By Mike Foster
Anthony Bagnulo (BASc [Mechanical Engineering] ʼ10) was faced with a tough choice the year he graduated: take that job with a Vancouver-based electric car company, accept a professor’s invitation to pursue a master’s degree or fly out to California for a chance to score his dream job withTesla Motors.
Even though it was high risk, Bagnulo chose door number three. He had already done five telephone interviews with Tesla and the company had offered to pay his air fare to continue the application process at its HQ in Palo Alto. Bagnulo went through five face-to-face interviews, wrote a technical exam, gave a 30-minute presentation and wrote a letter to Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk. A month later, he was informed that the company was no longer hiring for the position. It was too late to take up the other job or pursue his masterʼs.
Despite the setback, Bagnulo didn’t give up.
He developed his own entrepreneurial plan for a kit with an in-wheel drive chain to convert regular cars into electric cars. Working out of the basement of his parents’ home, he developed a 3D model of his concept and a two-minute elevator pitch. He turned to his mentor, Sam Berns, with whom he had been in contact since participating in the Junior Achievers program in high school, to make connections with investors.
After a Dragon’s Den-style presentation, he secured a $10,000 investment for 20% of his company. He used some of the funds to fly down to Missouri to get some hands-on experience as an intern with EVTV Motor Verks, a company that specializes in converting cars to electric drive. He even appeared as a guest with EVTV’s Jack Rickard in a January 2011 video.
That experience led the Vancouver EV (electric vehicle) firm Azure Dynamics to hire him as a test engineer. Over the next 18 months, he kept firing off updated resumes to Tesla until, after going through the entire recruiting process all over again, Bagnulo scored a job as an associate (junior) test engineer.
“When I was at uOttawa, I was into automotive stuff. I knew I wanted to work in sustainability and on environmentally friendly technologies,” says Bagnulo. “I fell in love with the company — the car, the vision the CEO had — I saw that this company had a cool vibe about it and just got hooked.”
Today, Bagnulo is a senior test engineer on a manufacturing test team of around 40 people, working at the factory in Fremont, California. The team designs, builds and releases testing equipment to the production line, scrutinizing and pushing all of the powertrain and vehicle sub-assembly products that go into the vehicles. That includes battery packs, chargers and inverters, as well as PCBA (printed circuit board assembly), super-chargers and stationary electricity storage devices. There are now 419Tesla Supercharger stations with more than 2,000 chargers across North America, Europe, Asia and Australia.
The testing team works mainly on Tesla’s Model S and Model X vehicles, which run on lithium-ion batteries comprised of thousands of cells. Tesla also supplies battery packs and electric powertrain components to Daimler and Toyota.
“We work closely with the design team. They’ll come up with a new product and we’ll work with them to define a list of test requirements and then design a custom test platform for it. We design all of the mechanical connections and actuators, all of the electrical wiring, and develop automated software which runs through and controls the tester and measures the necessary signals as defined in the test requirements document,” says Bagnulo.
While he was at the University of Ottawa, Bagnulo took part in provincial-level engineering competitions and was president of the MESS (Mechanical Engineering Student’s Society).
However, he says it was the gruelling 12-week CAD/CAM course in his final year that gave him the right stuff.
“We had to design an internal combustion engine,” says Bagnulo. “It had to be two-stroke, supercharged and direct-injected. There were only three of us. None of us really knew exactly how an engine worked. We had studied combustion cycles, but that was pretty much the extent of our understanding. Over those 12 weeks, I changed significantly. I feel like that really prepared me for this job. It also showed me how inefficient internal combustion engines really are, making my passion to work for Tesla even greater.”
The electric car market is still in its infancy, but competition is increasing among automakers. According to the Electric Drive Transportation Association, sales of electric drive vehicles, including hybrids, plug-in hybrids, battery-powered and total electric-drive, made up 3.5% — around 570,000 cars — of all U.S. vehicle sales in 2014.
Last year, Tesla produced 35,000 Model S vehicles and, according to its full year 2014 shareholder letter, the company expects to deliver 55,000 Model S and Model X cars in 2015. In the meantime, it is developing its Model 3, which will sell for a more affordable $35,000 U.S., to be released in 2017. According to Green Car Reports, U.S. sales of plug-in EVs in 2014 rose by 27% compared to 2013, to 118,500 vehicles.
Bagnulo, for one, believes car owners can be weaned off of fossil fuel vehicles.
“I obviously have a biased opinion but I completely believe the future is electric,” he says. “Internal combustion engines are extremely complicated and inefficient. Electric motors, with their constant torque output, high efficiency and simplicity, make an obvious choice. My goal is to help drive the future of transportation to electric drive and make it accessible to the masses.”
Bringing in reinforcements
Bagnulo hasn’t forgotten his alma mater. He’s turned to uOttawa for engineering graduates, such as Geoffrey Maines (BASc [Mech. Eng.] ʼ11; MASc [Mech. Eng.] ʼ14), as well as Lucas West (BASc [Mech. Eng.] ʼ12), to join him at Tesla.
Maines works as an associate test engineer for the powertrain manufacturing test team. He says the hands-on experience he acquired at the uOttawa machine shop taught him how to properly design for manufacturing.
“One of the major challenges that I experience when designing test equipment for the production floor is designing both for maintenance and manufacturing purposes,” he says. “In our area of work, it is very desirable to keep manufacturing costs low while providing a design that is simple to maintain and service.”
Third-year uOttawa mechanical engineering student Kirsten Campbell also just completed her second, four-month CO-OP internship, working at the Tesla department that manufactures electric powertrain components.
“Our team’s role is to design, bring up and support production lines from nothing to full build rate,” says Campbell. “It involves working with a lot of really cool machinery, which is the most fun thing in the world for a mechanical engineer like me … While I definitely feel like what we do is working towards a better future, that’s not what drives me — more of an extra cherry on top. Tesla is a one of a kind opportunity — there’s nowhere else like it in the world.”
Visit Defy the Conventional to read more stories about the uOttawa community.
Anthony Bagnulo takes a Tesla for a spin. Photo: courtesy of Tesla Motors