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Kilowatts for Humanity

Electricity has led to many of the most important improvements to quality of life and liberations of labor in recent times. And yet, the International Agency for Electricity estimates that around a billion people in the world - about 14 per cent of the global population – still currently do not have access to electricity.

Kilowatts for Humanity (KWH) is an all-volunteer charity organization that aims to provide access to electricity in rural areas of underdeveloped countries through resources, training and mentorship. Much of what KWH provides are photovoltaic off-grid energy kiosks that provide generation, storage, and distribution of electrical energy to people that are unable to access their nation’s electrical grid. The mission is to develop sustainable projects that improve people’s lives.

Kilowatts for Humanity

The energy kiosks KWH designs include a data logger that collects and transmits performance data for the system so the team can understand exactly how all the kiosks are functioning.

"These data loggers are installed alongside every kiosk, and record performance metrics, such as power generated and power consumed. This data is then transmitted to a remote server, allowing KWH personnel to analyze it from the United States," explains Dominic Burgi, a member of the Seattle University Senior Design Team. "This data helps KWH better maintain their systems and improve their future designs."

KWH sought to enhance several aspects of the data logger’s design, so the organization tasked the Seattle University Senior Design Team to develop systematic improvements to their data loggers in everything from circuit boards to software, and the enclosure in which it is housed.

Even before spending the entire 2018/2019 school year working with several members of the KWH Data Acquisition System team, the Seattle University Design Team students had already familiarized themselves with KWH and its mission.

"One student had even accompanied KWH on a microgrid implementation trip to Zambia the previous summer."

The Protocase Connection

When it came to redesigning the enclosure that housed the data logger, the Seattle University design team knew they needed some professional support. Dave Goldsmith, an electrical engineer on the Integration engineering team at Astronics AES (a longtime Protocase customer), donates his time and expertise to KWH as the Data Acquisition team lead, as well as a member of several other teams. He’s also the lead industry liaison of the Seattle University Senior Design team.

"I work in the Airborn Power and Control (APC) section, and on the Research and Development side of our APC business model," Goldsmith explains. "When I first started working with KWH five years ago, the energy I felt from the group drew me in. PhDs, Professional Engineers, Business people, and everyone else, are all so happy to be working with KWH. Seeing how the group accomplishes their goals time and time again is very inspiring. We appreciate volunteers of all types and from all places"

Goldsmith recommended Protocase to manufacture the enclosure because Protocase Designer, the free enclosure design software, would enable the student team to jump in and start their design.

"The Protocase Designer software is very nice. Easy to interact with and build what it is that you need. The options available are also great with the built-in standoffs, [self-clinching] nuts, etc."

Goals of the Project

The design team’s primary goal was to tackle the previous data logger design functionality in areas with spotty cell signals. Occasionally, there would be transmission errors from the data logger when it tried to send performance data without a signal. KWH wanted the data logger to be able to record the information if it couldn’t send it, then continue retrying and send the data when a signal was restored.

KWH also instructed the team to optimize the enclosure for its custom PCB in order to waste less space and with wider traces to lower resistance and heat generation. The enclosure also had to be water and dust resistant.

The primary engineering requirements for the enclosure were:

  • Full port access to the data logger's internal Raspberry Pi
  • Standoffs, for all of the major electrical components
  • Exterior branding, so the device was easy to recognize
  • Sensor input labeling, for ease of use
  • A rigid exterior, for device durability

Experiencing Custom Manufacturing with Protocase

The Seattle Design Team used Protocase Designer, Protocase’s free enclosure-design software, for creating the CAD model and design of their enclosure.

"Working with Protocase Designer was terrific. The tool is straightforward to use and provided every option necessary to ensure our custom enclosure fit all of our needs," says Burgi. "The online tutorials and wiki made coming up to speed on how to use the tool very easy."

The team used Protocase Designer to create a U-Shape enclosure that included all access and mounting points for all of the necessary components. The cold-rolled steel enclosure featured ANSI 70 gray powdercoat, as well as digital print for labels and logos.

"After designing the enclosure, the team worked with Protocase to review the design and place our order," explains Burgi. "Everyone the team interacted with was friendly, prompt and seemed genuinely interested in our project and its success."

Looking to the Future

Now that the team has performed full testing, the new data logger device is ready for KWH’s next trip to Zambia. The data logger improvements they have made will help the team better collect data on future KWH microgrid installations.

"KWH's current goal is to prepare for their next kiosk implementation trip to Zambia, taking place this September," says Burgi. "There, a new microgrid system will be installed, along with one of the data loggers the senior design team constructed."

The device is entirely open source, with all design files and software available through KWH. The data logger and the iterations following it will be important in the development and maintenance of a variety of projects in the years to come

"KWH and the Seattle University senior design team are incredibly grateful for Protocase's sponsorship of this project. Working with Protocase added a great experience for the senior design team, and allowed us to provide KWH a fantastic deliverable."