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Researchers of the Month

January 2012

James Meehan
Lorena Rozo 
Mechanical Engineering majors, Class of 2012
Stony Brook Motorsports /CEAS Senior Design 

Research Mentor: Dr. Noah Machtay, Mechanical Engineering

SBMotorsportsThe innovative CEAS Senior Design projects always draw a crowd at URECA's campus-wide research Celebration. Past exhibits have included optical pacemaker devices, curb climbing wheelchairs, interactive computer games, robots, and even a solar boat. But a perennial favorite—always front and center on the platform—is the latest Baja SAE off-road vehicle on display from the Stony Brook Motorsports Team. Last year’s vehicle (#34), weighing in at ~420 pounds, not only got our attention, but earned kudos at the SAE Collegiate Design Series competition it entered in Illinois last June where it placed tenth overall, and fifth in design. (*Yes it did play in Peoria!)

Success at SAE competitions doesn’t just happen, but is the result of many, many hours of hard work, including creative design, manufacturing, testing and troubleshooting. And two of the hardest-working students who provide much of the drive behind the SB Motorsports operations are: Lorena Rozo, Team President, and James Meehan, Design Manager, our Researchers of the month. 

Both are currently working on their senior design capstone project, focusing on the powertrain design with continuously variable transmission (CVT) and braking systems (James) and/or suspension components (Lorena). The Stony Brook Motorsports Team works closely with its advisors, including faculty advisor Dr. Noah Machtay; Bob Martin, and Henry Honigman of Mechanical Engineering; and CEAS Senior Design professor for Mechanical Engineering, Dr. Yu Zhou. In talking about the Motorsports "family", James and Lorena enthusiastically acknowledge all the members on the Team, as well as their top-notch advisors—and express their deepest thanks to the loyal Motorsportssponsors who keep the wheels turning. Everyone involved is excited to show the newest Motorsports car that will be completed and be on display at URECA on April 25, 2012 – and will go on to two national SAE competitions, in Oregon (May) and Wisconsin (June). Lorena Rozo comments, “We’ve made a lot of improvements. This year, we really have a chance to win!”

Lorena Rozo was born in Bogotá, D.C., Colombia and attended the Gulf Coast High School in Naples, Florida. She first got involved with Motorsports in her freshman year (fall 2008) where she took the initiative to learn welding. Lorena is one of 27 women currently majoring in Mechanical Engineering at SB (out of 297 total), and is a great advocate of the major, the department, and CEAS, representing Motorsports and Mechanical Engineering as a CEAS student ambassador at many recruiting events, and on admissions blogs. She has had multiple leadership roles with Motorsports, including being Team Treasurer (2009-2010), Chassis Design and Fabrication Leader (2009-2011), Team Vice-President (2010-2011), Suspension Design Leader, and Team President (Summer 2011-present). Lorena plans to continue here at SB to earn her master’s degree [2013] before seeking full time employment as a design or manufacturing engineer. For the past year, she also has interned at a local Setauket company, Flagpoles, Inc., that specializes in mass production of aluminum tubular standards and defense products. Lorena’s hobbies include running and hiking, and driving the Baja cars.

James Meehan
 was born and raised in Long Island, and attended West Babylon High School. He is a first generation college student: after working for half a year as a machinist, he attended SUNY Farmingdale, and then transferred to SBU. James currently trains new Motorsports members in design and fabrication processes, because of his proven expertise in precision machining critical vehicle components using CNC milling machines, plasma cutter, and manual lathe. He credits much of what he knows to his father, also a machinist, and to “hands-on” experience as a child, in taking things apart and being around small motors. James enjoys mountain biking, and is an avid Baja driver. He has also interned as a manufacturing assistant first at an aerospace manufacturer (2006-2010) and now at a medical devices manufacturer. Still undecided as to future plans, James has earned a 3.97 GPA at Stony Brook and is a member of SB’s Tau Beta Pi Engineering Honor Society and Golden Key International Honor Society.

Below are some excerpts of James & Lorena's interview with Karen Kernan, URECA Director.

The Interview

Karen. Tell me about your area of research/work.

Lorena. We both are involved with Stony Brook Motorsports, a Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) club on campus, housed under the Mechanical Engineering department, that focuses on the design and fabrication of an outdoor vehicle that goes on to compete at collegiate competitions.We compete with other universities from all over the world at the SAE Collegiate Design Competition Series. Last year we competed against 115 universities.

