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Engineering a new life in Morgantown

Celebrate Traditions with International Spirit

Engineer transfers from Greece to West Virginia

John VarellisBorn in one of the oldest cities in one of the most ancient civilizations in Europe, John Varellis engineered a classic American life here in Morgantown. Now the owner of X3DCAE and a U.S. citizen, he talks about the traditions of both countries:

Where are you from originally and what was it like there? 

Varellis: I was born in Athens, Greece. The movies have given many people romantic ideas of what Greece is like. But as in any big city, the subway is packed with people going to work or coming from work. Athens has traffic jams and lots of concrete. But cities also have the latest movies, the latest cars, the latest fashion and so on.

When I was growing up, we looked for every possible opportunity to go to the country. In winter, you could go skiing. Many people don’t know that there are ski resorts in Greece. It can get very cold in winter. In the summer, you go to the islands. You continually try to escape from the city. I feel more comfortable in the country than in the city. That’s why I like West Virginia.

Tell us about growing up there. For example, what favorite childhood activities, special events or family gatherings do you recall?

Varellis:  Modern day Greek Christmas celebrations are no different than those in the rest of the Christmas-celebrating world. Christmas is a family tradition. People stay home and exchange presents. Before Christmas trees were introduced around the 1950s, Greek islanders decorated miniature boats. Now everywhere you go, you see decorations, Christmas trees and Santa Claus. There is music in the streets; Christmas music coming from everywhere. I don’t know how they manage to do that.

The holiday draws families together for gift-giving and feasting. Pork or stuffed turkey grace the family table. Unlike American bread-based stuffing, the Greek version blends onions, garlic, olive oil, rice, pine nuts, spices and thinly-sliced chicken liver and heart.

Who were your early influences: parents, siblings, others who were special?

Varellis: My father was a civil engineer and architect with his own small business. He built private homes and commercial buildings. I grew up in an engineering environment, listening to discussions about what made a building stronger and more attractive. I became an engineer but I never practiced civil engineering.  I became more interested in aerospace technology than in buildings.

What other holidays or traditions do you recall?

Varellis: It is my impression that regardless of which nation you are from, people from cities tend to think alike, just as people from the country do. If you are from Athens, you think and act more like a New Yorker. In the city, you live with millions of people. You don’t know anybody and they don’t know you. The country tends to be centered on the family and more socially conservative. When you live in a small community, you live so you do not give people an opportunity to talk about you.

Still, I would not say the two nations are identical. People in Greece have long holidays. If you have a job in the private or government sector, you are guaranteed one whole month’s paid vacation in the summer. This is true all over Europe.

I’ve adopted more of the American workaholic attitude. I sit in front of the computer all day. That’s why I don’t have a life!

I do make time for some West Virginia traditions. The Wine and Jazz Festival is a big tradition here in Morgantown. I enjoy outdoor activities, such as soccer, skiing and biking. The Rails to Trails is very good for biking.

I also like the American tradition of setting a goal and working until you reach that goal. If you’re missing a piece of the puzzle, you create the piece you need to complete the puzzle and reach your goal. Here, people come up with new ideas they actually get to implement. This is something that I like very much.

What was your education?

Varellis: I earned my bachelor’s degree in Civil Engineering from the National Technical University of Athens, the oldest educational institution of Greece in the field of technology. When I graduated, I came to Morgantown to attend West Virginia University graduate school. I received my master’s degree in Mechanical Engineering in 1991 and my Ph.D. in Aerospace Engineering in 1995.

How did you become interested in what you studied, or the line of work which you do now?

Varellis: I became interested in studying aerospace when I was an undergrad in Athens. I still spend lots of time studying and learning about anything that floats above the earth: airplanes, astronomy, space.

When I graduated in 1995, it was not a good time to enter the aerospace industry. The automotive industry in Detroit was at a peak and the most promising place for a future. So that’s where I went. Eventually, I started expanding into other fields beyond automotive.

I lived in Detroit for 30 months. It was a good time to have a job there but I didn’t like the flat land; no mountains. I missed culture. In some cities, people talk about opera, theater and fashion, but Detroit back then didn’t care about those things. That’s not the culture of every city. If you go to New York, London, Paris or Athens where I came from, there’s more to life than driving to work in the morning, driving back home at night and thinking about what you would do at work the next morning. I decided to come back to Morgantown. But first I made a two-year stop in Pittsburgh, where I worked for an engineering software company.

When and how did you start X3DCAE?

Varellis: I moved back to Morgantown in the spring of 2000. Two years later, I became a freelance engineer. A major client from Detroit preferred to work with companies instead of individuals and suggested that I register my company. I did in 2006.

The company is X3DCAE. The “X” in mathematics is the unknown in an equation; in Latin it’s the number 10, and so “X” has mathematical significance.  The “3D” is three dimensional, a geometric concept. “CAE” is Computer Aided Engineering.

Eventually I expanded into other fields of the structural engineering discipline, including coal mine safety, bird strike analysis on rotating jet blades and fuselage panels, solar panel strength, containment tanks and shields for explosives, bioengineering and so on.

How would you describe what X3DCAE does?

Varellis: X3DCAE provides Computer-Aided Engineering (CAE) services, specializing in Finite Element Analysis (FEA). My job starts when I receive computer-generated technical drawings created with Computer Aided Design (CAD) software. With the CAD files, I create engineering files for FEA. The three-dimensional computer simulations make it easier to visualize how a structure will bend or twist and to analyze how it will handle stress or even fail in real life. FEA helps visualize product strength and stiffness and minimize factors such as weight.

I love this work because you create the future. You develop products that are not on the market yet. You have the capability of running analysis over and over again to improve it — without building a prototype. CAE software can virtually build, test and improve a product before it is ever produced — for a fraction of the cost of building a prototype.

What distinguishes X3DCAE from other firms in a similar line of business?

Varellis: X3DCAE is the first and only company of its kind in the state of West Virginia. X3DCAE has expertise in true transient dynamics and non-linear analysis on top of the classic fields of static and thermal loads for linear analysis. The software I use performs transient dynamic analysis, which is real dynamic analysis.  That means, for example, that the simulation of a bullet that has been shot against a piece of metal or glass is as good as looking at the natural event, from the impact of the projectile to the damage and the failure modes caused on the structure. You can’t simulate this behavior with classic static linear analysis.

So, on top of the classic linear Static and Thermal Loading Analysis and NVH (Natural Frequencies Analysis), my company offers true dynamic analysis for high speed impact. It falls under the scientific term Transient Dynamics. To explain this to people, I use real life examples, such as automotive crash worthiness; conventional explosives such as TNT; drop tests; high speed impact such as a bullet hitting a surface; and metal forming.

X3DCAE also offers expertise in several different industries. Most of my clients are from Detroit but not all of them represent the automotive industry. Industries such as aeronautical, biomechanical, and automotive often use FEA to design, develop and improve products. This wider know-how translates to fluency with different types of design from unrelated industries. I’ve set up some models to simulate mine explosions below vehicles such as Humvees. One project for the energy industry was related to stress analysis on the mounting brackets for solar panels that are put on building roofs.

What were your first impressions of West Virginia as a place to live, work and conduct a business operation such as yours?

Varellis: For me, living in West Virginia has advantages. You are close to nature. You can see the mountains and the trees. In an urban area, you can see only the buildings, concrete and asphalt. I came from a mountainous nation. That’s something a lot of people don’t know about Greece, that the mainland is extremely mountainous. In the winter, you can see the mountains covered in snow. Sometimes even Athens gets snow.

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