018 - Alan Mertens

Alan taught me the fundamentals of CAD design and 3D modeling. Listen to hear how he went from aerospace engineering to motor racing and beyond.

Alan Mertens is currently a Senior Mechanical Designer at Sandia National Labs. He's a talented designer, engineer, and thinker.

He taught me CAD fundamentals while I was in high school, pursuing mechanical engineering. Though I did not end up in engineering, I use CAD as a designer nearly every day. Alan's mentorship has been invaluable, and getting him on the podcast was an honor.

A brief overview of Alan's pedigree and some notable accomplishments:

British Aerospace Guided Weapons Division UK - Junior Draftsman

March Engineering Ltd. UK - Designer and Technical Director
- Responsible for the research and development department, wind tunnel models, quality control, and concept design/layout of each new generation of IndyCars (leading to two Championships and five Indy 500 wins)

Galmer Engineering Ltd. (UK) - Owner / Technical Director
Designed and manufactured a prototype Galmer G91 chassis (plus five production models), which went on to win the 1992 Indy 500

Galmer Inc. (US)
Owner / Technical Director, December 2000 to Present
Technical Director of the Galles Racing IndyCar program

Listen to the podcast:


Alex Velasquez: 0:00

Alan Mertens, thank you very much for doing the show (you're welcome.) For people that probably don't know, you,

Alan Mertens: 0:11

that's, probably millions

Alex Velasquez: 0:12

probably, of my of my audience, I have to just mention off the bat that Alan taught me, all of my soft skills in the realm of CAD modeling. I was in high school, I was pursuing a track in mechanical engineering. And I think we had some mutual connections. And that's how you essentially volunteered to teach me CAD over the course of a couple of months, I think, once a week. So I've always been very thankful for everything you taught me, because I use it to this day, designing products, wood products, metal products, I helped my dad out with, you know, construction drawings and dimensions and plans. And so that that one skill I, I always think of is, you know, you teach a man to fish instead of just giving them fish. And it, it'll pay itself back throughout the years. So I wanted to say thanks for that,

Alan Mertens: 1:15

you're welcome. And it's a good a really good discipline to learn because it opens up so many things. And the software itself, if you use it, it challenges your mind. It makes you more creative and makes you more inventive. It's a good tool for an end product, but it's also a good tool for sometimes you can almost be vocational, just for the sake of creating things, you can just get into the CAD software and, and it can actually be fun for me, it's fun. Some people don't understand it. But you know, sometimes at the weekend, if I've got not got anything to do, a might just play on the CAD software just to create shapes or components or pieces just because it's more fun than watching television sometimes.

Alex Velasquez: 2:06

Yeah, I agree. It's, it gives your mind just enough tracks to expand your design and not have to remember every part of it and, and let let your mind run. And you can

Alan Mertens: 2:19

and what's even more fun recently, within the last three years, I bought a pretty high end, but not mega 3D printer. And so now, you know, before, when you create this stuff on CAD, you know, you've got a really good 3D image of what it is you're creating, you know, and if you've got that sort of visual perspective, you can really understand what it is. But it makes it much easier now in 3D to see what you've created, as opposed to back in the old days on the drawing board when everything was today. But now, I can go ahead. And as soon as I make something just for the fun of it, then I can go and print it. And then several hours later or whatever, you've actually got the thing in your hand and think that's pretty cool. And there's another useless piece of something you put on your trophy shelf, you know, what I mean, that can be fun.

Alex Velasquez: 3:14

Yeah, that's that is the beauty of modern technology, modern production. It's faster, it's cheaper. And that's been the story since the beginning of time, right? So if you could give people a brief overview of your background and your education. We will start there, because it's

Alan Mertens: 3:40

yeah, I can do that. That might come as a bit of a shock to most people, because it's actually a personal journey that went on, which doesn't necessarily lend itself to doesn't necessarily lend itself to what people's image might be of a mechanical designer. When I left school, about the same age you were when I met you, I followed my father into British Aerospace in the guided weapons division in England. And that was my basis of my engineering background. And I guess British Aerospace is something analogous to Albuquerque Sandia National Labs. And we did what they called six months on and six months off, we six months, we went to college, and then six months we were at the I guess you'd call it a factory where it is an huge factory that is easily the same size as Sandia National Labs, with hundreds of different departments. And then the six months you're actually working on site, you went round and you learn various disciplines you learn to work on the drawing board you learn to work in a fabrication shop in the machine didn't shop in the tool shop. So they tried to give you a well rounded education academically as well as your practically. But here's the bug halfway through my engineering degree. I fell in love with motor racing. And I decided Screw this, I'll become a racing driver. So walked away, and started motor racing. Three months later, I found out that it wasn't really that good. But then it occurred to me racing cars must come from somewhere, you know, they're not just grown on trees. So then, after I gave up as a driver, then I became a race car designer. And this was apparent of approximately in 1976. And I enjoyed huge success as a race car designer from 76 until 2001. So that served me well, even though I didn't complete my engineering degree. And then after 2001, I retired from motor racing and went to what we used to jokingly call civvy street. You know, we got out of the industry and started working for in mainstream engineering right

Alex Velasquez: 6:21

in civvy street being like the civilian, the civilian world.

