DERPDrive: Structural Fabrication

Continuing on the DERPDrive after a quick melon break, here’s what all happened to get DERPDrive to an almost ready-to-install (mechanical) state. Bear in mind that at this point, the thing’s been sitting on a handtruck for a week and a half, waiting for the weather to stop being incredibly humid and spontaneously rainy so I can go outside and sandblast and paint the whole thing. I got a little wimpy sandblasting gun from Harbor Freight the other day, so I can move to finishing it (and test fitting!) as soon as the weather window opens up.

Last time, the pile of parts was reaching critical mass, just waiting for a day when I can hide in the shop to put it all together. It coincided well with the welding work on Melonscooter2, so there will be an update on that soon too.

Step 1 was to section the large tubing sections into the proper lengths. To do that, I meandered down to the FSAE & Solar Car & Mexican Grill shop and used the 10″ coldsaw. This saw is on-and-off maintaned, and luckily it’s currently in an “on” period where the blade actually has teeth. Get a load of the color of that coolant! Machine coolant, especially the new vegetable-based biodegradable stuff, actually spoils pretty fast if left unused and unchilled. I was told it was changed “like a few months ago, I think”.

Whatever, it was still oily and didn’t smell like the local greasy Thai food place, so it ought to do something.


Tubing and rod stock sectioned to length and ready for the next step, drilling.

I designed this assembly to be thrown together quickly from square tubing with holes drilled in it, so there’s no fancy fishmouthing or angled round tubemancing here. Fine positioning was accomplished on the venerable MITERS Bridgeport.

I bought the two sizes of hole saw I’d need to cut the larger holes. These Home Depot class hole saws are really designed for wood only, and these few holes completely destroyed them. That “Bimetal” must be “horseshit” and “pot castings”.

Drilled, sanded, and deburred. There’s only one thing left to do…

Time to join metal. This post should really be entitled “How to work in 4 shops at once”, because that’s what happened. No one space I was working in had the right combination of everything to do all the jobs needed. Up in the IDC, I really have no heavy equipment at all, but a universe of hand tools and a laser cutter, so I can do the assembly work. In MITERS, there’s everything but welding and sheet metal equipment, and the hand tools are in ass condition. And finally in the FSAE/Solar Car/Pastries shop, there’s welding, big machines, and sheet metal tools, but everything’s just barely maintained and there are no welding jigging and setup tools anywhere.

That’s one thing which buggers me about MIT shopdom in general – everyone would rather have their own spheres of influence and fiefdoms than one well-manned, well-equipped place.

Anyways, here I am invading the D-Lab where they have a very high end welding setup with actual clamps and whatnot, for rigging creations using very high end third-world bicycle frames.

I began with the TIG to join the swingarm sections together. This went well enough – I would actually show my product in public in front of people who, like, know how to weld. But there was one thing which kept me from finishing the job with TIG – it wasn’t fast and dirty enough. Yeah, sure, TIG can let me weld an aluminum can onto a fairy-sized airliner…

…but for something like this where I’m beasting into thick walled steel tubes with no real need for pretty or even incredibly strength, the ability to draw a huge loogie of metal in 10 seconds and be done with it was far more appealing. The MIG welder in the space was much, much larger than the little dinky one that was in MITERS, and the feel was a world of difference. This translated to some very nice looking loogies.

Above is my setup to put the frame tubes together after having finished the swingarm. I used almost all the available clamps for maximum rigidity in trying to prevent warping. Overall, everything came out pretty square.

Next up was attaching the motor mounting plate to the swingarm. This was once again a dance of clamps, using the trunion tube and the folded flanges of the 12 gauge sheet (the same sheet that Melonscooter’s bits came from!) as fixturing spacers.

Here’s a mockup of the assembly after the major welds were done.

During this mockup, I discovered that I welded on the back rail completely backwards. Like, utterly backwards. Both upside-down *and* facing the wrong way. Phenomenal.

A trip back to the mill to grind through the remains of my 3/4″ hole saw, which by this point was cutting more like .800″ polygons of constant width, solved this.

With the frame done, it was time to finish the things which attached to it. To make the leadscrew nut trunion assembly, I took the 3/4″ Acme hex nut from Surplus Center and machined it down to 1 1/8″ OD most of the way, then stuffed it into the hole.

