Student Team Competitions: ISR 15 Part 2

Hello again,

In this post I will be continuing to talk about my trip to the International Submarine Races(ISR) this past June.  If you are interested to hear about the run up to competition and the journey over there, you are welcome to check out my previous post here.  To recap, I am part of SUBC, UBC’s submarine design team and we road tripped across the country to Maryland to race other collegiate teams at ISR.

The Base

Because submarines need to be underwater, and salt water is very corrosive, submarine races take place in ocean basins.  These are indoor large freshwater bodies that are maintained in military bases, often used for naval experiments or testing.  In essence, I would describe the ocean basin at ISR as an airstrip underwater.  However, because of the military nature of location there are some security measures that you have to be careful of such as staying in the area of the competition and not wandering elsewhere.  As well, you need to submit paperwork ahead of the time for security clearance to enter the base, especially if you are not a Canadian or American citizen.

Checks

In order to be qualified to race, we had to pass the dry and wet check.  The dry check consists of the entire submarine being assembled and demonstrated above water to ensure that all safety regulations are met.  The wet check demonstrates in the water that safety systems are working.  It’s not uncommon for issues to arise in assembly or between checks.  Some issues that came up for us included misalignment of the hatch locking mechanism as well as the gearbox.  These problems require quick fixes with limited tools and materials.  You learn a lot trying to fix systems that you did not originally make under pressure with the small group of people available.  It also tests and strengthens your communication and team working abilities, as they are needed constantly.

Racing

Racing consisted of the divers suiting up in full scuba gear and bringing the submarine to the lift which lowered into the basin.  The divers brought the submarine to the basin floor in order to make buoyancy adjustments.  These adjustments were done by attaching small weights and pieces of foam to the inside of the submarine.  Once we were confident our submarine was neutrally buoyant, we entered the race queue to wait for our turn.  The race coordinator warned us when we were next and the support divers moved our submarine to the start line, while the secondary diver brought the pilot underwater to meet the submarine and load the pilot inside.  Once the pilot was loaded, the divers signaled for the race to start. After a count down over the underwater speakers, the pilot took off down the course towards the finish line!

Conclusion

Submarine racing is a complicated business to an outsider but its a very rewarding one for an engineering student.  Through my time competing at submarine races the last couple of years I have gained serious team-working, communication as well as technical and interpersonal skills that have been honestly very useful in finding co-op jobs and my confidence in my abilities.  I would encourage anyone given the opportunity to go to a student team competition to make the most of it and dive in head first!

Later,

Allysia

 

Student Team Competitions: Takeways from SUBC’s Trip to the International Submarine Races

Introduction

Engineering Student Design Teams can be a big part of student life here within Mechanical Engineering, including my own.  Since joining in my second year, SUBC has become a big part of my life and my identity within Mech so I thought it would be an interesting read to see what its like to go to a student team competition.

The goal of most student team projects is to eventually compete in a intercollegiate competition.  For UBC Thunderbots, they compete at Robocup (the world cup of soccer for robots), or UBC Baja competes at the Baja SAE competition annually with their off-road vehicle.  My team, SUBC builds a human powered submarine to compete at two separate biannual competitions.  In effect, we compete annually but each competition runs biannually.  At the end of June, I had the awesome opportunity to road trip across the US to Bethesda, Maryland to compete in the International Submarine Races with our sub, Skookumchuck Mk. V.

Pre-Competition Madness

The run up to competition is always very turbulent.  There are administrative and technical deadlines that need to be met in order to compete.  Of course, we want our submarine to be fully functional and as optimized as possible but there is a fine balance between working until the deadline and stopping to pack away our tools to take with us as well as surfacing and painting the submarine.  In addition, we had a technical design report on our submarine due a month before we left and a technical presentation a week before we left.

It seems to be common that students leave their design teams for summer once classes and finals end for the term.  However, many design teams including SUBC have competitions are around the end of June and beginning of July, and I have found that the best way to learn and get the most out of the student team experience is to work during the pre-competition rush starting in May.  Those who are not on co-op have the opportunity to spend hours in the machine shop gaining practical skills with almost constant projects available for them to work on.  And those who are on co-op can come in after work or on the weekends to lend a hand.  The most happens during this time in terms of problem solving, machining and systems integration which provides an optimal opportunity for someone working on one area of the project to expand and get a good grip on other systems.  I would encourage anyone who craves more knowledge and technical skills to take advantage of amount of work available during the run up to competition.