Alan Mertens: 6:24

Well, motor racing is kind of a very closed shop. I`t's a large industry, but it's somewhat unique. And it obviously all the design of the race cars culminates in motor racing, with race cars run by teams, which obviously, we were strongly affiliated to, because they were running our product. And it's like a huge traveling circus. And, you know, we, we thought it was somewhat analogous to being almost like military is a group of, I wouldn't say elite that's very snobbish thing to say, unique, a group of unique people. And we all thoroughly enjoyed what we did. And we all like, kind of set ourselves aside from general industry, because I'm ashamed to say we all thought we were a bit special, you know what I mean? But of course, we weren't. We were just in a unique industry. And so when I stopped in the motor racing world, and I worked for companies, the first one was because I couldn't find a job. And one of the companies I worked for, was actually Herrera coaches, and I drove a bus for Martin Herrera for a year. Yeah. And and then I got my first job in the commercial nuclear industry. And then that basically started off my current life as an engineer outside of the motor racing world.

Alex Velasquez: 8:00

So how hard is it to start racing? It's, it sounds like you just jumped in a race car and somebody let you drive it. And that must be

Alan Mertens: 8:09

No, no, I wish it was that easy. And there's 1000s of would be racing drivers that wished it was that easy. Like, there is an America with the Bob Bondurant School. And I think there is even a Jim Russell racing driver school. Jim Russell was an ex Formula One driver in England. And he started a series of racing driver schools in England. And so that's how you easily get into the race car. It's not your own race car. It's not your own race team. Basically, I worked like three jobs to try and afford to go through the Jim Russell racing driver school. And then, you know, you go through the school, and then they've got their own domestics race car series, run by the the Jim Russell racing driver school. And you go through that. And then once you've gone all through that, you hopefully you've matured to the point. And as you've got older, made enough money that then you can finally go motor racing on your own and buy your own race car and do it. And it was that last leap that failed.

Alex Velasquez: 9:16

I can relate to that I, so here when I was in high school. I kind of I fell in love with a motocross bike. That was my first motorcycle. Learned how to ride a motorcycle. It was a little it was an 85 cc two stroke. And it was just a handful and it was just instantly hooked me. Yeah. Later in high school, I looked at street racing on a street

Alan Mertens: 9:44

It's scary.

Alex Velasquez: 9:46

And it you know, I've yes and no. The scary part is being out there with a bunch of other people if it's just you in the bike, it's I've always been a cautious rider and I've never really been able to...

Alan Mertens: 9:59

But I've fallen Enough of bike on my own

Alex Velasquez: 10:01

no, I've done it too. Yeah, it's I mean, even when you're careful, it's... everyday is different, every corner is different. But I came up against the same thing of like, you know, there's there was no way that I could afford a $500 set of tires, every third race. So I raced, and I, in air quotes, I raced for about a season. And that's about as much as I could afford. And it was my dad and I would drive out on the weekends and set up a tent and, you know, but yeah, it's here in America, you can just pay to play and you just pay the fee entry fee, go to the one hour mandatory safety class, and it's pretty straightforward, you know, and they, they throw you in with the beginners and they have, you know, good rules and, and, but then you immediately see that if I want to continue this track,

Alan Mertens: 10:54

You've gotta have deep pockets, yeah, pockets

Alex Velasquez: 10:57

or a sponsor, you know,

Alan Mertens: 10:59

yeah, I am, I ended up in a track called Snetterton in east coast of England, had a huge wreck, and ended up over the fence into the spectator enclosure. And that scared me silly, to be honest, and I didn't even feel it come in. It was there on the track. Next minute, I was in, in the weeds. And I got the car repaired, and then driving back home from the company that repaired the car, towin' it in my trailer, I got stopped for speeding. And I thought, well, the culmination of all this is just too much anger to sell the damn race car and do something else.

Alex Velasquez: 11:40

The writing's on the wall. Yeah, as as you're going out the door, they you know, kick your ass on the way

Alan Mertens: 11:47

Yeah, my ass was whooped. That was it, I was out. Yeah. done. And then and. And then, and then when I in 76, I joined a company called March was at the time, the single biggest manufacturer of racecars in in Europe, actually, not just England. And then the skills that I'd learned to British Aerospace came to the fore. And, and that, to me was a dream journey thereafter, designing race cars, but like I mentioned to you earlier, originally, it was all on the drawing board. And there was only three of us in the drawing office, which is called in those days, it was called a drawing office. And the the output of cars that March did were like four or five different categories, and would make about 140 260 cars a year, over the winter. And we were never able to finish one design for one car, we just got the essentials down because there just wasn't enough time. And then, and then the machinist and the fabricators used to fill in the blank gaps to finish the car. And then we'll spend the rest of the summer catching up, reverse engineering the bits that we didn't have time to design in the first place. So it was a very busy time, but it was thoroughly enjoyable.

Alex Velasquez: 13:12

So that that brings us to a good point I look at so what we do. I have a hard time categorizing what we do. Because I think for the most part, we're craftsmen we build furniture we build. We do we just do construction projects, small, large, furniture. That's craft...

Alan Mertens: 13:33

that, as you demonstrated me this morning before we started the podcast, there's a lot of engineering input into it into your craftsmanship because you design everything now before you actually I wouldn't say before you actually make anything. So it's still engineering orientated. Yeah.

