Tuesday, May 23, 2017

A New York Times Team Films Antarctica

McMurdo Station scientists and support staff wait on the Ross Ice Shelf to observe a NASA balloon launch.CreditJonathan Corum/The New York Times
In this Times Insider piece, Jonathan Corum explains how a team of four reporters and videographers were able to shoot a series of virtual-reality films in Antarctica, without seeing any of the footage.
Times Insider delivers behind-the-scenes insights from The New York Times. Visit us at Times Insider and follow us on Twitter. Questions or feedback? Email us.
    McMURDO STATION, Antarctica — We landed on the ice in time for Thanksgiving dinner: 41 turkeys and 140 pies.
    Thanksgiving is the first long weekend of the year for the roughly 700 support staff and 200 scientists who work at McMurdo Station from October to February, through the southern summer. (About 125 people stay on to keep the station running through the long, dark Antarctic winter.)
    McMurdo was an eight-hour flight south from New Zealand on a military cargo plane. We left the lush greenery of South Island and touched down on the Ross Ice Shelf, a flat plain of floating ice extending to the horizon.
    Continue reading the main story
    Four of us made the trip: Graham Roberts oversees virtual-reality projects at The Times; Evan Grothjan has filmed Times VR projects on five continents; Justin Gillis is a climate reporter; and I am the graphics editor for the Science desk.
    Evan Grothjan, left, Jonathan Corum, Justin Gillis and Graham Roberts. CreditElaine Hood/U.S. Antarctic Program
    We were confined to the station for the first few days, until we completed our orientation and field safety training. A mountaineer in a “Gut moose?” T-shirt showed new arrivals how to secure a tent on snow, drill an ice anchor, prime a camp stove and recognize hypothermia.
    (One survival takeaway: If you’re ever stuck in a tent in remote Antarctica, don’t bother using your signal mirror for signaling. There’s probably nobody on the horizon to see your flashes, anyway. The best the mirror can do is keep you distracted by providing something interesting to look at: yourself.)
    After training, we were allowed to leave the relative safety of the station and film ice in all its forms: the seasonal sea ice covering McMurdo Sound, the pressure ridges dotted with Weddell seals and their weaning pups, the Texas-size floating pancake of the Ross Ice Shelf, a cascading edge of the East Antarctic ice sheet, and more glaciers than we could count or name.


    The Antarctica Series

    Four virtual-reality films take you on, above and below the Antarctic ice.
    Several McMurdo veterans told us that we saw more of Antarctica in two weeks than most scientists see in five years. We took that in part as a caution. All the logistics, fuel, resources and time devoted to us could have been spent elsewhere, on science. But we also took it as a challenge to recreate some part of our Antarctic experience and share it with our viewers, in virtual reality.
    Our VR camera equipment is the best available, but not well suited for freezing temperatures, glacial winds, volcanic dust and military aircraft. We packed at least two of everything, including prototype cameras we used to take the first virtual-reality stereo footage ever shot in Antarctica.
    Our main camera was a ring of 16 GoPros. Those cameras share a power source — a 25-pound block of lithium batteries that makes airplane security cringe and is awkward to lug across ice — but they don’t share memory, so Evan had to keep track of multiple sets of 16 tiny memory cards, swapping them out barehanded in the freezing temperatures whenever problems arose.
    Evan Grothjan adjusts a virtual reality camera on top of Observation Hill, a volcanic cone overlooking McMurdo.CreditJonathan Corum/The New York Times
    Each of the 16 cameras captured a small part of the scene, but stitching the shots into a 360-degree stereo image required the huge computing power of Google’s cloud. McMurdo’s internet connection was painfully slow and shared by 900 people, so uploading footage was impossible. We had to shoot every scene without knowing how it would look when we got back to New York.
    We packed hand warmers around our cameras to squeeze a few extra minutes from the batteries, which drain more rapidly in the cold. We learned never to change lenses in the field, because McMurdo’s volcanic dust gets everywhere.
    And one morning we were so focused on rigging a gyroscope-stabilized pole to film inside a helicopter that we forgot to bring our normal tripod. Evan became a human camera stand, striking a yoga pose and trying not to shiver in a stiff wind blowing at 25 degrees below zero.
    McMurdo Station is the largest outpost in Antarctica and is run by the National Science Foundation. We visited on a media grant, which encourages reporting on science in Antarctica. And we worked closely with the Rosetta project, a collaboration of Columbia University and other institutions to map the structure of the Ross Ice Shelf.
    Weather is the great unknown, and the great breaker of schedules. Our first week was spectacular — sunny and hovering at a balmy 20 degrees at McMurdo, which allowed us to film more locations than we thought would be possible. But our planned flight to the South Pole was scrubbed several times when the weather turned against us. In our final try, we circled the pole five times in heavy clouds before the flight crew abandoned the effort to land and returned to McMurdo. Though we never set foot on or filmed at the pole, we circumnavigated the world five times in the attempt.
    After two weeks in Antarctica, it was time to leave. We’d been warned that returning to New Zealand would be strange: When you step off the plane you can smell the humidity. Your phone comes to life after weeks of silence and brings with it the distractions and interruptions of the outside world.
    We arrived in New York with 10 terabytes of footage and produced The Antarctica Series of four virtual-reality films shot on, above and below the ice: “A Shifting Continent,” “McMurdo Station,” “Three Six Juliet” and “Under a Cracked Sky.”

