The Story of our life... for now
by Janith Petangoda (Technical Director 2015-2017)
I’ve been thinking quite a bit about what I should write in this blog, asking the question of how I can best represent a 2 year adventure I have taken with this team and project. I've come to the conclusion that the best course for this blog is perhaps to recount some of its history, the triumphs and mishaps, the victories and misadventures; I think I have a unique perspective of the team, having witnessed it from its conception to the end of what I believe is its first phase, and I wish to note it for the sake of history, and hopefully a good read.
Those of you who have found the easter egg hidden by the creator of our website, David Scott (hint: try tying the name of the team as a URL) will know that the idea for the team was conceived by Kafi and myself while on a train back from Leeuwarden (where he and I gave a presentation on our wind turbine at the Small Wind Turbines competition) to Rotterdam (where we were staying). That journey marked the end of our term working on the EWB Wind Turbine project, and we were excited to talk about what project we would be taking up the following year. We were both interested in the engineering of cars; our first project was to build an electric go-kart, and the decision to ‘take this idea seriously’ and to ’see it through’ was what enabled us to incept SEM.
What is interesting to me was that what happened train journey was happenstance. My passage on that train was merely a conclusion of the reluctance of most of the other members of the team to accompany Kafi on the trip; perhaps without this coincidence, SEM might not have been. I am not quite sure about my stance on fate, or Destiny, but this almost felt like it meant to be.
Fast forward a few weeks before the end of summer and we had spent many a day in coffee shops discussing the main goals of our new project, what the project would stand for, how many people we would need and how we would structure the team. At this point, the discussions were mainly done under the assumption that we would be building a go-kart. We knew that we wanted to enter a competition because that would make it easier for us to get sponsorship and backing from the University and other external companies if necessary. Initially, Kafi found the Racing Aeolus competition, where teams built cars that had wind turbines attached to them to provide at least part of the energy required. I wasn’t too keen on entering this, mostly because I felt that the core technology that we would focus on was similar to our previous project; luckily, while searching for other competitions, we came across the Shell Eco Marathon. This was perfect! A big competition, that focussed on innovative and creative design to produce the world’s most efficient vehicles? What could be more ideal? The style of the competition meant that even though the basic requirements needed to get a car that could compete in it were quite simplistic, the engineering prowess and ingenuity required to be competitive in it was great; a game that is easy to pick up, but difficult to master.
We immediately sent out emails to everyone in the Faculty of Engineering, and the Departments within it that we thought could help us get started. We were so excited that the silence became unbearably loud. Had we said something wrong? Were we deluding ourselves about how interesting this project sounded? Were people simply not interested, or were they too busy? Turns out it was none of these things (maybe the last one), and the silence was simply so that some internal gears in the Faculty could be turned so that when we met Dr Tom Slatter, he could tell us the good news. Never mind the fact that we were meeting with Tom Slatter, an academic who works closely with Sheffield Formula Racing (an inspiration to us), nor the fact that he could probably talk to us about all cars that SFR had build (again, SFR were a huge inspiration to us); we left that meeting with him probably the most excited we had been as far back as we could remember for reasons other. We had just been told that the Mechanical Engineering department was very interested in our project, and that the Faculty of Engineering was to provide a seed fund of quite a lot more money that we thought we would ever get to get us started.
From this point on, we were moving as fast as we could to start the project. We recruited a few of our close friends who we had worked successfully with before, and with them, we started our first application round to recruit the remaining members we would need. This was a very interesting moment for us, as we got to experience first hand what recruiters go through while carrying out selection processes for university and job applications. It truly is a difficult job to have to select from a lot more suitable and exceptional applicants than we would possibly need and to turn them down. While this was happening, Kafi and I were also applying for the competition that year, and for seed funding from Shell. For me, this was a very distinctive experience because I think it was one of the few times that I truly knew the answers for questions such as ‘What does the team stand for’ and ‘What measures are taken to ensure that the goals of the team are met’; this was a project that I had helped started and was therefore one I was (and still am) truly passionate about, and so the answers to the questions that we were asked came easily. Quite funnily, the initial name we applied for the team was Sheffield Alternative Motorsports because I wanted to name the car SAM; this was changed at the first opportunity an alternate name was thought of.
Having successfully carried out the recruitment process, and having sorted out preliminary details of how the project would be managed, we started having our regular meetings with the team. At the beginning, as one would expect, we were quite undirected. I remember attempting to carry out an optimisation task analytically for perhaps the first semester since the inception of the team; I now know that this problem is significantly more difficult than I let on then, and that it was probably a waste of time, as the actual technology required to implement the result of that optimisation is much more complicated than we need at the present stage of the project (where we simply need a car that works). There was a lot of reading, and theoretical discussion at the time, as none of us had undertaken a project of this nature previously; we had many ad hoc meetings with our lecturers seeking advice and guidance about how we should proceed. In fact I think some of them were quite annoyed at how many times we knocked on their doors. However, by the end of our first year, we had learned and adapted to the sciences and processes we needed to know about and implement to get our car built, and we were a lot more focused.
The start of the second year however, was not as smooth as we would have wanted. Due to massive renovations in the Faculty of Engineering, and the lack of project space that resulted from it, we were unable to find space to work on our car. At this stage of the project, we had hoped that we could finalise our designs and commence the manufacturing and production stages of our life cycle, but we couldn’t do this without lab space. Throughout the first semester of that year, David (our new Team Principal - he took over from the newly graduated Kafi) and I (I kept my role as the Technical Director) were constantly approaching and meeting different individuals trying to find some nook and cranny we could find to do our work. The trouble was that due to the nature of our chassis design, and the materials we were using, we needed a large open space, and the University was in short supply of this. Thus for the most of the first semester, we couldn’t really do much of the work we had hoped to.