The Journey – The Eye of the Storm

One of the best parts of getting to go on one of these trips is the travel there.  Those who could get the time off work road tripped with the sub across the US and those who could only get time for the competition itself flew in.  We drove around 12 hours a day between the three drivers and two pick-up trucks, staying at motels, AirBNBs and camping along the way.

I was worried the first time I went to a competition about whether I would get along with the people I traveled with especially because it seemed like everybody knew each other better than I did.  I can only speak about my own experience, but I found that everybody was very welcoming and interested to bring me into the fold.  Similarly, during the trip to Maryland I was excited to become better friends with the newer members who were joining us.  I would encourage anybody on the fence about going to competition about making friends and knowing other people on the trip to just go anyways.  The more the merrier!

Being on the road trip is a great way to bond anyways.  You learn everybody’s music preferences, what food they like and have lots of time to talk and get to know each other.  Plus there is the additional bonding experience of dealing with road trip troubles such as getting lost or having small car troubles.  During our trip a couple of notable ones included when the key fob for one of the cars stopped working spontaneously, or when we thought we were in a ghost town while finding an AirBnB in Indiana in the very early hours of the morning. We traveled with two pickup trucks with a walkie talkie in each to help keep our caravan together.   A personal highlight for my trip was playing 20 questions across cars in the middle of Wisconsin.

That’s how I ended up across the country in Rockville, Maryland.  I’ll be posting another post shortly related to my experiances during the actual competition itself.  Check back soon to read up on that! Or check out my co-blogger’s post about his student team competition experiences heading to California to race his team’s E-Bike.

Later,

Allysia

Design Team Competition: Lost Sierra E-bike Festival (pt2)

Welcome back reader,

I the last post I discussed the preparation leading up to our first competition and the journey we took to get there. In this one, I’d like to recount the details of the festival itself, including the weather, the camping, the food, the people and most importantly, the race.

Firstly, I wanted to talk a bit more about my team’s purpose and electric bike as a whole. ThunderBikes was founded by my friend and classmate, Bhargav, last year with the goal of promoting the use of e-bike as a mode of transportation. The team is doing this through high performance bike projects as well as encouraging and helping their own members to do their own electric conversion. Less than 5 percent of Vancouver residents commute to work by bike. This is often largely due to the extended range of most commutes, as housing in the city or on campus is very expensive. Electric bikes is a fantastic method of transportation and significantly increase the range of an average commute. This push towards e-bikes will also help lower the congestion of commuting by car or public transit to campus, improve student health through exercise, and create eco-friendly transportation methods around vancouver. 

Camping

Camping outdoors means exposing yourself to the elements, both hot and cold. And California in July is both hot and sunny in the day and quite chilly during the night. Fortunately for us, it did not rain. If you plan on camping this season, remember to check the weather forecast (highest and lowest temperature) and bring sufficient layers to dress up or down depending on the time of day. There was a lot of bugs at night, as they seek sources of light, so bring along bug spray. At night, the temperature dipped below 10°C, so invest in a warm sleeping bag and a comfy pad before heading out.

One Friday, we delegated one member to go grocery shopping while the other two stayed at camp to set-up. We had bought a butane stove, a saucepan and some camping dining ware at a nearby walmart. For dinner we boiled pasta and had it with canned chilli. We brought along soda and water in a cooler, which was great to keep everything cold. On Saturday breakfast, we boiled water to cook oatmeal, to which we added strawberries and peanut butter. For lunch, we grilled some corn on the cob right on top of our stove. Dinner was a western bbq provided by EcoBikes which included dishes including baked beans and beef brisket.

