Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The engineering stimulus package from AutoDesk and SolidWorks

It is a sad, sad truth that in my experience open source, Linux based 3d CAD software is not nearly good enough for prime time. As a result, i have spent quite a bit of time using AutoDesk Inventor and SolidWorks 3d CAD software under a variety of Microsoft operating systems.

Interestingly enough, both AutoDesk and SolidWorks have just set out what they call 'engineering stimulus packages' so folks who have been negatively impacted by the economic downturn can download, train, and use their software for free. Pretty cool, actually, as these are the two best 3d CAD packages i have ever used. You may have to demonstrate that you are actually unemployed or a student, unfortunately, but it is still a pretty nice option to have. And free training is even nicer.

The AutoDesk plan can be found here, and the SolidWorks plan here. Enjoy!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Next generation affordable housing

I tend to spend quite a bit of time thinking about how some of the technical advances we have been making recently can be applied to improving quality of life for folks around the world. Hydroponics, aquaponics, cheap power generation, water distillation / filtration, atmospheric water extraction, housing, medical services, different applications for recycled materials, etc.

Recently I have been thinking alot about the various options for prefab and recycled housing and temporary shelters. There are quite a few interesting projects based on the Mongolian yurt (about $15-$90 USD per square foot), some interesting portable solutions for the homeless (about $500 USD per unit), and some interesting projects for permanent housing using shipping containers ($90-$150 USD per square foot) among others.

Now, the motivation for using shipping containers is multifaceted. For one thing, they are relatively cheap - used ones start at around $1200 USD and new ones can be bought for $6000 USD. They also have been piling up in US ports, as they are cheap enough that it is not worth shipping them back empty to countries that have an export imbalance with the US. Second, they are very solidly constructed for the transport of dense and heavy loads, and can hold up under a fairly wide variety of environmental conditions. Easy to transport to housing locations, of course, as they are designed for trucking applications. Sandblasting to remove existing coatings or residues is cheap and can be done by hand, and with a two layer coating of a ceramic paint, an R value of 28 is fairly easy to achieve. Further, they age fairly gracefully, and modular designs are easy and mostly a matter of stacking and cutting. Once stacked and cut, finish construction is relatively cheap and can often be done by the homeowner - run plumbing and electrical, install wallboard, floors, windows, doors, and fixtures.

Adam Kalkin is one architect who has been doing quite a bit of really interesting high end design and construction using prefab aircraft hangars and shipping containers. His Quik House project is an example of how to build cheaper high end housing, and runs approximately $184k USD for a 2000 square foot house using 6 shipping containers, coming in at around $92 USD per square foot.

It should be possible to reduce the costs for a shipping container based design by focusing on minimal amenities, smaller size, and functionality rather than focusing on the high end. A fully featured two container design (~700 square feet) could be finished for as little as $35k USD, or around $50 per square foot. Which is a pretty good figure for fully featured housing.

All of which implies that there ought to be an 'open source' housing project based around using used shipping containers as modular structural components. Various designs, suggestions for construction methods, coatings, fittings, and whatnot. Such an open source project could provide some housing options that are significantly more affordable than traditional construction methods and readily available to all.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Are commercially viable and functionally efficient electric vehicles finally almost here?

The evolution of commercially viable electric and hybrid vehicles has been a long process, and from the sidelines it has been a sometimes painful process to watch.

For hybrid vehicles it has been clear that diesel hybrids make more sense than gasoline hybrids from an engineering standpoint, especially considering the efficiency of next generation diesel motors and generators. Unfortunately the traditional antipathy in the american marketplace towards diesel has led to a great deal of international work on standard gasoline hybrids and much less work on diesel hybrids except for industrial and commercial applications where the bias against diesel fuel is minimal or nonexistent. This is only just beginning to change.

Another key component for both electric and hybrid vehicles has been the disadvantages associated with battery based energy storage. Primarily the low energy density, slow recharge time, limited lifespans, and high costs. These issues are, however, being addressed as fundamental improvements to battery technologies like Li-ion and others are improving recharge time, energy density, lifespan, and addressing overall cost and recyclability issues. In addition, ultra capacitors address the problems associated with electrical energy storage from a different direction, and as both Li-ion batteries and ultracaps improve, storage systems using both elements are becoming more common in electrical and hybrid vehicle applications.

For electrical vehicles, it has also been clear that 'in wheel' motors provide a more efficient approach than a centralized drive train, but the technology required has just not been mature enough. This is also changing. One example of this technology is the wheel motors from PML which allow for the construction of a wide variety of very efficient electric vehicles.

Further, it has always been clear that the most efficient electric vehicles would be the lightest possible designs constructed using the best strength to weight ratio materials. In this sense, electric motorcycles and scooters seem an obvious first step toward a full range of efficient and effective electric vehicles. And, as it happens, the first electric motorcycles are just beginning to appear in the marketplace. An excellent example of a well thought out design and product support strategy is provided by Zero Motorcycles and the Zero X - their initial all terrain motorcycle currently available to customers. A street legal version motorcycle, the Zero S, should be available soon.

So, are commercially viable electric vehicles almost upon us after fifteen years of agonizing fits and starts? My money says yes, even though the specific players and technologies have yet to shake out.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Are patent and copyright laws killing innovation?

