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User Case Study:
Sheffield University Team Uses Maple and MapleSim to Design Miniature Locomotive

Challenge
Sheffield University’s Railway Challenge team needed a tool to assist them in the design of their locomotive for the Institution of Mechanical Engineering’s annual competition.

Solution
The team adopted Maple and MapleSim to complete calculations, model their locomotive and optimize their design.

Result
The team used Maple and MapleSim to design and model various components of their locomotive. The team has progressed over the past six years, advancing from designing a locomotive that wouldn’t run, to achieving as high as a 4th place finish in recent competition.


Transportation is an essential element of society. New innovations lead to a continuous state of improvement as engineers search for the newest safety and convenience features. Having the right technological tools allows such features to be developed and tested to ensure optimal efficiency and effectiveness. Technology solutions like Maple and MapleSim foster greater innovation by allowing engineers to model their designs and test them in a digital environment to work through any issues. A group of students at Sheffield University in the UK adopted Maple to assist them in developing a miniature locomotive for the Institution of Mechanical Engineering’s annual Railway Challenge.

The competition, which requires teams to build a functional locomotive, is intended to introduce young engineering students to the rail industry and potential job prospects. The competition features teams from all over Europe who design, manufacture, and run a 10.25-inch gauge locomotive. They also compete in various sub-challenges that are report and presentation-based, all of which expose participants to a fully-rounded view of industry projects. The competition also features track-based sub-challenges focusing on elements including, but not limited to, reliability, maintainability, traction, regeneration, and auto-stopping.

The Railway Challenge team at Sheffield University is comprised of undergraduate engineers whose goal is to enhance their design, management and manufacturing skills. Maplesoft is a sponsor of the team, providing a cash donation as well as Maplesoft technology tools. Now participating in the competition for the sixth year, the team from Sheffield has progressed from a locomotive that didn’t run, to fourth and sixth place finishes the last two years. Team members take part both for fun, and to improve as engineers, learning skills in parallel to their studies, said Philip Sharples, Ph.D. student at Sheffield and supervisor of the university’s Railway Challenge team. “As a team, we have many aspirations for innovation and improvements,” he said. “A vital part of our goal includes extending our knowledge of using industry standard software packages in a practical project. This is why we chose Maple. It is an incredibly powerful modelling environment that provides opportunity for further learning.”

Maple was especially attractive to the team due to its ease of use and intuitive command structure. It greatly reduced the amount of time new team members needed to spend on training between their joining the team and being able to fully participate in the technical tasks. In addition, it also lays a foundation for success in the professional world, Sharples said. “Maple’s use throughout industry makes it an especially useful skill to have when applying to jobs, demonstrating knowledge applicable to the workplace from outside of a typical degree course,” he said.

The electronics sub-team is using Maple in the design of the regenerative braking system for this year’s vehicle. Regenerative braking, by definition, requires full scale testing of the complete locomotive, which is generally not possible until the very end of the project. The team chose to use Maple to create a detailed, physics-based model of their 4-quadrant chopper system, which they could test virtually, well in advance of the prototype phase. The model allowed them to specify components such as capacitors, as well as fine tune parameters in the control system. “Cutting out the extra stages of prototype testing and on-track refinement saves us enormous amounts of time and money,” Sharples said.

In addition to Maple, the team also used MapleSim to support their modelling efforts. They used MapleSim to create a multiple degree of freedom dynamic model of their locomotive’s primary and secondary suspension systems. This allowed them to fine tune masses, spring stiffness and damping coefficients to reduce vibration to a minimum. “While simple modelling, such as one or two degree of freedom modelling, can be done easily by hand, the mathematics quickly becomes complex,” Sharples said. “Without the help of Maple and MapleSim, we would have had no idea where to start, or make decisions such as whether our locomotive ought to be lighter or heavier. With our Maple model, the optimized primary suspension makes sure the wheels remain in constant contact with the track, while secondary suspension absorbs vibrations, improving our ride comfort score.”

The first phase of manufacture begins soon, with testing beginning in a couple of months. The team is looking forward to seeing their hard work come to fruition, and seeing their Maple modelling come to life on the track, Sharples said. “Tools like Maple and MapleSim are a valuable asset in completing our project,” he said. “We feel confident in our model and look forward to a successful competition.”


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