Design to fabrication: All in a weekend's work

July 24, 2008
By: Tim Heston

Two-tenths of a second is all it took.

In fact, that was more than enough time savings to trigger the 240 employees at Michael Waltrip Racing (MWR) into action. The high-profile NASCAR® racing team, based in Cornelius, N.C., just north of Charlotte, works fast. Earlier this month they found that some design changes for a new car made it about 2/10 of a second faster on the track.

We"re working to implement those changes over 56 cars. So now, all of a sudden it"s about how fast we can make these cars, said Dr. Eric Warren, the organization"s technical director. We"re constantly trying to shorten the build time here.

Warren made the comments Tuesday at an event co-sponsored by the racing team and waterjet machine-maker Jet Edge, St. Michael, Minn., and held at the MWR facility. Michael Waltrip Racing purchased a Jet Edge waterjet in March to speed component development as well as bring more component fabrication in-house.

Michael Waltrip, a two-time Daytona 500 winner, founded MWR in 1996 as a NASCAR Nationwide Series (formerly NASCAR Busch Series) team. It entered the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series (formerly NEXTEL Cup Series) in 2004. The organization has a 114,000-square-foot shop that sits adjacent to an 11-acre tourist destination for race fans called Raceworld USA. MWR drivers include Michael Waltrip, Dale Jarrett, David Reutimann, Michael McDowell, and Josh Wise. (Wise was there to greet fans attending yesterday"s event.) Altogether, shop employees build about 56 cars for the four drivers.

We"re really a miniature car manufacturer, Warren explained, but at the same time we race every week. And the pace of car development is just incredible. We"re constantly trying to increase speed [in the shop], so when we find developments, we can get them to the racetrack quicker.

As an example, a NASCAR rule change on a Friday may require a camber change on a certain suspension component. So the engineering team changes the design around the suspension requirement, altering the control arm and the control arm mount, which may involve cutting some brackets with the waterjet or myriad other processes. The new parts are installed on cars the following Monday, ready for the next race.

We see the problem, we find the solution, and have it documented on paper, all in the course of a weekend, Warren said.

Warren"s background may seem unusual for NASCAR, but as the sport changes, so do the people who work for it. When Warren entered the racing industry 11 years ago, he admitted that he never watched a race from beginning to end. He has an engineering Ph.D. and spent some years studying computational fluid dynamicshardly your NASCAR stereotype, but it"s the kind of technical background the high-stakes racing industry now craves. The engineer joined MWR late last year after several successful stints with other racing teams.

When Warren entered the field, NASCAR was very much trial and error, he said. Over the years racing teams evolved to use data acquisition systems, rapid prototyping techniques like stereolithography, and even robotics. In fact, Warren was instrumental in integrating robotics for a previous NASCAR team, and he"s considering the technology at MWR.

Here, it"s not about mass production, he said. It"s about speed once you pull the trigger.

The racing organization has given tours to various organizations, including those in the military. There have been several military organizations that have looked at how we respond to problems, he said, including how we rapidly change our manufacturing.

Indeed, such quick response may be a harbinger for what many shop floors can expect. It"s not just about how fast you can go; it"s also about how quickly you can stop on a dime, pivot, and run in the other direction. Here, the racing industry is leading the way.

Photo courtesy of Michael Waltrip Racing

Tim Heston

Tim Heston

Senior Editor
FMA Communications Inc.
2135 Point Blvd
Elgin, IL 60123
Phone: 815-381-1314