James. The Motorsports club is a really great way for students to actually apply what they learn in the classroom and also get real hands on experience that they don’t get elsewhere. You get really hands on with the fabrication processes. You get familiar with all the machinery in the shop (e.g. a vacuum forming machine, a band saw, a milling machine, a drill press) that you wouldn’t get to use otherwise. You also learn to weld. It’s a major advantage outside the classroom.Motorsports2011

Karen. How did you first get involved?

 I got involved my freshman year, the first semester I learned how to weld. Gradually I just took on larger projects. In my first year I welded most of the chassis; after that, I helped fabricate the chassis and I designed the chassis. Now this year, our work with Motorsports is also part of our senior design. James is working on the powertrain (the transmission, CVT). And I’m doing the suspension, which includes the geometry and wheel assemblies. 

James. I joined when I first transferred to Stony Brook. My father is a machinist, so I knew a lot about machining from him and from working in machine shops. When I joined the team, I was able to dive right in and take on huge projects. In spring 2010, my first year on the team, I machined a lot of the major components for the car. Now, as Lorena mentioned, I’m working on the powertrain and braking systems for the capstone project.

Karen. What have been some of your happiest moments with Motorsports to date?

Lorena. I think the best part was when we first finished the car in 2009. That was my first big welding project. And when you first finish something big for the car, and you see it, and you go to competition– and it doesn’t completely fail . . ..that it was successful—that was a really happy moment! That was the first time I did something that big. Last year too, the competition at Illinois was really exciting. We placed top ten in every event: hill climb, rock crawl, maneuverability, acceleration…so that was very satisfying. And in the design, we placed fifth overall! Since I’d been on the team, last year was the first year we were in the design finals in several years.

James. For me, it’s just driving the car! Not just seeing it, but actually being behind the wheel and doing the event. That was probably my happiest moment. I like driving the car I think more than anyone on the team. I’m the one (even when we’re busy, studying for finals) always saying “C’mon guys.  Lets’s go driving. Let’s go out.”  

Karen. Are you the sole driver in the SAE team competitions?

James. Four people drove last year in competition.  But I probably like it the most. I really like driving the car. It’s the best. It's one of the most fun things about this club!

Karen. Do you have a faculty mentor overseeing the project?

James. Our advisor is Dr. Noah Machtay, in Mechanical Engineering. He did his PhD here.

Lorena. He’s really into racing. He’s been with the team for several years. He understands all the trials and tribulations of building a car. …When he was an undergrad, he also did Baja. So he knows. We can relate to him. We can ask questions and advice and everything that has to do with the car.

Karen. So with Motorsports, then, you are really designing a different car every year? How much does the design change year to year?

Lorena. This year we have 5 seniors –so we’re working on two major subsystems of the vehicle: the powertrain and suspension. Because we placed top ten last year, this year we have to have a certain number of major design changes and validate it with data and analysis …. There are other subsystems that we don’t have to change necessarily because they worked or we just don’t need to.

James. On the drive back from Illinois last year, in June, a couple of hours into the trip, I got out my laptop and asked the others: “All right guys, let’s just think about what went wrong. What we can fix?” And we came up with a list of close to 100 ideas! All of us in the van, we were just coming up with whatever idea we could. … …Then what we did was to break down the list, and consider whether any one idea really does or doesn’t make sense. We talked about what went wrong in the competition, what we’d want not to let happen again…. And that’s how we started to prioritize what we were going to change in the new vehicle.

Karen. So what can we expect? Will the 2012 vehicle be completed by April 25th, the day of our URECA research exhibition?

James. If we don’t have the car done by the 25th…we’re in trouble. The competition is May 2nd.

Lorena. This may actually be the first time we have a completed car at URECA! The car has to ship out right after URECA so it really has to be completely finished. As far as changes for this year, our main focus is the powertrain and the suspension. With suspension, it’s a lot of subtle changes in the geometry that make a huge difference. We’re going for less weight. We do have a new CVT. It’s going to be a lighter, more compact and a lot cleaner vehicle. One of our problems in the past has been that our car doesn’t look streamlined. It was too cluttered…

James. One of the things we never gave enough thought to before was: let’s try to hide the wires, or these cables. The electrical system, the brake lines—all that kind of stuff was always done last minute. Last year, we did the brake lines right at the very end. But this year, I really made a point to think about where we’re going to put everything. We’ve made some changes. You’ll see a more professional looking car this year. There‘s not going to be a bundle of wires running along the side of the chassis. All of that is going to be hidden. It will look a lot cleaner.