There is a lot of debate as to whether the current set of domestic and international regulations regarding intellectual property encourage or discourage innovation. Two economists from Washington University, Boldrin and Levine, recently wrote a book and contribute to an impressive and thought provoking blog outlining their position that intellectual property and patent legislation as currently implemented constitutes a de facto monopoly in the classic economic sense. An article about their book can be found here.

Now, I certainly agree that there is a great deal wrong with the current intellectual property laws, but coming from an entrepreneurial and research background i do not agree with Boldrin and Levine that limiting patents to those that have social value (among other constraints) is the most appropriate fix. In my experience, limiting the term of patents and copyright, as well as requiring a functional prototype would accomplish much the same end results without returning the community to the stifling world of 'trade secrets' that ruled much of our pre intellectual property economic history. The prime motivation in establishing an intellectual property system, after all, is to insure that the rewards folks receive for making information about their inventions public outweigh the benefits to be had from keeping their innovations secret. To forget this is to forget why the intellectual property system was established in the first place.

So to my way of thinking, hard limits on the length of time for which patents and copyright grant legal protection as well as a stringent requirement for functional prototypes would do more to fix the system currently in place than the changes suggested by Boldrin and Levine.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Is modern industry heading back toward a distributed model?

There is a trend I have noticed over the past ten years or so that appears to be gaining momentum. Started with JIT (just in time) manufacturing and sales optimization, continued with the enhanced efficiency of shipping and material transport methods, accelerated with the Internet and the newly distributed nature of information resources, and aided by the rise of rapid manufacturing and prototyping technologies, this evolution is continuing. It really seems to me that in some ways the industrial revolution is beginning to come full circle - we appear to be moving away from centralized generation (goods, energy, etc) epitomized by large factories and power plants back to a more distributed model.

One important reason this change appears to be happening is that the technological basis for these activities is continuing to evolve. Solar, wind, hydro, geothermal, and other alternative energy generation methods combined with the decreased price, size, and increased functionality of various industrial equipment (mostly due to the evolution of CAD and CNC machining and advances in materials) allow very small scale manufacturing and power generation to work sufficiently well and cheaply enough on small unit manufacturing to compete with the economies of scale enjoyed by more traditional methods. A significant advantage is that general purpose tooling can be modified from unit to unit without the retooling costs associated with traditional manufacturing line methods.

So everytime i see prices decrease for rapid prototyping and CNC machines and the capabilities improve, or see cheaper and more efficient small scale power generation methods reach the marketplace, it really brings home the way the industrial landscape is changing. Decentralized manufacturing and power generation is starting to look like the next stage of the industrial revolution ...

Friday, January 16, 2009

The patent race in 2008

Looks like IBM is back on top in the patent wars. An article from Reuters says IBM was granted 4,168 patents in 2008, the most ever received by a single entity in a year. Samsung was second with 2,515.

Perhaps more interesting is the source that Reuters used to acquire this data - a company called IFI Claims Patent Services is trying to do something pretty interesting. They have a database of all patents, and are trying to automate the process of sorting and evaluating patents into groups related by subject area and other criteria. Not sure how good the system is, as I have yet to use it, but anything helps. Figuring out what the patent landscape looks like in a specific area can take quite a bit of time unless you have quite a bit of prior experience in the specific field *and* in the IP aspects of the specific field.

Friday, January 9, 2009

On the value of ideas and sweat equity

I want to address a fairly common meme that shows up quite often when you deal with inventors and entrepreneurs, especially young ones. The meme is basically "We need to play this one very close to the vest, encrypt all our discussions, get folks to sign NDA's or contracts before we talk to them in any detail, and be very careful who we talk to at all. Because if we are not careful, someone will steal our unique and highly profitable idea."

After the first few patents you file or companies you start you realize a couple of things:

1) The idea itself is at most 10-20% of the insight and sweat equity required to get something off the ground. More commonly 1-5%.
2) Once you start implementing or building something new, usually there are follow on insights developed as a result that are far more important than the original idea.
3) If the idea is easy enough to do that almost anyone could steal and implement it, you should probably try another idea.
4) The kinds of people who are going to put the sweat equity into developing an invention or company most likely will do so on one of *their* ideas, not get all excited about one of yours.
5) Most NDA's dont work. I usually get them signed, but more as part of the process than with the real expectation they will be useful. And only after the negotiations get serious - usually i have disclosed the core of the idea already.
6) Its really not that common to have a 'truly unique' idea. Most likely someone, somewhere has thought about it or something like it, even if it hasn't shown up in the prior art yet.
7) If you are the kind of person who comes up with original ideas, you will have more than you know what to do with. In my experience, folks either come up with 0 or hundreds of good ideas. Not too many come up with between 1 and 10 good ideas.
8) Learning to judge the 'profitability index' and 'effort index' of new ideas is the key to repeated success. If my experience is any guide, you will leave at least 10 good, original, and commercially viable ideas on the shelf for every one you actually pursue. Maybe more like 50 to one.

This blurb was stimulated by a discussion on Slashdot where I posted something fairly similar. Might be worth a full length article at some point, considering how often I hear some variant of this meme.

Contact me if you have any questions about this sort of thing. I am always willing to chat about new ideas and business plans. I even have a very nice bilateral non disclosure agreement that has stood the test of time and can be easily adapted to specific needs.