Alex Velasquez: 13:55

And that's like the mix. We're I think on a kind of put this on a spectrum of on the far one end is engineering where it's very strict. The other end would just be art, you know, you're sculpting out of clay. And I think along the middle is where you get craft where it has some utility, but it has some freeform aspects, but it has to have to meet rigid requirements in the physical world.

Alan Mertens: 14:22

Right? Well, that's an interesting point. Because the sculpting part is always something that really interested me because it is possible to do that in CAD. You know, if you get if you're into surface modeling where the modeling is more organic, as opposed to engineering, you can create all of those craft elements of it. But I've never been able to quite get my head around it because most of the surface model is not parametrically driven. It's it's organic and you just have to push pull shapes into you get what you want. And if if you've got something which is freeform, but still has to have an appearance of it being an engineering product, like the specific lines of a car, for instance, you know, from an engineering point of view, you expect that to be parametrically driven, but it's not. And I have somebody a very good friend that does all my organic modeling for me, and he's got a flair for it. But so even though there's two ends of the spectrum, and you might think that in the middle of the craft aspect of it doesn't work, it is perfectly doable, but it's a unique CAD skill in itself.

Alex Velasquez: 15:43

I think that's well said. And that I think, for me, watching Koenigsegg go from their original hypercar into what they are doing now where they seem to be hitting it on the engineering level, they're out of this world. On the design level out of this world, it's like one of those rare, just it's alchemy, almost, and to see to see all those elements in you know, Koenigsegg is just an example. A lot of companies do it successfully. And I think they're just the one that sticks out in my mind where it's just it's so fascinating to watch.

Alan Mertens: 16:21

Right. Koenigsegg is fantastic, there's no question about it. But I guess if the way I look at it is that it's not even a car to dream for. Because they're so damn expensive. They're, they're actually restricting their marketplace by the cost of their product. And I've got more admiration for people like McLaren, who still do high tech, super sexy looking race cars that may not be in yours or mine. bracket, right cost range. But it's certainly a foldable for a lot more people in the world and what a Koenigsegg might be. Or, the Bugatti.

Alex Velasquez: 17:04

Right. That's some of that's the high art world where you kind of have to maintain that. That image whether it's

Alan Mertens: 17:13

to justify the price justify it.

Alex Velasquez: 17:15

Yeah, it's a self fulfilling prophecy, perhaps. Can you speak to motor racing as proof? I think you mentioned earlier that, you know, if you if you get out of a government engineering job and go to motor racing, it's almost looked as like, Oh, you're you couldn't hack it? At the high level, but motor racing, I mean, people's lives are on the line, they your your job matters, you have to do it. Well, you can't make mistakes in the design of something because

Alan Mertens: 17:50

I well, I guess, I guess motor racing is a bit like Koenigsegg, we've only got a limited market. And so we're in direct competition with other people that produce race cars. And not only are they got to be safe, and there's a moral obligation to make them safe because of the drivers and the pit crews that run them. But they've got to be competitive. And that's the thing that the with respect, people probably don't understand the level of engineering that goes into making a race car competitive to understand what it takes to make it competitive. Because if you don't when you don't sell cars, right, I mean, Koenigsegg or McLaren can sell cars because they sexy looking, and they go fast, right? They do go fast, round corners, but they don't. But they don't have to compete with anybody else, you know what I mean. That's the huge difference. And so, there is, back in the day, it is true that race cars were simpler, but everything was simpler back in the day, you know, even where I work. Now, if I look historically, at some of the products they've produced in the past, they're, they're way simpler than what some of the things that were expected to do now. But that's just the advance of technology and demands on on the product of what people expect of it. And so, so I could easily design a race car without giving it any thought at all. And it would look, we look good, and it will be functional. But it won't necessarily be competitive. Now, that's the hard part is to when you design a race car to know what you need to do to make it win to make it competitive is

Alex Velasquez: 19:36

that the lightning in the bottle aspect where you can get 90% You know, 90% of the factors to make it competitive, but is there some mysterious element that changes year to year season to season?

Alan Mertens: 19:52

I think from my perspective, and I've been lucky enough in my past to work with one of the most successful racecar aerodynamicists in the world in the world, literally in the world. And that that, to me was the mysterious aspect of it was the aerodynamics which play a huge part in the competitiveness of a racecar. Because you can't see it. It's difficult to quantify. It's become easier these days with a rolling road wind tunnels and the the load cells and the gantries that are used to measure drag and lift, in pitch, and even your etc. But you can measure it. But to understand like he does what it is you need to produce to make it, the more all the machinery doesn't create the perfect aerodynamic shape, it only defines what it is you think, is going to be the perfect aerodynamic shape. And I think the difference between most people and this guy totally convinced he can see, you know, obviously not in a literal sense of the word, but he can just visualize it so strongly, that he just knows that if he creates something, what effect it's going to have on the car, not just the piece itself, but also what they call the downwind effect, how the air coming off each aerodynamic device affects the rest of the car as it goes down the car, until it comes out the wash in the back. Because it's not just one individual piece, it's the collective that actually makes the car fast and produce what they call the ideal lift over drag ratio, as much lift as you can get out of it with minimal drag. So

