Posts Tagged ‘Engineering design’

Visualization of heat flux in Energy3D using vector fields

August 14th, 2014 by Charles Xie
Fig. 1: Winter in Boston
One of the strengths of our Energy3D CAD software is its 3D visualizations of energy transfer. These visualizations not only allow students to see science concepts in action in engineering design, but also provide informative feedback for students to make their design choices based on scientific analyses of their design artifacts.

Fig. 2: Summer in Boston
A new feature has been added to Energy3D to visualize heat transfer across the building envelope using arrays of arrows. Each arrow represents the heat flux at a point on the surface of the building envelope. Its direction represents the direction of the heat flux and its length represents the magnitude of the heat flux, calculated by using Fourier's Law of Heat Conduction. Quantitatively, the length is proportional to the difference between the temperatures inside and outside the building, as well as the U-value of the material.

Fig. 3: Winter in Miami
The figures in this post show the heat flux visualizations of the same house in the winter and summer in Boston and Miami, respectively. Like the solar radiation heat map shown in the figures, the heat flux is the daily average. The U-value of the windows is greater than those of the walls and roof. Hence, you can see that the heat flux vectors in the winter sticking out of the windows are much longer than those sticking out of the walls or roof. In the summer, the heat flux vectors point into the house but they are much shorter, agreeing with the fact that Boston's summer is not very hot.

Fig. 4: Summer in Miami
Now move the same house to Miami. You can see that even in the winter, the daily average heat flux points inside the house, agreeing with the fact that Miami doesn't really have a winter. In the summer, however, the heat flux into the house becomes significantly large.

These visualizations give students clear ideas about where a house loses or gains energy the most. They can then adjust the insulation values of those weak points and run simulations to check if they have been fixed or not. Compared with just giving students some formulas or numbers to figure out what they actually mean to science and engineering practices, experiential learning like this should help students develop a true understanding of thermal conduction and insulation in the context of building science and technology.

Here is a YouTube video of the heat flux view.

A 16-year-old’s designs with Energy3D

August 13th, 2014 by Charles Xie
This post needs no explanation. The images say it all.

All these beautiful structures were designed from scratch (NOT imported from other sources) by Cormac Paterson using our Energy3D CAD software.

He is only 16 years old. (We have his parents' permission to reveal his name and his work.)

From conceptual design to detailed design with Energy3D

August 1st, 2014 by Charles Xie
Figure 1: Empire State Building
An important objective of our Energy3D software is to explore how to create CAD software that support students to practice the full cycle of engineering design from conceptual design to detailed design in a single piece of software. We believe that interactive 3D visualizations and simulations provided by CAD tools are cognitively important for K-12 students who have little prior knowledge about the subject of design or the process of design to develop some sense of them -- through practice. Instantaneous visualizations of the results of their actions within the CAD software can give students some concrete clues to develop, share, and refine their ideas directly within a visual design space.

Although there have been some cautions about the use of CAD software in design education, my take is that, in the very early stage of grassroots design education, the problem is not that students are handicapped by a design tool; the problem is that they lack ideas to start with or skills to put their ideas into actions and should be aided by an intelligent design tool (in addition to a teacher, of course). A good CAD tool will be very instructive in this stage. Only after students rise to a certain expert level will the limitations of the CAD software begin to emerge. Often in the K-12 settings, the time constraint does not allow the majority of students to reach that level through conventional instruction, however. Hence, it is likely that the positive effects of using CAD software in K-12 engineering education will outweigh the negative effects, letting alone that students will learn important computer design and modeling skills that will be extremely useful to their future STEM careers.
Figure 2: Freedom Tower

But not all CAD software were created equal. Many CAD software have been developed for professional engineers and are not appropriate for K-12 applications, even though many software vendors have managed to enter the K-12 market in recent years. Given the rise of engineering in K-12 schools, it is probably the right time to rethink how to develop a CAD platform that supports design, learning, and assessment from the ground up.

Our Energy3D CAD software has provided us a powerful platform to ponder about these questions. From the beginning of this project back in 2010, we had been envisioning a CAD platform that integrates conceptual design, detailed design, collaborative design, numerical analysis, designer modeling, machine learning, and digital fabrication. After four years' continuous work, the software can now do not only conceptual design like a sketch tool but also detailed design like a production CAD program (look at the details in Figure 3). In terms of education, this means that it has a very short learning curve that allows all students to translate their ideas into computer models in a short amount of time and, meanwhile, a very deep design space that allows some of the willing students to advance to an expert level. With these capacities, we are now conducting leading-edge data mining research to investigate how to facilitate the transition. The research will eventually translate into novel software features of the CAD program.
Figure 3: Kendall Square

Cormac Paterson, a brilliant high school student from Arlington, MA, has demonstrated these possibilities. He has created many designs with Energy3D that are showcased in our model repository, including all the designs shown in the figures of this post.

