you get the opportunity to get the car on track at Silverstone and have a great competition, really, and get the rewards and the experience that you want from the 12 months or more work that you’ve put into this.
Will Ashford: So, I guess last thing is just a thank you from myself on
behalf of MI-GSO | PCUBED, how Ricky and Alex for coming on today. Sharing a bit of time and some insights with our listeners around what you’ve been doing at the University of Hertfordshire, preparing for this year’s Formula Student competition, and hoping that everything goes to plan as best it can, and you get what you want out of the competition in July. Thanks, guys, and thank you to Charles for hosting and recording today’s podcast.
Ricky Poole: Thank you very much for having us.
Alex Wood: Thank you for having us on and taking the time to host this.
Howard Ash: Thank you so much.
Charles Wilman: Thank you to you all for participating and sharing some fascinating insight into the great things happening within the UH racing team. To our listeners. we hope you enjoyed that, and wherever you are, stay safe and have a good day. Thank you.