The nut was then welded in place. This joint is of questionable metallurgy, since the nuts are made of 12L14 steel. 12L14 is well known in machinist circles for parts that need to 1. sink and 2. be magnetic – it’s not very strong, and the (very trace) lead content technically makes it impossible to weld because it forms big globules and makes the weld porous. However, opinions seem to differ – some say it can be welded just fine if the material is preheated (which I did with a propane torch for the additional reason of the section thicknesses being very different), others say it cracks and destroys itself immediately.

It seemed to go down just fine with preheating. I wouldn’t, say, put it in space or something, but no matter how starship-like Mikuvan looks, it should, unless the circumstances were most unusual, stay firmly planted to the ground.

To attach the endcaps, which are 1/4″ waterjet-cut donuts, I just MIG welded a huge bead around the perimeter…

…and finish-machined it on the 19″ LeBlond, the only machine with a chuck big enough to swallow the protruding Acme nut.

With the trunions complete, I next turned to the jack, the floating half of the frame which would be pushing against the van ladder frame.

This thing is made of a few chunks of threaded rods and 2 standoffs, which I machined in the same session as the trunion endcaps. The standoffs shown are actually made from chunks of leftover 3/4″ shafting from the same order. They serve to align the jack in the stationary frame. The long threaded rods to either side are what will be providing the force.

The other part of the jack is made from some plain steel tubes that the threaded rods insert into. Aligning this whole setup for welding was therefore simple: put it together like it’s supposed to go, then weld it. The base of the tubing was welded from both the outside and inside of the frame, since by welding the back rail incorrectly the first time and being forced to redrill, I’ve opened up a way to get at it from the other side. Strength and concentration-of-stresswise, this is probably for the better.

Here’s the entire frame completed.

Moving on, the last link in the system – literally, since the frame is one and the swingarm another – is the leadscrew. I needed to put a hex or other drivable shape on the end of the leadscrew so I can crank on it with a power drill or ratchet to raise and lower the assembly (automatic electronic raise and lower would have been funny, but overboard and unnecessary). To start, I machined the leadscrew down to something which was fully round.

Other machined parts include that chunk of 3/4″ steel hex which will be the driving end, and the preload spring retainer on the left, made from a leftover chunk of 1.25″ shafting.

I began by welding the hex onto the end of the leadscrew. For this precision operation, I went back to TIG.

Next, I threw this on a drill press and drilled a few shallow radial holes. Then the holes were filled with plug welds to fuse the material together in those spots like inserted pins would do the same.

The excess weld plug was ground off and the end of the screw machined for prettyiness and consistency. I might have overdone it on the plug welding a little, judging by the deformed hex, but it still fits a deep 3/4″ socket easily.

Here is the finished leadscrew assembly. The J shaped piece is responsible for lifting the assembly back up. In case it’s still hard to see, imagine the tube fixed and the leadscrew being slowly pulled back away from the camera. The spring would compress and cause the hook of the J piece to move along with the leadscrew. This compression is what forces the 5th wheel into the ground to give it traction.

To lift the assembly back up, the leadscrew is cranked back towards the camera, the spring relaxes, and then the force is transmitted into the J piece which now hooks the tube from behind. Because the swingarm is only going to weigh about 75 pounds, the return mechanism doesn’t have to be as hardcore.

The J was made first by bending in discrete “facets” on the big sheet metal brake, then heating it up with a torch and beating it over the tube until it was a little rounder. Recalling the CAD model, it has a big slot where a round hole to pass the screw would otherwise be, since “beat on with hammer” is not considered a precision operation by me at this time (but wait until I start doing bodywork…)

The observant will notice the tiny thrust bearings (by tiny I mean 3/4″ bore) which provide for free movement of the leadscrew relatively to The J while still transmitting force into it. The whole sandwich is retained by a giant E-clip, which can’t be seen from this angle.

Next chapter: Sanding and painting this thing in a fashion which would reflect what I need to do to properly repair the body rust after patching it. That’s why I’m even taking steps at all to make this thing not a rust ball on its own – I figure if one little chunk of the project would help me practice for others, so much the better.  The same sort of thing has to happen on Melonscooter’s frame too.

