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Don't MP3 Me, Bro

Don't MP3 Me, Bro

LAS VEGAS — Taser International kicked off the Consumer Electronics Show here with the announcement of the embedded world’s version of the Odd Couple, as it unveiled a Taser stun gun holster with an on-board MP3 player.

            Known as the Taser Music Player Holster (MPH), the new product combines an MP3 player with the company’s existing Taser C2, now available in leopard skin colors. The company unveiled the combo at an unusual press conference that included a voluntary “tasing” of a writhing reporter and executives dressed in leopard skin clothing.

            Taser executives at the press conference said that the MP3 player and the Taser stun gun are a natural pairing, especially for consumers who need help with self defense.

           “My wife doesn’t carry the C2 as much as she should, but she takes her MP3 player everywhere,” noted Rick Smith, chief executive officer of the company, which plans to announce revenues approaching $100 million in 2007.

            Before deciding on the inclusion of the MP3 player, Taser executives consulted with Kathleen Baty, author of “A Girl’s Gotta Do What a Girl’s Gotta Do: The Ultimate Guide to Living Safe and Smart.” Baty strongly encouraged the idea.

            “You want women to be comfortable carrying this at all times,” Baty said at the news conference. “You want them to have it in places where they might be vulnerable,” such as hiking trails and running trails, she said. 

            The musical holster incorporates an off-the-shelf MP3 player, a small computer with approximately 1 Gbyte of memory, and rechargeable lithium-ion batteries. A jack with a USB converter plug connects the computer and MP3 player. Taser executives describe it as being analogous to the iPod Shuffle.

            The Taser C2 is targeted at personal users, rather than law enforcement professionals. Like the well-known professional version, however, it uses a firing device with a small aluminum dart and a cable that conducts electrical current to the target. The dart is capable of penetrating clothing using a small Eagle Claw-type fish hook at its tip. Unlike professional versions, however, the C2 has a shorter range (15 feet) and different power settings. Many users of the C2 are women, the company said.

            Taser International’s products have intermittently been linked to deaths, but Smith argued today that the use of a Taser is statistically less likely to cause a fatality than a pick-up basketball game.

            “We want to make personal safety as routine as brushing your teeth,” Baty said. “This is about common sense and taking fear away.”

I35W Bridge Gussets: Who Made the half-inch Decision?

I35W Bridge Gussets: Who Made the half-inch Decision?

Let’s play out the possible I35W bridge collapse scenarios: a greedy contractor in 1967 overrules an engineer’s insistence that the gussets on the Minneapolis I35W bridge be an inch thick. More money could flow to the bottom line is those gussets are only a half-inch thick. A less likely scenario in my opinion is that an engineer or group of engineers simply miscalculated. Then they’ll be the courtroom defense scenario: the half-inch gussetts were fine for traffic volume when the bridge was built in 1967, but could not possibly have accounted for increased traffic and heavier trucks 30-40 years into the future. 

It won’t be clearcut, but someone somewhere, if they’re still alive should feel awful. Someone likely knows their work cost lives and untold grief for for the survivors. The Dept. of Transportation has issued an advisory that gussets for the nation 13,000 steel truss bridges should be checked. We await the final report on the cause, but all the telltale signs of trouble were there - missing bolts, corrosion and reports of swaying.      

I am not a bridge or civil engineer, but knowing a bit about steel and having climbed the below deck super structure of the John Greenleaf Whitter Bridge as an adolescent, a half-inch plate steel gussett isn’t enough to take 7×24x365 pounding. This Warren-truss bridge connects Newburyport and Amesbury, Mass. via I-95.  


connecting Amein Salisbury, Mass.   


It’ll be very interesting when and if the 

Somewhere an engineers or group of engineers know they will burn in gussett hell. Or someone who overuled 

Objet’s Connex500 Adds a New Dimension to RP Models

In December 2007, Objet Geometries announced its new PolyJet Matrix technology for creating rapid prototype models using multiple materials. The technology and the Connex500 RP system that uses it made its U.S. debut on the show floor at SolidWorks World 2008.

The system is yet another leap forward for the rapid prototyping industry by enabling the simultaneous jetting of multiple model materials in a single build process.