Alex Velasquez: 21:41

and so that's, that's an interesting point because the the variable changes at speed. And if you're racing, not in a straight line, your speed is going to change every corner corner and it seems so my limited experience watching motor racing and watching documentaries about all these companies. To me, it almost feels like the devices, the engineering the componentry. It's all heading to a place where if you could perfectly adapt to every minute change on the fly. You've sort of got this, the shapeshifter, an ideal racecar would be a shapeshifter that can. The contact patch is constant, the aero is constant, the body adapts at any speed at any elevation at... And, and so how do you work back from that,

Alan Mertens: 22:37

but you but the thing is, that's the whole point. The governing body of motor racing saw that come in years and decades ago. So that's where the we will not allow to have shapeshifting race cars. But the regulations say that the the you're not allowed to have any movable aerodynamic devices, which is difficult to enforce. Because if you watch the race cars, and they got an in car camera, you can see the front wings deflecting. So it's a moveable aerodynamic device, which is banned. But they know that you can't make things infinitely stiff. So they're not allowed to be movable, like by computer or by driver. But with a given amount of deflection which is governed, it can move, but that's it. And so then in motor racing, they try to make the whole car a movable aerodynamic device, not just by what you might call passive suspension springs and dampers, they had active suspension, which basically took a lot of it away from the driver. Because the the the pressure sensors measured the variable aerodynamic loads through pitch, and heave and roll etc. And then it spoke to the computer and the computer then spoke to the suspension. And so the suspension compensated for all the time to make a stable platform to optimize the aerodynamics. But that only lasted a couple of years. And the cars became so quick that the drivers if they if it if the system went down and the car went out of control, they couldn't catch it. So they banned that on safety grounds. So even the Governing Body realize that aerodynamics rule and they're constantly trying to control that to keep it under control. As hard as the aerodynamicists and engineers are trying to perfect it make it better.

Alex Velasquez: 24:33

That's like the the other elements of racing is you're competing against the other racing teams, but you're also competing against the rulebook. And it's almost you can win on the track and you can also win by exploiting the rulebook and that's just how in any sport not just motor but

Alan Mertens: 24:50

have you read his new book that's come out recently. He quotes in there, "it's only cheatin' If you get caught"

Alex Velasquez: 25:00

right. And yeah, there's something to be said for it. It's there's no rule that says a dog can't play basketball. Right? And that's

Alan Mertens: 25:10

if you can train it to fine. Yeah,

Alex Velasquez: 25:12

right. Do you think there...

Alan Mertens: 25:16

I don't know how you find six foot eight tall dogs though that could be tricky.

Alex Velasquez: 25:21

Oh they're too short. You can't you can't crossover a dog. Do you think there was a is or was a golden era of racing where the electronics weren't so advanced, but the tires were good enough. But it seems now that tire technology is so good. Computers, electronics, active, anything active, anything that's tied to a chip... It seems like it's changed the landscape of design both design and racing.

Alan Mertens: 25:55

Right. But that that's a hard question, how do you might think, because what might be considered to be the golden era of motor racing, where there was the least amount of devices to help the racecar driver drive the car fast, was also the most dangerous, it was lethal. So you can't really say that was better, you know, because they they would lose a handful of drivers every year. But as the technologies advanced, and arguably, the racing has become more clinical. I still believe it's just as hard to drive a racecar fast as it was back in the day. But there are more technical elements of the car, which support the process of driving a racecar fast, but they've become immeasurably more safe, or safer, or shall I say. And so you know, you can't say that back in the day, it was the golden age, because he used to kill all their drivers back in the day might not necessarily be construed to be the golden age. But at least all the drivers like at Silverstone come out in one piece, you know what I mean? If they have a huge wreck, it is very, very, very safe these days.

Alex Velasquez: 27:15

Yeah, that that is good. It's there. The cost, there's always a cost. And it's either you can think you can shift that cost around to the domain that you want it. And it sounds like we obviously prioritize the safety of people as we should and move it away from

Alan Mertens: 27:36

well it was also materials and technology. You know, when I first started in motor racing, the chassis were single skinned aluminum, then they went to aluminum honeycomb. And then who would have thought that you could actually produce a race car out of cloth - mold it, cook it, and it will become a supremely stiff and strong chassis. And in fact, I had that fight with the governing body of IndyCar back in the in the mid to late 80s, where they just refused to accept carbon honeycomb chassis, because they couldn't understand the technology. And it took two years of experimentation and demonstration, to get them to accept it to finally give up on aluminum honeycomb chassis. Well, and it was the materials in IT technology. And it did cost more. It's always cost more, nothing gets cheaper. But there's just a fact of life.

Alex Velasquez: 28:39

With the pace of software technology these days. Software is also cheaper and faster and better. And computers are cheaper and faster and better. How has that altered your approach, if any to designing?

