Western Michigan is Seeking Sun at The American Solar Challenge

Today, Western Michigan University (WMU) will hit the starting line for its 24th consecutive year of American Solar Challenge Formula Sun Grand Prix (ASC/FSGP) racing. The annual five-stage race pits university solar-powered race cars from around the world in a contest spanning 1700 miles and seven states. After the green flag is waived at the University of Texas at Austin, the hard work and dedication of two-dozen WMU students and educators will take the pole as the “Sunseeker” begins the race’s first leg.


For senior Joshua Allen, the 2014 ASC/FSGP is the culmination of a journey that began in 2009. Upon joining the Sunseeker team as a freshman, Allen was able to put his passion for engineering mechanical systems to the test. He immediately became involved in the project by fabricating the Sunseeker’s composite outer shell, suspension components, and internal frame. This work would contribute to rolling out the 2010 Sunseeker model still in use today.

“The goal of any solar car design is to produce a vehicle capable of covering the maximum distance in the shortest time,” said Allen. “To win a race, a team needs a vehicle that was well designed, carefully built, and thoroughly tested. Proper maintenance, careful tuning, and an efficient driving strategy are the best tools the team has for a successful race.”

Joshua Allen
WMU’s Joshua Allen

Over the last four years, Allen and his team have learned that continual upgrades, extensive research and thousands of miles of testing on unforgiving Michigan roads are critical to meeting these goals. Many of the important modifications necessary to extending the Sunseeker’s lifespan were designed and tested with help from SOLIDWORKS® software.

These refinements included resolving a subtle, yet serious deformation discovered in the vehicle’s trailing arm. By using SOLIDWORKS CAD, Allen was able to rebuild the previous CAD model using the Structural Members tool. This allowed the team to produce a notched steel tube structure in a workable 2D format so they could analyze the design, produce fabricator prints and confirm that the repaired arm would function as intended.

“The biggest challenge that SOLIDWORKS has helped us overcome is the obstacle many of our members faced with learning a 3D CAD program,” Allen stated. “They were able to easily jump right into the program and begin learning how to use the software through great tutorials and an intuitive interface. Compared to other packages, SOLIDWORKS has definitely been my favorite because of how easy it works without sacrificing functionality. I can create complex geometry with minimal effort and frustration.”

While the 2010 Sunseeker model will be retired after the 2014 racing season, Allen’s legacy will live on in the next-generation vehicle currently in production. He, along with several senior team members, have been tweaking and revising the new design for the last few years. This has included hours of evaluating trade-offs between weight, aerodynamics, energy efficiency, performance, and cost. Again, SOLIDWORKS is helping to take Allen’s ideas from concept to reality.


“On the new vehicle, SOLDIWORKS has done a tremendous job helping me maintain the master assembly file,” Allen said. “The Mate tools provide great flexibility for piecing together the design, virtual parts are incredibly easy to work with when creating the initial concepts, and the feature tree and configuration manager make it easy to stay organized and keep the file at a size where it is manageable for my computer.”

SOLIDWORKS is also playing a major role in engineering the hub motor, one of the next-generation vehicle’s key components. By allowing Allen to import 3D models from the 2010 Sunseeker configuration, SOLIDWORKS has saved the team from completely reworking its design. “The motor is a very complex unit that demands high precision and careful planning to be successful, so having a CAD program that allows me to easily work with the assembled components and make tweaks as the design progresses is invaluable.”

For Allen and the rest of the WMU team, the journey to the ASC/FSGP finish line at the University of Minnesota at Minneapolis will be remembered as a fulfilling opportunity that took a design from an early concept into a well-refined product. It’s a lesson that will continue to fuel their passion to learn and create for years to come. Further, innovations dreamed up by solar racing teams, such as WMU, will continue to make strides in battery cell technology and clean electric energy that are already contributing to designing more eco-friendly consumer vehicles.

Thanks to Allen and his teammates, it’s always sunny in Western Michigan. Be sure to follow the team’s blog to track its progress at the ASC/FSGP 2014.




Images courtesy of Western Michigan University 

Mike Fearon

Mike Fearon

Senior Manager Brand Offer Marketing, Dassault Systemes SOLIDWORKS. Video game world champion and whisky advocate. I like turtles.