The system provides 600 x 600 dpi models in both the x and y axes, with model walls as little as 0.6mm. The company claims the highly precise printing delivers 0.3-mm tolerance across large models. There are up to 21 materials to choose from that deliver such features as translucent parts, the ability to coat parts for a rubber-like appearance and parts with combined rigid body and flexible material.

The machine is 55 x 44 inches wide and 44 inches high.

HyperShot by Bunkspeed Brings High-End Rendering to SolidWorks Users

Bunkspeed, developers of the highly acclaimed visualization software, announced its HyperShot SolidWorks Edition at SolidWorks World 2008. This version is a sub-set of the company’s inexpensive rendering software for product design. It supports only SolidWorks files, but has been extended to allow unlimited image resolutions for renderings. This version is available for $995.

Bunkspeed, last week, also started shipping its HyperDrive rendering software, for very high-end rendering. This product is directly competitive to older visualization products such as Autodesk’s Maya.

Arena Entering M&A Scene?

Arena Solutions announced this week CEO Michael Topolovac is resigning from his post and will be replaced by former Agile GM Craig Livingston.

Topolovac, who co-founded the software company with Eric Larkin, will remain active within the company on its Board of Directors. The announcement has raised speculation that Arena may be preparing to enter the mergers and acquisitions market. Agile was acquired by Oracle in April 2007.

While at SolidWorks World 2008 in San Diego, Arena, which delivers hosted PLM software tools, announced an intention to deliver an integrated PLM product that will support SolidWorks 2009 and PDMWorks Enterprise. Arena PLM currently works with SolidWorks CAD and engineering data via an integration with PDMWorks Workgroup. The new integration will allow more enterprise-wide engineering data from SolidWorks to be handled in a single central repository via Arena’s hosted on-demand PLM software.

Arena’s hosted PLM software provides PLM tools via an online hosted system. Prices start at $400 per user, per year for the read-only version and up to $1,600 per user, per year for the full version. The company claims it has more than 15,000 users.

Gadget carries your golf bag

Here’s a nifty gadget that carries your golf bag as you walk the course. Stewart Golf’s X3R Remote Golf Caddie runs on its own power and follows you around the course.

Guidance notes for REACH released

Guidance notes for REACH released

RoHS-International, a company that helps manufacturers cope with environmental regulations in the electronics industry, has released Simplified REACH Guidance Notes for Product Exporters. The 29-page guidance notes are available for download at the REACH site at RoHS International for $140.

The guidance notes were developed to contain key information and easy-to-follow action items that detail immediate steps manufacturers can take to comply with the European Union’s REACH regulations. “The simple, straight-forward guidance notes produced by RoHS International provide assistance to product manufacturers in obtaining a basic understanding of the regulations and how to prepare,” says Gary Nevison, legislation and environmental affairs manager for electronics component supplier, Farnell. “Condensing the relevant parts of the legislation into 29 pages is quite a feat.”

Definitions for Energy Tech Terms: Alternative, Renewable, Sustainable, and Green

Definitions for Energy Tech Terms: Alternative, Renewable, Sustainable, and Green

In October, I posted a blog that asked the question, “Alternative, Renewable, Sustainable, and Green: What is the Difference?” I provided my thoughts on possible appropriate definitions, and I asked for reader feedback on what you think these terms actually mean.


In the interim, I asked the UNT Engineering Library staff to look up the formal definitions of these terms for the first lecture of my Alternative Energy Course at UNT. The following are my favorite results from this search.


According to the US Department of the Interior, “alternative energies are sources that are other than those derived from fossil fuels. Examples include: wind, solar, biomass, wave, and tidal energy.”


The US Department of the Interior also has a definition for renewable energy: “energy resources that are naturally replenishing but flow-limited. They are virtually inexhaustible in duration but limited in the amount of energy that is available per unit of time. Renewable energy resources include: biomass, hydro, geothermal, solar, wind, ocean thermal, wave action, and tidal action.”


The best definition we found for sustainable energy arises from the British: “energy that can be produced economically and safely for all time without impacting the environment and well-being of future generations.”