On the instructional sensitivity of computer-aided design logs

July 20th, 2014 by Charles Xie
Figure 1: Hypothetical student responses to an intervention.
In the fourth issue this year, the International Journal of Engineering Education published our 19-page-long paper on the instructional sensitivity of computer-aided design (CAD) logs. This study was based on our Energy3D software, which supports students to learn science and engineering concepts and skills through creating sustainable buildings using a variety of built-in design and analysis tools related to Earth science, heat transfer, and solar energy. This paper proposed an innovative approach of using response functions -- a concept borrowed from electrical engineering -- to measure instructional sensitivity from data logs (Figure 1).

Many researchers are interested in studying what students learn through complex engineering design projects. CAD logs provide fine-grained empirical data of student activities for assessing learning in engineering design projects. However, the instructional sensitivity of CAD logs, which describes how students respond to interventions with CAD actions, has never been examined, to the best of our knowledge.
Figure 2. An indicator of statistical reliability.

For the logs to be used as reliable data sources for assessments, they must be instructionally sensitive. Our paper reports the results of our systematic research on this important topic. To guide the research, we first propose a theoretical framework for computer-based assessments based on signal processing. This framework views assessments as detecting signals from the noisy background often present in large temporal learner datasets due to many uncontrollable factors and events in learning processes. To measure instructional sensitivity, we analyzed nearly 900 megabytes of process data logged by Energy3D as collections of time series. These time-varying data were gathered from 65 high school students who solved a solar urban design challenge using Energy3D in seven class periods, with an intervention occurred in the middle of their design projects.

Our analyses of these data show that the occurrence of the design actions unrelated to the intervention were not affected by it, whereas the occurrence of the design actions that the intervention targeted reveals a continuum of reactions ranging from no response to strong response (Figure 2). From the temporal patterns of these student responses, persistent effect and temporary effect (with different decay rates) were identified. Students’ electronic notes taken during the design processes were used to validate their learning trajectories. These results show that an intervention occurring outside a CAD tool can leave a detectable trace in the CAD logs, suggesting that the logs can be used to quantitatively determine how effective an intervention has been for each individual student during an engineering design project.

Design replay: Reconstruction of students’ engineering design processes from Energy3D logs

June 18th, 2014 by Charles Xie
One of the useful features of our Energy3D software is the ability to record the entire design process of a student behind the scenes. We call the reconstruction of a design process from fine-grained process data design replay.


Design replay is not a screencast technology. The main difference is that it records a sequence of CAD models, not in any video format such as MP4. This sequence is played back in the original CAD tool that generated it, not in a video player. As such, every snapshot model is fully functional and editable. For instance, a viewer can pause the replay and click on the user interface of the CAD tool to obtain or visualize more information, if necessary. In this sense, design replay can provide far richer information than screencast (which records as much information as the pixels in the recording screen permit).


Design replay provides a convenient method for researchers and teachers to quickly look into students' design work. It compresses hours of student work into minutes of replay without losing any important information for analyses. Furthermore, the reconstructed sequence of design can be post-processed in many ways to extract additional information that may shed light on student learning, as we can use any model in the recorded sequence to calculate any of its properties.



The three videos embedded in this post show the design replays of three students' work from a classroom study that we just completed yesterday in a Massachusetts high school. Sixty-seven students spent approximately two weeks designing zero-energy houses -- a zero-energy house is a highly energy-efficient house that consumes net zero (or even negative) energy over a year due to its use of passive and active solar technologies to conserve and generate energy. These videos may give you a clue how these three students solved the design challenge.

Global pattern of insolation predicted by Energy3D

May 31st, 2014 by Charles Xie
Figure 1. Global insolation pattern from Pole to Pole
The Sun's power drives the climate of the Earth. Accurately modeling the incident solar radiation, namely, insolation, at a given location is important to the design of high-performance buildings. As I have blogged last week, the insolation calculation in our Energy3D software considers the incident angle of the Sun to the surface, the duration of the day, and the air mass. And we have recently incorporated the effect of altitude and the ambient inputs.

Figure 2. Real data for the three locations (source)
In Energy3D, we can easily investigate the global pattern of insolation by horizontally placing a sensor module on the ground and then collecting the sensor data throughout the year. We can easily change the latitude and collect a new set of data. Figure 1 shows the global insolation pattern from the North Pole to the South Pole. The time integral of each curve represents the total solar energy a location at the corresponding latitude receives. There is an interesting observation from Figure 1: The Equator doesn't actually have the highest peak value and its peak values are not in the summer but in the spring and fall. However, because the insolation does not differ very much from season to season in the Equator, its time integral is much larger, which is the Equator is hot all year round.
Figure 3. Energy3D's prediction


How accurate are the predictions of Energy3D? Let's pick three locations that someone has collected real data, as shown in Figure 2. More insolation data can be found on this website. (Surprisingly, the peak solar energy at the South Pole is higher than the peak solar energy at the Equator.)