Race Day

We woke up early Saturday morning to prepare for our race. We signed up for only one race out of many (we qualified for the throttle assist class, but there were also pedal class, adaptive class, and super class). Bhargav, our rider for the race, went on a test run of the trail. Courtesy of EcoBike, I was able to borrow a pedal-assist bike and followed after him. The trail was a 10 km loop up into the mountains, consisting of big inclines and declines, countless turns, jumps and different rough surfaces (rocks, mounds, streams). It took me half an hour to complete the course, and I finished with sore hands and a very dirty bike. After our test ride, we did an overall inspection of the bike, and performed last minute adjustments to the suspensions, the pressure tires and secured all loose wires. We then left the bike to charge.

The race started at 2:30 P.M. One by one the racers stepped up to the start line and rode off; they were timed individually. As Bhargav rode off towards the mountain, we cheered him on and then waited anxiously for him to come back. 20 minutes later, we saw him slowly approaching the finish line. After he crossed, we slowly made our way towards the barn, and I noticed the flat tire. It turned out that our bike got a flat tire on the rear about 1 km into the trail, but the rider did not notice. He then crashed on a steep decline and was unable to keep going. Unfortunately, we could not finish the trail, and the bike suffered some damage to the rear wheel. We were disappointed with the result, but admitted it was down to track experience and unlucky failure, rather than a design flaw.

Other teams

Besides competing, this festival was a great chance to network with other teams. Some prominent e-bike designers attended, including Stealth and HPC. HPC sponsored some of the events and brought their own riders to compete using their bikes. Stealth had some of their models for us to test ride, and merch to give out. We also met some individuals who were just e-bike enthusiasts there to enjoy the atmosphere. Among them was Cutis, our camp neighbor who we shared some beers with; he’s a seasoned mountain biker who recently transitioned into e-mountain biking as he got older, and Daniel, a professor at Sonoma State University who built his own battery. Everyone there were very friendly and open to talk about their e-bike knowledge and experiences. We definitely took some inspiration from them that we could use for our future builds.

Conclusion

The Lost Sierra E-bike Festival was a great experience and a fun trip. Although the result was not what we wanted, we took a lot of positives from our design; we also learned a lot about other designs and have ideas for next year’s build. I would highly recommend going to competition with your design team if you have the chance, as you would definitely not regret it in hindsight.

Design Team Competition: Lost Sierra E-Bike Festival (pt1)

Hello reader,

In July I traveled with my team, ThunderBikes, to Northern California to participate in the Lost Sierra Electric Bike Festival, hosted by EcoBike Adventures. It was a 3 day event consisting of various races and e-bike competitions and showcases. Design competitions are big events that teams work towards every year. At UBC, there are many design teams that compete in competitions annually, many of which are organized by SAE. This is the first competition our team have ever attended, and it was a great chance to establish our reputation as one of the newest design team within the engineering department. In this post I will tell you all about our preparation the week prior to the trip as well as the journey to California.

The week before competition is always the busiest and most chaotic period during the year. Everything for the trip had to be arrange and final repairs and adjustments were made to our bike. Like most road trips, we had to plan our transportation, lodging, food options and what to pack. Transportation was complicated by the fact that we had to store our e-bike, which was over 100 lbs inside the car. With the help of Modo, we managed to rent a Toyota Sienna, which comfortably fit all three people coming to competition, all our bags and the bike.

Lodging was also difficult to find, since the festival was being held near a forest and an hour away from the nearest city. Fortunately, our host, Eco Bike, offered camping accommodation including running water and toilets. They were generous enough to offered us free tickets to the festival and free camping. All that was left was to collect camping gear, tools to work on the bike while on the road and we were ready. On a side note for all international students, be sure to get your US Visa early. Applications usually take a couple of days, and after that you need to arrange for an interview. The whole process takes about 5 weeks, so be mindful of that if your competition takes place in the US.

We planned our route to get to California; since all of us had either classes or work, we could only take a few days off. We planned to leave on Thursday afternoon and get back by Monday, which meant a lot of driving each day. Our destination in California was the Sierra County, about 1600 km from Vancouver; we planned on driving to Seattle (4 hours) and spending the night there, then driving 12 hours on Friday to Sierra.

