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Articles from 2009 In January


Mechatronics Trends for 2009

Mechatronics Trends for 2009

Some people may not want to read a prognostication article about 2009 simply because they don't want to know what other bad things might happen. It's been that kind of a season.

I, however, am optimistic. I have believed and continue to believe that we are in what I call the Model A phase of technology, and we are still just scratching the surface of the efficiencies that technology can bring to industry. That's no truer in any industry than it is in mechatronics.

Here are my predictions for what we'll see in 2009.

The Battle for Efficiency Heats Up. The challenge of combining the mathematics of mechanics and the code of electronics will continue, inspiring engineers to find new ways to build products more efficiently. It all comes down to competitive advantage. The designers that can create intelligent systems faster - that is, in parallel or in collaboration - will win the time-to-market battle.

Software Becomes More Integrated. The companies that create mechatronic design tools already understand the need to deliver development capabilities that address the aforementioned need for efficiency. That's why we will continue to see increasing integration between modules and packages, even those from different companies. Siemens, PTC, and Dassault all made strides in 2008 to integrate MCAD and ECAD tools. Another key integration step: linking simulation and design tools.

Acquisitions Continue. 2008 was a great year for acquisitions: PTC bought Synapsis for environmental compliance; Autodesk beefed up its CAE capabilities with Algor; Dassault added simulation capabilities with Engineous; IBM bought iLog to broaden its PLM capabilities and SolidWorks acquired Priware for its CircuitWorks tool.

This trend will continue, because in order to offer better integrated tools more quickly, companies will need to acquire technology rather than develop it themselves. The downturn in the economy will force financially challenged vendors to sell off their jewels. The integration of acquired tools into existing product lines is always a challenge, and some companies don't do it well, but the potential is always there for better customer benefits.

Collaborate or Die. More integrated tools require more integrated collaboration among mechatronics engineers. Collaboration tools alone will not solve the problem of mechanical engineers not understanding the challenges of electrical engineers and vice versa. As David Cole, chairman for the Center for Automotive Research, said in the Mechatronics 2.0 Expo keynote, there are many gaps to be filled and engineers need to break down the barriers between them as a means toward improving innovation. "It's no longer 'me, myself and I,' it's 'the team and collaboration'," he said.

Think Green. I'll admit that this is more of a wish than a prediction, now that the cost of oil has dropped so precipitously. But with the aforementioned integrated design tools, the potential is there to create far more environmentally sensitive machinery. As Brian MacCleery, Senior Product Manager for industrial and embedded design at National Instruments, told me earlier this year, "A very high percentage of motors are not just slightly oversized - they're significantly oversized." The result: products that are heavier and slower than they need to be, and which use more energy that they could have if they were designed properly. Savvy companies will work to build greater energy efficiency into their products.

Partnerships Proliferate. Because mechatronics is still in some ways a fledgling arena, we'll see even more partnerships in 2009 among corporations, governments, and academic institutions than we did in 2008. The latter include

? Deere & Company's $1 million contribution to the University of Illinois for a new technology innovation center, targeting advanced mechatronic systems, sensors, electronics, and control systems;

? the U.S. Department of Labor's $1.75 million grant to Utah Valley State College for mechatronics education;

? the state of Alabama's $15 million contribution toward a state-of-the-art robotics training and education center at Calhoun Community College in Decatur, Alabama; robotic industry leaders such as Omoron, Mitsubishi, ABB Robotics, Rockwell, and Fanuc, have already agreed to contribute $40M in equipment for the training center.

Robots March Forward. Robotics will continue to advance toward developing robots that are smarter and faster. As Rich Litt, president of the Robotic Industries Association, noted recently, "Robotics, coupled with intelligent vision hardware and software, is increasingly being applied for automated inspection, especially in Europe. Such systems replace discrete I/O, such as proximity switches, photocells and lasers. In many cases, this approach can tremendously simplify the system, which leads to lower cost, higher reliability and much greater flexibility." At the same time, robots will continue to make inroads in the medical space, as we saw with the advances of the Da Vinci surgical robot and the development of bionic arms at Johns Hopkins University.