Figure 3 shows that the insolation values predicted by Energy3D. As you can see, the predicted trend agrees reasonably well with the trend in the real data. Overall, Energy3D tends to underestimate the insolation by about 50% (after unit conversion), however.

The effect of air mass on building solar performance

May 26th, 2014 by Charles Xie
Figure 1
As it travels through the atmosphere of the Earth, the light from the Sun interacts with the molecules in the air and are scattered or absorbed, causing the radiation energy that ultimately reaches the ground to weaken. This effect is more significant in early morning or late afternoon than at noon because sunlight has to travel a longer distance in the atmosphere before reaching the ground (Figure 1) and, therefore, has a higher chance of being scattered or absorbed in the atmosphere. This is also why stars appear to be less bright at the horizon than above head.

In solar energy engineering, this effect is called the air mass, which defines the length of the sunlight’s path through the atmosphere (not to be confused with air mass in meteorology, which defines a volume of air that can be as large as thousands of square miles).

Why is the air mass important to predicting solar energy performance of a building?

Figure 2
Let's consider a high latitude location like Boston. For a south-facing window, the Sun is lower in the sky in the winter, causing more solar energy to shine into the house, compared with the case in the summer. This is known as the projection effect (Figure 2). Does this mean that we get a lot more solar energy from the window in the winter like the cross-sections of the solar beams in Figure 2 seem to indicate? Not so fast.

In Boston, the day in the winter can be as short as 9 hours and the day in the summer can be as long as 15 hours. So even if the projection effect favors the winter condition, the duration of the day doesn't. Our calculation must consider these two competing factors. After these considerations, the solar energy the window gains in 12 months is shown in Figure 3: It turns out that the window still gets more energy in the winter -- the projection effect wins big!

For now.

OK, let's now include the effect of the air mass in the calculation. Big surprise (at least to me when I first saw the results)!

Figure 3
Figure 4 shows that a south-facing window no longer picks up the highest amount of solar energy in the winter. Its solar gain peaks in the spring and fall and the difference between the summer value and the winter value decreases dramatically.

As comparisons, Figures 3 and 4 also show the results for a west-facing and a north-facing window, both peaking in the summer (for different reasons that we will not elaborate here).

Figure 4
Is this finding the universal truth? Not at all! It turns out that the peak solar gain of a south-facing window depends on the latitude. Figure 5 shows the comparison of four locations from Miami to the North Pole. In Miami, the energy gain peaks in the winter and declines almost to zero in the summer. In contrast, at the North Pole (to which anywhere else is south), the energy gain peaks in the summer and is nearly zero for almost six months. The situation of Moscow is between Boston and the North Pole, with the peaks moving more towards the summer and are less distinguishable.
Figure 5

Given Figure 5, the fact that a south-facing window in Boston receives peak solar energy in the spring and fall becomes comprehensible now -- by the law of mathematics, the transition from the Equator to the North Pole must be smooth and the energy peak of any latitude in-between must be somewhere between winter (the season of peak energy in the Equator) and summer (the season of peak energy in the North Pole).

Interestingly enough, the peak energy at the North Pole is comparable to that at any other location in Figure 5. Considering that the Arctic has 24 hours of sun in the summer and the projection effect reaches maximum, this result is in fact a good demonstration of the air mass effect. Without the air mass, the North Pole would have gotten three times of solar energy as it does now, making the Arctic a tropical resort in the summer. Our planet would have been quite different.

All these analytic capabilities are freely available in our Energy3D software and all you need to do are some mouse clicks and some thinking. For the air mass calculation, you can choose to use the Homogeneous Sphere Model (default) or Kasten-Young Model. You can also turn the air mass off temporarily to evaluate its effect, just like what I showed in this article -- this is a piece of cake in Energy3D but is impossible to do in reality because you cannot turn the atmosphere off!

Building performance analyses in Energy3D

April 6th, 2014 by Charles Xie
Energy3D (Tree image credit: SketchUp Warehouse and Ethan McElroy)
A zero-energy building is a building with zero net energy consumption over a year. In other words, the total amount of energy used by the building on an annual basis is equal to or even less than the amount of renewable energy it produces through solar panels or wind turbines. A building that produces more renewable energy than it consumes over the course of a year is sometimes also called an energy-plus building. Highly energy-efficient buildings hold a crucial key to a sustainable future.