We headed out on Thursday at 5 pm. it took us 1.5 hours to get to the border and about half an hour to get through. After having dinner in Bellingham, we drove to Sammamish, a suburban town outside of Seattle. Our night was a short one, and we left at 3 A.M to continue our journey; we arrived at Salem, just outside of Portland at 8 A.M and had a breakfast break. We then continued through Umpqua National Forest to Klamath Falls, where we stopped for lunch and bought some extra camping accessories at the local Walmart. Finally, we arrived at our campsite off the road in the Sierra County, California around 6 P.M. We spent the rest of that day setting up our campsite, cooking dinner and doing some small checks on our bike.

Stay tuned for part 2, where I discuss the events of the Festival!

Take Care,

Huy

How to Prepare for Interviews and Tips to Ace Them (Part 2)

The biggest fear that most interviewees have are about how to best answer interview question. I will talk about certain questions I’ve received during interviews. Some of these are also from sites listed in the reference.

1. Why did you pick engineering?

The interviewer is trying to determine your motivation for the job. You should be engaging in your answer. Try to sell engineering as the best career choice. In the past, I would have said that I liked Physics in high school, but that’s not a very great motivation. A better answer would be that engineering makes a large impact in the world we live in. Especially since engineering by definition is to design and improve on technology and systems to better society. You should also tailor this question towards the job, in terms of how you could make the biggest impact through the position in the company.

2. When did you start your job search? Have you been offered any positions?

This goes back to my other blog, Mechanical Engineering Job Searchwhere the job you are searching and applying for should fit your interests and career path. The interviewer can discern whether you’re simply applying to get employed or applying because you want to work in the position. A worker with keen interest is preferred over one who will simply drone on day-to-day. So to answer this question, explain honestly and clearly that you are trying to find the “right job” and what that means to you. Even if you have been offered positions, don’t brag about them, simply answer a yes or no.

3.Tell me about the most challenging engineering project that you have been involved with during the past year.

If you have a portfolio of projects you have worked on (which I strongly recommend), pull it out now. It’s always better to show than talk. Explain the problem solving process using Situation, Task, Action, Result, Transfer (START) technique. For me, one of the most challenging engineering project I had been involved with was developing payload dropper attached to a multi-rotor drone for a solar farm-simulating competition (Situation). There was no precedent system that I could optimize, so I had to design, from scratch, a device to drop off markers onto damaged solar panels (Task). I looked for inspiration on a project-sharing platform, then found a button dispenser to base my marker dropper on. After modelling the marker dropper to fit within the limited space on the drone, I printed and assembled it for testing. As we attempted to test, we encountered unforeseen problems such as wind generated by the drone veering the payload from dropping straight down. With only one day left before competition, we improvised with the available material to make the dropper more stable (Action). Because of this device, we are now able to achieve an important task in the competition (Result). These research, design, prototyping skills will help me transition into any fast-paced workplace and solve engineering problems encountered in the job (Transfer).

4.What new engineering specialty skills have you developed during the past year?

There is no doubt that continual learning is one of the most important aspects in life. Your interviewer wants to know that you’re proactive in acquiring and updating your skills in the ever-changing engineering industry. This question also serves as a great opportunity to show your eagerness to learn on the job. Talk about any skills that are relevant to the position, and how you mastered (or got better at) them. Important skills to Mechanical Engineering include ANSYS, CFD, CAD, and CAM. This semester, I learned how to use Siemens NX 12 software develop CAM programs by assigning appropriate tools, operations and parameters to properly manufacture parts.

There are many more potential interview questions. Take a look at the links provided below. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to comment them. I look forward to hearing from you! Happy job-hunting everyone.

References:

How to Prepare for Interviews and Tips to Ace Them (Part 1)

As many of you know from Co-op program, interviews can be daunting, but if you prepare sufficiently, then you’ll at least take comfort in knowing you’ve done all you can, the rest is up to fate! From the previous interview experiences I’ve had, I can tell you they were all not completely as horrible as I had imagined. There were many interesting ones as well, stimulating due to the type of brainstorming you get to have. As there are other scenarios that I have not personally experienced, I will be referencing the Interview Toolkit written by UBC Engineering Co-op program.

