Baja SAE is a collegiate racing program which challenges engineering students to design and build an off-road vehicle that will survive the severe punishment of rough terrain. As in real work situations, these future engineers work together as a team to discover and resolve technical challenges in design, test, and manufacturing, as well as business issues. Each team’s goal is to design and build a prototype of an all-weather, rugged, single-seat, off-road race car while also being able to market it to investors in the business portion of the competition.
When Harvey Performance Company was approached by the Rochester Institute for Technology (RIT) Baja SAE Team, we knew there was a great opportunity to get involved in something truly special. RIT Baja had just completed a championship season, winning the 2018 Baja SAE Championship over hundreds of other teams from across the nation as well as dozens from all over the world. Tooling costs can be a major burden on the collegiate SAE teams, so Harvey Performance decided to sponsor RIT Baja, providing them with a wide variety of tooling and technical support from the Harvey Tool and Helical Solutions brands to help with their manufacturing process.
Throughout this season, the Harvey Performance team has been in close contact with Bennett Wong, Manufacturing Manager for RIT Baja. Bennett took some time out of his busy schedule to talk with us about this partnership, the differences between Baja and other SAE programs, some unique parts that they have added to their vehicle with the help of Harvey Tool and Helical tooling, and his background in manufacturing.
To get started, how did you first get involved in manufacturing?
I originally got my start in manufacturing as a member of a BattleBots team. At the time, I was just a freshman, and I was basically left on my own to manufacture parts for the robot as one of the younger team members. I was really learning all my manufacturing skills on the fly, only having been a student for a single semester at the point.
I ended up working in the same shop at RIT as the Baja team, so I started to ask some of the Baja team members to help me out with my Battlebots projects. Over the next few weeks working on the robot, I got to know the Baja team and got much closer with them. They were able to teach me the basics of machining, and I was able to learn fast. One thing I became very good at was operating the lathes, and the Baja team immediately took notice. The next year I left my Battlebots team, and decided to join the Baja team. Because I was so comfortable on the lathe, I became the lathe operator for the Baja team, and now I serve as the manufacturing manager, overseeing all the machined parts of the car.
What sort of manufacturing experience have you gained since starting your education at RIT?
I have been on three Co-Ops during my time at RIT. My first one was with Moog Aircraft Group out in Buffalo, where I worked as a Systems Engineer. In that position, I was able to get on the line with the operators, which was valuable experience. I also worked as a Process Engineer at Wyman Gordon, which is a large metal forging company.
This past summer I worked at UTC Aerospace as a Mechanical Engineer working with 3D printing, tooling, and fixturing. I was able to get a lot of great experience, and design many new parts for the operators. I feel that with my experience, I am able to design better parts for manufacturing. I understand the macro side of manufacturing, having been an operator myself, and know how frustrating it can be to manufacture a part that was designed without taking the machine capabilities into account.
What does the RIT machine shop have for equipment and software?
Right now in the shop, we have six manual 3 axis Hardinge mills and six manual 2 axis Sharp lathes, as well as one CNC mill and one CNC lathe from Hardinge. We also have a complete welding area with two TIG welding tables, and lots of other metalworking equipment. We really have a full-on metal shop here at RIT.
What can you tell us about Baja SAE and how it differs from the other SAE competitions?
I think that the major difference between Baja and other SAE competitions is how tough your car has to be to compete. In Baja competitions, we have extremely dynamic and unpredictable tracks. There could be 2 foot jumps, rocks, sand, mud, and water; you never know what you will encounter in an off-road race. Formula SAE is different because you can easily measure and design to forces that you know. You can plan for tire wear, and you can reasonably expect the same experience on the flat racing track every time. We thrive by dealing with the unpredictability of the Baja track. You need to build a solid design and you need to know it well enough so that you can trust it on any track that the competition throws at you.
Baja also has a strenuous endurance race that typically features upwards of 100 cars on the track at the same time. Basically, your team has 4 hours to churn out as many laps as you can. If our car gets damaged or needs adjustments, we have a full pit crew that can handle those issues. Our pit crew is unique in the fact that they practice all year for these circumstances and are a huge asset to our team. For example, last year during the endurance race our car was hit and slightly damaged, but our pit team was able to have the car towed, repaired, inspected, and back on the track in just 10 minutes, which is extremely fast compared to other teams.
