Gone are the days when a F1 car was made primarily out of metal – today’s modern F1 car is made out of a range of materials, from carbonfibre to specially-designed materials. To find out more about the materials design process we spoke to Won Ju, a Composite Design Engineer for Mercedes.
What is your role?
I am a Composite Design Engineer.
What are your responsibilities and main jobs?
At Mercedes, composite designers take responsibility for their components from start to finish in the design and manufacture cycle. This means starting with a surface defined by the aero design group in most cases. Then we engineer this surface to into a composite part, considering structural, functional, packaging, manufacturability and other requirements. Our goal is to work closely with our colleagues in structural, processing, and production groups to define the best shape with the most efficient laminate for a minimum weight. To clarify, the laminate is the overall definition of what type of pre-preg material (carbon, aramid, glass, or other fibres impregnated with resin) is placed where, and in what orientation. This ability to tailor the material property to suit exactly the requirements is one of the main advantages of composite materials.
We also design the tooling – moulds and jigs – required to laminate, trim, and assemble the parts. Finally, for simple components, we generate the laminate detail document. This, along with laser projection for more complex parts, is the main method with which we communicate the design intent to production.
A lesser known but important aspect of our job is to monitor parts as they develop defects throughout their lifecycle. Our inspection and NDT department will highlight any issues, and with input from the stress engineers, we recommend any remedial action required.
On a personal note, I worked on the front wing when I joined the team, and recently moved to the survival cell (chassis). My responsibilities and tasks indeed cover everything I wrote above.
What qualifications do you need?
Typically, an engineering degree in subjects such as mechanical, motorsport/automotive, aeronautical or similar would be required.
In my case, I obtained a bachelor’s degree in applied science in materials engineering from the University of British Columbia, Canada. After working full time for a few years, I then went back to school to study MSc in motorsport engineering in the UK with a view to finding a job in the industry.
What should you study in school?
At secondary/high school level, I would suggest taking mathematics and science classes, in preparation for engineering degree courses. I also took shop/woodworking and 3D art (sculpture) classes which are surprisingly useful in my day-to-day work now. More on this later…
Once at degree level, there are options. Within my group, the majority come from a mechanical and automotive engineering background. But there are also people who studied materials (me), composites and aeronautical engineering. Whatever the degree, I think the key is to build up a solid understanding of engineering principles which would serve as a foundation for further learning.
What other skills are useful?
Any hands-on experience would be very helpful. Part of the fun of composite design is that we don’t just design the components, but we also need to figure out how to make them. The process involves first producing a mould, then laying up the pre-preg and curing it. This means we need to consider things like having physical access to laminate and the ability to demould cured [rigid] parts often having difficult undercut features, while considering the effects of tooling splits and resulting laminating sequences have on the structure. I believe the more experience one has in putting stuff together, taking things apart, or even just playing with the popular brick building toys, the more they improve their spatial awareness, ultimately making their job easier in this aspect.
Many composite parts are finished and assembled by hand, so basic workshop skills I learned in my woodworking class like safety around power tools or how to work with adhesives have all proved useful. Even simple things like how to keep a workbench tidy becomes important when working in a high-pressure environment. This applies to not only when I worked in production, but even as a designer, because understanding the manufacturing process leads to better designs.
Earlier I mentioned studying 3D art. In composites we work with surfaces a lot, which can be broken down to wireframe and points. It was well into my engineering career that I realised my concentration piece for that art class was making a collection of steel wire sculptures, which is essentially what I do now in CAD every day. Strong CAD skills would make life easier, but it is far more beneficial to be able to visualise what it is that you want to draw first.
In a more technical sense, it goes without saying that good communication and pragmatic problem-solving skills are essential, as we need to collaborate with different engineering departments and production areas.
How can I get work experience?
Composite design spans many different aspects, such as CAD design, material science and processing, manufacturing (composite and otherwise), as well as testing and validation. Therefore, it is possible to get relevant work experience in different areas that all contribute to being a good composite design engineer. Some people will be able to join the teams as a graduate engineer and build up their experience from there; I took a slightly longer path.
In my undergraduate, I did my placements at the R&D department of a large steel mill and the university’s research lab where I learned about materials testing, NDT, and designing/executing experiments. After graduation, I got a job at a CNC manufacturer, operating the machines and assembling/inspecting aerospace and motorsport components, as well as managing the production schedule and resources. As machining is a key process used in composites for both the component and tooling, this experience has proven to be very useful in all my subsequent jobs.
My first job in the UK was at a composites company, starting as a production coordinator and working my way up to project engineer. This was an opportunity to apply my background in manufacturing, production, and project management, while expanding my knowledge in composites, which was mostly limited to my academic background. Through this role, I gained extensive hands-on experience in all areas of composite production, and experience in CAD design for tooling and components.
Eventually, I decided that I would like to design my own race car, so I joined a WRC team in Germany as a composite design engineer. It was my first time creating new parts from scratch, which presented me with a steep learning curve initially. This is also where I learned to work with different engineering groups around the car, and sometimes even drew aerodynamic surfaces and windtunnel model parts.
As you can see, I was able to gain different skills throughout my career (whether by luck or by design), culminating in my current position in F1. Hopefully this shows that there isn’t really a set path into F1, and any experience gained in or outside of the industry will always be useful.
While studying, there are placement opportunities within teams and companies in the industry. Most people also tend to do Formula Student/Formula SAE which, while not strictly work experience, gives them an exposure to composite design and manufacture.
Do you get go to races?
Like most engineers in the Design Office I am factory based. However, we have the opportunity to go to a Silverstone familiarisation event where we can watch the practice sessions as well as other Silverstone events throughout the year.
What does a day at work look like for you?
It varies greatly depending on what stage the project is in. In the beginning, it involves meetings, discussions, and scheming in CAD to narrow down the design concept in collaboration with other engineering groups who may interact with my parts. Once into more detailed design phase, it becomes an iterative process together with the stress and process engineers while improving the detail of the CAD model. As the release date approaches, it’s all hands on deck for finalising the design, where most of my time is spent on CAD. The production phase is my favourite as my designs become physical objects. A project can last months for major structural components to mere days for aero update parts, so there is variety even within this cycle.