Alan Mertens: 28:58

Well, a quick comment about the current situation is that you're right in every respects about the software and the hardware. But on a daily basis is strange now that I get frustrated if you do something and you have to wait 10 seconds for the computer to catch up with you to do a task which back in the old days would have taken you five days. But you had the patience then because you were in control of your own progress. You weren't worth waiting on a piece of software or machine to do it. And it just seems strange how that sense of frustration is there. And with our dependency on all this super hardware and super software. What right have we got impatient if it takes you 10 seconds longer to do something like I said that back in the day, it would have taken you five days to do it's just ridiculous. It almost it pushes us to work harder and faster. It's almost as if the machines are making demands on us. You know what I mean? It's kind of ironic, right? But back in in England when I first started Galmer, like in 1988, we did everything on the drawing board, you know, all the mechanical components for the race car plus all the body work, we had a body designed there that it was still done in 2D, but we had a big wall board, which is about 15 foot long down the wall, and all the bodywork was drawn out full size. And then all the other sections throughout the bodywork were projected. So they could make the patterns and then then the patterns would then be smooth to create a 3D space. And then like I said, all the mechanical components were done on the drawing board. But it was kind of a messy sort of process. Because we had to create wasn't a 3D environment we created we had to create the third dimension in in 2D drawing views. But we did that by overlays, we all drawing on film, which you can actually see through, and we would lay several sheets of film over the top of each other. And then each layer would depict a different view of what you're trying to develop. And, and then they what we call schemes, they weren't dimensioned they were the size was all full scale. But the finite dimensions didn't exist as such, the basic dimensions are always in your head. And then so there was always a difficult interpretation when you interpreted that and you actually did the manufacturing drawing for each of those hundreds of components that might be on these overlaid sheets. That was when you had to decide what the actual dimension of the component was going to be. And tolerance setting and dimension it to within like a few 'thou' plus or minus '5 thou' or whatever, '3 thou'. And then and then you had to try and retain that in your memory. Such the all the associated parts that went with it all had the correct tolerances to actually made it correctly without interference or too much slop with it's a partner that it was a party to so to speak, or screwed into or whatever type of interface there was between the components. And then when you did that, you know, then it had to go down to the shop floor. There wasn't any CNC machines then for machining. And you know, the fabrication was quite rudimentary, then, you know, the the person who was making it had to interpret those drawings. And they had to have certain visual skills in their own right to be able to see that 2D drawing and then imagine in their mind what the finished product was going to be like in the third dimension when they actually made it. And so there was subsequently a lot of mistakes made. And there was also a lot of components and material wasted. If it didn't work out, right, and he got thrown underneath the bench. And you ended up in the dumpster if it didn't quite work out, right. So it was a highly inefficient and very expensive process. And, and then after a few years, then Autodesk came banging on our door. And always remember their sales rep was a young girl called Katie. And she came in with a sales pitch and said, "you know, oh, no, you need to use AutoCAD to do it." And I said, "why?" You know, what's AutoCAD?" She said, "Well, you know, it's, it's like an electronic drawing board, you do all the things you do in a computer, as opposed to on the drawing board." And I said, "why?" she said it was quicker, more efficient. There'll be less mistakes. Alan: "why is there less mistakes?" And I showed her how we did it. And she said, "Well, no, in AutoCAD, you got all those same layers, like you got with the overlays of drawing on the drawing board if you want to use them, and each layer can depict a certain thing." And I said, "but then but now we're just duplicating what we're doing. But in the computer instead." "Ah," she said, "but the computer has got finite geometry. It's got a finite size and geometry to it. It's not an arbitrary lines you put in there you put in a specific line and a specific place and a specific length, or curvature or slope or whatever." And she said, "so then you know it is a 2D drawing package, then when you do go from model space to 2D space, you just transfer that information into your drawings. And then all the dimensions are there just to be populated, they've already been predetermined, and then you add the tolerances into it. So you know, there's no guesswork as such." I thought oh, okay. That's pretty cool. So I thought, all right, we'll try it. And it was quite a leap of faith at the time, because it was all quite new. And it was all quite expensive. But lo and behold, her sales pitch was right. It paid for itself in the first year.

Alex Velasquez: 35:42

And what year was this?

Alan Mertens: 35:43

This must have been about about 1990 I think it was

Alex Velasquez: 35:56

okay, that's, yeah, that's even. I didn't realize that AutoCAD had started that that long ago and had commercial products already. Yeah, that's pretty amazing when

Alan Mertens: 36:08

was pretty amazing what was good about it, because it they saw the unique niche that they will get into because motor racing (still is) a type of environment like that. They saw it was a good advertising tool for their product. So we bought one seat, and they gave us another seven. And they gave us a rollin plotter. So we could plot out all the drawings and everything. And I did a few podcasts for them and a few adverts for them, which was which are on television, extolling the virtues of AutoCAD. And then so that our, our out the timeframe it took to design a race car, and the amount of scrap that went down as a consequence of it being much more accurately defined in the first place. We produce 50%, less scrap. And it took us I won't say 50% less time to design it. That's not quite true. Probably 75 - 25% less time to design it. So it was money for us across the board, it paid for itself. And then a few years later they came along with with mechanical desktop, which is the 3d modeling version of AutoCAD. And then so we started to model all the racecars in 3d and the first time we modelled them in 3d. That was the first year ever, that we went from design to production with zero mistakes with no problems whatsoever, no scrap, nothing went wrong. And no, we were first able to utilize CNC properly with the CAM software for the first time. And it was a major revelation. You know, our profit margins skyrocketed, because because the the the the advent of 3D modelin' then totally left, the design is a third dimensional interpretation of the 2d Creations he was making. It he didn't have to imagine what it was, he could actually see what he was doing in 3D for the first time and put the components together in virtual in the virtual world for the first time. And that transformed into a product with with no errors for the first time in the production cycle of the racecar.

