Competitions are fertile ground for future engineers

  • 04-May-2009 01:21 EDT
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Professor Rizzoni and EcoCAR team members are working on the development of a hardware-in-the-loop model of the Ohio State EcoCAR plug-in hybrid-electric vehicle.

Graduate and undergraduate students enrolled in The Ohio State University’s college of engineering are—thanks in part to the school’s partnership with the Center for Automotive Research—exposed to a wide variety of real-world assignments. Through student competitions such as EcoCAR and Formula SAE; the U.S. Department of Energy and General Motors’ ChallengeX; and a number of OEM-sponsored projects, OSU students are taught a systems-engineering approach to solve complex mechanical problems.

Often, these challenges are similar to those faced by engineering departments at major OEMs. And with project funding from Honda, Ford, and General Motors, to name a few, partner companies view their involvement as an investment not only in the engineers themselves, but the future technologies these individuals will help develop.

“The most important product of these competitions are the people themselves,” said Dr. Giorgio Rizzoni, Director of the Center for Automotive Research at OSU. “The students who are graduating from these projects at B.S., M.S., and Ph.D. level, they all end up working in the auto industry in a variety of capacities. Some in product development, some in advanced engineering, some in R&D.”

Rizzoni, who has also been a professor of mechanical engineering at OSU since 1990, leads research teams focused on modeling, control, and diagnosis of automotive systems. He has seen the impact in the U.S. and abroad of students getting hands-on access to cutting-edge technology in a research setting and what it means for their career. As he explained, OSU embraced the value of competitions as a training ground for students many years ago, but mainly with an eye on how they could benefit undergraduate classes. A little over a decade ago, however, the school expanded that vision.   

“We were somewhat of an innovator back in 1996,” Rizzoni said. “During the first Future Car competition, we decided to include one or two of our graduate students in the program because some of the tasks that we felt were important—for example, developing a hybrid vehicle simulator—we thought were above and beyond what you could expect of an undergraduate student.”

Starting in 1998, OSU began to receive funding from the DOE to support graduate students, and they continued to receive fellowship support from major OEMs like Ford and Chrysler.

“So for us, graduate education has been an integral part of the process,” Rizzoni said. “The way we go about it is we recruit undergraduate students for the program as early as the freshman year, and we just follow them through their development.”

And, he added, with OSU’s curriculum and sponsored projects becoming more diversified over the past five years, students are starting to be recruited from beyond the automotive sector.

“Our graduates with expertise in hybrid vehicles and batteries are being hired very aggressively by Caterpillar and Cummins,” he said. “And there is no question that anything the students learn related to light-duty hybrid vehicles is absolutely relevant to the heavy-duty arena.”

With the off-highway industry expressing a strong interest in hybridization—and more specifically advanced battery technology—Rizzoni said the university and the center have increased the amount of research they do with these companies.

OSU graduates are well known in the industry for their skills in control systems design and development and system integration, he continued, pointing out that many graduate-level students go on to the off-highway industry to work on projects like combustion controlling diesels for control of exhaust aftertreatment systems.

“While the subject area sounds different, engine combustion vs. hybrid vehicles and batteries, in fact, the common thread is this system-integration concept,” Rizzoni said. “The idea is to train and educate students to think from a systems perspective, and the software tools that we use in many of our graduate courses [supports that thinking].”

Using state-of-the-art software is an integral part of OSU’s educational program—not only because it helps reinforce the school’s systems-engineering approach, but because it helps graduates easily transition from classroom to workplace. OSU relies almost exclusively on software from The Mathworks. MATLAB, which is a basic mathematical analysis software, is taught to students starting in their sophomore year.

“In the junior year, we begin to teach simulation methods,” Rizzoni added. “In fact, that’s the course I teach at Ohio State, ‘System Dynamics.’ We introduce simulation tools and we use Simulink to teach system modeling.”

OSU students also use packages that complement Simulink, such as Simscape environment, SimDriveline, and SimPowerSystems.

“Whether we use a target microcontroller or a more sophisticated type of system like a dSpace control development system, The MathWorks tools are capable of satisfying our needs,” Rizzoni said. “It’s actually fascinating how much the students like learning this. They really think that it’s phenomenal that they are able to go from simulation to real-time control code in a vehicle in a couple of simple steps.”

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