    Monday, May 22, 2017

    On The Outskirts Of Houston A Giant HVAC Plant Employs Thoiusands

    On outskirts of Houston, giant HVAC plant employs thousands

    May 20, 2017 Updated: May 22, 2017 12:20pm
    Japanese HVAC maker Daikin built one of the largest industrial buildings in the nation to manufacture ventilation units in northwest Harris County.
    Media: Dylan Baddour /
    Takeshi Ebisu took in the quiet stretch of Waller County prairie, some 40 miles northwest of Houston and half a world from his native Japan. The most memorable thing he saw was a cow walking near a pond.
    Three years later, the pasture has been transformed into a vast and modern manufacturing space, where Ebisu oversees a staff of thousands of engineers and welders, fabricators and warehousers as CEO of Goodman Manufacturing and the place where just about every Goodman, Daikin and Amana air conditioner or heating unit sold in the U.S. and Canada is made.
    Ebisu's gleaming domain rises up as a surprise to drivers speeding along U.S. 290 toward Brenham. It covers some 94 acres under a single roof, the equivalent of 37 conventional city blocks, making the plant No. 2 behind a Boeing jetliner-assembly plant on the nation's list of largest industrial buildings.
    But its enormity also can be measured in less physical terms, as a multibillion-dollar generator of well-paying jobs to produce and supply the units in the world's biggest market for them. Bob Harvey, president of the Greater Houston Partnership, calls the Daikin Texas Technology Park, named for its Japanese corporate parent, "one of the few projects that actually shows up as far as moving the needle" on the region's gross domestic output.
    "It's not often that we have an individual project of that scale," he says.
    Indeed, the $417 million facility is expected to put about 5,000 people to work in the Houston area through direct employment and the expected arrival of related businesses. Already, a Chinese company that supplies electric motors to Daikin companies is preparing to build its U.S. headquarters and an assembly plant less than a mile away.
    'A huge deal'
    Though it has been in operation since October, the new Daikin plant will celebrate its opening Wednesday with tours, a Clint Black concert and remarks by Gov. Greg Abbott and former Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda.
    "It is a huge deal," said John Isom, director of the Waller Economic Development Corp.
    In all, the campus is expected to generate about $4 billion in annual economic impact for Houston, which is one reason Business Facilities magazine named it the deal of the year nationally for 2015.
    The governor's office of economic development has said the project is one of the largest job expansions in Texas in recent memory but couldn't produce an exact figure because the office was not involved in attracting the investment.
    Foreign investment
    Daikin, a 93-year-old, $24 billion company ranked No. 478 on Forbes' list of the world's largest publicly traded companies, manufactures heating and cooling units in more than 80 countries and sells them in about 150.
    The company's move into Houston began in 2012, when it bought Houston-based Goodman Global Inc. for $3.7 billion, making it the largest air conditioner manufacturer in the world, according to Reuters. At the time, Harvey feared a foreign purchase of a well-established local company meant jobs would be shipped overseas.
    He was pleased to find the opposite.
    "Sometimes foreign investment is seen as hostile, but this is an example of how it creates growth and opportunity," Harvey said.
    Daikin planned to move other parts of its international operation to Houston, but the company felt the two local Goodman plants and one engineering center were too small to house the operation it had in mind.
    Ebisu, a seasoned company executive, was tapped to move to Houston, take the helm at Goodman and oversee the development of a new North American operation.
    In an interview at the new Daikin building, beneath a ventilation unit programmed to follow individuals around the room with a light stream of conditioned air, Ebisu named the Goodman acquisition as Daikin's top reason for settling in Houston. He said other factors, like Texas' portfolio of universities, made the decision easier.
    "We feel the engineering ability in the Houston area is superb," Ebisu said. "We can acquire quality-talent workers here."
    Workers from three Goodman facilities in Houston and one in Tennessee will be relocated to the new Daikin plant, and those facilities will close.
    The new plant broke ground in March 2015, opened its distribution center in February 2016 and turned out its first unit in October. Now, 10 assembly lines are churning inside the cavernous space, with 11 more under construction.
