Meet Bill Alston. Innovator. Creator. Engineer. Sports fan. Oh, and a former Judo Champion.
With 97 patents both issued and pending in a dozen different fields, it’s pretty clear Bill knows a thing or two about innovation and design. In expressing his role as Senior Research Scientist at JUUL Labs, we find out how EXN/Aero is playing a role in a revolutionary alternative for smokers.
Bill’s career began at Polaroid after graduating with BS in mechanical engineering from Tufts University in the 70s. Insight from his undergraduate thesis on non-Newtonian fluids led to a critical flow control system in the SX-70 camera and his first two patents. Heading west after obtaining his Tufts MS degree, he joined Raychem in Silicon Valley to become Principal Engineer and founder – manager of the computer modelling team. Invention continued in the form of finite element multiphysics code powering advances in conductive polymer deicing systems, current-limiting varistors and catheter design for coronary angiography, angioplasty and stent placement.
It was becoming more evident that the ability to conceive a product in a computational space offered – and still offers – great potential. And an emerging passion.
In the ‘90s, Bill moved on to set his own engineering consultancy firm, Alston Associates, helping companies with product development, heat transfer, and even quantum mechanics. Emerging from his multiphysics code was the Duracell on-board tester for alkaline batteries – a product which of course went on to be sold in the billions.
Sport has always been a huge passion for Bill, and while just a keen sports fan these days, he found success as competitor in baseball, college football, windsurfing, Judo (70 Kilo New England Champion, East Coast Champion and Olympic Trials competitor in 1972), and Track (1984 National Masters Champion, 4x100m relay).
His love for sport had some cross over into his work too, leading to development, patenting and marketing of electronic sports training devices that had an impact at National, World, and Olympic levels.
Things have changed dramatically since the late 80s and 90s, and the industry continues to change at rapid pace. In each of Bill’s roles as R&D Fellow at Nektar Therapeutics, R&D Systems Engineering Manager at Hospira, or as Chief Scientist at SolarInfra, Inc., He has witnessed the huge shifts and trends brought to product development and engineering – largely thanks to HPC. The use of CFD-based design is now more widespread than ever, and it’s not hard to see why. CFD vendors have worked hard over the past decade too, to create software that utilizes all those HPC trends.
We caught up with Bill to find out more. Here's what he had to say about the industry, and his latest project with JUUL.
"As a consultant I have seen the great problem facing many engineering consultancies. Access to affordable computing power is not as simple as it sounds. Vendors have created CFD packages that are often entrenched in license costs and contracts, and present a real tangible problem for those who do not have access to huge budgets. The one-size-fits-all CFD software response simply doesn’t work for many.
Aside from cost, many common CFD packages still can’t guarantee to solve certain problems, or leave engineers facing further investment down the line for product maintenance or an extension of their hardware. This can present a huge risk.
This was an issue I experienced first-hand when I joined JUUL Labs full time back in April 2017.
JUUL itself was founded by two guys, James Monsees and Adam Bowen, who applied their own background in product design to the challenge of finding a better alternative to smoking. As smokers themselves, they were pretty dissatisfied with the health and social impact of cigarettes, and when they couldn’t find an alternative, decided to act.
The industry hadn’t materially evolved in over a century, and after some consideration, James and Adam recognized a ground-breaking opportunity to provide a nicotine level alternative not found anywhere else on the market.
JUUL’s mission is to eliminate combustible cigarettes, delivering a nicotine satisfaction akin to a cigarette in a format that’s simple and easy to use. JUUL’s processor-controlled heating system warms liquid to an ideal vaporization temperature while avoiding fluid degradation. In short, this means whether you inhale in short puffs or deep draws, the JUUL vapor is always under control.
However, we are always striving to make the product better.
When it came to identifying CFD software for JUUL product development, we faced two choices. The traditional, long-established vendors offer impressive software, but it comes at a price. These purchase or license costs would be pretty unaffordable to many consultants, and we found that even after such an investment it was unlikely that the crucial – and extremely difficult – problems could be solved and solved in a time-efficient manner.
We opted for Envenio’s EXN/Aero, something of a disruptor to the CFD sector. The Envenio business approach is different. Where many other vendors will try to sell all-in-one packages or add-ons in pursuit of finding a solution, the Envenio team are genuinely interested in developing the EXN/Aero software further, and helping a client to solve a particular problem in the best way. This client-first approach is something we appreciated, and the on-demand nature of the software is surely hugely beneficial for consultants in the industry who may have previously had to pass on large costs to their customers.
The biggest challenge in the current project is the part for which Envenio is doing the heavy lifting; viscous flow in the wick in combination with fluid and heat loss through vaporization phase change.
Part of the difficulty is that from room temperature to the heated coil, the JUUL fluid drops two orders of magnitude in viscosity. Also crucial are surface tension forces, also temperature-dependent, powering Darcy flow in the wick. In the present JUUL case the wick is anisotropic in the r-z plane, which further makes things interesting.
To my knowledge, the complete model from first principles has not been done. Anywhere.
The ‘industry’ has been stuck in a classic Clayton Christensen Innovator’s Dilemma model by driving one-size-fits-all CFD software to ever more perfection and higher cost. In that context, Envenio represents the disruptive technology. It is bringing what was before prohibitively expensive to a much larger customer base. At first, there may be some awkward aspects, but these will smooth out with more time and front end work – something the Envenio team is highly committed to.
If there is success in meeting the challenge cited above, then we at JUUL should be able to invent the next generation product in computational space".
Be like Bill. Try EXN/Aero for yourself...
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