Panasonic Cameras: Panasonic's D-Snap camera won an
Innovations Award for its environmentally friendly design, which includes
low power consumption and the use of materials and manufacturing methods
that avoid hazardous
Las Vegas—Walking around the huge Consumer Electronics Show
here, it's easy to get caught up in all the gee-whiz gadgets. And the
electronics makers really have outdone themselves, squeezing feature after
feature into devices that will finally create a "digital lifestyle" for
Already much-touted by those who make their living from electronics, this lifestyle involves seamlessly and easily creating, sharing, storing, and accessing digital content such as movies, music, photos, games, and television programs. The lifestyle promises to make all this content easily portable, for use throughout your house, in your car, and even on devices in your pocket.
Some aspects of this emerging lifestyle have already become commonplace on discrete devices. Many of us carry around an MP3 player or store digital photos on our computers. Yet the notion of systems that manage different kinds of digital content across multiple devices—and do so seamlessly—remains elusive. In general today's discrete electronic gadgets and systems don't always play nice together, in part because of the lack of industry-wide standards for data storage and communication standards.
Consider, for example, Microsoft's attempt to demo its vision of a digital lifestyle built around personal computers. During Bill Gates' keynote speech on the eve of the show, its Media Center failed to pull up digital photos taken by a nearby wireless camera. And worse, during the demo of a new XBox driving game, the system crashed, leaving only a blue screen and error message.
Software and electrical engineers may yet work out some of the kinks that today prevent the digital lifestyle from crawling out of the muck. But good firmware and circuit boards only represent part of the job at hand. The digital lifestyle will also create challenges and opportunities that will fall squarely on the shoulders of mechanical designers, too.
Mechanical layout gets tougher
For one thing, look for mechanical layout challenges to increase as consumer electronics makers try to pack new features into limited spaces in both portable gadgets and miniaturized home devices.
Kodak's new Easy Share One camera, slated to hit the shelves in June, is a case in point. Not only does it take pictures, but it also features wireless communications capabilities that allow users to access their photo libraries remotely. It also has a big, 3-inch articulating touchscreen. Making room for the wireless card, for example, affected the optics design, reports Tom Napoli, project manager for the new camera. Kodak engineers, who know a thing or two about light bending, managed to solve that problem. But it wasn't easy. "The mechanical layout was a big challenge," Napoli says. And the camera had other mechanical challenges too, he adds, citing the need to integrate a large articulating touchscreen while keeping the camera package from growing.
Kodak won't be alone in facing these challenges. "Mechanical layout in general is becoming a lot more complex," says Tom Tarnowski, who manages Inclosia Solutions, a designer and manufacturer of custom consumer electronic enclosures. He attributes that complexity partly to diminishing size of the devices and growing number of features packed into them, but he also sees a broader confluence of trends. These include faster, hotter processors as well as the growing need for data storage capacity and power. "All of these factors combine to make the mechanical designer's job tougher than ever," he says. As an example, he notes that a portable device with a miniature hard drive and fast DSP will trigger ruggedness and thermal concerns that influence layout and enclosure design.
In Tarnowski's view, one looming design trouble spot relates to EMI shielding. As small devices sport more powerful processors and multiple antennas for wireless, a problem arises: "EM compatibility is at odds with letting these devices talk to one another," Tarnowski says. Making matters worse, aesthetics requirements increasingly constrain antenna placement since OEMs don't want a bunch of ugly antennas protruding from their increasingly slick enclosure designs. Tarnowski predicts that existing shielding methods will soon need some help from brand new shielding technologies—whether new conductive materials or in terms of new design and manufacturing methods. "We're working hard on the shielding puzzle now," he says.
Kodak Easy Share One: Even digital cameras, like the
new Kodak Easy Share One, now sport wireless communications. In this case,
it allows users to view, print, and share photos over a wireless
Another challenge for mechanical designers in the digital age relates to
their ability to help electronic products stand out on crowded shelves—or
nowadays, crowded websites. "The consumer electronics industry has a tendency to
copy. There's a certain sameness across the board," says Jim Bleck, president of
Bleck Design Group, an industrial design and engineering firm with expertise in
Bleck argues that a couple of design elements will increasingly set electronic devices apart from one another. The first is enclosure aesthetics. Mechanical engineers clearly can help industrial designers on this score by tackling those design and manufacturing issues that could compromise the enclosure's "fit and finish," he says. The other design element involves user interface.
"The interface is usually driven by electronics design rather than how people actually use the product," Bleck says. He goes on to argue that mechanical engineers can support the design of more elegant interfaces in part by coming up with better controls—for example, improved touch panels, buttons, and displays.
So how important are these two design elements? Bleck answers the question with one word: iPod. And he has a point. The CES show was chock full of digital music players with disc drives, but it's no coincidence that the iPod, with its striking looks and clean interface, has resonated so well with consumers.
How green is your gadget
It really isn't easy being green, but electronics makers will have to do so anyway. Even without social pressure for environmentally friendly gadgets—which by most accounts is still light in this country—the OEMs face tough government regulations that will force them to make some changes in the materials and manufacturing methods they use. Chief among them is the European Union's directive for the Restriction of Hazardous Substances in Electrical and Electronic Equipment (ROHS). Scheduled for enforcement starting in July 2006, the directive severely limits a variety of substances that electronics makers have found useful in the past—including lead, hexavalent chromium, and cadmium.
Some of the OEMs have already launched extensive programs to limit the environmental costs of their products. Take Panasonic, for instance. According to David Thompson, director of the corporate environmental department, the company has already reduced its use of lead solder, heavy metal flame retardants in plastics, and other substances limited by the ROHS directive. "We're on target to be ROHS compliant in all Panasonic branded products by April 1 2005, more than a year in advance of the July 2006 deadline," Thompson says.
And that's not all the company is doing. Thompson says the company has achieved a 30 percent reduction in lifestyle energy usage across its product line—a figure that compares current products to historical levels and includes energy consumption from the manufacturing, use, and disposal of a device. Panasonic has also been focusing on what Thompson calls "design for recycling," which involves design for disassembly techniques as well as the elimination of materials and components that can't be reclaimed easily.
Some of this effort can be seen in television design. Thompson notes that a television set in the 1980's contained 13 kinds of plastics in 39 different components that took 150 sec to disassemble. By 2000, Panasonic had come up with designs that used just two plastics in eight components that took 75 sec to disassemble.
|At CES, the Consumers Electronics Association and Industrial Design Society of America jointly sponsor an awards program that honors design and engineering achievements. For a look at these best-of-show products, go to http://rbi.ims.ca/4386-522.