How Lego became an engineering tool

Thursday, June 16, 2016

The Windsor Star/Chris VanderDoelen

Chad Vermeulen took a lot of ribbing from other Chrysler engineers three years ago for bringing his kids’ Lego set to work to test a minivan seat concept.

But it’s Vermeulen who’s getting the last laugh now: using Lego blocks to build scale-model auto parts has become such an accepted part of automotive design at the University of Windsor-Fiat Chrysler Automotive Research and Development Centre that patents have been filed based on some of the work.

“I can’t tell you what we’ve done because most of it is still secret,” Vermeulen said during a media tour of FCA’s research and development centre on Rhodes Drive. But his first design-to-Lego concept worked so flawlessly from the first real-world application, no one questions the use of the interlocking blocks anymore as an engineering aid.

“Children can use (Lego) to learn a lot,” says Vermeulen, who admits to playing with the iconic Danish toys well into university and adulthood. “But engineers can use them too.”
Vermeulen’s high-concept, low-tech design aid was one of the things FCA showed off Wednesday on one of the ARDC’s rare openings to the public for its 20th anniversary.

Premier Kathleen Wynne was also in town to announce grants of $85.8 million toward the company’s recent retooling and Pacifica launch.

Tony Mancina, head of the ARDC and Canada Engineering for FCA, said about $21 million of the money will be spent building a massive chassis and brake testing dynamometer that will conduct advanced tests for the company’s operations worldwide. So far the machine is just a large, empty concrete pit being readied for equipment that will make it a super-quiet anechoic chamber.

A big chunk of the Ontario grant money will be spent at the ARDC, where 180 people, most of them engineers or engineering students, toil away at testing — among many other things — vehicle corrosion, steering wheel durability, sound-deadening wheel well liners, and the durability of paints and plastics under Saharan-level sunshine.

In an environmental test cell, vehicles can be frozen rock solid at -40 C, or baked under 252 incandescent heat bulbs which simulate 30,000 watts of sunlight until all their steel, plastic and aluminum parts change shape.

Then they use a massive device called a “four-post shaker” to rattle the hell out of the car (or truck) to see what breaks, cracks or falls off.

“We TRY to break stuff,” engineer Jeff Duic said as he demonstrated a four-post road simulation, one of the ARDC’s six road test cells. FCA only has nine such full-size test chambers; the other three are at its tech centre in Auburn Hills, which with hundreds of smaller test cells and 9,000 employees is the real centre of the company’s R&D work.

In another room, robots put steering components through various torture tests. For one, engineers have created a simulation in which a 200-pound driver uses the steering wheel as a brace to lift themselves off the seat (many drivers actually do this to shift themselves for comfort). The test assumes these drivers will employ this manoeuvre eight times per day, every day for 10 years.

If the steering wheel design survives the fatigue test, they might use it in the market. If it doesn’t, someone gets sent back to the proverbial white board for a redesign.

The last time I was in the research centre more than a decade ago, there were a lot of empty desks in the central cube farm where most of the ARDC engineers work. This time most of the desks were clearly occupied, and a lot more research is taking place with a lot more technical hands on deck.

One of them is Anh Le, 36, a PhD mechanical engineer who graduated from the University of Windsor — which co-owns the ARDC — before spending two years at the National Research Centre in Ottawa.

Vietnam-born Le (pronounced Lee) came back to Windsor several years ago to become a contract employee running “system simulations” at the ARDC “because I like Windsor better.” Now, he’s full time. The father of two said he prefers the weather here and being within visiting distance of the U.S., but mostly, he wanted to work in an automotive and engineering-focused milieu rather than a government town.

Among the other things tested at the ARDC — and you can bet each component has a handful of engineers assigned: suspension parts, headlights (all FCA headlight work worldwide is done in Windsor), engine development, Sto ‘N Go seats, seat handles, and those silencer wheel well covers.

If you have an older car, the plastic liners of its wheel wells are probably smooth plastic; on the Pacifica they are now a heavily-textured, almost furry surface, to reduce road noise that might penetrate the cabin.

“People assume we know all these things,” said Mancina, a quiet-spoken resident of Lakeshore. “But we have to keep making advances. These are spreading throughout the industry now.”