MEMS Expand Their Reach. MEMS have already made inroads in medical, automotive, and gaming devices, but I'm seeing new applications expand their capabilities in 2009, including projection devices, defense applications, manufacturing, location-based services, and even astronomy.

As far as we've come in mechatronics in 2008, there's still more potential for progress in 2009. Just as mechatronics is a multidisciplinary field, it's also making progress across multiple disciplines of people, process, and technology.

Camoplast Develops Tougher Hull for Personal Watercraft

Camoplast Develops Tougher Hull for Personal Watercraft

Times may be tough, but companies with strong engineering have a better chance of riding things out.

Example: A Canadian company called Camoplast, developed a dramatically different technology for making hulls for personal watercraft that is economical and creates large parts that are lighter and stronger. The company’s engineering director, Yves Carbonneau, forged ahead even though he told his concept was impossible.

Hulls for the watercraft have been made for decades by the well-known fiberglass processes using polyester in SMC. A customer told Camoplast they wanted something better. Carbonneau worked with two key suppliers-Bayer MaterialScience and KraussMaffei-to develop a polyurethane process using insertion of chopped long glass fiber at the mix head. Bayer developed a new material with far superior flow characteristics, allowing more detail in the mold. The result: a
first time capability to design-in ribs, for example. Huge breakthrough.

“Camoplast’s mission is to set a goal and take all the necessary steps to reach it, one at a time,” says Carbonneau. It took seven years of collaboration and hard work, but the new boat hull is now a reality.

RoHS targets medical and control equipment

RoHS targets medical and control equipment

As part of the proposed changes and additions to RoHS, the European Commission (EU) is considering including medical and control equipment into the scope of RoHS. Product categories 8 and 9, which include medical devices and monitoring and control equipment, were exempt in the original RoHS directive. The EU is considering bringing these products into the scope of RoHS in the not-too-distant future.

Category 8 and 9 producers are testing lead-free parts

According to an article in the UK-based ERA Technology, some manufacturers of products in categories 8 and 9 have already started testing the use of lead-free components. This isn’t surprising given the fact that leaded component are becoming more difficult to procure and many new components are not being designed or produced in a leaded version. Thus many leaded components are becoming obsolete.

Nolan Bushnell and the beginning of video games

Nolan Bushnell and the beginning of video games

Here’s part one of a profile on Nolan Bushnell and the beginnings of Pong and Atari.

Obama, Pope Show Tech Savvy

Obama, Pope Show Tech Savvy

It’s official: Those who haven’t yet embraced YouTube, Facebook and BlackBerries are out of touch.

In the past week, the Chicago Tribune and numerous other news outlets have reported that President Barack Obama is still using his Blackberry, having worked out an arrangement that lets him keep the device despite the concerns of security advisors. Thus, Obama reportedly becomes the first sitting president to use e-mail.

More surprising than that, however, is the fact that the Vatican announced last week that it has launched its own channel on YouTube to keep viewers up to date on the activities of Pope Benedict XVI. Media reports have estimated that his videos already have hits numbering in the tens of thousands. Newspaper stories have also said he has “nearly 28,000 fans on a FaceBook page named in his honor.”

The Wall Street Journal reports that Pope Benedict’s YouTube presence is hardly a surprise. Prior to latest technology announcements, the Vatican had solar panels installed on some of its buildings. Pope Benedict also has denounced pollution as a “modern sin.”

The Future of MEMS

The Future of MEMS

Even among creative engineers, sometimes it takes a while for the light to go on regarding applications for new technology. The folks at Intel weren't initially sure of how the microprocessor would be used. So too with MEMS (microelectromechanical systems).

Initially popular as pressure sensors and actuators for automotive applications, including seat belts, air bags, and stability systems, MEMS also flourished in medical and consumer electronics applications. Now they're entering a new phase, with new applications in astronomy, manufacturing, projection, and location-based systems.

