Starting early pays off

Trainees become design engineers of electric vehicles

Racing fever has hit Rheinmetall Automotive. The staff parking lot at the Neckarsulm plant has been transformed into a mini autodrome overnight. Pup tents and a workshop truck line the track. Alongside are the pit box positions of five small but quick-to-accelerate electric vehicles, to which the various young design engineers are busily putting their finishing touches in preparation for the race.

A start and finish line with a velocity indicator complete the image of a drag relay demanding to be mastered. 280 trainees of the automotive supplier encircle the course, roaring cheers for their individual teams at the drop of the starter’s flag. Everything began a good half a year ago when the company announced the race competition to its trainees, thereby also bringing the subject of new drive technologies into focus for its young employees. With a budget of 2,500 EUR each, their task was to develop and build a fully functional race car with an alternative drive in only a few months. At the German national trainee day, now hosted for the fifth time, they were then supposed to test their mettle in a drag race. This challenge drew plenty of takers: in total, five teams from Berlin, Neckarsulm, Neuss, Papenburg, and St. Leon-Rot entered the race.

Clear rules

The young design engineers were able to let their creativity run free in the project, but had to observe precise guidelines regarding necessary safety requirements. At the same time, the shape of the vehicle bodywork and the applied material could be freely chosen. However, the vehicle dimensions were subject to a size limitation. Guidelines also governed the chassis frame: in addition to a floorboard and pneumatic tires of variable size, front-wheel steering had to be installed. The mandatory braking system was also supposed to withstand repeated brake applications.

As in real racing sport, drivers of course had to wear helmets. Moreover, the vehicles were only allowed to drive at a maximum of 25 km/h, which was controlled by a speedometer panel. High standards were also set for the energy storage system, which had to be designed to last for the entire race because switching batteries was not allowed.

High demands

“We’re of course aware of the challenges in the planning,” says Werner Böckle, Senior Vice President of Human Resources at Rheinmetall Automotive, “but this is how our trainees learn to take responsibility for handling the project in a team and completing it on time – in addition to the purely technical contest involving electric vehicles.” The self-built electric vehicles presented subsequently came about through meticulous preparation, though things did not always run smoothly. As Robert Hüsken, student apprentice responsible for the chassis frame on the Niederrhein team, summed it up: “You only realize all the things that can go wrong and learn how to collaborate with people effectively and well during the actual work.” The project was thus a meaningful experience for him.

In the end, everyone came out as winners

In the final race, the five teams needed to complete a short 100-meter-long track. The vehicle was turned around at the end points and then it was time to switch drivers. That allowed each team member to drive along the raceway themselves and navigate the team vehicle under race conditions. At the end of the time trial, the trainees and student-apprentices from Pierburg in Neuss came out on top, whereby however everyone unanimously agreed that every team profited from the challenge. “Our advantage also lay in constructing the auto in a way that allowed the driver to get in and out quickly,” Simon Rambow summarized. The mechatronics engineer in his second year of apprenticeship was responsible for the drive development for the Niederrhein team. Furthermore, intensive preparatory training also proved to be an advantage and saved the winning team precious seconds.

Not only the performance of the construction was creative, but also the presentation

However, winning the drag race was not the sole factor in determining the overall result. Teams were also evaluated on the presentation of the project, technical implementation, and design quality of the vehicle, as well as general teamwork and internal organization. 

The teams also demonstrated a high degree of creativity in their presentations. Introductions of participants and vehicles were peppered with special effects and video messages, while the poetry slam composed by André Dao drew special attention. In his “Autobiography,” he described how the project unfolded and the moment of the initial start from the point of view of the race car, named “Alfred” after the founder of Pierburg: “… Can you all still remember how it was driving for the first time? My driver and designer, still in rage mode, sat inside me … all eyes were on us, everyone excitedly held their breath … attention, physicist’s joke: the ‘tension rose’ … and in fact … the chain popped off. The second attempt ran smoothly … well, not entirely – I still had to accelerate and brake… But during my second maiden voyage I felt like Lightning McQueen from ‘Cars’ and like I was the Flash among the dragsters.”

CEO honors the victor

Rheinmetall Head of Automotive Horst Binnig then also insisted on personally presenting the prize cups. As the CEO put it: “I am thrilled by the dedication and consistency our trainees showed in applying themselves with this campaign. Moreover, the race is good preparation for the future changes in drive technology. It instilled the right mindset in our still very young employees for the technical challenges they will face in the coming decades.”