Interview Appropriate Outfits

First thing you should definitely prepare for is getting an appropriate outfit, especially if you’re on a budget like me. I couldn’t get a complete suit, so I found pieces that fit together from various stores. I got an anti-wrinkle collar shirt and straight-cut black pants from Banana Republic, added a blazer from J Crew, and a pair of black work heels from Aldo. A great store to start off at would be Uniqlo, since they have a variety of very affordable working clothes. Just remember you should get everything neat and clean, meaning ironing out wrinkles and creases and polishing your shoes. These thing should not be left last minute, cause they take time and is crucial to your interviewer’s first impression of you.

Types of interviews

Imagine the scenario of the actual interview, will the interview be one-on-one or will you be placed in a group? If any of the information is unclear, it’s highly suggested that you contact the interviewer or the HR personnel responsible for arranging interviews. I’ve had mostly panel interviews, where two or more interviews take turn asking questions, often about different aspects of the company. One interviewer was usually the higher up manager, while the other was my direct supervisor. This is done so that my supervisor had a chance to see how well they’d work with me. I’ve had one group interview, where about 5 other engineering students were interviewed at the same time as me. We sat around a circular conference table and the interviewers started asking questions. We answered questions voluntarily. As to keep the interview shorter, not everyone was forced to answer each question. I used this opportunity to listen to other interviewee’s responses and tweak mine. Sometimes I felt strongly about an answer so I started first. In this format, try to avoid being aggressive or demeaning, rather, be helpful and agreeable, but at the same time lead conversations where you’d like them to go. Other types of interviews include telephone, live video, and taped video. The expectations aren’t all that different between these formats, and I would say treat them as you would an in-person interview.

Online Networking

When you’re searching for information about the interview, try using LinkedIn. You should know your interviewer’s names, if not, once again I suggest you contact the company. By searching them on LinkedIn, you understand their background, be it in human resources or the technical field. HR professionals will tend to ask non-technical questions related to your soft skills, such as communication, teamwork, and ability to overcome obstacles. On the other hand, interviewers who are engineers, or managers with technical backgrounds will ask about your technical abilities, often in the form of a problem for you to solve. On a side note, after you’ve viewed their profile, they will be notified. This shows your initiative and puts your name in their mind even before the interview. They might even click back, checking your profile for more information about you, so this is also serves as an opportunity to stand out. Therefore, ensure your LinkedIn profile is up-to-date. Writing a personal bio and putting up a professional photo are crucial.

That’s it for part 1, but please also check out part 2, where I’ll talk about the questions I’ve received during interviews, how I answered them using the START technique, and other general tips so you’ll be confident about your next interview!

 

 

Mechanical Engineering Job Search

When looking for a job, ask yourself three questions

  • What do I want to work in?
  • Where do I want to work?
  • Which company is most suited to my future career?

Do a simple search on LinkedIn for mechanical engineering jobs and you’ll see the diverse fields in which a mechanical engineer can work, such as product design, manufacturing, HVAC maintenance, piping systems design, etc… Since there are so many different types of jobs, I started evaluating my preferences. There are two fields that I’m really keen on, first is automation services that will enhance my control and system modelling skills. I also want to get more practice with logic programming and instrumentation coding. The second field is power systems regulation and management, particularly in the renewable energy sector, despite it being more related to electrical engineering. I also like to work on CAD/CAM, skills that are mostly related to product design, validation, and development.

Company size, culture and established locations are also very important to me. Jobs available in the United States and Europe intrigue me, but my top locations are Seattle, New York, and Toronto. In terms of company size, I prefer a global company with job openings everywhere in the world. A globalized company will also allow for more internal mobility, in case I want to switch jobs across departments. A dynamic work environment and a motivated and cooperative team are what I look for in company culture. All these contribute to which jobs I apply to.

A couple companies are on my radar. Siemens is a German conglomerate company with heavy emphasis on automation. Some of their notable divisions are industrial automation, energy automation, building technologies, and drive technology. They have major branch offices in Germany, US and China. They have a prominent division called Gamesa Renewable Energy that have provided wind turbines to offshore and onshore wind farms in the UK and Denmark. An exciting recent development that Siemens Canada acquired is designing the power grid for New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, formally called the Smart Grid Atlantic Project. This project aims to analyzes challenges and opportunities involved in integrating renewables and improving the grid’s reliability and efficiency. I hope that by landing a job with Siemens Canada that I can transition to Siemens in US and participate in their engineering training programs. Another company I would be excited to work for is General Electric. GE is along the same lines as Siemens, a global product-focused company, except they started in the States. In terms of innovation, I think Siemens is a bit more sustainability centered.

