Simulating Shading with Autodesk Ecotect

A couple friends are working on a grant to build a high-performance house on our campus.
They want to put solar PV panels and a solar thermal domestic hot water collector on the house's roof, but they weren't sure how to configure everything to prevent one panel from shading another.

Doing this kind of analysis is fairly straightforward in Autodesk Ecotect.  I was given a 2D .dwg file, so I just had to rotate each block of panels up 20° using a 2.5D CAD program.  Then I imported as a .dxf into Ecotect.  Not seamless yet, but not terrible either.

The graphics below show the percentage of time each panel spends shaded throughout the year, between 9 am and 2 pm (peak insolation window) at our location and altitude here in Boone.
Blue panels are never in shade, while an entirely yellow panel is shaded 15% of the time.

Ecotect is great because I can do this analysis without wasting time on a detailed physical model.  I spent less than an hour on this virtual model, and I'm brand-new to Ecotect.  The models aren't perfect--for example, the panels lack thickness, which would impact shading geometry slightly.  But now my "clients" can determine which configuration to focus on for a more comprehensive analysis.

Technology Fails Technologist

I bought this unbelievably tiny Verbatim "Tuff n Tiny" flash drive.
"How clever I am," I thought to myself, "I'll just leave it on my keys all the time."
Everyone who saw me using it was amazed.  "How'd they make it so small?"
That worked all semester as I slaved over* my graduate school work.
Then I went to retrieve my files the other day.
The drive won't recognize in any computer.
The on-campus computer support folks say they can't help me.

See you in the CAD lab, re-drafting a semester's worth of work.

Thanks, Verbatim, for the reminder to always store important files on the cloud.

* Might could be exaggerating slightly

Spilling the Beans

This is part of a very occasional series of ruminative posts in which I explore the career of a twenty-something student as he explores career options in a world with heaps of possibilities.

Lately I've been thinking about how businesses use the Web strategically.
For example, Chris Kulczycki, proprietor of Velo Orange (and friend of the blog), uses his company's blog to not only provide updates on new products, but to engage publicly with customers about product design and even explore new branding strategies.  On a recent trip to Taiwan to meet with manufacturers, Chris blogged and tweeted about new product possibilities and production challenges.
Arc-Zone has a slick web presence, which includes their main e-commerce site as well as two blogs, Carmen Electrode and Joe Welder.  Written by Arc-Zone's marketing director, Carmen Electrode focuses on women in welding, and in fact may be the only blog on that subject.  Carmen herself has a facebook profile.  Besides a Twitter feed, Arc-Zone also has a YouTube channel.  In one YouTube video, the company founder gives a tour of their facility, including enough detail to make a competitor salivate.
These are just two examples.  I'm sure there are dozens more like them.
Traditional business logic would frown on all of this.  These companies would seem to be giving away the very things that keep them competitive.  Every tidbit tweeted could put a competitor one step closer to undercutting them.
And yet, the sky--it does not fall.  These businesses are not in decline.  Competitors aren't appearing daily.
"Why?" is a subject for another day, but, as a consumer, I feel an attachment to these companies.  I understand a little better what drives them, where they're going.  I want to do business with them because I can see how they work, their attention to quality & detail.  Managing a complex web presence is challenging and time-consuming.  A company with a serious commitment to that is doing something right.

With that in mind, let's talk about me.
This summer was a great one.
For about a month, I did contract work for two companies.  At one I did 3D CAD, designing parts in a quiet office, and learned a lot about engineering a complex pneumatic/hydraulic/electrical system.  At the other I helped build a prototype mountain bike frame in a busy fabrication shop, working alongside welders and machinists.  My main contact at each company was a late 30s/early 40s business owner--energetic, passionate, talented, fathers.  Two different guys, but they both needed things made, new things, unlike what they'd made previously.
For the first time, I felt like my clients really valued my skill set.  My clients made me think about who I want to be when I'm their age.
I also spent a month as a volunteer in Guatemala, doing similar work, but in a very different setting, and with a focus specifically on sustainable technologies for the rural poor.  I worked on micro-hydroelectric installations, made a sheet metal flue for a brick oven, and troubleshooted solar thermal domestic hot water collectors.

What if this is me: the guy who helps people prototype.  I do 3D CAD, do the stress/strain analysis, make shop drawings.  I have a broad range of fabrication skills.  I specialize in metals, but beyond that I'm fairly niche-less: machining, welding, brazing, cutting, CNC, steels, aluminum, pipe, tube, plate, square, round, thick, thin.  I could even specialize in unusual processes, like dissimilar metal joining.  I provide the perspective of a fabricator in the design-for-manufacture process, while remaining fluent in the language of design.  I'm the bridge between manufacturing and design, because I have experience with both.  When time comes to mass-produce something, I can offer contacts in manufacturing and help work out the details.

Questions for discussion:
- What is the client base?  Entrepreneurs?  Artists? Companies wanting to develop a new product?  What about academia--grant-funded researchers?
- To what degree should I specialize in renewable energy, or anything else for that matter?  This may evolve as the business grows.
- What contacts do I need?  Who would be the best people to know?  What contacts do I need in manufacturing specifically?  Does this mean expanding my network towards China, Taiwan, Japan, Germany?
- How do you market a business like this?  What kind of image/brand do I want to portray? What kind of web presence would be best?
- Does the list of services include fabrication?   Do I need my own shop space?  This could be the most expensive start-up cost, including tools, space, utility bills, insurance.  High fixed costs, even if it goes unused.  A shop is expensive to move, and ties up capital in a form (machinery) that's not easily liquidated.  Slowly acquiring more tools on a job-by-job basis seems prudent for now.
- Where would be the ideal location?  How much travel would be involved?
- What key employees or partners do I bring on board?  Who takes care of the things I'm not good at?
- Who else is doing work like this?  What can I learn from them?

Name/slogan/branding ideas:
Business-savvy design/fabrication consulting
Prototypes that work
Technology Consulting
FAB Design
Prototypes, Inc.
Proto Design
Technology Design