Engineer’s Spotlight – Tommy Mueller

What do Chesspieces, Ninja Stars, Mastheads and Hot-Air Balloons have in common? Tommy Mueller of course. Calling from Portland, Oregon, Tommy is a relatively new member to GrabCAD, but also an entrepreneur, a metalworker, an inventor and a designer. I stumbled across his blog recently, and we got chatting not just about GrabCAD but his more recent foray into advanced solar systems.

Like about 99% of GrabCADrs, Tommy is a man of metal and of music. You'd think "Obviously a Heavy Metal fanatic."  but no, not quite - funk/trip-hop group Quantic and dub group Bluetech are listed together (along with NIN, so almost). Invention is his other passion, constantly learning about newer technologies and finding new applications to resolve problems. Recently, it's been solar technology, an area of technology that has literally millions of potential paths. "The concept of combining older technologies into new formulations was also very intriguing along with taking a static solution and making it a dynamic one."

Tommy's first foray into Engineering and Design started with welding and fabrication at age 17, working as a Hull Maintenance Technician for the US Navy in Hawaii. "I loved welding and metal work in general, and after leaving the military I was avid about continuing to use my newfound skills, which I applied for over 15 years within a diverse range of fields such as agricultural machinery, airline bomb disposal units, sailboat mast fabrication, concrete cutting, cryogenic components, and ‘rack’ computer manufacturing.". Wait, Airline Bomb Disposal Units? Apparently, they are not 'on the airplane' as I first suspected, but cameras that rotate around the luggage as it passes by and detect bombs.

Like Charles Marlen (who we interviewed earlier this year), metal fabrication can take a toll on the body. At 37 year and with a number of back ailments, Tommy has been concentrating on the management side of his passions, teaching himself web design, running a custom metal shop and getting heavily involved in Solidworks. "I was first introduced to Solidworks and I knew that was what I wanted to do next. I began teaching myself using books and online tutorials, and was able to dive right in. Indeed, a generous birthday gift of an official Solidworks training course really propelled me to the next level early on, introducing more specifics about the software and how to use it properly."

A big question that comes up in the Tutorials is 'How should I learn Solidworks?'. Tommy took the Solidworks Essentials course, spending 5 days covering every aspect of modelling and design intent, stuff "I hadn't given any thought to before. It stepped up my game for sure.". Is it better than teaching yourself? Perhaps. Coming from background in a metal fabrication helps the process along - but ultimately, "having a great amount of knowledge from direct manufacturing experience makes designing within Solidworks very natural to me."

Recently, Tommy has been working with inventor Chris LaDue on 'conical solar cells'. LaDue's thinking and inventions has been truly inspiring stuff, pushing Tommy to avoid the common design dogmas and thinking far outside the box. Or rather, that there is no box. "That's exactly right. There is no box." Education, however important it can be, also cuffs people's mind and hands and prevents them from really grasping newer ideas. "Working on LaDue's project, which is a solar spin cell, it was interesting but disappointing to find that the more educated some people were, the harder it was for them to grasp such a new and innovative concept. Regarding the power output specifically, they were too stuck on certain solar statistics to be able to allow themselves to open up to any possibility for surpassing and redefining what we know about it.". Take a look here at the video, or V3Solar's website for more info.

In the end, exposing yourself to new ideas, to new people and new ways in which people produce ideas is the first step to becoming a better Engineer and Designer. Collaborating is the key to finding out what you thought was true wasn't, or teaching someone else your experiences. And the biggest barriers to collaborating are finding the right people and having the right tools. "Before GrabCAD, there was no other option which empowered real engineers or striving "idea men" to connect with others in such a dynamic way.".