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In the Summer of 2015, an intern named Wei Zhen Li joined the young team of engineers and project managers working at a little startup called ConnectDER.

It’s unusual for a summer intern to have a lasting impact on a company, particularly one that’s working at a break-neck speed to affect the course of America’s energy grid, even more so when that intern is fresh out of high school.

Wei graduated with honors from Northeast High School in the spring of 2015, and she plans to study electrical or computer engineering at Drexel University. Like so many wonderful stories of talented people doing incredible things, Wei benefitted from the kindness of a mentor – NextFab’s founder Dr. Evan Malone – who coached Wei and her team in the Philadelphia Futures robotics club.

Connecting with ConnectDER

Evan saw in Wei something that others might not have seen; at the tender age of 17, Wei was already able to design for manufacturing assembly. Even Jon Knauer, the Product Manager for ConnectDER, may not have realized just how lucky he was when Evan suggested Wei as an intern.

A NextFab resident company, ConnectDER sells a low-volume run of its first version of a powerful photovoltaic (PV) solar integration system, which simplifies the process of installing PV systems in homes and commercial settings. Because the company began with a low-volume build, much of the assembly of manufactured pieces is presently done in-house.

For companies with physical goods, manual assembly of a fairly complex product requires a surprising amount of time, tools, and overhead. The parts must be installed with a great deal of precision.

ConnectDER needed to drill several aligned holes in the side of two hinged parts which had been intentionally manufactured without through-holes at the pin locations. It was a project that seemed perfect for a high school graduate – the design and testing of a few jigs that would aid in the process of precisely drilling the hinge pin holes, and then another jig that would help in accurately aligning the hinge pins during installation. Wei’s summer project quickly took shape as Knauer gave her the chance to design something for the team.

ConnectDER CAD redering

Over the Summer, Wei learned SolidWorks (a sophisticated and robust 3D computer-aided design software package that’s notoriously difficult to master), then tested her concepts by 3D printing her jigs using NextFab’s consumer-grade Bukitos and professional-grade Stratsys Dimension printers.

But Wei did not stop there; she took her team to task. Asking them to test the jigs during assembly, and recording time studies to determine which jig arrangement was best. Then back she went to the drawing board until she was happy with the final design, learning just how hard it is to name the latest version. “This is final_v3,” she joked when revealing the latest jig.

Testing notes for 3D printable jigs

In retrospect, Jon Knauer realized that he could have asked Wei for even more. “I mean she’s only a high school senior, and this is what she did,” Knauer confessed in amazement. “If I had known that she was capable of doing this, I would have given her something harder.”

During Wei’s last day as an intern with ConnectDER, she was on hand offering her team support while they used her jigs for assembly, ribbing one teammate as he misaligned and slightly cracked one of her jigs. “I can print another one,” Wei offered. But her team was more interested in luring her back to the office where the company surprised her with a going-away cake. There’s no question that the team has enjoyed her hard work and jovial nature.

ConnectDER team members with NextFab intern Wei Zhen Li

We’re sure that ConnectDER will hear from her again. Wei’s too fun, smart, and interested in reducing the assembly times to stay away for long. And after all, this college freshman is just getting started.

“I’ve never imagined myself working closely with a start-up company, or any client-based company at all,” said Wei. “I have only been exposed to office-setting jobs and this summer internship was a great way to explore my options for the future. It opened my eyes to see different opportunities.”

Making Jigs at NextFab

Designing and testing finished products is a natural occurrence here at NextFab. But we’re also finding a special niche in the rapid prototyping of jigs for low-volume assembly. Because of the unique blend of software and light-to-heavy level digital fabrication tools at our facility, individuals and teams have made excellent use of our facilities as they determine methods of assembly.

Assembly challenges? We can help!