It was more difficult to find an official government-endorsed definition for green technology. says: “the field of ‘green technology’ encompasses a continuously evolving group of methods and materials, from techniques for generating energy to non-toxic cleaning products”. Unfortunately, this definition is not very satisfying.


It looks like I am not the only one that is confused. Even the US Department of the Interior concedes that renewable energy and sustainable energy are somehow different. However, it places wind, solar, biomass, wave energy, and tidal energy into both categories.


Therefore, I would like to propose that the designations I outlined for these terms in my post, “Alternative, Renewable, Sustainable, and Green: What is the Difference?” become the formal definitions for each of these energy technology words.

Israel Boosts Agassi's Electric Car Concept

Israel Boosts Agassi's Electric Car Concept

Congratulations to Shai Agassi for recognizing that successful development of electric cars requires technical and business solutions. I first came across Agassi three years ago when he was a rising star at SAP, the giant software company. Now he’s heading an entrepreneurial effort based in California to promote use of electric cars. His idea is to market electric cars the way cell phones are marketed. The hardware itself (in this case the car) is subsidized. Users have a contract and pay monthly fees based on projected usage. New batteries developed by Agassi’s company, called Project Better Place, provide lithium-ion batteries that can go 124 miles per charge.


“Project Better Place solution framework looks to convert an entire country into electric cars, powered by batteries, that get their energy from green sustainable electricity sources, through a smart electric recharge grid that covers the entire country,” says Agassi in his blog.  Israel, where gasoline costs more than $6 a gallon, is now putting some muscle behind the idea. Israeli users of the electric car will receive tax incentives. Plus Israel is investing $200 million to build recharging facilities, also supplied by Agassi’s company. Drivers don’t have to wait for a recharge. Batteries are swapped out. Call it “a battery fill up”.  The other partner in the collaboration is Renault-Nissan , which will provide the cars. For the moment, no huge re-engineering of the cars (a la Chevy Volt) is planned. Processors for the cars electric components are still under development. Separately, Renault and Nissan expect to manufacture a hybrid by 2010 and an all-electric car by 2012.


The money behind Agassi’s company comes from Israeli businessman Idan Ofer, who hopes to expand the concept to New York, Singapore, China, and London, where electric cars get special treatment on downtown streets (such as free parking). A pilot will start later this year in Tel Aviv.  A few hundred cars are expected to be on the road next year


This strategy is an interesting contrast to the approach taken by GM in the last dozen years, which has been well chronicled by my outstanding colleague, Chuck Murray. GM has consistently gone for the technical home run, staring with the EV, and continuing today with the Chevy Volt, which includes breakthrough ideas in materials technology. Meanwhile, Toyota got the lead with a less ambitious idea, the hybrid Prius. And now comes Agassi’s very exciting concept.

Learning Mechatronics: ENGR 2210, Principles of Engineering

Learning Mechatronics: ENGR 2210, Principles of Engineering

ENGR 2210: Principles of Engineering.  Even though the name may sound like a theory-based engineering course, the course catalog description states “students will work in small multidisciplinary teams to design and to build a mechatronic system of their own choosing.”  The first third of the semester consists of hands-on lab experience, and the remainder of the semester is for an intensive collaborative project. I took Principles of Engineering (POE) last fall semester and it’s one of Olin College’s required courses to graduate; Olin is entirely an engineering school.

We began the course with a handful of labs to become acquainted with Microchip’s PIC18F2455 microcontroller, which I’ll simply refer to as a PIC, short for programmable intelligent computer.  Because C programming is not a prerequisite, students without C experience became proficient in C by writing programs that are compiled and flashed onto the PIC.  This method of do-learn is what many Olin professors and students call “spiral learning” – the process of not necessarily understanding (and possibly struggling) learning a topic or skill, but then when returning and using it again, having a deeper understanding than if explicitly initially instructed.

Before midterms even started, teams of roughly 3 to 5 students were formed around project ideas and we began working on our final projects.  The only requirements for the projects were that it must have a non-trivial electrical and mechanic system and that the college would cover up to $350 of supplies for each team.  The professors reviewed the projects primarily for feasibility and difficulty – usually ensuring that the project is not too difficult.

I was on a team of three and we ventured to build a mechatronic player piano.  It was an adventure that I’ll save for a future post.