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A racing-bred “think tank” in Los Angeles

June 20, 2014

What happens to racing engineers if – and when – their workshops cease to exist?

When the Champ Car World Series shut down, so, too, did much of the racing operations at engine builder Cosworth Inc. in Torrance, Calif. The tight group of engineers that worked there disbursed – and many went to work with Elon Musk’s SpaceX, the only private company that successfully designs, manufactures and launches advanced rockets and spacecraft. SpaceX was started in 2002; Champ Car shut down in 2008 and some of the heaviest of the heavy hitters morphed just a bit down the road from Torrance to 1 Rocket Road in Hawthorne.

In a similar fashion, when off-road, rally and road racing expert Rod Millen slowed his motorsports career a bit, some of the top-flight engineers that had worked with him were left without a mentor like the New Zealand-born, California resident who’s succeeded in every aspect of racing he’s contested. One of those was Praveen Penmetsa, who was MillenWorks’ director of commercial and automotive products, as well as the information technology manager and project manager for Millen’s operations.

In 2010, he and two partners started Motivo Engineering in Torrance, Calif., with the intent of using their racing skills to help projects come to fruition with speed and with the same kind of accuracy expected in the high-tension environment of motorsports. What began with three people at a time when the economy was still in a rut has morphed to a 23-person “think tank” that has the capabilities of system architecture and design, controls simulation and firmware development, together with mechanical and electrical engineering, testing, data acquisition and custom test tool development.

It all sounds very structured but, as Penmetsa explained, the building on an industrial campus with two nearby freeways – very close to the Pacific Ocean – is an ideas incubator that allows all staff members to work in three dimensions: technology transfer, software and hardware.

When a company needs to produce a product quickly – and has complex technical issues to resolve that require innovative solutions – on a deadline, of course, they can come to Motivo and get the assistance they need in the time frame required. Motivo is, essentially, a one-stop shop.

driving sim

Some of its clientele are well known to the public: Boeing, Denso, Eaton, Coda (an electric vehicle manufacturer), Panasonic, Honda and Textron Systems are just a few of the firms that have called upon Motivo to help them bring ideas to fruition quickly and with positive outcome. In 2013, Motivo completed 27 projects that included driving simulators for those suffering from PTSD and other handicaps, personal electronics and connected (health) devices, theme park rides (really), the world’s fastest pure electric boat (it’ll do 45 mph), several telematics and remote control systems, mobile charging solutions and even airplane seating!

Recently they’ve helped AAA, the automobile club that (among other things) services members who run out of fuel, by building a truck that can give a charge to an all-electric or hybrid member’s car quickly and efficiently, enabling them to get to the next charging station without suffering additional range anxiety. Currently three Auto Club trucks are in operation, in California, Oregon and Arizona, Penmetsa said.

Motivo has also worked with System Technology, Inc. (STI) of nearby Hawthorne to help develop a simulator for military, park rangers and other first responders that parachute into difficult terrains. This harness mechanism can allow personnel to efficiently learn how to control parachutes in their critical work and, to show how it all operates, both Motivo and STI allowed us to take a look at their simulator.

parachute sim

It was fascinating to see the horizontal free-fall, the tab-pulling to release the ‘chute and then the tugging left and right to reach the ground target efficiently. This is a great training tool for those that aid citizens throughout the USA.

The business is run both tight and loose. Engineers have offices atop the workshop floor, but are able to work from home as necessary and come into the office when they feel it’s needed. The team consists of personnel who can do all of the work on every project that comes through the door – multi-tasking is a necessity for those that want to participate.

It’s good to know that a little company like this can exist in the Los Angeles area and help its clientele succeed in any endeavor.

Photos and words by Anne Proffit

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