Caterpillar Baja competition will ‘keep driving until the wheels fall off’

EDWARDS — The Clemson University team arrived this week at the Caterpillar Demonstration and Learning Center with a prototype designed for road — or lack of road, to be more precise — and driver.

The six-member engineering team from the South Carolina school spent the academic year designing and building a single-occupant off-road Baja vehicle that can withstand the rigors of an endurance test that kicks off Saturday morning at the sprawling Caterpillar Inc. facility in Edwards.

More than 100 teams from throughout the United States and beyond — one traveling from as far as India — undertook the same project to compete this week in the annual event that provides real-world experience to students and, potentially, students with valuable skill sets to an employer that can put them to work.

“It’s critical for our people, for Caterpillar, to have these skills,” said Caterpillar Chief Technology Officer Jean Savage, who kicked off the opening ceremony of the Baja SAE Illinois competition Wednesday. “We’ve got to find a way to get kids excited and interested to get into these fields.”

To that end, Caterpillar has sponsored the Illinois competition for several years, building the course on the demonstration center grounds using the expertise of its equipment operators and assisting throughout the event.

Bryan Wiggers, one of the Clemson team members, said his group designed its vehicle with clearance in mind for a specific uphill, boulder-strewn obstacle on the custom-designed endurance course.

The Clemson students also made the prototype as light as possible, with a 10-horsepower engine, to prioritize acceleration over top speed and make maneuvering the vehicle as easy as possible. That aspect of the design also reduces driver fatigue for the hours-long endurance tests.

“It’s about integrating the car with the driver,” Wiggers said.

Doug Patton, president and chairman of the board for SAE International (also known as the Society of Automotive Engineers), said the practical needs of the competition allow for that type of conclusion.

The Baja SAE project fosters a range of abilities that students will need as professionals, from design and engineering principles to communication with team members and outside entities such as sponsors, he said.

“This is the greatest competition for teaching these skills,” Patton said. “This is what they didn’t get in school, the hands-on experience.”

Taking the prototypes to their limits, over rough terrain peppered with puddles and up near-vertical hills with the massive Cat excavators that shaped the course parked at the top of the precipice, promises to be fun, too.

Charlie Menke, Caterpillar’s machine development manager who helped organize this year’s event, put it this way: “The cars just keep driving until the wheels fall off.”

by Matt Buedel


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