One of the goals of our Energy3D software is to provide a powerful software environment that students can use to learn about how to build a sustainable world (or understand what it takes to build such a world). Energy3D is unique because it is based on computational building physics, done in real time to produce interesting heat map visualization resembling infrared thermography. The connections to basic science concepts such as heat and temperature make the tool widely applicable in schools. Furthermore, at a time when teachers are required by the new science standards to teach basic engineering concepts and skills in classrooms, this tool may be even more relevant and useful. The easy-to-use user interface enables students to rapidly sketch up buildings of various shapes, creating a deep design space that provides many opportunities of exploration, inquiry, and learning.


In the latest version of Energy3D (Version 3.0), students can compute the energy gains, losses, and usages of a building over the course of a year. These data can be used to analyze the energy performance of the building under design. These results can help students decide their next steps in a complex design project. Without these simulation data to rationalize design choices, students' design processes would be speculative or random.

A complex engineering design project usually has many elements and variables. Supporting students to investigate each individual element or variable is key to helping them develop an understanding of the related concept. Situating this investigation in a design project enables students to explore the role of each concept on system performance. With the analytic tools in Energy3D, students can pick an individual building component such as a window or a solar panel and then analyze its energy performance. This kind of analysis can help students determine, for example, where a solar panel should be installed and which direction it should face. The video in this post shows how these analytic tools in Energy3D work.

Spring is here, let there be trees!

March 28th, 2014 by Charles Xie
Trees in Energy3D.
Trees around a house not only add natural beauty but also increase energy efficiency. Deciduous trees to the south of a house let sunlight shine into the house through south-facing windows in the winter while blocking sunlight in the summer, thus providing a simple but effective solution that attains both passive heating and passive cooling using the trees' shedding cycles. Trees to the west and east of a house can also create significant shading to help keep the house cool in the summer. All together, a well-planed landscape can reduce the temperature of a house in a hot day by up to 20°C.

The tree to the south side shades the house in the summer.
With the latest version of Energy3D, students can add trees in designs. As shown in the second image in this blog post, the Solar Irradiation Simulator in Energy3D can visualize how trees shade the house and provide passive cooling in the summer.

The Solar Irradiation Simulator also provides numeric results to help students make design decisions. The calculated data show that the tree to the south of the house is able to reduce the sunlight shined through the window on the first floor that is closest to it by almost 90%. Students can do this easily by adding and removing the tree, re-run the simulation, and then compare the numbers. They will be able to add trees of different heights and types (deciduous or evergreen). There will be a lot of design variables that students can choose and test.

A design challenge is to combine windows, solar panels, and trees to reduce the yearly cost of a building to nearly zero or even negative (meaning that the owner of the house actually makes money by giving unused energy produced by the solar panels to the utility company). This is no longer just a possibility -- it has been a reality, even in a northern state like Massachusetts!

Energy3D in France and Energy3D User’s Guide

February 24th, 2014 by Charles Xie
Solar irradiation simulations of urban clusters in Energy3D.
More than four years ago, I blogged about our ideas to develop a computer-aided design (CAD) program for education that is different from SketchUp. We wanted a CAD program that allows students to easily and quickly perform physical analyses to test the functions of their 3D models while constructing them -- in contrast to typical industry practices that involve pre-processing, numerical simulation, and then post-processing. We thought closing the gap between construction and analysis is fundamentally important because students need instantaneous feedback from some authentic scientific computation to guide their next design steps. Without such a feedback loop, students will not be able to know whether their computer designs will function or not -- in the way permitted by science, even if they can design the forms well.

Four years after Saeid Nourian and I started to develop our Energy3D CAD program, we received the following comment from Sébastien Canet, a teacher from Académie de Nantes:
"I am a French STEM teacher and a trainer of technical education teachers in west France. Our teachers loved your software! We were working on an 'eco-quartier' with the goal to use as much passive solar energy as possible. Each student worked with SketchUp to model his/her house and then pasted the model on a map. Then we tested different solar orientations. Your software is a really good complementary tool to SketchUp, though the purposes are not the same. It is fast, easy to use, and perfect for constructing!!! I will use it instead of SketchUp in our activities."

Sébastien wrote that, if we can provide a French version, there would be hundreds of French STEM teachers who will adopt our software through his Académie. We are really happy to know that people have started to compare Energy3D with SketchUp and are even considering using Energy3D instead of SketchUp. This might be a small change to those users who make the switch but it is a big thing to us.

On  a separate note, we just finished the initial version of the User's Guide for Energy3D. We intend this to eventually grow into a book that will be useful to teachers who must, upon the requirement of the Next Generation Science Standards, teach some engineering design in K-12 schools. Our recent experiences working with high school teachers in Massachusetts show the lack of practical engineering materials tailor-made for high school students. As a result, one of the teachers with whom we are collaborating has to use a college textbook on architectural engineering. Perhaps we can provide a book that will fill this gap -- with a student-friendly CAD program to support it.