Sunday, September 25, 2016

Technology Site Visits

I got a rare chance to have site visits to AT & T IoT* foundry, Oncor micro grid test facility and Da Vinci school on Friday, August 26. I went to the shuttle pickup place near Eisemann Center for Performing Arts in Richardson about 15 minutes ahead of time.

water fountain in from of Eisemann Center
Our first stop is AT & T IoT foundry.  The foundry director Craig hosted us. He led us first to their idea lab, which had many Lego pieces and a few printed circuit boards on a long table which led to many good questions and answers. I was particularly interested in how they generate ideas, and their process of producing market relevant innovations. We stayed in the idea lab for quite some time.

He then showed us a couple projects on how IoT is implemented in real world. One example Craig showed us was to integrate sensors onto corn seed containers. The sensors are used to monitor temperature inside the container, and detect if there is leak during transportation. The driver can monitor the tens of cases of corn seeds in his truck, and driver's monitor is wirelessly connected to a central station. A case of corn seeds is worth ~ $30K. For 10 dollar or so, the client can protect their precious asset - it is a good investment.

IoT is essentially a distributed, wire or wirelessly connected sensor network. The foundry's work is, in a nutshell, integrate existing or customized sensors into commercial products without any change to the products. The sensor carrier has to be cleverly designed to fit into product without interfering the products functions. The carriers could have very complex geometry and thus 3D printing is a very good tool for producing the prototypes in a "fast fail" process.

The foundry's main function is to solve customer IoT problems for free, especially those that clients have no idea on how to do it! Even though the development is free, AT & T got the chance to sell new products, and more importantly to make the clients use AT &T network for their IoT. It is the same as that AT & T gives out free phones to make customers use their network services - as a retired TI business manager on the trip pointed out to me.

AT & T IoT foundry idea lab
3D printing is an important tool for fast prototyping
Containers for Corn Seeds - sensors are installed on it
Our second stop was at Oncor Micro-grid test site. Oncor's chief technology officer Michael hosted us. The overview of Oncor's technology at their immersion room had a glitch - the video system did not cooperate. But the visit to the micro-grid control room was quite exciting - we were greeted by an engineer via 3D hologram! Michael explained to us how the micro-grid works - integration of different energy sources, including wind and solar power. Battery power storage plays an important role in the micro-grid. Battery technology is an area I am interested in - and thus asked several pointed questions among others.

Microgrid control board
The da Vinci School is a preschool with a focus on science education. What drew us there is that it is an exemplary place of green building.  School founding director Mary Ann led us to tour the whole school, talking about various topics at various stops, from green building materials to natural lighting, from generation of wind and solar power on site to conservation of energy, from ceiling to windows to floor.

I am a believer that we should be as "green" as possible. I asked her many questions during the tour. At the very beginning I asked her about how they dealt with original trees at the school construction site, true to the spirit of green, they kept a couple trees at the center court, moved the rest trees to perimeters - no trees were chopped during the construction of the school. At one point I asked her about how much it costed her organization to build the school, and how she raised the money, which led her to tell us her interesting life story and her perseverance to make her dream science focused green school a reality. When we stepped out of the front door of the school leaving, I asked her the question I had when we arrived at the school seeing the wind turbine in front of the school , why the wind turbine was different from most wind turbine I see in wind farms. She had the answer ready - it is the type of wind turbine designed specifically for urban area where wind direction changes constantly.

Our site visits started at 8 am and ended around 7pm. It was a very long day, but the visits were exciting, engaging, stimulating ......

the wind turbine at Da Vinci School
cut-out on the wall to show and tell

* IoT - internet of things

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