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Washington Beat

Washington Beat

Clinton's budget cuts deeper
into Patent Office funds

Inventors may face higher fees and longer delays in patent approvals if a budget proposal by the Clinton administration survives. The warning comes from Michael K. Kirk, executive director of the American Intellectual Law Association, based in Arlington, VA. Several other groups representing small inventors also are urging Congress to reject the President's request. The White House wants to seize $92 million of $119 million that it projects the Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) will collect next fiscal year in surcharges. Six years ago Capitol Hill raised fees for applicants and patent owners by 69% in an effort to make PTO self-sustaining. "Almost immediately, however, Congress began treating the revenue collected by the surcharge as if it was taxpayer revenue," Kirk complains. Congress has shifted $140 million of the fees in the past five years to other causes. This is the first time, however, that a president has suggested such a diversion--and it would be the largest of any year. Kirk fears that PTO will have to freeze hiring of patent examiners and curtail its automation efforts.

Method attempts to optimize returns on design process

How can firms get the most bang from re-sources consumed during the design process? One answer is through Intelligent Real Time Design (IRTD). The methodology is outlined in The Frontiers of Engineering, a publication by the National Academy of Engineering. The 123-page paperback contains six chapters on design re-search. Alice M. Agogino, professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of California at Berkeley, wrote the section on IRTD. The approach considers the value of the design team's time; the cost of further information gathering, analyses, or experimentation; and "time-to-market" opportunity costs. IRTD trades off the costs against the optimum design solution. The process formulates the design decision as a problem in nonlinear programming, having objectives, constraints, and probabilities for uncertainties. Agogino contends that ambiguity is largest in the early conceptual stages of design. Results of the IRTD analysis are a set of expected costs associated with the uncertainty in each design decision.

How can ship designers reduce fractures in structures?

Use of newly sprung design methods is the best hope for stemming a rash of fracture-related failures in ships. So concludes a committee of the National Research Council. Old design criteria are insufficient, the panel says. For example, higher-strength steel construction and more extensive structural analysis have led to reduced scantlings and greater stress in ship structure. The committee suggests that structural de-signs take into account different tolerance and fabrication standards for higher-strength steels and include accesses for service in-spections. Among other recommendations: Develop a designer's guidebook that details the newest fatigue predictions and expand simplified fatigue analysis methods, such as SAFEHULL for tankers, to include transverse structure, more complex details, and additional types of ships. Before last year, when the American Bureau of Shipping came up with its SAFEHULL criteria, no ship engineers were explicitly using fatigue and fracture analysis, the panel reports.

Houses of future envisioned in survey of engineers

Houses of the twenty-first century will have an array of systems and devices for saving energy and water. That's the prediction of 100 mechanical, electrical, chemical, civil, and heating, refrigeration, and air-conditioning engineers. They were asked by the National Engineers Week Headquarters in Alexandria, VA, to de-scribe how current technologies will appear in future homes. Among predictions: solar cells as roof shingles, thermostats that adjust to the number of persons in a room, and at-home separation of "gray" water to use for toilets or lawns. Water will emerge into sinks and showers at pre-set temperatures, saving water. New windows will shade or brighten according to sunlight levels. Decentralized power sources, many in houses themselves, will be common. Some homes will sport wind-powered generators.

Tripartite agreement to develop aircraft building tools

Lockheed Martin, the Pentagon's biggest contractor, has struck a deal with IBM and the French company Dassault Systemes to develop computer-based aircraft building tools. IBM and Dassault will provide key elements of a "virtual development environment" for Lockheed Martin's modeling and simulation effort, including Dassault's CATIA CAD/CAM software already used in the U.S. aeronautics and automotive industries. The software will help engineers engage in extensive simulation before Lockheed Martin begins creating processes, tools, and parts for new products. Under a U.S. contract, Lockheed Martin will develop a prototype Joint Strike Fighter within four years.

Walter Wingo, Washington Editor

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