"There are really five senses of motion," says Wayne Meyer, horizontal marketing manager for the micromachined products division at Norwood, Mass.-based Analog Devices. "These are acceleration, velocity, speed, position, and rotation sensing. These contribute to shock sensing and vibration sensing, all activities that go beyond consumer devices."

There has been a spate of new applications announced in the last few months:

Item: Boston Micromachines announced in December 2008 that its MEMS-based deformable mirrors were being used in astronomical research by multiple institutions, including Durham University and the French aerospace lab ONERA; its two deformable mirrors offer either 140 actuators or 1,020 actuators.

Item: In December of 2008, Huntsman announced a manufacturing machine called the Araldite Digitalis, which uses MEMS in place of lasers to both speed and improve the process of radiation curing, a method of applying polymer coating.

Item: At January 2009's Macworld Expo, display and imaging company Microvision announced the Show WX projection device. About the size of a smartphone, it uses a one-millimeter MEMS mirror to display the output of three lasers (red, green, and blue). Lemoptix is another company in this space.

Item: In December, 2008, Memsic announced a new line of magnetic sensors with "digital compass functionality" that compensate for extraneous magnetic interference using just 400 microamperes of power, making them appropriate for consumer electronics devices. And the new applications don't stop there. "Because they're small and made of silicon, they have a very high shock capability," says Greg Smolka, vice-president of the industrial, military and space division at Hudson, N.H.-based Vectron International, which manufacturers frequency control and sensor systems. "Customers are using them in precision guided munitions, otherwise known as smart bombs. MEMS offer the ability to give a good timing signal, but it can stand being fired from a cannon and still operate."

In line with the current mania for green technology, Benedetto Vigna, general manager of the MEMS and healthcare, RF and sensor product division at Geneva-based ST Microelectronics, sees an upcoming opportunity in monitoring energy and water consumption. "One of the applications that we see is remote monitoring of temperatures through a distributed network of wireless sensors in houses and factories," he says, noting that such sensors could also be used in appliances such as washing machines to maintain optimum energy use and water temperature.

Analog Devices' Meyer sees opportunities in safety and inspection applications. "Say you have a rotating shaft on a turbine with a 1 Khz frequency. If the frequency increases, that's a leading indicator that the shaft is getting warped. You can look for this either when you do preventative maintenance, or you can fix it after it's broken. But if you use the vibration sensing capabilities of a MEMS, you can find out immediately if they're a problem. You're talking about 24x7 monitoring rather having an inspector walking around. It's less costly and more reliable."

It may take a while for these new applications to establish a foothold as strong as current applications. ST Micro's Vigna, for instance, believes that widespread deployment of such new uses for MEMS are still three to five years away. "That's not a long time, but I believe the biggest revenue stream from now until 2012 will still be the consumer market."

Even so, it's important at an inflection point like this to remember that inventions sometimes outgrow their initial expected uses in unexpected ways. Consider the story of the Kleenex tissue, so named because its inventor expected actors to use it as a way to remove makeup. He was horrified to learn that people were using it as a disposable handkerchief until he realized that market was considerably larger.

The creative uses of MEMS will undoubtedly feed larger markets as well.

Goldfire 5.0 Takes Aim At Everyday Innovation

Goldfire 5.0 Takes Aim At Everyday Innovation

With an eye towards opening up and making innovation practices more operational, Invention Machine has stocked the latest version of Goldfire with new capabilities intended to make the platform a more integral part of everyday development.

Goldfire 5.0 features a new task-based approach and new user interface capabilities designed to walk users through the steps of innovation while allowing them to tailor the business processes to suit their own innovation and development needs. Invention Machine designed the new release in collaboration with key customers, including Whirlpool, Lifetime Brands and Baxter Healthcare, in response to their request to extend innovation practices to gain a competitive edge.

Sustainable innovation is particularly critical in a down economy where companies are having to do more with less, according to Jim Todhunter, Invention Machines' chief technology officer. "Companies have to deliver competitive products and they have to get it right the first time-that's where we come in," Todhunter says. "The new release addresses a task many customers told us they're struggling with. That is how to extend innovation beyond the occasional large project of trying to build a new product or find a new market, but rather make it as part of everyday work."

One of the primary new capabilities of Goldfire setting the stage for so-called "everyday innovation" is the new task-based approach. Leveraging the software's built-in business processes and knowledge bases, Goldfire 5.0 maps out the path to innovation for specific tasks, allowing engineers or researchers to get started without the labor-intensive set up of creating an innovation workflow. The software is configured to show users visually where they are in the process and what the next steps are, accelerating their time to innovation, Todhunter says. The software comes ready to handle 14 pre-defined innovation tasks, but users can configure it to support their own innovation practices or tailor the ones provided to better fit with their organization.

"This is one of the most significant features in terms of enabling people to apply innovation methods," Todhunter says. "It used to require a certain expertise to understand how to apply the software to innovation tasks."

Dave Pierson, senior design engineer at Magnet, was recently able to leverage Goldfire 5.0's task-orientation to help remedy a product defect much more expeditiously. The firm, which collaborates with clients on development initiatives, was facing a Van de Graaff generator-type problem when working on Thred Taper, a machine used to automate fittings. After multiple uses, static electricity was building up in the plastic tape cartridge and causing feeding problems with the threading, according to Pierson. By using Goldfire 5.0, Pierson's team was able to identify the cause and solve the problem the first time around, he explains. "Goldfire's 5.0's `fix a product defect' task allowed me to come up with the least expensive solution and get it right the first time," Pierson says. "It took me through the steps, saving me time and resources. It also saved on cost by identifying the least expensive solution without having to use a trial and error method."

In addition to the new task orientation, Goldfire 5.0 features a desktop portal designed to provide instant access to what's happening in the company's innovation world. The new dynamic widget sits on the desktop and details tasks and projects, pushing information out to the community. The software's new metrics capabilities provides management with a visual picture of what innovation activities are going on within the company-from what tasks are being performed to what assets are being used.

Along with the Goldfire 5.0 announcement, Invention Machine said that existing users will get unlimited access to online computer-based training courses, including the new 5.0 courseware, at no additional cost.

GM Forges ahead with Volt Despite Money Problems

GM Forges ahead with Volt Despite Money Problems

In an effort to keep vehicle weight as low as possible, General Motors will use forged aluminum wheels for the electric Chevy Volt, which is due to debut in late 2010.

"Alcoa is pleased to supply forged aluminum wheels for the Volt. Working closely with the GM team resulted in a wheel designed, engineered and manufactured for light weight performance that will further extend the range of this alternative propulsion vehicle," said Mike Parnell, general manager of Alcoa Auto Wheels.

General Motors has targeted the Chevy Volt to deliver up to 40 miles of gasoline- and emissions-free electric driving with the extended-range capability of hundreds of additional miles. Removing weight is a major goal. The reinforced thermoplastic sheet shown in the hood for the concept Volt is no longer under consideration, according to an exclusive Design News report.

It seems apparent that GM wants to focus on proven lightweight technologies, such as forged aluminum wheels, in an effort to keep the Volt on schedule.

Alcoa said it focused on design, engineering and production techniques to increase strength and durability while lowering the overall weight of the wheel. Forged aluminum wheels provide increased strength and 20 percent less weight than cast aluminum wheels.

Lightweight wheels help reduce emissions and fuel consumption while also boosting driving performance and efficiency from a lower rotary inertia. As the energy used to accelerate and decelerate the wheel is reduced, less mass is required in adjacent, un-sprung components such as brakes, steering and suspension. Lowering overall un-sprung weight compounds the benefits of fuel economy and reduces emissions.