A Mikuvan Subproject: Operation DERPDrive

I’m going to take a quick break from being too sissy to start on rust repair work to begin a thread for something which has been planned since the beginning when I got the damn thing. As I keep telling myself (I swear this is still true), the end goal of this project is to fully electrify Mikuvan with a Siemens 1PV5135 motor, Azure Dynamics DMOC645 inverter, and a stack o’ batteries from everyone’s favorite undead alphanumeric battery company. When I bought the van in non-running condition, this seemed like an immediate possibility; at the time, neither I nor anyone on the trip were auto mechanics, just your average Battlebots-buildin’, scooter-ridin’ hoodrats.

Well, now that it’s running just fine for some reason, that enthusiasm has been admittedly damped a bit. Taking it out of commission now to drop the engine and transmission out would mean potentially months of MITERS no longer being able to haul hundreds of pounds of shelving and materials on a whim:

We can’t have that, now, can we. But I’m a little too heavily invested parts-wise in this project to never let it see the light of day.

Here’s the trouble: There is a gap of about 1 mile between the shop with a 2-post lift and my actual, legitimate parking spot for this thing, with a rather steep garage entrance ramp in between. I can’t hog the lift or the patch of space underneath it for months on end while working it, and I would hate to ask for a tow or push from someone else every time it needs to move. If electrification started in earnest, there will definitely be a period of time when the vehicle will have absolutely no remote possibility of moving under its own power.

From the start, I pondered ways to real quick rig up a temporary electric drivetrain that could exist wholly independently of the vehicle and basically jam itself under it to move it gingerly around. Ideas were thrown around ranging from what basically amounted to a two-man push-assist made with welding wheelchair motors onto a stick, to hijacking the rear driveshaft directly and basically going parallel-hybrid. At times, the thought of seriously manufacturing a “car tractor”, like a smaller aircraft tug, marketed towards shops and yards was considered.

What I didn’t want it to become was a science project of its own. It had to be quick and dirty, existing just to scoot Mikuvan in the dark of night between shop and spot. It could move at 5mph for all I care – it had to go all of 1 mile, but it had to have enough torque to shove the whole thing up a roughly 20 degree slope.


I consulted the low-orbiting cruft cloud that is the N5x complex and came up with a few candidates for this job.

  • Basically gluing a power wheelchair to it. 10″ wheels, 24v motors upped to 36 volts, and basically 5 miles per hour it was. I had my doubts that the motors would even have enough thermal load capacity to make it that mile. It would definitely be easy. The downside? Not even theoretically enough torque to push the thing up the entrance ramp to my parking garage, and I won’t be able to get enough speed out of them to take a run at it either.
  • Eteks everywhere. Between all the electric vehicle shenanigan hotspots, there must be like five brushless Eteks (now known as Motenergy ME0907s). One would have been more than enough power, but it would require external gearing (slash chain drive). I also don’t have a brushless controller big enough to make this worthwhile.
  • Cap Kart-Van hybrid. The giant D&D sepex motor (Hey guys, how fucking hard is it to give me one damned web catalog with all your motors on it? What is this, 1993?) of the legendary Cap Kart was dismounted a while ago to be used as a dynamometer load by someone that said something about solar cars. Like the fate of many projects at MIT, it never got remounted, and has been sitting on a bench since. This thing, a D&D ES-101A-33 type, is pretty much capable of moving a Geo Metro or something independently, with a peak power capability probably north of 20kW.

Controllerwise, I mined up a working Alltrax DCX500 from the defunct Vehicle Design Summit group, whose materials have been slowly diffusing back into the building’s various tenants. Running at 48v and up to 500 amps and paired with the D&D motor would make a respectable power system on its own – and certainly one hell of an pushing attachment. Parallel hybrid is looking reeeeeal good right now. Needless to say, this combination, with its appeal to my sense of unnecessary overkill and having just the right amount of potential disaster, won the appraisal round handily. The power source would be taken care of by one of the prospective alphanumeric battery modules – we’re not talking Model S class driving range here.

I also scavenged back from MITERS one of my old 11″ (real) go-kart wheels which was going to make it onto the never-built Super LOLrioKart back in the day. At this rate, I might as well just hang Cap Kart, whose carcass is hiding in a corner, off the tailgate and be done with it.

I ran some quick numbers and found that the D&D motor would only have needed around 4:1 of gearing to shove Mikuvan straight out of the garage while pulling 500 amps. Unfortunately this would have also resulted in a go-kart-like speed of about 45mph once I was done with exiting. Appealing, but I would also like to avoid piloting something without power steering or braking at those speeds. An 8:1 reduction would cut the speed to around 25mph with the ability, given enough traction, of shoving Mikuvan straight up a wall. Now, 25mph is plenty to keep up with traffic and have nobody notice that something might be a tad off.


