Guest Blog: Taking on the design challenge

Back in May, a team from the University of Sheffield took part the Institution for Mechanical Engineers’ (IMechE) Design Challenge and won the regional heat.

The group of first year mechanical engineering students were tasked with building an electric vehicle that could climb a copper pipe, and all for under £25.

Elliot Morley, one of the team of five that took part from Sheffield, shares more about the experience of competition and how the group is looking forward to the finals in London later this year.

The University of Sheffield IMechE Design Challenge Team 2019 with David Polson and Prof Neil SimsOn the 2nd May 2019, I was part of the team that won the IMechE Design Challenge in Yorkshire after hundreds of hours of work. It was a learning experience that grew from a single email advertising the challenge – and led to a prize!

The challenge itself was to design and build an electric vehicle that could climb and descend the outside of a 15mm copper pipe while carrying a chain, and as fast as possible.

It also had to cost less than £25, meaning we could afford a motor and batteries, with the spare pennies buying us a little bit of luck.

Alongside the vehicle, we also had to create a poster and presentation to showcase our concept, with judging from both officials and fellow competing students.

Design and Build

Although the regional competition took place in May, we actually started work in February, gathering together our team of first year mechanical engineering students. This included myself, Kyle Wright, James Tarver, Pierfrancesco Tron and Ciaran Wrigglesworth.

Once we had our team organised, we set to work designing and building our vehicle. It would only take a week or two of work… or so we thought!

In the end, our early work on the project took much longer than anticipated. Making the pipe climber even stay on the pipe was a task in itself, with the pipe being the width of a thumb and no adhesives being allowed. The chain turned out to be heavy enough to cause problems, but light enough that our initial designs - based off moments to gain traction off the pipe - failed as fast as we thought it would climb. We had to go back to the drawing board.

This meant that we moved to a design that clamped itself to the pipe using rubber bands, with a basic circuit that would allow us to climb and switch direction at the top of the pipe. This worked, and we were elated, until we realised there was a time limit… that we didn’t meet. As we fell at the last hurdle, the climber fell too, but we realised this is the fastest way down! So our morale picked up again, as we were almost complete.

With an improved clamping mechanism allowing for a drop under gravity, we tested, we tweaked, and we finished. Our best time in testing was 47 seconds, and in the competition, we achieved 44.2 seconds.

This meant that we were not only the winners of the Yorkshire regional round, but the only team that could post a time and we won the presentations too!

Members of the Sheffield Design Challenge Team 2019 with their pipe climberLessons learnt

The first lesson we learnt taking part in the challenge, was that everything takes longer than expected. We originally expected to finish the project within a fortnight, before deadlines kicked in but, in the end, we were working until the morning we left for the regional heat in Leeds – two months more than we expected! Even though we did plan out what we would be doing, in the future we’ll know to give ourselves much more realistic deadlines.

The second lesson is that testing is incredibly important. The design was only finished a few days before the competition because we made sure to test and double test each iteration, finding what worked and what didn’t. Ideas mentioned in the initial brainstorming session were implemented months later, to varying degrees of success. By testing them prior to judging them, we were able to sort the wheat from the chaff and create our winning design.

The third lesson was to not over complicate things. Trying to sort out all problems at once with a single solution became a black hole for time, making the whole process take a lot longer than expected. Once we realised we had to keep it simple, everything became much easier to both think about and implement. Each part of our vehicle had a role, with no more and no less. This made tinkering and repairing much easier, a sweet relief when we initially couldn’t get traction during the competition!

The fourth and final lesson was that taking a break is sometimes the best thing to do. There were times when all the work became too much, and we started to burn out. It took us a moment to realise that we needed to take a step back and get a fresh perspective, and that doing this would let us get more work done in the long run. Had we not done that, I don’t think we would have been able to compete at the level we did.

On to London!

Now that we are slightly older and even more slightly wiser, we’re looking forward to the finals in London and hope to come home with a win.

We have a reliable design, and so the challenge over the summer will be to load more power onto the climber – and with more guidance and firm handshakes from David Polson, and the incredible reps and facilities at the iForge, we’ll certainly do our best and aim for the top spot!

All the very best of luck to Elliot and the rest of the team at the finals later this year!