There are also lots of regional and local companies I could apply to, not to mention the consulting field is another huge area for engineers to work in. I will explore these in the next blog.

Talk to you soon!

 

 

Classes at ETH vs UBC

Portraits of famous scientists and engineers greet you from the west wall of ETH. The stone causeways and massive wood doors instil a sense of magnitude and significance to the university. Their mechanical engineering courses follow suit. Never have I studied so hard for such mediocre grades.

Part of the challenge came from class format. There is a distinct lack of hand-holding in these courses, which is a good thing. Engineering students at ETH learn very early on to take full control of their own schooling, as all course material is available early on in the semester and most tutorials or quizzes are non-mandatory.  Four of my five course grades were entirely dependent on final exam performance. (this seems less common in other engineering departments).

Think that’s nuts? Many of the exams were formatted as a 20-25 minute oral interview, one on one across from a stoic witness and the professor that remembers every nap you took in class. It takes one forgotten concept or wrong answer to drop a letter grade. Questions ramp up in difficulty and any time spent thinking of responses means less time to show A-grade knowledge in the latter material. This explains why I saw students studying full time all summer for the 7-8 courses (some Spring semester exams happen in August). There’s a re-examination option for oral exams but mobility students (you) don’t get that luxury.

Aside from these terrifying details, the course experience is fantastic — if you’re prepared to put in the work. Many professors are current leaders in their fields, showing off new material from the cutting-edge of applied science. Software exercises utilized modern and industry-relevant applications (though I had a couple concepts explained succinctly via FORTRAN code).

FYI, the exchange structure in 2018 included a flat-rate fee from UBC and waived fees at ETH so you could take as many courses as you were eligible for. Use this to your advantage. Many engineers took things like Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, and other out of scope topics for the sake of interest. Your exam registration happens later in the semester and you had no obligation to take the exam for these courses (i.e. to get recognition of them on your transcript). This may change down the road so just check these rules before your trip.

Here is the course list that I took with a brief review of each:

151-0361-00 An Introduction to the Finite-Element Method

The introduction lecture was comically-terrifying, as the professor skimmed through each course topic with key mathematical concepts. So much material was packed into the two hour lecture that I honestly thought I was expected to read half the textbook before classes begun. Speaking of which, it took a month of review and Googling to figure out the first 24 pages, which introduced the underlying principles and derivations.

I think this course is so important to modern day mechanical design. While you may not encounter FEM analysis in every job, the concepts you learn through the course can be applied to a variety of complex engineering problems. Computation time is expensive in professional settings, so knowing how to optimize your simulations for both time and accuracy improves your value to any company.

Despite the niche topic, I think this course made the most impact during my time at ETH.

151-0548-00 Manufacturing of Polymer Composites

The professor for this course regularly consults for the big aerospace and automotive companies while acting as head of the composites department. The 400-page textbook he wrote is a litany of relevant information in the analysis and production of various composites. This course felt like the final boss fight for mechanical engineering students, integrating topics from literally every fundamental course I’ve taken at UBC, as well as some material from my previous life science degree (brush up on your organic chemistry folks).

The material is incredibly useful for those getting into high-performance industries but this was also the toughest exam I took at ETH – an open-book, two-hour written monstrosity with 35 pages of questions and background information. I don’t think anyone finished writing it in the time given. However, the textbook is so good that I will be referencing it for all my future carbon projects (looking at you, Formula UBC).

151-0316-00 Methods in the Innovation Process

I took this course to see how design differed in Europe. The creativity components were a welcome change of pace from the theory overload of my other classes. As expected, a number of design methods and concepts carried over from our excellent offerings at UBC. The course was structured as a miniature design project; each team was expected to complete rounds of proposals and prototypes while exercising different methods of decision-making. I learned that ETH doesn’t require a major design course every year in their MECH program, but a number of these smaller project courses exist as options. It certainly seems ETH weighs undergrad towards the mathematics and fundamentals while UBC perhaps leans the other way.