Alex Velasquez: 38:47

Wow. That's for for a final product that has so many moving parts simultaneously. That's, that's impressive, even even when I build furniture, and I see the model and I double check the dimensions. You know, the odds that I can go from the model onto the CNC router and the final parts fit up. It's not 100% It's definitely far from 100%. I still even if I have the right dimensions,

Alan Mertens: 39:20

right. But the benefit we had that you haven't got is that there were seven people on the design team. We're all looking over each other's shoulders, double checking each other's work (stages of quality control) and their stages of quality control during the design process. You know, we would have made some mistakes, but to have your peers work with you through the design process of whatever part of the project you were doing. It was easier for them to critique it because the concept was in your face straight away. It didn't take them a long time to have to absorb what you were doing it because it was right there. They could see it and we would have made Some mistakes if we didn't have that, but that's part of the teamwork. You know what I mean? Yeah, I've done some work at home recently. And I don't have a team working with me. And I have made mistakes. So it's not idiot proof. Like you, you know, I get blindsided a couple of times by things that don't work out, right. But at back in the day, the only difference between you and me at the time is that there were a group of us working on the same product. And the other thing is, going back to the drawing board, the one thing that was supremely irritated, because this is before they invented what they call plastic lead, which doesn't smear like graphite lead does. And so we were creating drawings, and the drawings got all gray and mushy and everything. And if you wanted to change something, you got your razor, and you got the erasing shield, and you have to put it on, erase a little bit out. And there'll be a brilliant white blank spot where it was. And and, you know, if you're not careful, you rubbed out a lot of stuff that you didn't want to be rubbed out, and you'd have to replace it. Just to change the one little bit you wanted to change. Of course, with AutoCAD on the layers, you just click on the line and it disappears. But it was it was so much less messy and so much quicker, (less smeary) then less smearey and there wasn't any collateral damage. Right?

Alex Velasquez: 41:36

Well oof. The collateral damage these days is not saving in a power outage and or a hard drive failure and or the cloud based, you know, sync issues where you have sync gets overwritten. So there's still, there's still some smearing these days, but it's

Alan Mertens: 41:52

different times. And with an outage, and you hadn't saved any time in the last five minutes that collateral damage could be huge. Right?

Alex Velasquez: 42:02

yeah, and the other the other issue too, is I don't know if you ran into this is just Imperial versus metric. I don't know how much how prevalent that is. But software now does a good job of us clearly select what you want it to be. But if you have a machine that runs on metric in the interface, and you're designing in Imperial, there's always going to be some, it's up to the designer to remember and have a the standard operating procedure is check your units, double check your units, export in the right units.

Alan Mertens: 42:39

The other thing is export in the right units, for sure. But the other thing is, is that if you start off in Imperial, and you get halfway through the design, you decide you wanted to be metric, you just click a button, and it all changes to metric. So just like that, you know what I mean? Even before you get to the export stage, right, but going back to mechanical desktop, that was somewhat laborious, and not that intuitive. But if you were proficient in AutoCAD, it wasn't too bad. But the huge leap is when they came out with Inventor, which is when you and I first met Inventor was just mind bogglingly way more powerful. The graphics are way more beautiful. And it was so easy to use so much more intuitive. And that was the huge leap.

Alex Velasquez: 43:30

And when did finite element analysis come into the mix for these retail products for people that don't know what that is it's essentially just analyzing stresses and, and in materials and designs you can kind of it's like the bridge calculation, recalculate can this bridge hold, you know, X amount of semis driving over it.

Alan Mertens: 43:54

I don't know.

Alex Velasquez: 43:57

Because when you were teaching me inventor it, it had definitely had that built into it. It was pretty, pretty amazing. Just to look at the

Alan Mertens: 44:04

Yeah, but then the job that I was doing when I taught you how to use inventor. We weren't. We only ever did conceptual modeling. We never did part modeling for manufacturer. So there was no stress analysis. It wasn't until I continued to design race cars. Well, I said I quit from motor racing in 2001. But in 2006, and in 2012...(2006, I did a road car and in 2006, I did another racing car) on my own in inventor and that was the first time that I used FEA. And it's not as powerful as something like Ansys or whatever. But it gives you a trend. You know, it tells you that you're headed towards a catastrophic, catastrophic failure, or is going to be okay, right but it's not powerful enough to give you absolute values. But then arguably, I've never known an FEA software to give you 100%, predictable absolute values on anything that you analyze with it.

Alex Velasquez: 45:17

Yeah, and I suppose even if it did, your metallurgy has to be also perfect. And can you source perfect titanium? Can you source perfect aluminum? Yeah, but it's expensive. And I'm not sure what the tolerance is even on that. That's brings up an interesting point that In design and this kind of brings a human element into it. I think, in images, I think in words, I can kind of do both. And kind of picture what I want to design, I can see it my head can kind of rotate it like in my visual space.

Alan Mertens: 45:54

And that's called Talent and why you and I are good at what we do. And so

Alex Velasquez: 45:58

it's, it seems like people, you know, people definitely are not all granted that same level of visualization.

Alan Mertens: 46:06

It's what side of the brain you use. That's what they say. That's what the scientists say, right? But yeah, my, my, I have to say, my graphic abilities, if that's the right term, are stronger than my academic ones. Yeah, I'm more of a creative person than I am an analysist.

