Workshop report urges designers
to focus more on ergonomics
Designers in all industries need to pay more attention to the ergonomics of their products. So concludes a report from a workshop held by the Committee on Human Factors of the National Research Council. The aim of ergonomics, according to the committee, is to help people use devices with greater safety, comfort, accuracy, and ease. Workshop participants from both government and industry said that too many managers give short shrift to human factors until a serious accident occurs involving their product. Brian Peacock, director of the Manufacturing Ergonomics Laboratory at General Motors Corp., described changes at his firm. "Over the past decade," he said, "the company's attitude toward ergonomics has gone from sporadic attention to a reactive approach aimed at fixing known problems to a proactive approach aimed at preventing human factors problems through good product design." Engineers, he added are the group with primary responsibility for applying human factors in their design work.
Research on supersonic airliner called tougher than NASA thinks
NASA officials want to develop by 2002 the technology foundation for an environmentally acceptable airliner that can cruise at Mach 2.4. But that goal is unattainable under NASA's present program, according to the Committee on High Speed Research of the National Research Council. Too many challenging technical problems involving the airframe and propulsion system remain, the panel says. For example, increasing cruise speed from the Concorde's Mach 2.0 to Mach 2.4 would raise temperatures on the surface of the envisioned airliner enough to require a new class of materials for the airframe. The committee suggests that supersonic laminar flow control technology could increase aerodynamic performance of future high-speed commercial transports (HSCTs) 10 to 15%. Although development of such technologies would extend beyond 2002, the panel thinks the effort should continue. The aim is to support design of an HSCT that could carry 300 passengers 5,000 nautical miles and be economical.
Technology termed inadequate for human trips to Mars
NASA allocates less than $20 million each year for advanced technology for human support in space. That's not enough to create systems necessary for manned planetary missions, says a fresh study by the Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board of the National Research Council. NASA's long-term goals imply the technologies could be needed as early as 2010 for travel to Mars. The board recommends that NASA form partnerships with large firms and universities to speed up and help fund R&D in several key areas. Among vital projects named is a self-contained, onboard system for recycling water and wastes. Also needed: a reliable method for monitoring air, water, and food supplies for contaminants. Of high priority, too, are easily donned spacesuits specially designed to allow astronauts to explore Mars' surface.
New high-torque momentum wheel is lighter with better balance
An innovative "reaction/inertia/momentum" wheel provides high torque with reduced weight and improved balance. Engineer Charles Edward Clagett of Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, MD, originally designed the device for use in attitude-control systems of spacecraft. NASA officials say the wheel can also be used on Earth to aim optical instruments aboard land vehicles, ships, and aircraft. Older versions have the flywheel mounted on a shaft between bearings. The flywheel on the new device is cantilevered beyond one of the bearings. As a result, a less massive housing can support the bearings, and the torque-to-weight ratio is about 50% higher. The configuration further reduces spacecraft jitter.
'Virtual lab' lets students do engineering tasks on Web
How can beginning engineering students get a taste of the challenges they may someday face on the job? Michael Karweit, an engineering professor at Johns Hopkins University has devised an answer: a "virtual laboratory" on the World Wide Web. Karweit used the Java programming language to create interactive lab problems, employing an array of virtual instruments, such as oscilloscopes and temperature gages. With clicks of a mouse, students can hook up wires and turn knobs. The program simulates what real instruments look like and do. On-line problems include the programming of a robotic arm, designing digital logic circuits, and deducing the rate at which heat is transferred from a heated, ribbed surface in an air duct. Putting such experiments on the Internet introduces students to engineering without the high costs, time constraints, and space limitations imposed by a real-world laboratory, Karweit says. His virtual laboratory accompanies a course titled "What is Engineering?" However, any web surfer may use the lab at http://www.jhu.edu/~virtlab.