Lorena. We’ve made a lot of improvements. This year, we really have a chance to win! Aside from the one year when we placed 39th, we’ve been top ten every other year since 2007. So we are known. It’s exciting to know that other universities view us as the competitor to beat.

Karen. I do remember one April, at a URECA Celebration event, being told by a Motorsports team member that a major component of the car had been finished only that very morning, or late the night before.

James. It varies year to year, how far along we are with the car in April. The year that I joined, the first time the car drove was during the brake test. That was the first time somebody actually started the car and pushed the gas pedal. That’s how far behind that car was......... I feel like our team morale has improved since last year though, and there’s been more commitment. Now there’s always somebody down in the shop. People are hanging out more, and we’re joking around a lot more. And more stuff is getting done! We’ve done more this year than we did by this time last year, definitely. This year we also cleaned the shop up. We completely rearranged everything. The whole place looks way neater.  

Lorena.  Last year, we didn’t finish as early as we would have liked – but we got a chance to drive the car before competition. This year, we want to finish even earlier so we can get more testing in at the end of the year. This year, we’re already registered for the second competition which is a huge step. Hopefully that will become a standard. All the big teams go to more than one competition.

Karen. Can you expand more about the hands-on aspect of your research experiences with Motorsports?  

James. To me, doing the capstone senior project is one of the best things about engineering education I think. You really have to design something. With the capstone project, in a way what we’re doing is what companies are trying to do-- actually making a product. You really have to design something, and follow it through. . . .For one particular ME class, you may design a gear train. But you don’t have to follow through with the whole thing. In the class you can simply write the report and you’re done. You don’t even know if what you designed will actually work because you never have to build it or anything. But with Motorsports and our senior project, there’s so much you learn from doing it. For my project – I have to do a multiple speed gear box—it’s more in depth. You actually have to make it work.

Lorena. I’ve learned a lot through the coursework —doing analysis, etc. But as far as how to build stuff, most of what I’ve learned is from my involvement with Baja. Everything “hands on” I really learned through Baja. It’s been really helpful, really valuable getting the experience of building something. For us, every year we have to define whatever problems we encounter in competition and translate them to our goals for the next year. We’ve had to put a lot of effort into what we design and manufacture and you learn so much from that. Also, to put in another word for Baja, you get more experience in Baja with finances and managing money than you would in any class. We only have a certain amount of money in our budget. We have to reserve enough money to go to competition …and if we don’t buy a part, the car is not going to go. There are so many things to keep in mind. That aspect of the experience is valuable too.

James. One of the things is interfacing with suppliers, or getting quotes. That’s something a student wouldn’t typically do otherwise. With Baja, you get experience with calling people up, asking people about parts you need from suppliers. One of the major challenges is that – because we’re building only one car—it’s such a small quantity. Finding people who are willing to deal with small quantities is one of the major challenges. We need one of these. They’re used to making thousands of something. 

Karen. Does it ever happen that something that you thought would work doesn’t go as planned?

James.  With a new design, that’s one of the hardest things to anticipate. Once you actually build it, you may see: there’s a lot of friction there that you didn’t think would be there. Or something will be jammed up. Or it doesn’t move the way you thought. Or it just doesn’t come together. One example that comes to mind is with something I had designed something last year –a new pedal. When we first put it together, there was a lot of friction in the joints. There are things we didn’t anticipate would happen: for example, the pedal would get stuck …and the car was going so slow. The brakes were dragging. Then we realized that we would have to put a sleeve in, and that would get rid of the friction, the pedal would retract, and the car would be fine. That’s one example.

Karen. What would you say is the most challenging aspect of the project?

James. I think management. Getting other people involved or delegating work out is hard. Because you want to get a lot accomplished and when you delegate to somebody else, perhaps they don’t do it the way that you were thinking, or it’s completely wrong. And then you have to go back and explain.