Alex Velasquez: 46:30

And that's interesting, because he, I mean, you're,

Alan Mertens: 46:33

which is kind of good. Because, you know, as you've already observed, the software provides some of the analytical devices that that you yourself might be somewhat lacking in. So then the software manages to close the gap. It lets you be creative, at least let you be visual. And I would almost say artistic, but it's almost seems wrong to confuse artistry with creativity and design and mechanical world, but there is an element of artistry there. And then the software provides the bridge to close the gap between any deficiencies that you might have as an engineer or a designer. So but that's good.

Alex Velasquez: 47:16

Yeah, I agree. It's, that's the beautiful thing about progress and technology is that it seems that year after year, it continually unlocks the ability for humans to be creative in any field.

Alan Mertens: 47:32

So now, of course, they've got the new module in the software now for optimization. So you can create a bracket, and you can send it to the control the computer to optimize the design. And it will come out with what it perceives as being the the ultimate design of that bracket to fulfill all its requirements in terms of its geometric shape, what it was originally intended to do, with the least amount of redundant material in it to make it as light and as stiff and as strong as it might be. And then that that process is then augmented by putting it into the FEA to prove that they saw optimization of your, what you might call crude component into this beautiful looking component to verify that it actually really does what the computer is trying to tell you that it's going to do. So that's a new thing.

Alex Velasquez: 48:30

So there's almost a circular there's now a circular element of the computer. And we close the loop here closes closing the loop on itself and fascinating what what design projects are you working on in your in your own time these days? Like you said, you're still creative on the weekends and yeah.

Alan Mertens: 48:55

Actually, to be honest, there's nothing at the moment other than just playing, but for the last two years. The CEO of McLaren Formula One team, Zac Brown, has been restoring an old Galmer and 1990 Lola Alonso, Jr. won the championship in and then Galmer obviously won Indy. And he gave me the job of doing that. So I've still got people I know in the industry that are good mechanics, good people that fabricate, machine, and and building things. I gave them the task of the labor of restoring and rebuilding the products. But there are a lot of components on these old race cars that weren't functional anymore. And there's long since been any spares for them or any records of what those components were. So I ended up finding myself doing a lot of research, reverse engineering and And 3D modeling the components that needed to be replaced. So then we could, then we could get em manufactured. And there's one, there was one downside to this. And I say this with the greatest respect to American industry, especially locally, nearly all of the machine and fabrication shops locally have been spoilt by Sandia National Labs. And if you go to them to make anything, it cost you a fortune, I had to get some new axles made. And the cheapest price I could get per axle locally was like $2,100 each. And I got a made in a company in Hong Kong, with release spec material 300M fully, as you said, certified material. You know, the splines cut, the screw threads cut the heat treated and everything for like $630 each.

Alex Velasquez: 51:06

Yeah, that's a story of the last few years, maybe decades, I've seen that. Despite how easy it is to manufacture these days, and how the costs of machinery have come down so much, it's still it's still, you know, it's still cheaper overseas, it's still oftentimes, right.

Alan Mertens: 51:31

But I think I don't see, because of Los Alamos and Sandia National Labs. In Albuquerque. We live in an unnatural environment, those two companies, which are government companies seem to dictate all of our local industry. If I had a good supply chain outside of New Mexico, I could probably get better prices. But the older companies here are all spoiled, because they will pay anything to get something made. You know what I mean?

Alex Velasquez: 52:05

It's like a monopoly problem - and the monopoly here is just the funded engineering... Does that...does that make it harder for you to? To be creative locally? And you are you'd rather you'd rather stick with industry contacts, and you'd rather work on projects with a team? Because if it's harder to make your own design on your own, and is it realistic to?

Alan Mertens: 52:33

Well, the projects I did on my own with the the road car, and then the race car, the road car, we had made in Thailand. And there were three people here in Thailand that work for me here and work for the local Galles race team that moved to Thailand to do the prototype build of the car, even though the Thailand company funded it, and provided a lot of the general labor. But they were specifically three people that understood the how to build a car from scratch, and had the experience and the knowledge to do it. And then, the race car, again, that was actually built in Albuquerque, and two of the three people were here, we're building that as well. So I wasn't entirely alone, I had people working with me that had the skills and the expertise to support the product. And in that same team environment, although they weren't designers, I was still able to go to them and ask them their opinions. You know, in much the same way they look, they could come to me and they would ask me questions. And there was a free exchange of information going backwards and forwards because we'd actually been working with each other way back in the mid 80s, since way back in the mid 80s. And so I didn't really find it that much of a challenge. And there was no deadlines, we had to meet either.

Alex Velasquez: 54:13

Just sort of a good creative design environment.

Alan Mertens: 54:17

Yeah. And it was finished when it was finished. You know what I mean?

Alex Velasquez: 54:22

Well, fascinating. You've had a very interesting career. Would you call yourself a designer, engineer, or something else? What would what would you call yourself? At the end of it all looking back.

