Montreal—To most people, the name Ferrari stands for some of the most beautifully functional and functionally beautiful machines on the planet. But to mechanical engineering undergraduates at McGill University, “Ferrari” now stands for something else: helping the renowned Italian carmaker solve a design problem. Students wait in line for the chance.
McGill’s relationship with Ferrari started in 2005, when the firm’s Innovation Design team asked five universities around the world to nominate students for year-long internships. McGill, in Montreal, was one of the schools chosen. Two mechanical engineering undergraduates, Gaurav Gupta and Paolo Gatto, were sent off to Maranello, Italy, to work on new developments at Ferrari’s GT division.
As Assistant Professor Damiano Pasini stayed in touch with Ferrari during the year to see how the two interns were faring, he came up with the idea of offering a similar experience to McGill students in Montreal. He would develop a course that challenged students to solve real problems Ferrari had encountered in designing its cars. The result was a proposal for three design projects that would form the backbone of two six-week interdisciplinary design courses offered consecutively in the summer of 2006. The courses had first been proposed the previous year by Engineering Design Chair Jorge Angeles. Pasini figured that the Ferrari-based projects made an ideal choice for the inaugural offering. The first course took the students as far as creating their own feasibility study; in the second, they were asked to come up with a prototype of their design.
One problem Ferrari was wrestling with was Obstruction Feedback—how to alert drivers changing lanes and parking that other cars are too close. Ferrari already used audio signals that warned of approaching objects, but found that audio can prove too distracting to a driver. The final McGill proposal consisted of vibrating coin-sized motors located beneath the surface of the driver’s seat. When an object is detected by the ultrasonic sensors, the specific motor corresponding to that sensor will vibrate, indicating the location of the danger. The frequency of the vibrations increases as the vehicle’s proximity to the obstacles increases.
The success of these courses whetted Pasini’s appetite for something more elaborate. In September 2006 he got in touch with Ferrari. “I asked them whether they would be interested in getting involved and providing a project,” says Pasini. ”They said sure.” At Christmastime, Pasini visited Italy. He had grown up there, earning Master’s degrees in Civil and Architectural Engineering at the University of Pavia before completing his Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering at Bristol University. In Maranello he met with Ferrari engineers Antonio Calvosa and Amadeo Visconti and hammered out the details of McGill’s Mech 393 Machine Element Design course—part of the core curriculum for mechanical engineering at McGill.
The project Ferrari provided was to design a foldable bike that would fit in the trunk of one of its sports cars. The stipulations were precise and demanding. The folded bike could not exceed 30x60x80 centimeters, the force required to fold the bike could not be more than 6 kilograms, and assembly time could take no more than 15 seconds. The design had to strike “a delicate balance between emotions and performance, without overlooking comfort and controllability.” Tack on demands like “creative, innovative, and aesthetically pleasing” and you have some idea of what the students faced.
Lectures and Tests
As Pasini points out, Mech 393 was not just a project-based course. “The goal of the course was to teach students about general machine design. There were lectures, assignments, tutorials, and two tests, in addition to the Ferrari project.” He adds, “I needed a mechanical component that consisted of different elements so they would learn how to design those elements. The Ferrari project helped them learn how to design gears, bolts, shafts, springs, and other components under static and variable loading.”
Again, the Ferrari mystique worked its magic in attracting students. “It was a neat idea,” says third-year engineering student Andrew Laughton. “A lot of projects you get are academic exercises. It was nice to know that our ideas might be of help to a company—especially a company like Ferrari, which has such a great name.”
This time Ferrari was involved in the course from the beginning. Each week during the course, the students, who worked in groups of five, could submit questions to Calvosa. “This was crucial to the student’s progress,” says Pasini, “especially for the first month and a half when there were many e-mail interactions with Ferrari to clarify various issues.” Halfway through the course, students had to provide a preliminary proposal, which Ferrari examined and commented on. This counted for 10 percent of the student’s term mark. The project itself counted for 30 percent plus 10 percent for a presentation.
“It was certainly more work coordinating the project than teaching a standard course, but it was well worth it, especially when you see how much the students enjoyed it,” Pasini says. “They found it more work, too, but I didn’t hear anyone complain,” he adds with a smile. When the course was finished, Calvosa and Visconti e-mailed all the students and praised “the creativity and rational thinking that all the groups have shown.” No word yet on whether Ferrari will end up using any of the McGill designs, but as Pasini points out., “the students were challenged by a real-world application that encouraged them to see the usefulness of what they were learning. The experience ended up being exciting and worthwhile because Ferrari triggered their motivation.”
Pierre Home-Douglas is a freelance writer based in Montreal.