The course instructors are professionals in their respective fields so the networking and coffee breaks are very worthwhile; consider the experience an opportunity to flex your design muscles and work with different engineering backgrounds. It’s a great way to meet local students too, as you spend many hours together during each workshop.

151-0280-00 Advanced Techniques for the Risk Analysis of Technical Systems

A refresher on stochastics, with emphasis on characterizing complex networks like transportation and energy grids. However, the material carries over to any system with multiple, independent parts. This is highly useful material for design and production engineering. I sometimes wish we were provided a stronger stats background at UBC, but I suppose fitting every “nice-to-have” into the program would keep us there forever.

151-0358-00 Structural Optimization

This course is an excellent complement to FEM (and conveniently, taught by the same professor during my stay). While you learn to solve particular load cases in FEM, Optimization teaches you how to automate the design process to find best-fit solutions. You learn enough in this course to write basic optimization scripts for small scale optimization problems (minimum mass design with target stiffness, for example). More importantly, the courses teach you what is going on behind the scenes in ANSYS or Inspire, so that you know exactly which configurations and how to interpret your results.

Engineering Mentoring: Tour of Corvus Energy

As I mentioned in the previous blog, my mentor is a senior engineer at Corvus Energy. This Monday, he showed me and another engineering mentee around their office and factory. Corvus Energy is a company that makes energy storage solutions, with their most novel product being arrays of battery banks for marine applications, from yachts to ferries. Their ingenuity comes from the robustness, reliability and modular ability of their product. Moreover, it has the flexibility meet different demands of various sizes of marine vessels, from small yachts to large ferries like Scandlines M/V Berlin, a Scandinavian fleet that travels between different ports of Denmark, Germany and Sweden. Seeing a Canadian technology emerge and be competitive in the global market was really impressive, especially when you consider the context. Scandinavia contains some of the world’s most sustainable countries that have made strides at implementing sustainable technology. Yet, it’s a Canadian company that has helped them make their ferries hybrid. Following this trend, I’m hoping that Metro Vancouver, with it’s Renewable City Action plan, will become one of Corvus Energy’s strong corporate client and partner down the road.

The tour gave me such an inspiration. The space was very bright, colorful, and full of energy. When I arrived at the office building, I could immediate tell it was an engineering work space. A section of the building was dedicated to testing and product improvement, with prototypes and instrumentation equipment laid out on work benches. What I also loved about the space was the openness. There was no barrier, no cubicle, allowing the engineers to exchange ideas, and to collaborate.

At the factory, my mentor showed us their product assembly line. On the roller table, there were numerous unfinished products, each representing a stage in the assembly process. Not only were the battery units assembled in the factory, they also underwent stringent testing and validation at every stage. A number of quality control gates were especially designed to ensure the final product will have zero defects before they are deconstructed and shipped off to clients. The cool thing about the factory was how it was expanding. Since Corvus Energy is a growing company, it required more assembly and storage space to accommodate new products. My mentor showed us how they had to build a second level in the warehouse and a new assembly line for new generation product.

With this sort of clean and organized work environment, both in the office and the factory, Corvus Energy employees can truly exert their full potential. My mentor also expressed the importance of connecting the office and factory so engineers can work more cohesively with the technicians on the floor. In my future work space, I would like to work not only with the products I design, but more importantly, establish a strong relationship with the people whose decisions I make affect.

If you want to check out Corvus Energy, here’s their website: https://corvusenergy.com. They have internships and Co-op positions available, so don’t be afraid to reach out!

Tune-in next time for more updates.

 

Second steps in Switzerland: Living Expenses, Establishing Routines

Living Expenses

Spend time shopping around for necessities: groceries, toiletries, etc can vary wildly in price from different shops. The quality spectrum seems much broader than in Canada, with organic (“Bio”), import, and many other options. Fortunately, I’ve found that most budget brands still tend to be high quality, often times better than the Canadian equivalent. Local dairy products and in-season produce are all excellent.

