A bunch of mildly rag-tag students with a few bucks, recycled parts, and a dream beat seemingly insurmountable odds to win a prestigious engineering competition against over-funded and much more experienced teams.
Author Joshua Davis told this story in Spare Parts, a nonfiction book that chronicles the experience of four undocumented Mexican-American students who participate in a prestigious robotics competition. Pitted against elite collegiate engineers, the group’s humble entry – a robot made out of scavenged parts – manages to win.
The out-of-nowhere victory served as a key inspiration to the DREAMers movement, a youth-powered, national call-to-action that transformed the immigrant rights debate. It would also go down in history as a modern, urbanized version of David and Goliath.
Nearly a year after the release of Davis’ novel, Pasadena City College students from its Design Technology Pathway program penned their own version of Spare Parts.
At this year’s milestone 10th annual Formula E Competition – hosted Aug. 6 by the Art Center of College of Design in Pasadena – DTP sent a group of 16 students, many of whom had very little or no experience in engineering and design competitions. The event brought together undergraduate and graduate teams from several regional universities, including more than a dozen from as far way as China.
Formula E gives entrants the opportunity to race toy cars piloted by remote on several courses. Under a strict set of rules and guidelines, vehicles entered into the event are built from scratch specifically for Formula E. They are also powered solely by rubber bands (hence the “E” for “Elastic”), making it one of the more unique engineering and design competitions this side of Caltech.
And once the book was closed on this year’s competition, the Lancer contingent hauled away multiple design and race awards, including a first-place finish in the challenging Figure 8 course.
And they managed to do it with just a few bucks and some recycled spare parts.
“The students showed what’s possible at the community college level going up against graduate students and top Chinese students,” said Deborah Bird, Engineering and Technology professor and head of PCC’s DTP program. “This was our Spare Parts at PCC.”
PCC students have been competing in Formula E for years, although 2015 marked just the third time DTP students have been involved. Previous Lancers were sent through the college’s Product Design program, and they were traditionally paired with Art Center graduate students – a collaboration that was the brainchild of Stan Kong, a retired PCC instructor and current faculty coordinator and professor in Art Center’s graduate industrial design program.
Although DTP students would see some success in past Formula E events, this year was the program’s most successful. That’s because this year, PCC finished first on Art Center’s Sculpture Garden Flats – or more aptly put, Formula E’s ultra-difficult Figure 8 course.
Enter Track King, conqueror of this year’s Figure 8.
A cursory glance of the Track King will probably leave you with more questions than answers. To the casual observer, it looks like an unfinished, remote-controlled toy made out of wood, bits of plastic and metal, and some rubber.
So how the heck does this thing move?
By a 16-foot rubber band that bears an uncanny resemblance to something you’d eat at an Italian bistro.
“It looks a lot like linguine,” said Ricardo Jose Mendoza, Mechanical Engineering/Automotive Engineering sophomore and designer of Track King.
Mendoza built the prize-winning car from scratch over the summer with a design that could probably be described as a little bare bones. But a closer look at Track King will tell you there’s a ton of ingenuity and engineering know-how involved in the four-wheeler.
He used his favorite adult-sized car, the 400-plus horsepowered Corvette C7.R, as inspiration for Track King’s design. He also modeled the car’s drive train after the Corvette, which has a linear tunnel design.
Simply put, Mendoza really knows cars, a trait that belies a fellow barely exiting his teens.
“I’ve known cars since I was big enough to hold a wrench,” said the Temple City High School graduate.
Mendoza learned the trade from his father, who served as a mechanic on a National Hot Rod Association professional racing team. “My dad was my biggest influence. I learned how to fix cars from him. Anything dealing with motor parts, I know about it.”
Mendoza’s passion for anything automotive intensified in high school, where he enrolled in an ROP design technology course. “The teacher, Dave Dickey, really liked my work. So he asked me to take a look at mechanical engineering as a career path,” he said.
The course piqued his curiosity for competition as well. “It first started with in-class competitions. My first big competition was the Jet Propulsion Laboratory Annual Invention Challenge in my senior year.”
Competitors were tasked with building a component that moved a golf ball from a one-meter parameter box into another smaller box. Mendoza made it to the second round of the international tourney.
“I started really liking the competition,” he said.
PCC’s DTP program seemed like a natural fit for Mendoza. So last year, the newly minted freshman joined the program and enrolled in its three-course sequence, from Engineering Design Technology 8A to 8C.
