Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Elmer: Open Source Finite Element Software

If you're into science or design engineering, you should probably check out Elmer. Among a host of other great applications, this free, Finland-born software can help you design airplanes, predict the temperature distribution of a heat exchanger, and do your quantum mechanics homework.

At its core, Elmer is an open source finite element solver of partial differential equations. Development of Elmer began in 1995 as a collaboration between Finnish universities, research institutes and private industry, and was primarily developed by Finland's CSC IT Center for Science. Elmer was released as open source in 2005. According to the Elmer FAQ page, Elmer has hundreds of regular users worldwide and thousands of Elmer test users annually.

Click here for a 3-minute video introduction to Elmer.

Elmer processes partial differential equations in a descrete form, and handles coupled systems, non-linearities, and time-dependencies. The Elmer GUI allows the user to either import meshes or create simple ones in a variety of file types, and generates output in .grd, .mesh, and .ep files. The source code of Elmer is written in Fortran 90, C, and C++, and is distributed under the GNU Public License (GPL). The Elmer source code is here on sourceforge.

Here is a 10-minute Elmer tutorial from Elmer's YouTube Channel.

Thank you, Finland. It appears that your song needs a new verse.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Open Source Aircraft Design Software from NASA

I hereby retract any complaints I may have recently made about paying taxes.

The heroes at NASA just gave us some open source aircraft design software called Open VSP (vehicle sketch pad). This open source software is designed to let the  user rapidly create high-fidelity parametric design/structural layout for conceptual aircraft designs, resulting in models that can be processed into formats suitable for engineering analysis. According to the wiki, it's been under development since the early 90's, and J. R. Gloudemans, P.C. Davis, and P.A. Gelhausen presented a publication on the development of VSP at the 34th Aerospace Sciences Meeting and Exhibit in January 1996.

I'm guessing VSP has come a long way since then.

This ten-minute video introduces some of the features of Open VSP, by building and analysing an SR-71 Blackbird-like model:

The above video was created by Bill Fredericks, and stolen from the Open VSP Video Tutorial Page, which also contains a handful of more in-depth video tutorial videos created by Ami Patel.

The Open VSP code repository is on GitHub. The Open VSP wiki is here, and the Open VSP google group is here.

If you want to get going with some open source aircraft design, click here to visit the Open VSP project website and download the software.

You can find lots of free resources for open source aircraft design on my aircraft design page.

Friday, May 25, 2012

3D Printer for CNC Lost Wax Casting Models

Low-Cost rapid Prototyping with metals for high-strength applications is possible with Andreas Bastian's open source laser sintering 3D printer. This is a big step for expanding the functionality of open source microfactories, which have been largely limited to ABS and PLA plastics, and photosensitive resins. Andreas Bastian's 3D Printer makes high-fidelity wax models from 3D CAD files, allowing the user to leverage the precise and rapid prototyping capabilities of CNC systems for lost wax casting applications.

Metal parts created via lost wax casting of printed wax models can be suitable for high strength applications, which strikes me as a first for the DIY microfactory scene. This new design allows the user to draft a part in AutoCAD, then use the resulting .stl file and ReplicatorG to create a GCode file for the printer. The GCode files are sent to the printer's arduino, which has been loaded with custom firmware based on the ultimaker firmware. The arduino transmits instructions to stepper motors and a laser which work together to fuse layers of powdered wax print medium which compose the wax model. Wax models can then be used as the positive for lost wax casting in metal.

This video is from Andreas Bastian's video page for this project...check out the rest of his videos here.

In addition to all the great industrial applications, I would be in no way surprised to see this technology adopted by jewelry designers in the very near future. Who could resist using 3D scans of a customer's hand to print up perfect rings and bangles?

Visit this project's home page!
This printer was featured by Make Magazine in February 2012.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

3D Printers are Multiplying!

At the 2012 Bay Area Maker Faire, Make Magazine's blog took pictures of 23 unique 3D printer designs. Unfortunately I have yet to find write-ups!

As I can find it, I hope to capture information on each of these on my 3D printers page.

