Innovation shines in North Carolina

DN Staff

June 26, 1995

12 Min Read
Innovation shines in North Carolina

Perhaps its climate gives North Carolina an unfair edge--especially in the springtime, when the sun is warm but not oppressive and the air smells sweet from a profusion of blossoming trees. But it's climate that the state pitches to lure high-tech companies to "Research Triangle:" not simply mild temperatures, but an environment conducive to business and innovation.

In general, the communities of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill form the Triangle's three sides. But within that triangle sits another: Research Triangle Park (RTP). In 1958, sensing the decline of traditional employers like the textile mills, North Carolina business leaders decided to get serious about courting new industries. Local businessmen raised funds to purchase the property, then established the non-profit Research Triangle Foundation to administer their site.

It was a far-sighted venture. Today, the 6,800-acre industrial park hosts 65 facilities and 35,000 jobs--many of them in product-development work. Numerous other businesses have sprouted up nearby. What follows is a sampler of some world-leading technologies flourishing in and around Research Triangle Park.

IBM's PC design site

While IBM has been hemorrhaging jobs for several years, employment at the company's Research Triangle site has remained at a constant 10,000 since 1985, a testimony to the Triangle's attraction as an R&D site. Why North Carolina? "Fine universities, a strong business-government partnership, and an excellent quality of life," IBM officials say.

Among the products developed here: System Network Architecture (SNA), basic software for connecting terminals running mixed applications; the Model 3689 checkout scanner, one of the first-ever commercial uses of holography; and the highly praised fold-out keyboard on the newest Thinkpad notebook PCs.

Now, most of IBM's PC-development work is being consolidated at the RTP facility, which recently marked its 30th anniversary. One benefit: Putting all the engineers together with manufacturing makes "concurrent engineering" easier, allowing team members from different disciplines to collaborate from a project's start.

The PC division uses CATIA solids-modeling and 3D Systems stereolithography in their work. "We can check the 3D parts to discover problems or mistakes much sooner than if we waited until the release of drawings," says industrial designer John Swansey. CATIA also allows engineers to deal with complex, curved designs, he adds. And, wireframe models are passed along for use in toolmaking.

The PC division's recent projects include the Aptiva for home use, and the PC 730 for the corporate desktop. While substantially different in outer appearance, the two PCs use the same frame; in some cases, there might be cutouts for parts, such as a fan, that are not used in one model. "The only difference is the plastic bezel and how you mount the drives," says staff engineer Ed Dials. Benefits: lower inventories and ease of switching models on the manufacturing line.

Elsewhere at IBM's sprawling RTP campus, engineers are developing credit-card-sized wireless devices that can serve as modems, fax cards, and network adaptors. One new device plugs into a Thinkpad PC for not only wireless data and fax transmission up to 14,400 bits per second, but conventional cellular voice calls with a plug-in headset.

The Wireless Modem for Cellular/CDPD and Advanced Mobile Phone System includes a radio running at 5V. To use it inside a laptop PC, engineers had to design not only for RF problems, but heat, shock, and vibration. IBM-designed silicon mounts directly on a board, with Motorola and Rockwell chips used as well.

Engineers solved the RF problems in part by designing a cover that isolates various components, while also protecting against computer interference.

"We did a lot of iterations," says Senior Engineer Bill Nunnery. "We don't have 100% simulation." Manufacturing engineers reviewed each proposal, including engineers in Toronto where the device would be made.

A pilot project at nearby Duke Medical Center uses another RTP-designed product, a Wireless LAN system, to let doctors access the hospital's Ethernet computer network anywhere in the building with a laptop PC.

"This technology can significantly change the way you live," Nunnery says.

With adapter, the IBM CDPD wireless modem for laptop PCs can also serve as a cellular phone to handle conventional voice calls. Engineers found challenges with RF, vibration, and shock in the design.

Bring the Infobahn to your door

Today's personal-computer modems typically transmit data at 14,400 bits per second. BroadBand Technologies has developed a system that will bring information into U.S. homes at speeds of 51 million bits per second.

"People have ridiculed it as a Field of Dreams: If you build it, they will come," says Donald McCullough at BroadBand. "But if you can move and process bits, there's a very lucrative market."

Consumers could access this network with a special TV box to tap into interactive video and movies on demand. Or, they could use specially designed modems for their PCs.

The network accommodates simultaneous uses in a household. A movie might run at 3 Mbits/sec, for example, and another live digital-video feed at 6 to 8 Mbits/second--still leaving 20 to 30 Mbits/second for high-speed Internet surfing. That would give at-home users practical access to high-resolution graphics and video clips on the Internet. "The local loop stops being a bottleneck," says Randall B. Sharpe, director of Advanced Technology.

A demonstration system at BroadBand's office features various movies on demand, as well as an electronic multi-media Yellow Pages you can tap into with a point-and-click TV remote-control device. The company is also working with Philips Consumer Electronics and Compression Labs to develop technology for interactive "video dialtone" service that will let phone companies offer video services over their local networks.

BroadBand's Fiber Loop Access (FLX) system relies on local telephone and cable companies upgrading most of their networks to fiber optics. The company's Host Digital Terminal in a central telephone-company office provides the interface between the voice and digital-data networks. Then, an Optical Network Unit brings high-speed data into 8 to 50 residences via an ATM (synchronous transfer mode) network. The total upgrade cost, including fiber optics, runs about $1,000 per home.

BroadBand's primary design challenge: keeping down costs. They developed more than a dozen customized chips for their system in an effort to devise an optimum solution. "We're very microprocessor intensive," Sharpe says. "Almost every board is intelligent."

Engineers at BroadBand have been working on their high-speed networking scheme since 1988--even before the overworked phrase "information superhighway" barged into the national lexicon. Now, as things like digital TV and Internet's World Wide Web are becoming popular, says McCullough, "We're happy to see that we were right. We just wish we could have made more money while we were right." But that, too, looks promising.

Last fall, BroadBand signed a deal with AT&T Network Systems to jointly develop a Switched Digital Video system to bring interactive multi-media to homes and offices. Pilot projects are already underway with Bell Atlantic and Southwestern Bell.

Working with AT&T Microelectronics, BroadBand incorporated an encoding and compression technique to allow high-speed data transmissions from the Optical Network Units into homes over conventional coax or twisted-pair cable. "The existing wiring and customer equipment remains intact," explains Gerry Pepenella at AT&T. "It brings us closer to the day when the public network can deliver a whole range of new combined voice, video, and data services into homes and offices at an affordable price."

"In the last year, we have achieved the cost breakthroughs necessary to meet telephone-company targets," McCullough says. "We believe we'll be producing large volumes in '96."

BroadBand Fiber Loop Access (FLX) system (below) carries high-speed data into individual homes. A Host Digital Terminal terminates narrowband, wideband, and ATM-based digital broadband signals. It then electronically multiplexes the signals into a single, high-speed data stream for transmission to Optical Network Units (ONU) by fiber-optic cable. The ONU terminates the fibers and demultiplexes the optical signals into telephone and broadband video signals for transmission from the ONU to homes via copper drop wires. Chip sets allow the signals to connect to digital "appliances' such as TV set-top boxes, home monitoring devices, and personal computers.

Materials for denser designs

As ever more electronics get crammed into the modern automobile, where can designers put them? And how? Can they be placed without complicating design and assembly?

DuPont Electronics believes it's got the answer: thick-film materials that can handle the temperature, shock, and vibration of an automotive environment. With more rugged electronics, parts manufacturers can incorporate electronics right into components such as anti-lock brakes. Having a complete assembly in one package, instead of running wires from the systems to electronic boxes elsewhere in the vehicle, makes assembly easier and cheaper.

Delco, for example, just announced it will use thick-film materials to produce a hybrid ABS circuit. Even more ambitious versions of the circuit combine anti-lock brake controls with variable-effect steering and traction control in a single system.

While thin films--often just a few atoms thick--may be "sexier," DuPont's Samuel J. Horowitz says thick-film technologies can offer radically lower-cost alternatives.

DuPont is extending thick-film technology through several patented processes that can form ever-smaller features. Conventional "screen printing" of circuitry offers hole sizes (vias) which connect adjacent cirucit layers of about 200 microns. For smaller features and greater circuit density, DuPont developed Diffusion Patterning.(TM)

First, a dielectric layer is printed onto a substrate and dried. Then, imaging paste is applied to spots where vias are to be produced. An activator diffuses into the dried dielectric layer. A final washing process removes the water-soluble material, creating 125-micron vias.

"Diffusion Patterning is extremely economical when you need the benefits of thick-film technology in conjunction with very high packaging density," according to a paper published by Dr. Hans-Dirk Lowe and Michael Kaindl of Siemens Electromechanical Components Div. Siemens first applied the process for custom automotive circuits, but the researchers envision the procedure being used in instrumentation and control, security systems, medical engineering, and aerospace tasks like avionics and radar.

For even finer work, Fodel(R) patterning creates circuitry by exposing screen-printed paste to ultraviolet light through a "mask" to create 75-micron features. And, low-temperature, coal-fired "green" ceramic tapes can produce circuits with up to 15 layers and 40-micron vias.

Car-radio maker Blaupunkt just adopted Diffusion Patterning for manufacturing high-density ceramic multi-layer circuits. The new three-layer circuit, with 200-micron vias, will cut circuit size almost one-third, and costs by 20 to 30%.

"The car radio of the future will have even more functions," Blau-punkt notes. "The available space and willingness of the consumer to spend more, however, is limited. Therefore, functions have to become smaller and cheaper."

DuPont Fodel(R) process can create 75-micron features using thick-film materials. Conventional thick film processes produce 200-micron holes.

Research for the real world

While many RTP companies work with the region's three universities, nowhere is the hand of academia more apparent than the Research Triangle Institute. Founded by Duke University, North Carolina State University, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the Institute's mission is to apply basic R&D to the real world.

A case in point: Work in progress on using "fuzzy logic" to design controllers for variable-speed motors that would boost efficiency an estimated 3%. If used across the U.S., the controllers could save more than $2 billion each year in energy costs, Institute officials maintain.

"We take some very cheap measurements off the motor to predict speeds without actually measuring the speed," explains Dale Rowe, director of the Institute's Center for Digital Systems Engineering. "That's an order of magnitude cheaper than tachometer measurements."

Institute engineers are also applying neural networks--designing computers that try to mimic the workings of the human brain--for pattern recognition. Such a neural net will soon be put to work as a "cocaine sniffer," helping to track different batches of the illegal substance. Today, law-enforcement officials often boil samples of seized cocaine to create a gas-chromotagraphic pattern--and then must go through dozens of other such patterns on file to see if there's a match. A neural net could automate that process.

And, like the engineers at IBM, Institute researchers are working on low-cost wireless modems. Rowe believes with the emergence of several new wireless-communications standards, manufacturers are poised to include such devices in everything from hand-held computers to Coke machines (which could then tell a home office when they are running out of soda). "Within the next five years, this technology is going to explode," he says. "It's going to have more impact than any other technology I'm aware of."

However, the Institute's fastest growing computer technology is bringing virtual-reality technology to industrial customers for tasks like market research, design walk-throughs, and training. After two years in the field, the Institute already has a $6 million project backlog.

RTI recently developed a PC-based VR system for the National Guard that allows reservists to practice maintenance work on "virtual tanks." The problem, Rowe explains, is that when National Guardsmen have their two-week yearly drills, tank time is too important for drivers and gunners to have much left for mechanics. Conventional VR systems based on high-end hardware would help with training, but carry too steep a price tag.

Using Pentium PCs with graphics accelerators, Crystal Eyes stereo viewing glasses, and software from Autodesk (3D Studio) and Sense8 (World Toolkit), RTI developed PC-based VR training systems for less than $10,000 each.

"The initial reaction is that training time has been reduced at least four to one," Rowe says. "Now the regular Army is buying them."

Elsewhere in the triangle

A week-long visit isn't long enough to highlight all the high-tech companies in the Research Triangle. Others doing R&D work there include:

Computational Engineering International, RTP, a spin-off of Cray Research, developing FEA EnSight software used by companies such as Boeing and Nissan

Cisco Systems, Raleigh, NC, developing hardware and software for computers and routers

Data General, RTP, performing development work on its UNIX operating system

Electronic Equipment Analyzers Inc., Raleigh, NC, performing voice and data system engineering

Fujitsu Network Switching, Raleigh, NC, manufacturing phone switching equipment

Integrated Silicon Systems, Durham, NC, producing verification software for IC CAD

MTS Sintech, Cary, NC, making computerized testing equipment

Motorola, RTP, manufacturing computer equipment

NetEdge Systems, Durham, NC, developing computer networking

Northern Telecom, RTP, making digital switching equipment

Siemens, Wendell, NC, manufacturing switchgear motor controls

Tekelec Network Switching Division, Morrisville, NC, producing telecommunications switching products

Vertus Corp., Cary, NC, making 3-D software for interactively exploring a "virtual" environment

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