On the Cal Poly campus, Alec Bialek is widely recognized for the fully functional R2D2 droid that he’s been building and fine-tuning since his arrival here in 2012.
He’s also a familiar presence in Cal Poly’s machine shops — not only for the more than 3,000 hours of shop time he’s logged on his own projects, but in his roles as senior shop technician, lab maintenance supervisor and safety supervisor. Bialek is involved with more than seven Cal Poly Engineering labs and shops, from Mustang ’60 Machine Shop to the Mechanical Engineering Fluids Lab.
The R2D2 replica has regularly taken its creator off campus — Bialek deploys the droid as an engineering outreach tool in area schools and special events.
More recently, however, the droid even had a hand in taking him to Munich, where Bialek landed a six-month internship as an engine calibration engineer at the BMW Group.
“I was surprised at how seemingly casual the interview was and how quickly I was hired,” recalled Bialek. “My boss later told me that, among other factors, it was seeing my work on R2D2 that made them feel ‘he speaks our language.’”
Not that there weren’t language difficulties to overcome.
“I was part of a 25-person team where I knew no German and few others could speak English to any degree. It was an intense exercise in language immersion. Even to execute basic mathematical functions – addition, subtraction, division – I had to learn the German equivalent shortcuts in Excel – but, over time, I gained an adequate working proficiency, which was quite a meaningful accomplishment.”
Bialek arrived on the job when the B58 engine, used in BMW’s 2016 340i model among others, was in the late development phase.
“Much of the work at that point was testing for bugs – and they do so exhaustively. They take perfectionism to a whole new level,” he said.
Bialek’s duties included work on next-generation inline 4- and 6-cylinder engines, including dynamometer calibration and engine control unit (ECU) mapping; extensive in-car testing for ignition, knock, exhaust gas temperature and boost control, as well as drivability and transmission interfacing.
“Driving these cars in excess of 150 mph was an extraordinary experience,” he said.
Although the company culture there is casual in terms of dress and camaraderie, the mindset is extremely detailed oriented.
“It was my kind of culture in many ways. Highly perfectionistic, and I liked how anyone and everyone on the team could speak and critique – fully and frankly – regardless of age, rank or experience. There was no beating around the bush, which resulted in no hard feelings because it was all about identifying and solving problems.”
“I’m a firm believer that the more you do outside of school, the better you are for it — and this was the coolest six months of my life.”
Bialek is currently completing his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and plans to find a job at a small company focusing on high performance automotive design.