To date, the most complete directory of 3D printers I have found is here, from 3Dprinter.net. The director is broken down into the categories of personal 3D printers, commercial 3D printers, 3D printing services, 3D modeling software, free 3D models, and 3D scanners and scanning software.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Green Power Science LLC offers Free DIY Solar Power instructions on Youtube

The folks at GreenPowerScience have provided a free collection of great DIY solar power tutorials.

You may need engineering chops to want to do this sort of thing, but the GreenPowerScience team seems to break things down in a way that makes an engineering or technology background optional. Here's the example that got me inspired to create my own residential solar power system:

I am not sold on the idea that solar power can be cost-effective. In the 2nd quarter of 2011, the average cost of residential solar power systems was $6.42 per Watt. I've heard of DIY solar power gurus claiming to achieve $1 per Watt...but I have also read that solar cells alone cost $2.50/Watt, and that the cost of other components adds up fast. When/if I build my own system inspired by the GreenPowerScience team, I hope to document my costs and time investment for a future post. My swag on financial break-even is as follows:

Divide the initial cost per Watt at installation by 1W x hours/day of sun x (1kW/1000W) x days of sunshine/year x 0.7 to account for reduced generation when sunshine is less direct x $/kWh.  According to my math, the $6.42 per Watt system would take 46 years to pay for itself at 15 cents/kWh. Using the map of average daily solar radiation from nationalatlas.gov could help tighten these numbers a bit.

Here's an informative post from Michael Bluejay on the cost of electricity, and here is another where he makes the case that (subsidized) solar is affordable. Data from the US Energy Information Administration, show that the average cost per kilowatt hour in the USA is 11.5 cents, with a low of 7.99 cents in Idaho and a high of 28.10 cents in Hawaii.

It could be an educational, exciting, and productive form of charity/volunteer work to build and install residential photovoltaic power systems for families who are having difficulty making ends meet, instead of making one-time monetary donations. That sort of project could fit well with Christmas in April initiatives like this one, or Habitat for Humanity.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Can we Make Science Cheaper by Crowd-Sourcing Experiments?

I admit that crowd sourcing science experiments sounds a little risky.  Since it's difficult to be fired from a job you do for free, contributors to crowd-sourced science experiments would have less incentive to do precise work or to keep their paradigms and biases from influencing the results they observe and report. Crowd sourcing science could certainly introduce unexpected and undocumented variables. On the other hand, large data sets are valuable.  And there may be a side benefit to gathering large data sets from an un-characterized group of real people living real lives in real homes - the data may lead to conclusions that are more directly applicable to the populations we are trying to learn about.

We can test the viability of crowd-sourced data collection by comparing conclusions drawn by crowd-sourced experimentation to the conclusions drawn from traditionally collected data. One example of crowd-sourced data collection is fuelly.com, where people report actual gas mileage for their vehicles. I did a quick spot check for the V6 Toyota Camry sedan. It would be an interesting exercise to repeat this check for a large group of vehicles.

On fuelly.com, the 119 participating drivers of V6 Toyota Camry sedans submitted fuel economy data for thousands of fill-ups. For this vehicle make and model, the most frequently reported gas mileage is 24 mpg, with a roughly bell curve shaped distribution of reported mileage ranging from a low of 16 mpg to a high of 32 mpg. According to fueleconomy.gov, fuel economy is measured for pre-production prototypes of new cars by the manufacturer using standardized test procedures specified by federal law. The EPA reviews the test results and spot checks 10 - 15% of them. This methodology predicted that the 2011 V6 Toyota Camry sedan would yield 20 mpg city, 29 mpg freeway, and 23 mpg combined.

In this case, the results are pretty close, but Camry drivers on fuelly.com got slightly better mileage than expected based on EPA regulated test data.  I saw lots of tips on fuelly.com for getting better gas mileage...I suppose it's possible that users of fuelly.com more frequently exhibit a bias toward maximizing fuel economy than the EPA testing procedures account for.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Collaborate on Open Source Hardware Design at CERN's Open Hardware Repository

Much in the spirit of the open source software movement, the Open Hardware Repository is a place on the web for electronics designers to collaborate on open source hardware designs.

The creators of the OHR see peer review, design re-use, improved industry collaboration, better hardware, and a more fun design process as the primary benefits of their collaborative approach. I could not agree more.

I am impressed by the organization and functionality of the OHR collaboration tools. Each project has its own main hub page with tabs for project overview, wiki, activity, mailing list, issues, news, documents, files, and repository.  Each project has a project manager, and a list of developers.  OHR requires the sharing of anything it would take to duplicate each design, and encourages the sharing of all related files.

You can check out the features of their project collaboration platform by browsing the hub for this 5-bit port digital IO card in FMC form-factor.

 Each project is licensed through one of the following licenses featured on the OHR licenses page which links to info on the CERN Open Hardware License (CERN OHL), the GNU General Public License (GPL), the GNU Lesser General Public License (LGPL), and the TAPR Open hardware License (TAPR OHL).
    While I really liked what I saw at the OHR, there is one small catch:  To use the OHR tools for collaborating on hardware designs, the designs must "present an interest to the community of electronics designers for experimental physics facilities."  As the OHR manifesto points out, the target community is broad and diverse enough that the "of interest to the community" constraint is unlikely to be excessively constraining.

    Monday, May 7, 2012

    Free Open Source Wind Farm Design Software

    According to their website, an Albany NY based company called AWS True Power has released open source wind farm design software that is free to download and use.  The free software is called AWS Openwind, and anyone is free to join the community of users and make improvements to the software.  You can download the software, watch instructional videos and view tutorials on the AWS Openwind website.  You can also see screen shots of the software here.

    If you need advanced features like deep array wake models, grid layout, or optimization for cost of energy, AWS has an enterprise version of the software available for sale...but I'm thinking that for my first backyard windmill, the free version will do the trick.

    If you have used the openwind software and have any comments about it, I'd love to hear them.

    I want to develop a free tool with a friendly user interface that will allow casual users to optimize windmill airfoils, siting, and generator parts for construction and use at their homes.  I have used CNC rapid prototyping technology for custom airfoils.  If you are interested in any aspect of optimizing home wind power generation I would love to hear from you.

    The Open Source Tech Revolution wind power resource page is here.

    Thursday, May 3, 2012

    This is the Biggest 3D Printer I have Ever Seen.

    About a month and a half ago, I was fortunate enough to tour the local motors factory. The guys there mentioned that they could really use a 3D printer that could produce larger objects in plastic than their Makerbot is capable of.  Check out the video below to see one in action!

    My favorite thing about this 3D printer:  It is a cross between rapid prototyping technology and a microfactory. The delay between imagining a new chair design and sitting on the real thing is incredibly, amazingly, wonderfully short if all you need to do is make a 3D CAD file, print it, and sit down.

    Dirk Vander Kooij, the designer/programmer/creator of this amazing piece of work, calls the chair that he is printing the "endless chair" because it is made of a seemingly endless (400m) line of plastic. I'm not personally sold on the name, (400m = endless?? Really??) but last time I checked, by the time you are awesome enough to turn old factory equipment into a programmable 3D printer then use it to manufacture fully functional furniture of your own design, you don't need universally appealing product names to be a smashing success.

    Way to go, Dirk!

    Check out the full write-up at the singularity hub.

    Here's Dirk's website:  He has several chair and table designs available for sale in a variety of colors.

    Free College, Anyone?

    Coolest.  Website.  Ever.

    Thanks to one of my brilliant physics major friends from Mercer University, I just learned about a coursera.org, a website where anyone can take college courses for free.  The course offering is not huge yet, but they are working on it.  And they already have a few that could keep me busy for awhile (hello, Statistics 1 and Machine Learning!).  The courses they offer are split into the following categories:

    I have heard it said that the invention of the printing press sparked the industrial revolution by allowing information to flow more freely.  If that is true, then we can expect huge things to come from this new era of free, nearly instant access to information.  Here's lookin' at you, Wikipedia!