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Focus on the Workforce: Automotive Engineering Program Ramps Up

By Bill Fetter
Hexagon Metrology Inc.
Elgin, IL
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In August 2009, Clemson University graduated its first class of automotive engineers with master's degrees. While advanced degree programs in automotive engineering are rare in the US, in Europe things are very different, as there are a number of automotive engineering degreed programs. This workforce development approach enables overseas automotive companies to access a pool of very qualified candidates for employment on a consistent basis. Clemson's unique new program is expected to provide new leaders to the US and international automotive industry.

Launched in January 2008, Clemson's automotive engineering program is the focal point of the Clemson University International Center for Automotive Research (CU-ICAR; Greenville, SC), a research campus where university, industry, and government organizations work collaboratively. Today, CU-ICAR has more than $200 million in partnership commitments that will directly fuel a knowledge base critical to the automotive industry. Located in the heart of NASCAR and motorsports country, the 250-acre campus is strategically located between Charlotte, NC, and Atlanta, GA. In addition to the master's program, this is where Clemson University offers the nation's only PhD in automotive engineering.

Due in part to the generosity of industry partners, the Carroll A. Campbell Jr. Graduate Engineering Center contains more than $10 million in facilities and equipment, such as a tire-coupled road simulator in an environmental chamber, a four-wheel chassis dyno in a semianechoic chamber, an engine dyno test cell, an electromagnetic compatibility chamber, and both stationary and portable metrology equipment. There are also four dedicated laboratories for studying design and development, systems integration, manufacturing, and vehicular electronics. CU-ICAR is a unique environment geared toward solving the most complex engineering problems facing the automotive industry. Local industry partners such as BMW, Michelin, and Timken are already reaping the benefits of applied R&D at CU-ICAR.

If well trained automotive engineers are in short supply, then experienced metrologists are also in that same category. Experts in the field will retire in the next decade at alarming rates. So interweaving measurement solutions and methodology into the CU-ICAR curriculum opens the door to real-world troubleshooting.

John C. Ziegert, Professor and Timken Chair in Automotive Design and Development, is making sure that CU-ICAR is taking a fresh approach to training students in the field. Ziegert started out at Pontiac in his first job out of college. He eventually moved on to the University of Florida (Gainesville), where he spent 17 years conducting research and developing fully automated measurement systems and equipment to perform high-precision dimensional metrology. Since joining the Clemson University faculty three years ago, he has focused his energies into developing an array of courses and building a precision metrology laboratory in a temperature-controlled room.

For portable measurement, data acquisition, and inspection processes, the CU-ICAR program uses a Romer GridLOK CMM system from Hexagon Metrology Inc. (North Kingstown, RI). This articulating arm technology is primarily utilized for in-situ 3-D measurement of large parts. The metrology solution includes a sevenaxis Romer Infinite articulating arm with standard probes, a scanner head, and the patented GridLOK "conical seat" location system. The articulating arm rests on a mobile base that can be moved easily around a chassis or car to acquire data inside, outside, and underneath the measured object. With a strong yet lightweight composite body, the CMM moves like a human arm due to its integrated counterbalance and patented infinite rotation. The arm has a measuring volume of 12' (3.7 m).

"The GridLOK system is critical for measuring something the size of a vehicle at roughly 8 x 15' [2.4 x 4.6-m]," states Ziegert. "One of the goals of a current research project is to measure the torsional stiffness of the body of a BMW X5, which is the twisting condition along the long axis of the body. Achieving a very high torsional stiffness in the chassis is really important for good vehicle handling, and BMWs are known for their superb handling. For example, if you are parking a vehicle with the right front wheel up on the curb, this condition puts a large twisting load on the car. If its stiffness is not high enough, the doors may not open or close. And believe it or not, there are expensive cars on the market right now with that condition."

Ziegert goes on to explain that torsional stiffness is traditionally measured on the bare sheetmetal body, an elaborate endeavor taking a long time to set up with multiple sensors. So far, there has not been a convenient way to measure stiffness with a fully assembled vehicle. This was a very good test for the GridLOK system. A vehicle was lifted and cement blocks were placed under the right front wheel and the left rear wheel. This balances the car on those two wheels and places no load on the other two wheels. This condition puts an enormous amount of torque on the body. Using the articulating arm, the student operators could reach under the hood, rear of the vehicle, on top of the shock towers, and measure how their relative positions changed from the normal position with all four wheels on the ground, and thus determine the amount of "twist" in the car's body.

CU-ICAR also has a fully controlled, programmable, stationary CMM for repeatable inspection tasks. But for conducting one-off measurements for experimental projects, the Romer arm is an important tool. "For this type of work, it's definitely an advantage to have an arm. You can get an idea, go measure it, and have your results in just a couple of minutes. On the other machine, you have to consider what you want to measure, how you are going to measure it, write an inspection program, and then finally, in the fullness of time, you get results," concludes Ziegert.

When the articulating arm was fully installed in February 2009, one student was sent to training to learn to use the system and PC-DMIS inspection software. The student has since trained an additional six other students. In the autumn semester, the use of the arm went up dramatically, with another 30 students learning the ropes. Because these engineers-in-training are not intimidated by technology, most are eager to get hands-on experience. Ziegert claims that this type of precision instrument is almost too easy to learn, and he must warn students that they need to handle the precision instrument with care and respect.

There is an undercurrent of metrology throughout the curriculum, but its application is a means to an end. The primary goal is problem solving, and understanding what tools you need to solve real-world issues. In the vehicle-testing course, Ziegert teaches a module on metrology. All students learn to use the articulating arm and conduct exercises such as measuring dimensions on a part, then comparing them with a nominal on a blueprint.

Similarly, all student engineers go through a vehicle-development process. During their two-year stint at Clemson, each incoming class of master's students experiences a full vehicle design, from market research to conceptualization to build and test. Throughout this program, their precision-measurement capability is an essential part of the learning process.

Ziegert explains: "I teach another course in suspension design during the year. The way an automobile wheel moves is predominately up and down. Because of the characteristics of the mechanism, as it goes up and down, it also cambers and steers right and left. The amount of this motion is a critical parameter in suspension design. The class will create a computational model of the motion of a typical vehicle suspension, and then compare it to experimental results. We hoist the car up on the lift and force the wheel to go up and down. The Romer arm is used to measure how the toe and camber angles change during the motion."

The CU-ICAR program continues to grow. As the school approaches its goal of 120 graduate students in the program, nearly 40 new students each year are learning to use and integrate metrology in the day-to-day work of designing and building new cars. The first 10 students, as mentioned earlier, graduated in August 2009. These engineers are in jobs with BMW, Michelin, Goodyear, and a software company specializing in simulation for the auto industry. One student has stayed on to join 35 others in the PhD program, which can take 3½–5 years to complete. The program at CU-ICAR is becoming an important building block for a more dynamic group of next-generation automotive engineers. And with today's economic climate, fresh ideas and a well-educated workforce are good medicine for today, tomorrow, and beyond.


This article was first published in the May 2010 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine. 

Published Date : 5/1/2010

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