NSWCPD engineer builds racecar to promote STEM

Story Number: NNS161222-17Release Date: 12/22/2016 11:38:00 AM
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By Joseph Battista, Naval Surface Warfare Center Philadelphia Division Public Affairs

PHILADELPHIA (NNS) -- In two months, Matt Malham converted a Barbie® Power Wheels Jeep® toy car into a G.I. Joe® themed miniature electric racecar capable of going 20 mph. He then raced it at the annual Power Racing Series held Oct. 1-2 at the World Maker Faire in New York City. Now he uses it as an example to students he mentors of how science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) can be fun.

Malham, a mechanical engineer and Quality Assurance and SUBSAFE Certification Branch head at Naval Surface Warfare Center Philadelphia Division (NSWCPD), was vacationing on a beach this summer reading Make magazine in search of a fun do-it-yourself project he could do at home in his spare time. Make magazine highlights affordable do-it-yourself projects like building your own Power Racing Series car for less than $500. Malham - intrigued by the Power Racing Series cars, which can be no longer than 62 inches, no wider than 36 inches, and propelled by a battery-powered electric motor - decided it was the perfect project for him to try.

"I'd never done anything like this before," said Malham. "I thought I could do it so I looked into it some more and decided to give it a try."

Malham enlisted the help of his son and Ray Lee, a coworker who worked on a similar project when he was a student at Rutgers University studying mechanical engineering.

"Matt is one of the most creative and enthusiastic people I know, so when he asked me for my help on designing his Power Racing Series car I did not hesitate," said Lee.

They procured a bright pink Barbie® Power Wheels toy car from a coworker whose daughter had outgrown it. They stripped it down to the basic frame and began the build.

"The easiest part for me was building the frame for the car," said Malham. "Early in my career I was able to take a welding class at a vocational school so I had some knowledge on how to put it together."

Even with confidence in his welds, he continuously tested the strength to ensure it would support the weight of his six-foot body frame.

Next, he focused on the wheels. He decided to go with front wheels that camber - slant slightly when turning to get better traction.

Malham said he, "did a lot of research on go carts and electric vehicles," before tackling the remaining elements of the racecar.

"To be honest, I was just trying to make a workable car," said Malham, who has worked at NSWCPD since 2000. "I told everyone I was going to do this so I felt I had to get it done."

He decided to go with a dead axle design to help meet the stringent timeline. This design calls for the motor to propel only one wheel. Malham said, ideally a live axle design - where the motor propels two wheels - is what he preferred and what he will use next time.

Finally, he put together the propulsion system - a battery powered electric motor using an electronic speed controller (ESC) to send the power to the motor. These items alone ate up more than $100 of the maximum $500 budget. Malham said he spent almost every penny of the $500 partly because he "fried" the first ESC due to incorrect wiring.

"I had some real moments of doubt," said Malham, a mechanical engineering graduate from Rutgers. "A few times I felt like there was no way to get it done."

With the support of his family and friends, he showed up the World Make Faire on Oct. 1. Maker Faire is part science fair, part county fair where tech enthusiasts, crafters, educators, tinkerers, hobbyists, engineers and others of all ages gather to show what they have made and share what they learned in the process.

The two-day Power Racing Series consists of a time trial, brake test, 35-lap sprint race, 45-lap sprint race, and a 75-minute endurance race, as well as the Moxie Challenge where teams earn points for creativity of their outfits, team name, inciting crowd participation, and team poster design. Malham said he did better in the Moxie Challenge than the actual races.

"I wasn't able to see the car in person until the actual race weekend," said Lee. "Although the car was not competitive with the top flight teams, I was amazed that it ran throughout the weekend without any breakdowns until the last endurance event. Considering all the other teams had months to build and test their cars, it is a testament to Matt's design and fabrication skills. I'm proud to have helped him on this project."

Malham said he plans to apply what he learned from the experience to his next build. For example, he learned that a motor from a commercial floor buffer powered by harvested batteries from a Nissan Leaf electric car should give him 65 amp hours of power - 35 more amp hours than his 2016 racecar.

"I was on cloud nine out there," he said. "I felt like a little kid racing around the track. Overall it was a very fulfilling experience."

He said the most rewarding part of the journey was when his son's teacher showed him, during a parent-teacher conference, an essay his son wrote about working with his dad on building a racecar.

"Ultimately, I'm hoping this experience gets my son more interested in STEM, as well as the kids I mentor through the outreach efforts at work."

NSWCPD provides research, development, test and evaluation, acquisition support, engineering, systems integration, in-service engineering and fleet support with cyber security, comprehensive logistics, and life-cycle savings through commonality for surface and undersea vehicle machinery, ship systems, equipment and material.

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For more news from Naval Surface Warfare Center Philadelphia Division , visit www.navy.mil/local/NSWCPD/.

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