The next question was where to put this complication. For that, I turned to the underside where my spare tire was hiding:

Emphasis on was – the spare tire was basically the first thing I removed and disposed of since the rim was almost completely rusted out. Dismounting the tire and hanger uncovered this pristine area between two parallel frame rails in the back – the “#6 Cross member” and “Rear End Cross Member” according to the manual. These things are (as it turns out) monocoque construction but with a discrete frame structure, so it’s not totally unibody like modern minivans tend to be.

Here’s a better look from under the lift:

(It’s also the only spot on the underside that isn’t covered in filth.)

This spot seemed to be begging for a weird action movie attachment to be installed in it. It’s located very close to the rear axle, so I wouldn’t need to build in tons of compliance and “suspension” travel. It’s out of the way of the possible design and manufacturing exercise up front. And parallel frame rails.

The only downside I could see was that I might want to hide the Siemens motor in that spot some day, but I think by that point I’ll have a justifiable reason to leave it on the lift for a little while. That, or give it a nosewheel.

The dimensions were also pretty handsome:

The width between the rails was 15″, with another 10″ ahead of that before the rear differential bulb. The rail depth was about 3″ and the distance from the underside of the floorpan to the ground, with the vehicle parked on a level surface, is 18″. Width was pretty much arbitrary.

the mechanism

I spent a while musing about what kind of mechanism to mount everything with, and how to attach it to the frame. I didn’t want to weld anything in (making it permanent, at least from my traditionally welding-free building methods), and wanted to avoid drilling and bolting if at all possible.

Not knowing how strong the spot welds holding everything together actually are, I decided to pursue a jacking type of attachment. The structure of this device would push itself against the two frame rails hopefully with enough strength to resist the loads of the motor cranking on it. This was going to have to be a very strongly braced connection, since I’m basically mounting a fetal twin EV to the underside.

If it turned out that I was going to pop welds or bend sheet metal, I would just bail out to drilling and bolting using blind insert rivet nuts into the frame rails.

I began by hopping into Inventor and sketching out what would basically be going on:

I made the basic mechanism in a sketch, first using lines only (or just the essential “bones” of the mechanism), then fattening it up with representative motors and wheels. In this graphic, the big circle is the 11″ go-kart wheel and the smaller circle is the D&D motor.

At this point I’d basically settled on making most of this contraption from welded steel tubing. My usual modus faciendi is to waterjet-cut some plates and throw them together, but I’m guessing that the majority of fabrication on the final vehicle – motor mounts, battery boxes, additional structures, etc. – will be welded, manipulated steel sheet and plate joined to tubing, so what better than to practice?

The mechanism of raising and lowering is an extremely simple single-swingarm, almost like a motorcycle rear end, with what would be a “shock absorber” in a real vehicle application being an adjustable leadscrew. That way I can crank the wheel down and continue loading it against the ground to take weight off the rear axle.

And this mechanism in the lowered position.

With the basic mechanism loaded in my head, I started embodying it in 3D. This is the tube structure that will be welded up. 2″ square tube make up the swingarm, 1″ square and 1×3 rectangular make up the framework. All 1/8″ and 0.1″ wall – in other words, 1,000x more heavy duty than the van itself. I’m fine with that – this shit is cheap.

Using the 2D sketch mechanism info, I transferred mounting holes to the 3D model. The four holes are mounts for some beefy pillow blocks to hold the wheel driveshaft and the intermediate shaft needed to complete the 8:1 mechanism in two stages (I can’t achieve that in 1 stage without going to ridiculous sprocket sizes)

I’ve moved onto adding models of the D&D motor and wheel. The dimensions are obtained from calipering the real world items.

Added pillow block models and also one idea for performing the frame jacking. The pillow blocks are giant cast iron jobs from Surplus Center – maximum cheapness per bearing.

The jacks are giant turnbuckles used in reverse to provide compression force. But wait, aren’t turnbuckles only designed to add tension to a system? Yes, hence the hugeness. The long skinny sides of turnbuckles make them ill-suited to pushing against a load – they’d rather buckle apart. I figured that making them enormous would mitigate this issue for the clamping forces I’d need. These are 10,000 lb turnbuckles from McMaster, who fortunately pried a CAD model from the legacy U.S. company that is making them so I did not have to drop $70 to find out otherwise.