It was during our Winter Break that I suggested to David whether we could do the work at his garage. He said that his garage was big enough, and that we would have the tools we would need. Up to about 4 members of our team spent about 3 weekends (and some weekdays) at his house doing very dirty work in the garage. I think the highlight of those trips, I’m sure everyone who was involved would agree, was the loving hospitality of David’s mother. She took us into her lovely home, and fed us the best home cooked food I’ve had during the 4 years I’ve been in UK.
I think that it is worth mentioning at this point that this last year of my time with the team was when I most regret my actions regarding it, or the lack thereof. Due to some advice about what my role with the team should be, I became quite confused about what exactly I should be doing. This led me to becoming quite disconnected with the team; in hindsight, I think that the appropriate course of action that I should have taken was apparent to me, but I confident in my ability to do it. I think that this lack of competent leadership from my part could have caused a downfall of the team, if it hadn’t been for the actions of my close friend and perhaps an inspiration (don’t tell him I said this) Chatura, this would have been the case. Chatura was the head of the technical systems (that is all parts electronic and controls), and he essentially took up what my role should have been and guided both his team, and even some of the mechanical teams to where they needed to be. In particular, his, and his team’s engineering prowess and excellence designed, built and tested a bespoke motor driver and battery management system; he even guided the design of a custom motor, and organised the route to its materialisation.
Even with this however, we weren’t able to compete in the competition this year because the competition fell right in the middle of our examination period. As such, by the end of the official year, we only had our electrical drive system build. We were quite ready to give up at this point, seeing as the competition had already been passed, and it really wasn’t possible for us to build a substantial portion of the car, or so we thought. At our last meal as a team, Chatura told me about how Dr Luke Seed was expecting something to showcase at the EEE Centenary Celebration in about 5 weeks, and how he didn’t want to keep a sign saying ‘This space was left intentionally blank’ where we were meant to be. Now we couldn’t have that could we, and so I quickly devised a ‘lets see if we can get at least this much in a month’ design and plan. Keep in mind that after that meal, everyone except for Chatura and myself were to leave Sheffield, and we would have to do everything ourselves, and by everything I mean quite literally everything (well except for the electronic parts, and male moulds for the chassis).
And thus began the hardest 5 weeks of work I’ve ever experienced.
Chatura and I had to do research on how female moulds for a carbon fibre were to be made such that the carbon fibre would come out nice and smooth; we had to look at how carbon fibre was to be wet layed; we had to walk about 25km around Sheffield talking to different bike shops to find suitable wheels for the car, and for advice on how a steering and wheel system should be attached and loaded. We had to rewrite some of the code for the motor driver, we had to design against the vibration characteristics of the motor. Most difficult of all, we had to do all that was necessary in much less time than what a project such as this would have been advised to be done in. This meant that we had to plan very meticulously; at some points, our schedules had to be organised to the precision of 30 minutes. We were collecting 10km walks every day each merely by walking between the different buildings. We learned a lot about how people, time and resources are to be managed; there were moments when we quite literally felt like we were living in a sitcom, where every day (or episode) ended with a plot twist that made ours lives harder (but more enjoyable to the onlooker). I kid you not, the day after we had finalised the risk assessments for the space we were to work in, the day we planned on starting our work was also the day we found that very space, which was available the previous day covered with construction workers who told us that that space is going to be used for their work for the next 7 - 8 months.
As hard and difficult as all that might have sounded, I think that I can most definitely say that the moment when I saw the perfect (at least to me) electric blue carbon fibre come out of its mould (think of it like a butterfly, breaking out of its cocoon) was perhaps the most accomplished and, just satisfied I’ve ever felt. To be able to say that I was a part of having built that, and to be able to know that this was done (partly) by me makes me very proud of what we had accomplished. Of course, we had a lot of help from a lot of people, a lot of whom took time out of their normal working times to help us. I would like to say to Luke Marsden, Dr Luke Seed, Prof Patrick Fairclough, Prof Nick Monk, Dianne Webster, Dr Kevin Jackson, Big Dave, Little Dave, Karl and Clive that we couldn’t have done it without you, and that we wish to thank you for all your help. They are perhaps some of the best people (please don’t mind my logical fallacy here, I’m being emotional) I have met here, as they helped us solely out of sheer interest (and perhaps sprinkled with a little bit of pity) in us and what we were doing. Thanks should also be given to the Mechanical Department (Prof Rob Dwyer-Joyce, Dr Tom Slatter and the members of the Civ / Mech Finance team - Harry, thanks for putting up with our incessant ordering schedules), the ACSE Department (Stacey Mottershaw, you were a great source of help to us!) and the Faculty of Engineering.
I think that I would like to end this very long piece by saying that the biggest thing that I have learned from this experience is that if you have an idea that you truly believe in, you should stop at nothing to bring that idea into reality; I know that the path will be hard and perhaps seemingly non-existent, but I think that my experience with SEM has consolidated the idea that where there is a will, there will be way. And trust me when I say that when you see the fruits of your hard labour, it will most definitely be worth it, and you will find that you will not mind working as hard, or even harder the next time. And with that, I want to pass on the burden of being the narrator of this to Chatura. As I said before, he is the reason that the team is where it is now; he held it together when the pieces simply seemed to want to fall apart. For that, I humbly wish to present him with the last word: