Engineering News 7365

DN Staff

November 3, 1997

21 Min Read
Engineering News

Financial 'angels' for inventors

Newton, MA--Got a "can't miss" invention that will rock the world, but can't find the bucks to bring it to fruition? Help may be just down the street or at a neighboring college campus.

Countless inventors, graduate students, and struggling small businesses have found financial "angels" in so-called "Science Parks" or "business incubators." How can you find out about such resources? Two organizations can lend a hand.

Services Rendered

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PERCENTAGE

Space Rental

184

100

General Management Advising

179

97

Business Planning and Implementation

157

85

Office Services (Reception, Typing, etc.)

156

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Assistance Obtaining Financing

154

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Marketing Assistance

145

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Financial/ Accounting

120

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Technology Consulting

91

50

Legal/ Intellectual Property Assistance

80

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Other (Export, Bids, Forklifts, Graphic Arts, Conflict Resolution, Computer Labs, Campus Resources, etc.)

35

10

The first is the Association of University Related Research Parks (AURRP), headquartered in Washington, DC. A non-profit international "fraternity," AURRP represents planned technology developments--alternatively called research, science, or technology parks. The parks' priority: promote university-industry relations, foster innovation, and facilitate the transfer of technology from the academic environment to the private sector.

Prior to 1980, only a handful of such developments had made an appearance on the campus scene. Today, more than 410 parks worldwide are in varying stages of development, with 142 in the U.S. Likewise, technology incubators, also virtually nonexistent until the early 1980s, now number more than 100 worldwide. About 50% of these have homes in the research parks. (You can find a listing of these parks by checking the AURRP homepage at www.siue.edu/AURRP/history.asp.)

Today, AURRP serves over 290 members around the world. It represents 75% of the research parks in North America, as well as similar facilities in 31 countries.

Baby bloomers. The second source for financial and technical aid for fledging inventors is the National Business Incubation Association (NBIA), Athens, OH. The organization's 800-plus members include: incubator developers and managers; business assistance professionals, university-related research-park managers, and corporate joint-venture partners; professional business-service providers; venture-capital investors; and economic-development professionals.

In a recent book, Innovative Programs that Help Companies Succeed, editor Sally Hayhow highlights the winner and top-rated nominees of the NBIA's 1996 Innovation award. "The book will spark ideas for anyone who helps emerging businesses thrive and grow," she writes in the forward.

For example, Hayhow cites how a graduate student's work saves a company $4,000, while he gains invaluable experience running an entrepreneurial business. In another report, a technology company saves 30% on its electric bill, thanks to an energy rate reduction initiated by the business-assistance program from which it "graduated." And an award-winning business-assistance effort attracts national attention for its sophisticated computer center, funded entirely by Microsoft and Compaq.

Budding entrepreneurs can obtain a copy of the book through NBIA. To order, write: NBIA, 20 E. Circle Dr., Suite 190, Athens, OH 45701. (You can also click onto the NBIA online publications catalog at www.nbia.org.)

Hatching success. Another NBIA award, "Incubator of the Year," went to the Evanston Business & Technology Center (EBTC), Evanston, IL. The incubator is supported by the Northwestern University/Evanston Research Park, a joint venture of the City of Evanston and the university. It covers 42,000 sq ft and provides an extensive network of professional, academic, and support groups for the park's occupants.

Opened in 1986, EBTC has assisted more than 135 new businesses and created 1,600 jobs. Its member and graduate clients generated nearly $140 million in revenue last year.

In its mission statement, EBTC promises to "enhance the development opportunities of companies involved in the early stages of new technology-based business start-ups." It accomplishes this through a series of orchestrated business and consulting services. Such nurturing can significantly increase a firm's chances of success, from 30 to 40% to 80% or better, according to EBTC.

One recent success story is Peapod, L.P., named as a 1996 Incubator Company of the Year by NBIA. The online shopping/delivery service works on a simple concept: Customers order groceries on their home computers. Peapod employees then fill the orders at a partner store--paying close attention to special orders, name-brand requests, and coupon use--then deliver the goods at a time specified by the customers.

This emphasis on customer service has turned Peapod into a profitable enterprise. Expanding from 2 employees to more than 600, the company has received coverage in Business Week, Fortune, and Advertising Age.

Advanced Technology Development Center (ATDC), headquartered at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, was also an NBIA award winner last year. ATDC is the home of some 80 companies that have revenues of more than $250 million and employ more than 2,000 people. It has already graduated seven companies this year.

ATDC selects companies for free membership based on their applications of proprietary technology, market opportunity, qualified management team, growth potential, and a strategic business plan. Many of the companies at the center are software, environmental, bio-technology, and communications entrepreneurs.

Bugs with a bite. And if you think your idea may be too far out to win backing at a technology park, check out this successful venture. The principals of one ATDC company, Microbial Aquatic Treatment Systems (MATS), whipped together a slimy, spinach-like substance with unexpected environmental cleanup powers. Judith Bender and Peter Phillips sought a fast-growing fish food to help feed the hungry in developing countries. They tried growing blue-green algae mixed with fermented grass clippings on easily transportable mesh squares.

However, like other inventors before them, Bender and Phillips made an accidental discovery. The microbial mats broke down oil. Tests also showed the mats had a penchant for eating toxic organic materials and precipitating metals that contaminate streams and soils. MAT has since developed and patented a novel microbial system, Silage-Microbial Mat, based on a proprietary technology that results in effective and low-cost bioremediation of mixed wastes.

Currently, the duo is conducting pilot demonstrations on: uranium and nitrate removal from groundwater at the Oak Ridge National Laboratories; polychlorinated biphenyl biodegrations in sediments at the Department of Energy's Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant; and radionuclide removal from nuclear power plant process water. MATS has successfully demonstrated its technology for remediating mine drainage contamination with the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Bureau of Mines. It has licensed with Waste Management Inc. to remediate landfill leachate in the first full-scale use of the technology.

This venture illustrates the advantages of hooking up with a research or technology park in your neighborhood. As Andrew Parkinson, president of Peapod, puts it: "Through shared resources, access to brain power in the incubator and at a university, and contacts with others who helped us build our business, the research park proved critical to our success."


Analysis explores impedance measurement in humans

Philadelphia--Researchers K. R. Foster and Henry A. Lukaski, from the University of Pennsylvania's Departments of Bio-engineering and Agriculture, respectively, are trying to determine exactly what whole body impedance instruments measure and their degree of accuracy.

Electrical impedance measurement devices measure electrical resistance across parts of the body and attempt to infer the body water content, fat content, etc. These instruments have gained extensive acceptance in clinical labs that study human nutrition and are now available to other physicians and consumers.

Foster and Lukaski analyzed the use of impedance methods for body composition studies by using finite element software, PDEase2D from Macsyma Inc. (Arlington, MA), to examine the electrical impedance properties of the body.

First, Foster scanned a human body image into his computer, creating a raster file. He then used SigmaScan software from SPSS (Chicago) to digitize the outline of the top-down view of the body. Next he plugged the results of his digitization into a problem-descriptor file for PDEase2D. These numbers served as boundary conditions for the partial differential equations that the program solves numerically. Foster solved LaPlace's equation with these boundary conditions to plot lines of equipotential voltage. The density of these lines is proportional to the impedance within a particular section of the body.

The results showed that the impedance of the body is not, in itself, a direct measure of body volume. Then how does one account for the apparent success of the method in the clinic? Foster and Lukaski suggest that impedance might be a measure of the scale of the body, and since every body has roughly the same shape, this might introduce a useful statistical correlation between body volume and impedance.


WE ARE HERE!!!Wheelchair seat bonds with Plastic Welder

Draper, Utah--Made from an ABS plastic with glass-fiber reinforcement, The SEATTM replaces a folding wheelchair's upholstery seat to provide stronger support. To produce the 4.25-lb product, manufacturer Otto Bock Zero Gravity needed an adhesive that would bond dissimilar substrates while providing strength and durability. They chose Plastic WelderTM from Devcon (Danvers, MA).

An I-shaped piece serves as the main support in The SEAT. Three plastic cylinders are bonded parallel to each other underneath the horizontal sections of the I-shaped piece using Plastic Welder. The ends of these cylinders telescope to increase the width of the seat.

A curved bracket screws into the end of each cylinder. Moving the bracket and attaching it to a selected cylinder adjusts the angle of The SEAT.

A screw which connects to a molded-in lock nut in the plastic seat base secures the adjustments. After the adjustments are made, The SEAT can be used by resting the curved section of the brackets on the wheelchair's seat frame.

Small plastic adjustment clamps also attach around the wheelchair seat frame and act as locating stops to eliminate sliding.

According to Ted Anderson, production manager at Zero Gravity, "The components are designed to allow the products to be highly adjustable. As a result, the adhesive material must provide tremendous strength and flexibility. We found these traits with Devcon's Plastic Welder."

In addition, Plastic Welder's fast cure time was a key factor in production. "Our assembly process has become more efficient," says Anderson. "We now complete each step in half the time, because we're not waiting for the material to dry before moving on to the next process."


Ray-tracing illuminates optics design

Chicago, IL--Christiania Industries designs and assembles interior lighting systems, mostly for automotive applications. The company has developed dome lamps for many General Motors vehicles and dash lamps for certain up-scale models. According to Engineering Manager Paul Leslie, special attention to optical design is necessary to meet the stringent standards of customers.

Expertise in optics often falls outside the domain of mechanical engineers. In the past, Christiania Industries turned to outside consultants with specialized knowledge to detail the fresnel patterns molded into lens components, reflectors, and covers. However, automakers are striving to improve performance from lighting systems and to adopt standards for quality. In pursuit of this goal, they are insisting as part of the "Statement of Requirements" for bidding on contracts that lighting suppliers provide on-site optical design expertise along with documentation of the design tools used.

"Special attention to optical design is necessary to meet automotive requirements," Leslie says. "We were under pressure to become proficient in optical engineering and find tools to support our design efforts."

To meet these requirements, Christiana Industries acquired the TracePro optical design and analysis package from Lambda Research Corp. TracePro is a ray-tracing program that accounts for absorption, specular reflection and refraction, scattering, and aperture diffraction of light propagating through a solid model. TracePro is based on the ACIS solid modeling kernel from Spatial Technology, Inc. TracePro can share solid model data with all other software based on ACIS, and exchange data with most other CAD programs and analysis programs via IGES and STEP files.

In TracePro employs the Monte Carlo method to model scattering and diffraction of light. In Monte Carlo ray tracing, scattering and diffraction are treated as random processes. The sampling process uses the scattering distribution as a probability density. TracePro makes use of variance reduction techniques to greatly reduce the number of rays required to get a reliable result.

In one recent application, Christiana Industries received an order to produce a mock-up lighted vanity mirror to be located on a car sun visor. Requirements specified it be powered by two cartridge fuse-type lamps of one candle power each and for illumination to be uniformly bright on the user's face. "We had very little time for detailed design and prototyping," Leslie recalls. "The specifications allocated limited lamp capacity for the task at hand. Optimization was the order of the day."

Engineers first modeled the illumination assembly using Pro/ENGINEER from Parametric Technology Corp. Waltham, MA. With the Pro/E translators, they loaded the model into TracePro. The ray-tracing software provided a "virtual prototyping" environment, and engineers were able to validate predicted illumination parameters. So confident were they in the results, the designers shipped the model out for tooling without producing a physical prototype, saving time and money.

"We were confident despite the risk we took," Leslie says. "TracePro is sufficiently flexible to allow us to examine several possible worse-case prospects."


