Analog Electronics Politics Renewable Energy Supply Chain

Solar Automation and Micro-Factories

I have a friend who alerted me to a company out in New Mexico known as Solar Automation. They don’t make solar panels; rather, they make the equipment to make solar panel arrays. However, what I find most intriguing about the company is their concept of Micro-Factories. In the case of Solar Automation, the basic idea is that a small team of people are capable of creating solar arrays by soldering the tiny wires with non-lead solder. This same concept could be expanded to many other applications, including mechanical or auto assembly, textiles, food preparation (already done at caterers, really).

Although it exists on a slightly larger scale, China epitomizes the Micro-Factory model. They have large labor pools using simple equipment to make incrementally more complex equipment. One example might be a board house that hand assembles and solders through-hole part boards. This could instead be done in a large facility with automation on expensive equipment. However, the cost for the equipment would likely mandate a large overall throughput for the factory in order to justify the cost of the equipment. Conversely, a smaller hand soldering operation could easily scale the number of people required to make an order of boards. As for energy savings, there can be higher efficiency with a laborer using a low wattage soldering iron as compared to heating lamps or continuously heating a wave solder machine.

The pivotal point in this argument is whether or not the end product requires increasing complexity in the machines that construct it. Solar is a good example. The panels themselves are not particularly complex, mostly they are tons and tons of PN junctions that convert incident light into flowing electrons. However, the chemicals and the semiconductor processing equipment is very complex.

So what are the benefits of Micro-Factories?

  1. Local workforce – With the exception of a privileged few (non-whiners), no one will contend that the US and the world economy is hitting some tough times. Local jobs are outsourced or cut outright. Mom and pop shop workers are now greeters at WalMart. Why not instead allow lower education workers have a job creating something useful for society and the environment, rather than peddling trinkets made 6000 miles away? Added bonus: Your workers do not have to travel from far away to work, thereby cutting down on costs and emissions.
  2. Simple training – Training is not cheap. If you ask people at Samsung, I was training for roughly a year and a half to do my job (and promptly left for a new one). It takes times to get into the swing of things at companies, no matter the task. Why not make the task simpler? The Solar Automation takes a complicated end process and allows simple training to quickly begin.
  3. Built in quality control (eyes) – While this would hinge on the enthusiasm of the workers (and therefore dependent on myriad other factors), it’s a fact that most computers do not notice something innately wrong with a process. Most people will notice if a solar panel is discolored or if a wire is hanging off where it’s supposed to be connected. Until the day when computers are smarter than humans (and cheaper), people will implement a natural form of quality control.

What are the drawbacks, you ask?

  1. If you give a mouse a cookie (cutter job), he’s going to want benefits – My own views about benefits and healthcare aside, it’s a fact that people expect some form of benefits, most easily represented in business as overhead. It expands beyond healthcare and such (think tables and chairs and other things that people expect from jobs), so you might have to label the job as “an alternative workplace” where compensation is higher (in the event you don’t want to/have to provide benefits). Doesn’t mean you can’t have a productive workplace though.
  2. In the solar example, there are still high material costs (the actual solar cells), so the margins will be squeezed. In general, assembly jobs are meant to be high volume, low margin endeavors, so there are risks when material costs rise; doubly so if your revenues are stagnant (because of contracts or otherwise).
  3. Sometimes it’s still cheaper to ship repetitive jobs overseas or automate a process. That’s all there is to it.

Micro-Factories could be a great way to increase employment, mobilize a stagnant workforce and help cut down on emmissions. I would highly suggest you check out the Solar Automation page and leave comments on other places you have seen similar ideas implemented.

Analog Electronics Music Renewable Energy Supply Chain

Keep it simple, stupid

Keep it simple, stupid

The KISS principle is pertinent in nearly every aspect of my life. I can’t begin to relay the number of times I have had to convince myself to step back from a situation–engineering or otherwise–and ask what the simplest solution is. Be it electronics at work or at home, renewable energy or even my investing, I encounter the KISS principle over and over again.

A tenet of the ever-expanding chip market is that the more functions that were once done with discrete components and can now be moved into the confines of a chip, the better. This is done either directly on silicon or by setting multiple pieces of silicon next to each other in the plastic packaging and wiring them together. This idea started a long time ago but is being to manifests itself in many different ways. One of the earliest examples is the op-amp. True, the form and function of the op-amp is different than the cascodes and the vacuum tubes that preceded it; but the idea of bringing the capacitor (to control the slew rate) and the transistors required to drive the differential inputs and the output all into the same package were just the first examples of combining discrete elements into an easily re-usable device was new. Another driving force was the idea that this device can be mass produced and sold at a lower cost thanks to economies of scale. More recently we have seen more and more functions brought into the chip packaging. One such example is the FPGA, which not only reduces the need for external logic gates in some bulky package, but it also makes it reconfigurable. And now, predictably enough, this same concept is being brought into play with analog! There are now chip manufacturers that make Field Programmable Analog Arrays (FPAA). Usually this consists of an op-amp, some analog switches and passive components, such as resistors and capacitors (for filtering). The device can be “programmed” to select any number of functions, with the potential for ever increasing complexity (though signal integrity would be a concern of mine). The final example is a product offering called the uModule from Linear Technology, with others doing similar things. It is an interesting concept because they are bringing in even more discrete components, such as inductors on a DC-DC converter; inductors are typically set outside the chip because of size concerns.

So how do these complicated chips affect designers and end users? They make things simpler (in theory). Open any modern day cell phone or look at a tear down, and you will see very little on the board in terms of discrete components (granted, this is also for space concerns). But chips that have everything included really do make everything simpler. Sometimes they are drop in solutions, such as with the uModule. All you need to do is determine the DC to DC conversion you want and then populate the board with their chip and two capacitors. On cell phones, there is usually 1 chip for each type of communication protocol (WiFi, CDMA, etc). If and when FPAAs ever become popular, they will only require that you populate a board with them, route the proper signals and then program what kind of filtering and amplification you want. This could even be as simple as saying what knee frequency you require and if you are particularly sensitive to ripple in the passband or stopband. Then the chip would know to use a butterworth, chebyshev, bessel, etc to get your desired results. The main point is, more and more people will be able to design systems, because the chip makers are paying attention to the minutiae (for a price, of course). This then allows fewer designers to make more designs, faster. Companies love the sound of that, because then they get more bang for their buck. As an aspiring futurist, I would even venture a guess that the system designers of tomorrow will really be software people with a knack for picking out parts. They will know what they need each part of the design to do and then will go through a catalog that will do it.

OK, so aside from using systems on a chip and not bothering to design systems when I can buy them, how else do I keep it simple? Well, a burgeoning hobby of mine is vintage analog electronics. Really I bought a 1968 Wurlitzer 200A electric piano on a whim and decided to fix it up/learn how to play it. The latter of those two goals is too lofty in the near term and shan’t be discussed here; however, the former of those goals has presented some good lessons from pulling this fine piece of equipment apart. When I first opened it and saw the components, I decided right away that I would  be redesigning everything, including a new circuit board and using the most efficient new parts. However, as I’ve dug into the design I’ve found that not only would this be silly, it could be detrimental. One of the best things about vintage audio electronics is the intangible “warm” sound they often have. This could be from using vacuum tubes or just noisy components that were designed to create the best sound they could at the time. If I replaced everything, I would lose the natural sound of the instrument, basically rendering it useless (in terms of re-sale and in terms of playability). Instead, the simplest course of action is to replace the dried out capacitors with the closest match I can and leaving everything else alone. Simplicity wins again!

Renewable energy, specifically solar, has begun taking the KISS principle to a new level. Solar panels are not yet cheap or abundant as we want and need them to be. But mirrors are! So why not take a really simple method of essentially putting mirrors on a parabolic dish and then pointing it at a water tower? This simple approach then forces the steam through a turbine and voila, electricity. Now create a project that does this many times over, in a desert no less, and you have a serious contender for long term energy independence.

“The best way to own common stocks is through an index fund.”–Warren Buffett…The best investor in the world and one of my personal heroes, says this about 99% of investors. Regardless of what this says about his confidence in the average (and not so average) investor, I think it is a perfect example of keeping it simple. In fact, it doesn’t really get much simpler. And history has proven it too. In 2006, a study found that only .6% of active money managers can beat the market. Keeping it simple and buying that index mutual fund will ease your mind and your wallet!

Do I follow these ideas in my life and work? Sometimes. But as I experience more and more, I find that the KISS principle is one that could bring more harmony into many different aspects of my life.

Blogging Learning Life Supply Chain


Welcome Alltop visitors!

I am unfortunately becoming an information junky. I have friends in DC and they have mentioned on multiple occasions that this is the norm at least in our nation’s capital; that people consider being news-knowledgeable to be a social status. Well, I guess I’m part of it; I love being connected and being in the know, especially about engineering and analog electronics. Don’t worry though, I’m still pretty low on the social ladder and I like it that way :). is a news aggregator community and I am now a part of that community. I found out about it from a badge on Penelope Trunk’s blog (my favorite for career related issues) and I requested to be a part of the community (yes, I’m that guy). It was started by Will Mayall, Kathryn Henkens, and Guy Kawasaki. (EDIT: I had confused Guy Kawasaki and Robert Kiyosaki. Sorry!) As far as I have read, all are serial entrepreneurs and Alltop is a great start.

Anyway, if you are interested in finding a lot of information in one space, this is it. I kind of think of it as a Google Reader, but someone else is filing all the stories into neat little compartments. You’ll find my site under “E” for engineering, but I’m thinking about lobbying them to file me under “N” for nerd. We’ll see. Enjoy Alltop!

PS. Fun fact about…the “Moms” feed has the most of any, so they have to limit the story listing. Who knew there were so many Moms out there blogging and writing? (well, Moms apparently…and

Analog Electronics Renewable Energy Supply Chain

LED supply chain

As LED lighting and nearly all aspects of energy saving and/or renewable energy come into focus in the real world, we need to keep an eye on the economics of it all. You know the big players are. Big attention means big money and as you can see, lots of people want a slice of the action.

A quick synopsis of the above article could be: LEDs don’t work on their own…people need to buy other stuff. I have already written about one such component, the LED driver, in the past few weeks. Other than touching on drivers, the article also mentions other aspects of LED design including heat management, logic control and LED internals. Each of these parts of the whole design will need to ramp production in order to introduce economies of scale on each part level. The most striking number from the above article is that for every dollar spent on a LED (in this case a HB LED, used in commercial and residential lighting), the user must also spend $2-5 on auxillary components. This means that as the use of LEDs increase, so shall the semiconductor interest in driving those LEDs.

Another sign of this is chip makers entering traditionally non-lucrative markets. National Semiconductor has recently added a power management line of silicon aimed at taming the fickle nature of solar panels. When Nat’l enters the fray, you know they have projected some serious growth. So while my optimism for the entire subject of solar power is restrained, things like the new solar chips and the LED articles mentioned above make me happy. Hopefully we’ll see more news like this soon.

Politics Renewable Energy Supply Chain

McCain, Gas Prices & the Enron Loophole – Keith Olbermann

I am definitely a fan of Keith Olbermann. There is no denying that he is more than a little left of center, but I feel that he is a bare-knuckled reporter first and foremost and that he will take it to just about any politician, including Obama. Also, I know it’s corny, but I like that he has adopted the Edward Murrow sign off (“Good night and good luck”) and I think that some of his blunt and thorough investigative reports have earned him the right to do so. He definitely gets a little more riled up though…

Anyway, I think this report that Olbermann gives (see link below) is pertinent to this blog because of the effect of gas prices on renewable energy. Aside from the fact that there really are some crook speculators out there (Ben Graham is rolling over in his grave), I have to wonder if this blog would even exist if the gas prices weren’t so high? Would America really care about the environment if our pocket books weren’t shouting at us? Would anyone really care about solar power other than the environmentalists who were investigating it in the first place? I think the answer to that is no. Americans would have happily gone about their world if gas prices stayed the same. There would still be some fringe interest about the environment and about generating cheap, renewable energy (eventually). But otherwise, we’d still be loving our SUVs here in America.

As I’ve written about before, renewable energy will require economies of scale. There’s no other way to really bring down the prices enough for anyone other than Hollywood celebs and Internet startup gurus to afford the power methods available today. And so even though they mention the banks coming in and hurting the consumers in this clip (as I also mention here), it might be a necessary step in the overall evolution of renewable energy.

To make a big impact in renewable energy we have to accept that it will have to be big business.

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Renewable Energy Supply Chain

Freedom Tower Goes Green, Gets Fuel Cells

So normally I would not write about buildings going green. However, I really like and and I think that this story is pertinent to the thesis of my blog (analog design and renewable energy). Be sure to read the story as linked below.

Anyway, the thing I think is pertinent about adding “green” technology to a building the size and scope of the Freedom Tower is twofold. First, I think that the PR side of it all, by which I mean the publicity generated about renewable energy just by including it, is very relevant. As much as I read about this stuff every single day, I know that a good deal of people have NO clue about their own energy consumption or even that there are other options available. As mentioned in the article, their choice to include fuel cells instead of other readily available power sources such as solar and wind was an odd choice. However, the architects/builders of the new tower could have essentially glued a solar calculator to the top of the spire and said “Hey look, ‘Green’ technology”. As ridiculous as that sounds, I’m sure it still would have had a positive, if not minuscule, effect.

The other thing that is pertinent about adding some kind of renewable technology is my same argument about economies of scale. I have written before about the importance of increasing sales of end products in order to drive production and lower overall costs. I think this will be on of the largest hurdles to overall increases in renewable energy availability. Imagine that instead of buying the 12 400kW generators, they bought 500 solar cells. I would guess that the latter would have a more meaningful effect on the renewable energy market because it would require increases in production and would drive the supply chain. Higher quantities of input supplies to the process (in this case raw silicon and processing technology supplies such as process gases) would allow bulk buying and lower costs. It’s an iterative process and perhaps I’ll have my friend who is a supply chain manager write a guest post on here sometime. I think it’s also important to note here that renewable energy as a whole has an uphill battle because there are SO many technologies available out there that are continually vying for market share. I think over the long term the struggle will unfortunately continue, because there are a lot of good options but each has a hurdle in availability and plausibility in different regions.

For now, check out the links below and keep an eye on these technologies. I also saw a link through on Ecogeek about fuel cell technologies here. It is an interesting piece on the increases in technologies that will allow for fuel cells.

Kudos to the Freedom Tower. Looking forward to the day when NYC buildings start powering each other.

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