I wasn’t too set on the returnbuckle idea, but for the time being I settled on the rest of the mechanism and assumed a jacking method will exist.

Turning my attention to the leadscrew linkage, here’s some shots of the trunion design. The trunions will be made of some chopped up 1.5″ diameter steel tubing with welded endcaps. The nut in the center there is a standard 3/4″ Acme steel nut, the kind you use to hold steam valves together, and again purchasable on Surplus Center for a guava and two potatoes.

The underside is where it gets a little interesting. So here’s what’s going on – As the wheel contacts the ground, the blue spring will compress with every further turn of the leadscrew, adding “preload force” down on the wheel. If the wheel hits a pothole or something, or I drive off the entrance ramp, it can dip town and maintain traction, avoiding awkward fake burnouts.

If I need to crank the wheel back up, then the J-shaped hook applies pressure to the backside of the swingarm trunion (the long round tube in the center) and so the whole assembly can float back up. When the spring is compressed, the hook moves away from the trunion a little.

What this doesn’t do is add upwards compliance, say a speed bump or armadillo in the road (because Cambridge has a wild armadillo infestation issue – ask any long time resident). However, the path I intend to take is pretty free of obtuse bumps. If the wheel hits an obtuse obstacle, the forces should be transmitted handily into the ladder frame. Should be. Those insert nuts are looking delicious right about now.

I knew coming back to the previously handwaved mechanism would make me smack myself for even thinking of it. Here is a new jack design made only of welded tube, threaded rod, and nuts. $150 cheaper and probably less shady. The forward (right side in the image) bar is free to move in and out of the tubes, kept from moving in only by the two nuts jamming against the tubes. If I need to expand the width, then I just crank on the two nuts.

This design was frozen after a few days of not looking at it, during which I instead watched the Singaporean students try to design kart drivetrains using 4,000 RPM/V motors. Which, mind you, is totally possible if you don’t mind using a 100:1 gearbox or something, but your handling could suffer.

construction begin

Here’s the pile of big parts as of last week. Motor, sprockets, bearings, a bunch of related hardware…

…and this pile of steel, primarily foraged but also ordered from Speedy Metals. The huge shafting, in 3/4″ and 1 1/4″ sizes, came from Surplus Center to match the bearings.

Why such huge shafting? It’s because as it turns out, 1 1/4″ is a standard American go-kart wheel axle diameter. I found a cheap hub on eBay which matched the wheel perfectly and converted it to a 1 1/4″ shaft.

I’m guessing the 32mm standard size is the Irritatingly Close But No metric size for the same application.

I also tried something a little different sprocket-wise this time. I normally waterjet my own sprocket profiles, but with the assemble-from-COTS-parts mantra of this build, adapting them to the drive shafting would have meant that custom flat plate sprockets were pointless. Instead, why not buy commercial flat plate sprockets? From Surplus Center, large sprockets get cheaper as you move to these “welded hub” versions. For $20, you can basically have any sprocket size and hub bore/feature combination. The final output sprocket, of 50 teeth, gets the huge 1 1/4″ keyed bore, and the smaller intermediate sprocket will ride on a 3/4″ keyed shaft.

I’m going to spare the welders the pain of seeing my handiwork, but let’s just say that “MIG-over-TIG” was an acceptable ditch plan. It’s often said that in TIG welding, the best welds look like a stack of coins. Mine look somewhere closer to a stack of rabbit droppings (Part of the problem, as I remembered/was reminded, was that I was trying to weld these sections using a 100 amp TIG welder and a tungsten too small to even take that current).

With the parts buffered and ready, it’s time to attack the structure itself. There’s much welding metallic gluing ahead; the next post will focus on the construction of the structure and machining all the little round things that go into it.

In typical fashion, I spent a few minutes thinking of ways to name it as close to an Internet meme as possible, and the result is Detachable Electric Rear Powerdrive , or DERPDrive for short. I wish everyone the best while facepalming.

Also, I found a nice sample of first Legendary Derpy Van, the Toyota Van, while cruising through Cambridge back streets avoiding traffic one day. If only vans were like dogs or guinea pigs.