The announcement on the forged wheels also reaffirms statements by GM that the Chevy Volt car program is still full speed ahead despite the company's financial problems. Jon Lauckner, GM's vice president global program management, says: "It is one of the highest, if not the highest, priority programs in the company and that hasn't changed, nor has the commitment of resources to fund it. In fact, with the successful completion of each development activity, we have more confidence than ever the Volt will start production as planned in late 2010."

Last Friday, the federal government announced an agreement to provide up to $17.4 billion in loans to bring GM and Chrysler to commercial "viability." GM CEO Rick Wagoner held a press conference on Friday where he thanked President Bush and said GM is "fully committed to leading in energy-saving vehicles and technologies."

Automotive Engineering Still Shines in Detroit

Automotive Engineering Still Shines in Detroit

Don't blame American automotive problems on engineers. There's an explosion of new plastics' designs, many of which are the best in the world.
The new crossover Ford Flex is loaded with engineering innovations. Eight were awarded finalist status in the 2008 Society of Plastics Engineers Automotive Div. design competition, held in Detroit in November. One example is the use of high-gloss black acrylic appliques that feature Ford's industry-first keypad, which is invisible until touched. "The appliques are the enabler for the Flex's unique floating roof design," says Paul Dellock, a design engineer at Ford. The appearance of a "floating" or unattached roof is an effect created by blacking out the roof pillars combined with dark windows. A conventional keypad would have ruined the look.
Arkema developed a unique acrylic for the application that has a high surface hardness, good impact properties and good temperature properties. Ford engineers also wanted a recyclable material and ruled out painted coatings that emit volatile organic compounds.
Windsor Mold, a Canadian tool builder, developed a thin-wall, two-shot molding technology that included robotic glue sealing. Highly polished mold surfaces create a mirror-like finish with ding resistance superior to metal appliques, according to Dellock.
"Prior-generation high-gloss black appliques were either painted steel or painted aluminum and are not capable of providing the semi-transparent features required for the hidden keypad," says Dellock. The plastic appliques save about $25 for the 10 pillars on the Flex. Tooling costs were more than $1 million less than the progressive stamping dies used for painted steel. Also, no paint racks were required. The plastic appliques weigh 5 lb less than the painted steel used on the Ford Edge and Lincoln MKX.
Headliner Integration
Another engineering tour de force on the Ford Flex is a system that integrates the auxiliary air conditioning duct, headliner stiffener, headliner attachment base, moon roof opening stiffening rings and the dual sun shade carrier.
"Our challenge was to make the subsystem using a single injection-molded part, with one plastic resin, to reduce complexity, improve dimensional integrity, reduce engineering time and achieve significant cost savings through innovation," says Joe Callahan, program manager at Dakkota, the system supplier of the component.
In the integrated structure, a hodgepodge of materials (stamped metal, glass mat laminate and polypropylene) are replaced with one material - a polycarbonate/ABS blend. The supply chain was significantly smaller: One molder, H.S. Die, was responsible for the integrated duct. Component complexity was reduced from 22 to 15 and weight was cut by 1 lb. Savings per part total $13.41 and there was a significant capital savings on tool costs, which are reduced $2.45 million. A special high-strength melt adhesive with nitrogen-assisted spray was developed to attach the large integrated part to the headliner substrate.
Other Flex Innovations Include:

- A plastic capless refueling system with a sensor that only allows the proper fuel to be dispensed. The system uses a conductive plastic ground path to prevent electrostatic discharge. Ford plans to start using the capless system on all vehicles. Martinrea has applied for patent protection on the technology.

- A 20 percent glass-filled polypropylene is used on the overhead console of the Flex to provide high heat-deflection properties. The original console made of talc-filled thermoplastic olefin sagged after exposure to heat.

- Ford designed rear foot well illumination to achieve uniform cross-car distribution of light. Light-diffusing acrylic supplied by Cyro optimizes blended colors generated by an RGB (red-green-blue) light-emitting diode.