Design News tests OnStar

Charles J. Murray, Senior Regional Editor

Park Ridge, IL--Imagine you're in an unfamiliar city, looking for a building that's supposed to be easy to find. You've been given directions, but since street signs are scarce, the directions don't do much good. You drive around awhile, hoping to find a familiar street sign, but instead you drive in endless circles, drifting farther and farther from your destination.

Most travelers know that scenario all too well. You can't find your destination if you don't know where you are. That's where a device like OnStar comes in handy. Press a button on your cell phone and a cheery OnStar agent can tell you, within about 100 yards, where you are. During the week that I drove a Cadillac DeVille Concours equipped with OnStar, I couldn't stump their agents. No matter where I drove my car, they found me.

OnStar can do that because it has a Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) link-up unit in the trunk. As soon as you call, their agents in Farmington Hills, MI, receive your position data and locate you.

They also have a few other amazing capabilities. If you've locked your keys in your car, they can remotely unlock your doors. If you've misplaced the car in the parking lot of a sprawling shopping center, they can beep the horn and flash the lights until you find it. Better yet, the OnStar Center automatically calls an ambulance if your airbag deploys, and they can track your car if someone steals it.

The Cadillac I drove was equipped with a voice-activated dialing system--a wonderful feature when it worked right. It worked well most of the time--there were three mis-dials in one week--but it seemed to have trouble when the air conditioner was running.

Make no mistake, OnStar is not one of life's necessities. Nor is it inexpensive. On most models, the installed system will add roughly $800 to your sticker price. There's also a monthly fee of about $20.

But as automotive luxuries go, this is not a frivolous one. I can think of a few features--traction control, ABS, anti-skid systems--that I would definitely select before OnStar. But I can think of more luxury features that would take a back seat to OnStar: huge audio systems, sun roofs, leather seats, power windows, genuine walnut trim, heated seats, and privacy glass.

n the 1998 model year, more car buyers will be faced with the OnStar decision. That's because General Motors had broadened its customer base, spreading it from Cadillac (where it was available exclusively last year) to 24 other GM models.

Granted, some of the advantages of OnStar can be gained by equipping your car with a cellular phone. But for those who travel a lot, or simply get lost a lot, OnStar could be a very handy item.


Bottle design is a PET project

Smyrna, GA--The disposable and hopefully recycled plastic soda bottle is a marvel of modern engineering. Admire the contoured body as you take it in hand. Feel the union of strength and pliability in its heft. Experience the sigh of escaping carbonation as you crack the seal and liberate the cap from its meticulously crafted threads. Savor the smoothness of the bottle lip as it caresses yours.

And when, overcome, you let the bottle slip from your grasp, no big whoop. It's plastic.

The business of Ball Plastics is the engineering behind the romance. The company specializes in containers made from PET resin, which is prized for its transparency when manufactured correctly. According to Project Engineer J.P. Henderson, PET is among the most difficult plastics to work with due to its "highly oriented" nature. The trick is to get the crystalline structure all pointed in the same direction.

"It all comes down to stretch ratios," Henderson says. "In order to achieve a clear container it has to be stretched to a specific point for the material used. Too little and it remains cloudy, too much and you get 'pearling' imperfections.'

This means the molds used to produce PET containers have to be designed just so. Achieving perfection required CAD, CAE, and materials analysis in equal measure.

The design of PET plastic bottles and containers is very much a two-step process. First, the designer needs to create an injection mold to produce the cigar-shaped preform. This item is basically a blob of plastic with a finished mouth and neck. The preform is placed into a blow-mold, where it is inflated until flush with the shape of the inner cavity.

Each mold type requires specific engineering skills. The preform must contain enough material to result in a sturdy container but not so much that it contributes to wastage or uneven distribution. Furthermore, the geometry of the top must accommodate the appropriate cap. This means the lip and threads have to be perfect. The design of the blow mold is a completely separate job. The geometry typically is a contoured surface, often of a trademark shape, and must contain a precise volume. And the finished product must eject easily and cleanly at production speeds.