If you haven’t developed the habit yet, it’d be a good time to track your expenses and learn where your money goes every month. It’s tough to incorporate into daily routines as a stressed student, but ETH courses seem to happen in 2-3 hour blocks, minimizing time spent commuting to multiple hour-long sessions a week. Set up your own spreadsheet or use software like Mint or YNAB. You’ll be shocked at how quickly those frappes and/or gipfelis add up. I never budgeted during my first degree and by the end of first year I discovered $500 evaporated into bubble tea…

A good metric is to imagine the cost of a trip or experience you really enjoy, whether that’s travel, gastronomy, etc. Travel is absurdly affordable here, so it’s easier to put time into making coffee every morning when you’re saving 0.5 “Transit to Italy” every week.

ETH recommends setting aside 1750 CHF per month as typical cost of living, including rent, bills, etc. If you secure WOKO housing, this figure may be quite high. Here are a few ranges I saw during my exchange for monthly expenses:

    • 450 – 600 CHF rent
    • 65 – 100 CHF Swiss healthcare
    • 70 – 90 CHF monthly transit pass
    • 10 – 40 CHF phone plan
    • 150 – 400 CHF food (yikes)
    • 100 – 500 CHF leisure
    • 100 – 300 CHF irregular expenses (new clothes, one-time fees, whatever)

If you figure out batch-cooking at home, cycle or walk most places to save the monthly transit pass, and plan your weekend trips in advance (Check out SBB Supersaver tickets) you can get away with 1000 to 1200 CHF per month in total expenses. Most students seemed to be in the range of 1200 to 1500.

Fun fact: the last survey indicated a median monthly salary of 7500 CHF per month for technical positions in Switzerland.

With regards to leisure and travel, that 100-500 range depends a lot on transportation options. Switzerland’s domestic train system offers a bunch of Student perks to cut their relatively-high ticket prices. I took advantage of two key discounts during local travel while other students added a third:

  1. Halbtax (Half-fare) Subscription
  2. Supersaver tickets
  3. Gleissieben (Gate Seven) Subscription

1 and 3 are both upfront payments for 12 months (with a possible 6 month refund point to get some money back I believe). The halbtax offers half price 2nd-class fares on almost every train any time of the day. Gleisseiben provides free travel to students (<25 years old) between 19:00 and 5:00. Almost everyone bought the halbtax, but do the math to see if Gleissieben would be worth it. I found most students traveled in groups and if only a few people had gleissieben they were usually outvoted regarding travel times.

Supersaver tickets are discounts for specific trains at specific times that you can find listed on the sbb website when you’re browsing potential trips. While normal train tickets allow travel on any line heading in your direction within a specific period of time, the Supersaver tickets limit you to one particular departure. These are nonrefundable so make sure you’re not late if you take advantage of this. Supersaver can be stacked with Halbtax which can be super useful, especially as they tend to be off-hour departure times which students can usually take advantage of.

I know it sounds complicated at first. It stays complicated once you get used to it.

Establishing Routines

After sorting out your favourite spots, it’s important to find a groove early-on. Jet lag, new people, weird class schedules, and the plethora of student activities/events will be super distracting. It was March by the time I had cracked open my course PDFs and printed them like all the local students had already done (P.S. your ETH card comes preloaded with more than enough print credit for you to print these all out on campus!). This groove can (and should) include adventuring time. Wander the dense city streets or hundreds of nature trails. Take the train to an unfamiliar place. It’s easy to get lost in Switzerland, but you’re always close to a railway, bus, or restaurant and they’ve never even heard of ghettos.

While it might feel like ETH classes provide a lot more free time than anticipated, fit some studying/reading of the lecture material in every week. It’s tough to do if you have classes with no weekly assignments and new travel propositions every weekend. Find an hour or two every day if possible, as the material stacks up very quickly. For example, my Finite Element class covered a month of material by North American standards within the first two lectures. Oral exam preparation is a different beast to written tests; more on this in later posts.

Set up calendar reminders or e-banking payments for monthly expenses. Many students forget about rent, phone bills, etc as they get used to their new bank accounts. New habits might include transferring funds from Canada to Switzerland, or converting Euros before trips abroad. You may have to make payments in person at the local post office so account for processing times. Late fees aren’t cheap here.

More about courses and examinations in the next post!