Lorena. I’d have to agree. It’s handling the interactions–especially when it comes to the bigger design or fabrication deadlines. There are those times when everyone gets very tense. We’re all very tired…

James. That’s another thing that’s different than with work for a class.   When you’re working with somebody in a class, if you don’t like what they’re doing, it’s not long-term. It’s just one paper and you’ll be done with it. But with Motorsports, this is a much bigger commitment. You can’t just say, “I’ll deal with it for a few hours and never work with them again.” You have to make it work.

Lorena. There are people who really care about getting everything done on time. There are others who maybe don’t see the necessity or urgency of getting things done as soon as possible. Like everything else, it’s a matter of dealing with everybody’s personalities – and during times when everyone is getting stressed out.

Karen. Is there a mandatory time commitment?

Lorena.   No……that’s part of what makes it tough. The only people that have to be there really are the seniors because of the senior design class. Before that, everything you do is just out of love. If you’re a junior, sophomore or freshman, you don’t get any credit. You do it because you want to—it’s a personal learning experience, an opportunity to develop your skills.

Karen. How many hours per week typically would you say you put in? About 8-10 hours week?

James. A lot more! Triple that amount.… Just on Saturdays, we get there 8 o’clock and then we’re there until 2 o’clock in the morning. Just on Saturdays we put in 15 hours. And then during the week, you go through all your classes all day, and you think: Oh, I've got to get this done. By the time you’re done with classes, it’s six o clock at night when you’re beginning to get started with your project, working in the shop. Next thing you know, it’s 3 o-clock in the morning!  

Karen. Are you also actively involved with recruiting new students (i.e. non-seniors) to the team?

Lorena. We try to go to every event we can.   We do the Involvement Fair, Prospective Student Fair, First Robotics, Engineering Day, the CEAS BBQ. We try to show the car as much as possible. Sometimes that’s all it takes is for somebody to see the car and be hooked!

James. We also have freshman driving days where new members can drive the car and see actually how it is. That helps get people interested in joining. Getting them to come down to the shop is the easy part. Getting them to stay in the shop is the major hurdle. You have to get them excited about it the way you’re excited. If they don’t have that interest, it’s hard. You can’t really develop that interest in somebody. You have to have a certain curiosity—like when you’re a kid, in just taking things apart.
My dad is a machinist. So I was in his machine shop a lot when I was little. When I was a teenager, my uncle was a commercial lawn equipment dealer. So I was around small engines, fixing stuff.  I had some background, some experience. That helps.

Karen. This type of curiosity—and interest in doing hands-on work: was this a factor in what initially got you interested in mechanical engineering?

Lorena. I remember the year-long physics class I took in my last year of  high school being an influence. I really enjoyed it but I also wanted to do something more hands-on. Research/lab work is fun and everything but I became drawn to engineering because it's a field where you actually build something that lasts, that you can look at again. If you’re just collecting data, it’s not as tangible, it’s more ephemeral.  

James. When I graduated from high school. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I got a job in a machine job….and after about 6 months, started thinking about going back to school. I remember thinking I’d rather design these machines than just use or fix them.

Karen. Are there many non-mechanical engineers in the club?

Lorena. Right now all of us are mechanical engineers.… in other years we have had some non-majors. It depends. There are a lot of connections from classwork for ME majors, so it might be less intimidating at first. But we really try to make it friendly for new people. We try to make projects for new members. Or teach new things: welding, machining…. There are lots of opportunities. My advice is just to be proactive.  I learned how to weld just because I went to the shop in the basement of engineering and I asked: can you show me how? A lot of it is just self motivation.

Karen. Are you glad you joined when you did?

Lorena. Definitely. Since the curriculum gets harder as the years go by, it gets more difficult to make time. If you learn from early on—as a freshman—to manage Baja & school, then it’s a lot easier to handle the stress and time demands later on.

Karen. Any other advice?

Lorena. Just join from your first semester... It’s the best thing you can possibly do. It’s also a good motivator. You get practical experience. You see aspects of what your job might be like when you get out of school, glimpses into the future. You get that satisfaction of thinking this is what it’s all for – that you’re accomplishing something here. So it’s very rewarding. So I would just say: join from the first semester!

James. I agree!

Lorena. Sometimes I find it surprising that we don’t have more people involved… All it took for me was to see the car. And then I just wanted to be part of it! I’m sure that’s the case with all the really active members.

James. Or when you see the car go off a jump or go flying through the air…! (That comes back to me loving to drive.)

Lorena. I don’t know how you could see that car and not want to be part of it!

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