Left Field Engineering

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The Doom Buggy Story

      During the development and use of the HROD project (a modified off road lawnmower), a few things started to stand out as big problems; the HROD was slow, could only sit 1 person, and your back hurt after each ride due to the lack of suspension.  One afternoon, I asked my good friend Chris if he though it would be worthwhile to put suspension in the HROD. His reply; “You’d be better off just building a whole new vehicle”. 

I dismissed the idea as impossible at first due to its obvious overwhelming size and complexity, but the seed was planted.

    

   Not long after that, with newly learned CAD skills, I started to draw up the “ideal” buggy.  We quickly set some must haves which, as Chris could tell you, at length, would come back to haunt us later like 18” ground clearance with 18” of suspension travel.  Naturally, after we saw the buggy modeled in 3D on the computer monitor we had to build it.  Something that cool couldn't possibly be left only in ink on paper or bits on a hard drive for the rest of our lives.


  For the next 3 years, Chris, Nate & myself worked on the buggy. The buggy project actually changed my college major; when the project started I was pursuing a B.S. in mechanical engineering, but it didn't take very long for me to realize that my niche was as an engineering tech.  I was much more oriented to the hands-on than the world of book-based engineering would allow.  Chris, however, was in his element with a TI-89 calculator and an equation rather than a welder and a lathe.
 
     As in the real world, I would do the initial design and then pass it off to Chris, who would analyze my design and tell me everything was wrong.  Of course Chris, an engineer at heart, would then suggest a number of possible solutions which would be theoretically ideal, but inevitably too difficult or expensive to make.  We would spend hours and hours, sometimes even days or weeks, going back and forth until a compromise could be found or one of us gave up.  This scenario didn’t happen once or twice - it happened hundreds of times.  Everything from the glorious goals of suspension travel & ground clearance to what color the final product should be.   Every detail was postulated, refuted, debated, and worked.
 
     This was not a battle of ego's - it was two friends/professionals using what skills each knew best to try to push the other farther and farther toward making something that both would be proud of.  Often overkill for the result - discussing for hours what color the a-arms should be? - but it demonstrates the thought put into every component.
 
     The project became more then just a buggy; it became an investment in knowledge and a quest to apply that knowledge.  Many parts had to be custom made, so I had to learn the skills required to fabricate each one.  This meant becoming a skilled designer,
machinist, welder, mechanic, and businessman.   I quickly learned to design parts which were easy to manufacture, seeing as I had to make them myself.   Anyone can design something on the computer, but designing a part that can be made is an essential skill that can be forgotten.

   

   Chris, a structural engineer, also took on a lot of self-teaching.  Chris knew more about mechanical engineering in 2 years of the buggy project than most mechanical engineers will by graduation.  Without doubt, Chris and his calculator are the glue which hold all my parts together.  Even while spending a summer thousands of miles away in Arizona, he would help me figure out buggy designs over the phone.  Chris’ ability to prove or disprove designs or ideas before actually making them became very important when the parts got more complicated & expensive.  You learn quickly that the result of an equation on a piece of paper cost a lot less than throwing a part in the trash when it fails.
 
     Nate, to sum it up, is our welder.  Though I welded a lot of the fame myself, Nate was always there to do the important stuff.  I would give him a print & a pile of tubing and a week later 4 perfect a-arms would come back.  Nate came through time and time again, fabricating all 8 a-arms, as well as countless other pieces used in the buggy.  He also had many contacts in the metal fab industry which helped us get parts laser or plasma cut which couldn’t have been made any other way.

      Another achievement in the buggy project was the discipline of documentation.  With any long term project you can’t possibly remember every detail or idea along the way, especially if you stop working on it for a month or so to study for finals.  We quickly realized that by keeping good notes and documenting our ideas, the amount of time that it took to get back into the groove when we stared again was greatly reduced.   We would also set pretty aggressive deadlines, which taught me how to schedule work in a short period of time.  This technique paid off big when I used it to organize my senior project class, which got us back on schedule and finished the project on time.
 
     I don’t have the time to go through every problem and solution we encountered during the project, but I can say one thing.  Chris and Nate would agree that even when a project looks to complicated, it's not.  When the problem looks unsolvable, it's not, and when you think it's finished, it's not.