In 8B, students are prepped to take an exam to become a Certified SolidWorks Associate (CSWA). Certification is proof of one’s competency in the industry-standard, 3D modeling software primarily used by Design Tech students.
It turns out that Mendoza had already passed the SolidWorks exam, something he achieved back in high school with a score of 198 out of a possible 200 total points.
The Little Cars That Could
In 8C, a six-week course held during the summer, Mendoza joined other DTP students for a real-world application of their skillsets: developing entries for the Formula E competition. Most of their time was spent in PCC’s Fabrication Laboratory, or Fab Lab, where PCC’s fabrication units are housed.
Armed with blueprints developed in SolidWorks, the students used laser cutters and 3D printers to fabricate most of the materials and components used to build their racers. As the students described it, hours upon hours over the summer were spent in the Fab Lab testing and retesting prototypes.
“The Fab Lab was our second home,” said Ngoc Pham, a sophomore Mechanical Engineering major who competed in Formula E with a racer dubbed “The Raptor.”
“I still smell rubber bands once in a while,” added Andres Martinez, Pham’s teammate.
“Every day, lots of drawings, lots of SolidWorks, so many parts,” Mendoza added.
One of the primary guidelines of the competition is that all the materials used to make the vehicles must be accessible and readily available, Martinez said. There are no budget restrictions, and some of the more fully funded teams spent hundreds – even thousands – of dollars on developing multiple prototypes.
PCC’s team had no real budget, and a lot of the materials came from whatever the college had housed in the Fab Lab. And with the strain of the rigorous testing, many of the components broke.
But instead of buying new ones, the students would repurpose and “recycle” old components.
“The idea was to get the highest performance out of the least expensive materials,” Pham said.
To prep for this year’s event, the DTP contingent split themselves into seven teams, each with their own single entry. Pham and Martinez paired up with two other students – Charles Ngo and Carl Nartia – to form Team Raptor. Their entry was composed mostly of 1/8” plywood, nylon and metal screws, foam tires, and delrin plastic – a high-performance, reasonably inexpensive material used for mechanical applications. The students used the Fab Lab’s 3D printer to fabricate components for the vehicle’s suspension system.
Team RCTK, a duo made up of Mendoza and classmate Christian Robles, used cheaper materials as well. Most of Track King is composed of plywood. Although the drive train is made out more expensive carbon fiber, Mendoza had to create a GoFundMe account to raise money just to pay for it.
One Chinese team apparently didn’t have the same funding issues; they had fabricated their racer completely out of aluminum and machined carbon fiber, which costs roughly $16 a pound.
“My philosophy is that you don’t have to spent a lot of money, but still have a great car,” said Edgar Vivanco, one of three members of team Black Mantis. Instead of using carbon fiber, Vivanco’s racer employed wooden dowels, which cost about .80 cents a piece.
The Black Mantis, which Vivanco astutely describes as a “differential vertical drive model,” was also based on a prototype design from last year’s class. Essentially, the problems that plagued the previous design were reworked and resolved for this year’s Mantis.
“I’m proud of how they used their previous knowledge and skills throughout the design process to build and test their vehicles and show up on race day with a working design that held their own,” said Sandy Lee, Engineering and Technology and DTP instructor.
“The knowledge these students gain every year in the program informs the next group,” Bird added. “It’s really important to emphasize that the students are solving the problems effectively and elegantly. Just because you can use higher-priced items doesn’t mean it’s always better.”
The Formula E races take place on Art Center’s campus. Named after popular student-trafficked areas, they include the Sinclair Hill Climb, Ashtray Alley Drag, and the Sculpture Garden Flats. One driver is required to pilot the car through a remote control, and each race has several qualifying heats.
On race day, PCC’s team went up against several undergrad and graduate teams. Even professionally backed industry teams came out to compete, including one from Mattel and another from Hot Wheels.
The Far-East contingent raised the most eyebrows, observers said. Several design and technology schools from China were represented at Formula E, and they came fully prepared. In fact, the Chinese students had built their own track in Beijing, modeling it after Art Center’s own tracks.
The other teams were just as intimidating. There was the Hot Wheels’ entry, which was machined out of carbon fiber and reportedly cost around $2,000 to build. Art Center also had a home team of experienced graduate students who knew the course.
If there was a great equalizer, though, it was the mandated, 16-foot “linguine” rubber band required to power each car. To achieve forward motion, the rubber band is bundled onto a rod housed in the racer’s drive train. The rod is then wound clockwise with a power drill.
How fast your car goes depends on how many loops are created with the rubber band. More loops create more torque, but power is lost in longer races. Conversely, shorter loops won’t make your car go as fast, but you’ll last longer on the course.
The energy stored by the wound-up rubber band is tremendous. Once unleashed, the cars can go up to 30 miles per hour, according to Lee. With that in mind, the courses not only test the skills of the driver, but the durability of the cars.
“Even if you hit a slight bump just a tiny bit, your steering will go off,” Lee said. “Cars sometimes spin out. Others just flip over, crash and break apart.”
Mendoza had his own challenges as well. Track King was built just a week before the race and had some serious suspension issues. “The rims on the car kept falling apart the night before the race. So I couldn’t sleep.
“It was kind of scary going on a track with a car that has a new feel and sensitivity,” he added. “The rims were never tested, but they ended up working out well on race day.”
So well that he and teammate Robles finished second by only a couple of milliseconds to Team Dream, a group of students from Beijing Technology and Business University whose full carbon fiber and aluminum car topped the Sinclair Hill Climb.
The Corvette-inspired, 14-inch linear drive train on Track King had helped immensely, Mendoza said. He had initially used a wooden drive train, but later replaced it with carbon fiber to withstand the compression force of the spinning rubber band.
He had also developed “crush points” on Track King. If the car had a sudden, front-end impact, the front clip assembly (the steering, wheels, and suspension components) would simply slide back on the chassis to absorb the force.
Moreover, the car’s inventive, in-wheel floating suspension system, which Mendoza said he dreamed up one summer day, also helped. “When some cars hit a bump, they’d get air and crash. When we ran over a bump, the suspension would just absorb impact and never lose traction.”
RCTK’s second-place finish on the uphill climb was somewhat of a surprise. But Track King’s championship run on Figure 8 exceeded everyone’s expectations. One observer noted: “They just came out of nowhere.”
Art Center’s Sculpture Garden Flats is a narrow track with multiple turns, all of them 90 degrees. At 322 feet, it’s the longest of all three courses. It’s also riddled with obstacles and bumps.
All that didn’t matter, though. Team RCTK clocked in an official time of 19.48 seconds, nearly breaking the Figure 8 course record of 19.19 seconds.
Nobody else in the competition, including industry teams that competed in the professional division, broke the 20-second barrier on Figure 8.
“My family and relatives were all there,” Mendoza said. “I had butterflies in my stomach because this was really important to me.”
At the end of the day, Team RCTK hauled in one track and two design awards: the Figure 8 trophy (which came with a $1,000 check the two teammates split), the Gensler Association Design Innovation Award, and Disney Imagineering “Moonshot” Award.
“My mom screamed when I won the Disney award,” Mendoza said. “She’s a big Disney fan.”
Team RCTK also finished second, by just one point, in the Best-in-Show category. The award is given to the team that finished with the most points (points are also given for each race) at the end of the day.
Team Black Mantis fared well, too. The squad composed of students Arthur Espinosa, Jason Wang, and Vivanco took home the Mattel Hot Wheels “Powerhouse” award for their entry.
“Bragging rights,” Vivanco proclaimed.
Beyond the Track
For Pham, Formula E turned out to be a transformative experience. “At first, I knew nothing about cars. I didn’t know all the terms – it was really overwhelming in the beginning.
“At the end, I pretty much got it,” she added.
Pham’s teammate, Nartia, had a similar experience. He had engineered the entire suspension system for the Raptor, something he had never done before.
“I am so proud of the students,” Lee said. “Regardless of any awards, I am proud that they were able to work together in effectively diving into the unknown – ultimately learning new concepts, skills, and facing real project challenges.”
As for Mendoza, the creative genius behind the Track King, his future got a whole lot brighter after Formula E. At the end of the day’s competition, toy giants Hasbro and Spin Master approached him with the discussion of possible internships.
“I’m just waiting for the phone call,” he said.
And Mendoza has already mapped out his entire academic future and beyond. After PCC, he has his eyes set on three top automotive engineering schools: Purdue, Michigan State, and the University of Michigan.
It’s not a coincidence the latter two schools happen to be in the same state that General Motors headquarters calls home. “I want to work for GM one day. That’s my dream,” he said. “I’d love to work for their Corvette division.”
Not a coincidence as well: the designer of the game-changing 1963 Corvette Sting Ray, Larry Shinoda, went to PCC.
“Wow,” Mendoza said, beaming. “I didn’t know that.”
Which, in some regards, would be a first.
For more information about PCC’s Design Tech Pathway program, visit www.pasadena.edu/designtech.