Auto lab upgrades make it a premier teaching and research facility

student working in auto lab

The lab provides hands-on learning opportunities for students

WMU’s Automotive Laboratory recently received $400,000 in upgrades, making it one of the premier auto testing labs in southwest Michigan and an even more valuable resource for students, faculty and industry.

“With the significant new investment in the lab, we’ve greatly expanded its potential,” said Dr. Claudia Fajardo, associate professor in mechanical and aerospace engineering who conducts research in the lab. 

The lab provides hands-on opportunities for students to work with automobile systems and subsystems, learning how to understand, and improve upon, drive trains, power plants, steering systems, braking mechanisms and safety issues.

“Outside of a sophisticated university setting, the machinery our students use can only be found inside automotive companies themselves,” Fajardo said. That equipment includes chassis dynamometers, fuels and lubricant test equipment and now, an engine test cell, equipped with engine dynamometers.

Undergraduate and graduate students interested in automotive-related courses and senior design projects have used the lab but previously were limited by the air flow system. The lab also is used by students for extracurricular projects such as building and maintaining the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) Formula SAE vehicle.

Formula SAE team manager Evan Weese, a senior in mechanical engineering, said the team already has plans to set up its engines in the new test cell. “Utilizing the newly installed instrumentation will allow us to see results quickly and make changes accordingly,” he said. “The end product will be a more powerful, drivable and reliable engine.”

“We are excited about the improvements to the lab and broadening its usefulness to enrich our students’ experience,” Fajardo said. In addition to academic activities, the lab also supports industry-sponsored research projects. Collaborators in the past have included organizations such as DENSO, Toyota and the US Army’s Tank Automotive Research Development and Engineering Center.

“We now offer a modern facility to our research partners,” she said. “We have dedicated space for testing automotive components and systems. Our faculty has great expertise in wide-ranging engineering disciplines and our lab technicians are highly skilled."

In addition to automotive manufacturers and suppliers, other groups that could benefit from testing and research at the lab include engine manufacturers and manufacturers and suppliers of motorcycles and recreational vehicles.  “The lab will soon have powertrain data acquisition and control capabilities similar to that in industry,” said Dr. Richard Meyer, assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering.  “We’ll be able to validate powertrain models as well as explore how to best control them to, for example, reduce fuel usage and emissions.”

Fajardo noted that the improved lab offers great promise to advance the transportation industry as WMU collaborates with manufacturers to test and improve current and new technologies. “At the same time we are giving a new generation of engineers the practical experience and exposure to the automotive industry to make them versatile and successful in their fields,” she said.