Lehigh University
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One-man improv band rocks in Detroit

One of the marks of a good engineer is the ability to improvise on the spot and fashion a solution in the face of adversity.

Vince Crossley, a senior mechanical engineering major, passed that test last month when he became the first Lehigh student ever to compete in SAE International's Micro-Truck Baja Design Competition.

Crossley's path to the national competition in Detroit contained almost as many obstacles as the tortuous SAE track itself. He entered the event as a one-man team, while his opponents fielded squads of four, five and even six students. The superior manpower enabled the other teams to build tracks and test-drive their trucks at their home colleges. Crossley had to wait until competition day to run his truck for the first time - on the SAE track.

Arriving at Detroit's Cobo Center, Crossley noticed that his truck's dimensions were typical - 17 inches long, 9 inches wide and 5 inches high. But the truck's ground clearance measured a scant inch. As a new contestant, Crossley had not known that, in addition to steep inclines, sandpits and rock fields, his truck also had to traverse a 5-inch-deep puddle of water. With no time to change his truck's dimensions, he applied a waterproof coating and hoped for the best.

To make matters worse, the Micro-Truck competition was held during SAE's 2005 World Congress in Detroit. Finding all the city's hotel rooms booked, Crossley and his father had to seek lodging across the Detroit River in Windsor, Ontario.

Crossley had one factor in his favor. He was the only contestant to fit his truck with an accelerometer that sensed how much the truck tilted when it navigated a jump and adjusted the motor to keep the truck from leaving the track. The accelerometer was controlled by a tiny computer processor, which Crossley programmed to read data from the accelerometer.

Crossley's truck also benefited from lightweight materials. Most of the chassis was made of carbon-fiber pieces that were precision-cut with the mechanical engineering and mechanics department's waterjet cutter.

When the competition was over, Crossley had won first place for best design in the "Unlimited Class," and fifth place, out of 25 trucks, for best performance. He would have achieved the fastest time, he said, but he was penalized five seconds when an SAE official had to nudge his truck back onto the track.

Crossley, who has assembled and raced radio-controlled mini-cars since he was in middle school, attributes his success at the SAE competition in part to the education he has received at Lehigh.

Last year, he took a course in mobile robotics taught by Duke Perreira, associate professor of mechanical engineering and mechanics, who advised Crossley as he prepared for the Micro-Truck race. This semester, Crossley is studying mechatronics, which combines electronics and mechanics, with Meng Sang Chew, associate professor of mechanical engineering and mechanics.

"Prof. Chew and Prof. Perreira are great teachers," says Crossley. "Their courses were really influential in helping me find out what I want to pursue."

Crossley also took part in Lehigh's yearlong Integrated Product Development (IPD) Program, in which teams of engineering, business and design arts students design, make and market products for industrial sponsors. Crossley's team designed a double diaphragm pump for Ingersoll Rand, replacing its air motor with a more effective electric motor. The device pumps powders as well as viscous liquids and is used in industry, wastewater plants, chemical plants, and paper and pulp mills.

"The mechanical engineering curriculum is really hands-on," says Crossley, "and that's what I like about it. I have had a design project every year."

Crossley's first hands-on project came during his freshman year in Engineering 3, a class that prepares students for the IPD program. Crossley's team was assigned to find a cheaper way of manufacturing a Segway Human Transporter, a battery-operated, scooter-type device that moves forwards and backwards and makes left and right turns in response to a rider's posture.

Crossley created his own hands-on project last year when he helped organize Lehigh's new co-ed sailing team and register it as a club sport. The team, which has 20 members, competed in six regattas, or meets, this year, usually finishing in the middle of the competition. Their goal is to raise money, buy a fleet of boats and keep them at nearby Lake Nockamixon.

Crossley will complete a B.S. in mechanical engineering this spring and a B.A. in design arts next fall. Afterwards he plans to attend graduate school. When he concludes his studies, he hopes to pursue a career either in the automotive field or in robotics or consumer electronics.

Posted on Thursday, May 05, 2005

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