    From raw materials
    From atop a catwalk above the manufacturing floor, at least one of the four tall walls seems always out of site, obscured by the distance inside a building that spans nearly half a mile on its longest edge.
    New units come off each assembly line every few minutes. They start as raw materials - coils of copper or packs of sheet metal loaded in through the plant's west bays, then put one by one onto a moving conveyor belt. Machine presses bend parts into shape while workers fit them together and braze them with a blowtorch.
    Workers down the line install fans and motors, side panels and electrical hardware, while others operate mechanical arms that perform heavy operations before the units pass through a series of tests. A worker puts on one last sticker, and the units get boxed and stacked and hauled off to a heaping pile in the warehouse, awaiting a space in the back of a big rig.
    "It's going straight from raw materials to finished products to our customers in one flow," said Michelle Jack, vice president of general affairs at Daikin and project manager for the Daikin Texas Technology Park.
    On the factory floor, managers pedal across the vast distances on large tricycles, while robotic trolleys ferry cargo around marked loops and carts and forklifts move products down highways drawn on the concrete floor.
    Outside the factory walls, hundreds of trucks pull in and out daily, dropping off raw materials or picking up HVAC units along 240 docks, then driving them cross country to Daikin's 1,200 distribution locations.
    "If you buy Daikin in the U.S. or Canada, it's probably made here," said Rex Anderson, communications director for Goodman.
    Suppliers coming
    The hub of commerce on such lightly developed land is sure to attract more nearby investment. One Daikin supplier is already setting up shop. And, said Waller Mayor Danny Marburger, "There will be more coming."
    "That whole area is going to continue to build up with suppliers and other companies," he said.
    Boad-Ocean Motor Co., a China-based manufacturer of electric motors and a supplier to Daikin, already is constructing a 480,000-square-foot manufacturing and distribution facility on U.S. 290, less than a mile from the Daikin plant.
    That building will be the company's base of U.S. operations and will allow it to provide "localized service to Daikin," said Jason Huang, Boad-Ocean vice president of manufacturing, who relocated from China to Houston last May to oversee the Waller County project.
    The company plans to inhabit a third of the space it has under construction and lease out the rest to other suppliers as they move in.
    "It shouldn't be that difficult" to find tenants, Huang said. "A lot of suppliers will need to find space nearby for warehousing or manufacturing."
    Some city officials said one supplier of packaging material and one supplier of insulation were also on the hunt for a land deal in the area. Others predicted it would boost demand for thousands of homes set to hit the market soon in a handful of new subdivisions built in response to the Grand Parkway.
    Introducing new tech
    The Daikin plant also could bring a hub of technological innovation.
    In addition to manufacturing, warehousing and office space, the facility includes 200,000 square feet of laboratory space for research and development. Rows of fortified chambers can subject heating or cooling units to bouts of heat, cold, rain, pressure or salt spray under the watchful eye of engineers.
    Daikin could develop its products at scores of other facilities across the world, but Ebisu said the company wants to develop products specific to this market.
    "The American people know best the American people's needs and demands," he said. "Whatever is sold and consumed in that region should be designed and manufactured in the region."
    Ebisu aims to introduce new technology to the U.S. market, specifically "variant refrigerant volume," or VRV, a system invented by Daikin in the 1980s that allows for targeted room-by-room heating and cooling. It is also substantially more efficient in terms of power consumption, thanks to electrical inverters that allow for variable speeds at various parts of the unit instead of simple on and off.
    Ebisu said the technology already is widely adopted in Japan.
    "The U.S. is probably the worst in terms of efficiency of the HVAC unit," he added, citing weak government regulatory standards here that make it hard for the higher-tech units to compete financially. "We'd like to bring those technologies to this marketplace."

    Dylan Baddour

    Dylan Baddour

    Business reporter, Houston Chronicle
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