Henderson says manufacturers have two approaches to this two-step process. The first is to break it down logically: The preform is produced and transferred to the blow mold. In the interim, it cools and so has to be reheated before it can be inflated with high-pressure air. The alternative methodology gets it all done in one fell swoop: The injection and blow molds are combined so the preform only has to be heated once and there is no intermediate transfer step. While the latter process saves time, it requires a more complex initial set-up.

"In addition, some customers have funky requirements, such as hot-filling," Henderson relates. "The heated product is bottled under vacuum pressure to protect against contamination. These containers must be especially strong."

Ball's customers employ all methods and the company's engineers have to be able to handle their requirements. From a design standpoint, the key is surface modeling capability. Ball Plastics acquired Euclid 3 from Matra Datavision, Andover, MA, on the strength of its Bezier surface modeling features. According to Henderson, Euclid allows him to construct and change surfaces with relative ease.

This is important because a given design might form the basis for a family of products with different volumes sharing a common shape. For example, a soft drink might be packaged in 16 oz, 20 oz, 1 liter, and 2 liter sizes. In addition, foreign markets might have regional volume standards.

Sometimes, a customer wants to update a classic bottle design that predates CAD/CAM while retaining a distinctive character. In such cases, Henderson uses CMM touch probes to reverse-engineer the container. The resulting point cloud is loaded into Euclid where a surface model is generated.

Creating the perfect design is more than just a matter of good form. The container must be strong and durable enough to survive filling, shipping, storage, and use (and some abuse). Therefore, Henderson says stress and strain analyses are crucial. For these operations, Ball Plastics engineers use MSC/Patran from the MacNeal-Schwendler Corp. (Los Angeles). As a result, Ball Plastics eliminates a lot of trial and error from its designs.

The engineering challenges for producing PET containers are similar for all of the manufacturing methodologies and revolve around calculating the proper stretch ratios for the resins being used. Unfortunately, there is no one standard for PET resins: Ball Plastics has a number of materials suppliers and each vendor's resin formulation is slightly different than the others. Furthermore, there may be variations from batch to batch. Such variations may throw off a stretch ratio calculation.

"Everybody's got a different kind of resin," Henderson says. For this reason, Ball Plastics maintains an on-site laboratory to test samples in order to determine exact material properties on a per batch basis. Engineers use this information to help set up FEA analyses.

The combination of CAD, FEA, and laboratory work has enabled Ball Plastics to knock the product development cycle down from a year plus to about 20 weeks.


Bearing lock gives linear slides a brake

Mark A. Gottschalk, Western Technical Editor

San Jose, CA--It's said that the simpler an idea is the better it is. And by that definition, Bill Wolfe's Lin Lock would be one of the best. Produced by Wolfe's company, Basix Engineering (San Jose), Lin Lock is a braking mechanism for linear bearings and trackways. And though it addresses a seemingly obvious problem--slowing, stopping, and securely parking a device riding on a linear slide--it is claimed to be unique.

Lin Lock mounts as an addition to a variety of models of ordinary linear bearings in shaft sizes of 1/2-inch, 3/4-inch, and 1-inch diameter. It functions by clamping the shaft on one or both sides of the bearing (depending on the braking needs of the application) with porous bronze brake shoes designed not to mar the shaft. The device can be retrofitted to existing linear-motion systems or designed into new systems. "They don't violate the bearing at all," says Wolfe, "they simply accessorize it."

Braking action is controlled by levers that protrude from the side of the device. An adjustable fulcrum allows the user to vary the ratio of clamping force to lever force to as high as 15:1, or even set the levers to work in an over-center mode as a parking brake that holds even when not powered. Currently, Basix does not supply actuators for Lin Lock, though Wolfe notes that a variety of common pneumatic, hydraulic, cable, or electric actuators will work.

"A lot of people have said, 'Why didn't I think of that?' after seeing it," says Wolfe. "But there's nothing like it out there."

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