Alan Mertens: 54:44

I'd call myself a designer. But I think over the years the roles have changed in the industry that I grew up in motor racing. You know, back in the day one person was expected to design a race car from the ground up. There were very only very basic electronics in the race car to do with the engine. And all those electronics was supplied by the engine builders. But now, my son works for the Alpine Formula One team he has done for several years now. And now it's different. There's not one person as expected to design a car, obviously. I mean, there was teams of people as, as I went through my career, it became more of a team process. But we all have pretty much the same engineering skills. But now we're my son Adrian works. They're very much more departmentalized. There is not jack of all trades, there's always there's a group of specialists departments whose focus on one aspect of the race car. And hopefully it all comes together in the end, you know, so to speak. Yeah. So I came through an era where I'll probably be called a designer, as opposed to an engineer. Not to be confused with a race engineer. I don't know why it's called a race engineer. But I was also a race engineer. When you actually work for a team for a specific driver on a race by race basis, to help him make the car go faster.

Alex Velasquez: 56:29

Gotcha. And you doubt you're the one that dials things in and you help in? Specs? What what things need to be set at? Yeah. Okay. Interesting.

Alan Mertens: 56:39

Now, I know I work for Sandia. I've been privileged enough to work with some people that are very, very clever, which would blow our socks off. Yeah, I think in the modern era, they would definitely be referred to as being engineers. And to a large extent, I provide a support role for them as a designer still, it'd be fair to say that in being humble, in all honesty, yeah. (Excellent. Yeah. Thanks.) You're welcome.

Alex Velasquez: 57:16

To wrap up. What do you think about we're now in the advent of the electric the transition to electric motor sports. That's the end, right? We're gonna wrap up shop and the golden days are now and they're coming to an end. I just thought Ducati's V, you know, their, their new electric bike. And it is you can see the writing's on the wall. But we're now finally seems like we're getting to that point.

Alan Mertens: 57:45

I'm still not convinced. Yeah. I know, I know, social media is, can often be a crock of shit view, pardon the expression, but it's true. Most of the time. Yeah. But there's a lot of posts, which which question or argue the concept of the green car, the electric car, you know, by virtue of the fact that the all the electricity provided for the cars are still mostly come from fossil fuels. And then I saw one the other day about all the minerals that are mined, to create the elements of the batteries that goes into these electric cars. And, you know, and then you see like stupid pictures, where there's an electric car or recharging station, which is run by a generator behind it, you know, creating the electricity. There. It is true to say that Formula One is still the forefront of technology when it comes to auto cars and to a lesser but to the same extent for IndyCar racing. And a notice that even into the like 2025 to 2026 and onwards. They're still projecting the use of hybrid cars, and they're not totally getting away from the reciprocating motor and turbo chargers and intercoolers. But they're augmented by a battery packs for sure. But the the the electricity is generated by the engine, that's in the car, you know what I mean, it doesn't rely on an outside source. So and they're also trying to go towards the hydrogen based fuels which are cleaner so there's hope for us yet that we won't get totally immersed in electric cars if if motor racing technology refuses to go down that road. And although they've got their formula-e series, which has been quite successful, but horrible to watch. Those whiny beasts.

Alex Velasquez: 1:00:04

And yeah, personally, it's I, I fell in love with a two stroke motorcycle and I think I can, I'll never get that out of my, my soul and just motor and the smell of oil and the it's just that's just like the romanticized picture of the motor, the internal combustion engine. There's feel, I can't really crossover.

Alan Mertens: 1:00:30

Yeah, I can't either. And I still got a romanticized ideal about what my car should be. I know it could be blown off and acceleration by a Tesla. But somehow or other, I still enjoy my and I enjoy hearing the sound of the motor, I enjoy hearing the punch, when the feeling the punch when the turbocharger kicks in, although turbo lag is minimal these days, but you can certainly feel the sudden whoosh, you know, it's just, it's just, it's just more it loads is loads of senses way much better. And it just makes that total package just more

Alex Velasquez: 1:01:10

It's somehow the perfect it syncs with the human fun. biology, somehow the vibration, the sound, everything that and I keep reading about the you know, the internal combustion engine has so much more runway, pneumatic valves, laser ignition, electric turbo chargers, I mean, there's so many you could squeeze out so much more efficiency and, and still maintain the platform. And there's, you know, there's still innovation to be had even though people, some some people on want to just brush it aside and say go electric, and we'll figure out the energy problem later.

Alan Mertens: 1:01:51

Well, as you know, I'm a staunch BMW fan. And if you take the so called prestige cars of people like Porsche, Mercedes and BMW making a token gesture towards electric cars, but I can't help feeling that they're doing it, they've been forced to do it. It's not necessarily in their genes to do it. It's not in their heart. And they're still fiercely clinging on to the thing that you and I find so exciting and can continue to do so. So I hope

Alex Velasquez: 1:02:27

you're right. I do like Lamborghinis approach with the supercapacitor.

Alan Mertens: 1:02:32

Not a Flux Capacitor is just a super one!

Alex Velasquez: 1:02:35

just a super one. Yeah, it's the modern the modern day version of NOS. You know, they're like, "if you want an electric here you go." Well, Alan, thank you so much for doing the podcast. Love learning about your approach to design, your history in engineering, design, racing. It's a very, very fascinating, I hope everybody got to learn something from it. And I'd love to talk to you again someday. And

Alan Mertens: 1:03:03

I want to thank you for indulging me. It was nice talking to you again, a long time since we last met. And I've got growing admiration for you, you're obviously a very smart guy and I enjoy chatting to you. Thank you.

Alex Velasquez: 1:03:18

Appreciate it. We'll do it again. Thanks.

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