While building your new vehicle for the 2019 season, what are some of the common materials you have been machining?
For the 2019 build, we have been working with a lot of 7075 and 6061 Aluminum. We manufacture our own gears in house, so we also do a lot of steel and some hard milling, which is a key area where the Helical end mills have helped us get better performance.
What would you say is the most critical success factor when it comes to RIT’s performance in Baja events?
Our experience is a huge success factor. RIT has been participating in Baja SAE since the 1990s, so our team and advisors know the ins and outs of this competition. We have an experienced group of students who can make the on the fly decisions that come with the unpredictability of the competition. Our drivers practice all year, our pit crews practice simulated failures on old cars, and we are always prepared for whatever the track throws at us.
How did you first hear about Harvey Performance Company, and what made you decide to reach out seeking a sponsorship?
We had been following the Harvey Performance Company brands on Instagram for some time, and we knew that they were big supporters of High Efficiency Milling, which is something we do a lot of in our shop. We were seeing all the great parts that other people were making with the Harvey and Helical tools, and we knew it would be a good fit for us.
What are some of the complex parts/applications where Harvey Tool or Helical Solutions tools have helped you achieve your goals?
We are the first team to bring Magnetorheological (MR) dampening shocks to the competition, and we used the Harvey Tool miniature end mills to prototype and manufacture our designed parts for the MR Shocks.
MR shocks use oil to suspend steel particles in a solution to be used in a suspension system to change the damping of the system. The MR shocks allow us to be a lot more efficient with our limited power by dynamically changing the suspension to the different terrain. Being more efficient with our power means we can be faster on the track and score more points at the competition.
Our new design is an improvement from current industry solutions. Our designers of this unique product actually won the RIT TigerTank Competition (structured like the popular TV show “Shark Tank”) and will have the chance to become a company and sell these MR shocks as a product. We are proud to say the founders of the product are designers on the team and will be moving along with their business as soon as races are over.
As for the car itself, everything except the tires and the engine are all designed and manufactured in house. This enables us to have high quality parts in the shortest amount of time. We have a new aluminum engine mounting system that Helical tools just ripped through, as well as a new steel upright that needed the HSV-4 with Helical’s Aplus coating. Without this sponsorship, we simply would not have been able to make our car.
Have you received any technical support from the Harvey Tool or Helical tech teams during this season’s build?
When we were using the Harvey Tool miniature end mills, we had to ask about speeds and feeds since we had never run tools that small before. We got in touch with the Harvey Tool tech team and they helped us dial things in. Having that extra assistance gave us confidence when we went to run the tools for the first time, and everything worked out great.
Compared to other tools you have used in the past, how have the Harvey Tool and Helical products performed?
Just generally speaking we are a collegiate team, so we don’t have the luxury of buying nice tools. We typically end up getting a lot of free stuff from suppliers, but do not get to choose the tools like we do with Harvey and Helical. With the donated tools we have to be very careful with our speeds and feeds, because what works for one part might not work for another. It can be really difficult to dial anything in and run it confidently.
Using your tools has been hugely beneficial. We know the performance we are going to get from the tools is consistent, and we can always rely on getting immaculate finishes. The tools’ performance also cut down our cycle times on a lot of parts, which is instrumental to our ability to crank out more parts. While using the Harvey Tool and Helical product, we can confidently walk away from the machine and come back to a quality finished part every time.
What are your future plans after graduation? Do you think you will stay in Manufacturing?
I want to go into Aerospace Engineering for sure, ideally as a design engineer or as a manager. I enjoy making parts, but I want to get more into the design side of aerospace parts. I would love a job where I am able to design complex parts that have the manufacturing process in mind, which I have become to understand better through my work with RIT Baja.
I also enjoy my position on the team as the manufacturing manager. I get to work with designers from every sub system, coordinating schedules, and helping them create parts that fit the design criteria that are also easy to manufacture. It is really rewarding to see the car get put together during car run weekend knowing that you were a part of the team that was able to bring the design that was in the designer’s head into fruition.
Where can our readers find more information about your work and the RIT Baja team?
For more information about myself and my work experience, readers can find me on LinkedIn. I am always happy to connect with like-minded individuals in the manufacturing industry, and as graduation looms closer next year, I will be looking for full-time employment as well!