- An expanded polypropylene head restraint to meet new federal safety rules.

- An industry-first integrated floor console and compressor refrigerator.

- A modular floor console using an all-plastic structural framework to support a floor shifter and eliminate a steel shifter bracket.

LEDs Advance
Energy-saving light-emitting diodes (LEDs) will become increasingly important in cars as electric designs ramp-up. The biggest reason: they use less electricity. New designs now make it possible for LED lamps to replace gas discharge lamps.
Fans optimized to the special needs of automotive headlamps deliver the required air flow for active cooling In the development of the fans for these new headlamp units, fan specialist ebm-pabst from St. Georgen, Germany, consulted the experts at DSM Engineering Plastics to identify suitable materials with optimized outgassing properties. The collaboration resulted in a completely new cooling air supply concept, molded in DSM's newly developed PET XL, which exhibits extremely low outgassing.
"It made sure that the optimum play of the rotor and stator will not be compromised even by high temperature fluctuation, by hardest impact when driving or by humidity," says Thomas Pusch, an engineer for DSM Engineering Plastics.
Blow-Molded Tank
In another innovation, Inergy Automotive Systems of Adrian, MI developed a twin-sheet blow molding system (TSBM) that integrates components into a fuel tank during blow molding, reducing costs and emissions at the same time.
"This technology is the gateway to the next generation of plastic fuel systems, allowing much more complex fuel systems that met the strictest of performance and emissions standards," says Dave Hill, project engineer at Inergy Automotive. Sheets extrude between a central core and a mold. Core actions attach the components during initial sheet forming. The empty core is withdrawn and the mold is closed to join the formed sheets in a second blowing step. Components that can be attached to the core include baffles, gauges, valves, jet pumps, lines, fuel modules and canisters.
TSBM replaces co-extrusion blow molding, which requires boring and welding of externally mounted components. "Weight savings are up to 10 percent compared to conventional blow molding," says Hill. "The Twin-Sheet Blow Molding process allows improved wall thickness control." There's an additional 10 percent savings through component simplification and reduction in finishing costs.
"More internal components mean fewer potential fuel leak paths," adds Hill. "Increased design flexibility provides increased tank capacity and driving range." Placing baffles within the tank also reduces noise.
Possibly most significantly, the internal placement of components also reduces emissions. "Permeation of the fuel system can be dramatically reduced compared to current tank systems at the same or lower cost," says Hill. "The technology can meet all global evaporative emission standards."
The most important standard right now is in California, which is requiring vehicles to reduce their fuel emission by a factor of 10, to fewer than 54 mg per vehicle per day.
The key to the technology is the in-mold assembly. "We designed the tool so that it can be used with conventional blow-molding machines," says Hill. Components are integrated using one of two innovative technologies. Internal welding is used for small components and internal riveting is used for larger components. Parts up to 1 kg can be inserted into the parison. The process also allows attachment of non-compatible materials, such as polyacteal to polyethylene.
Weight Reduction
Navistar is using nanoclay fillers and other advanced materials in truck hoods in place of glass microspheres to reduce weight by 21 lb, or by 20 percent of its original weight.
"The weight savings translates to $2 million per year in greater revenue productivity," says Edward Zenk, senior development engineer at Navistar's International Trucks and Engine group in Warrenville, IL. "Twenty one more bulk products can be loaded per truck per trip without exceeding over-the-road limits."

MSC.Software Lands Role In EADS PHEINX Project

The European Aeronautic Defense & Space Co.’s (EADS) has lined up another partner for PHEINX, its global initiative to bring efficiencies and standardization to its increasingly complex product development processes.

As part of the PLM Harmonization Enhanced Integration and Excellence (PHENIX) project, MSC.Software will serve as the major partner for building up its multidisciplinary simulation backbone strategy. Officials said MSC.Software’s SimEnterprise product suite, which includes MD Nastran, SimXpert and SimManager are now candidates for EADS’ common solution for future product development.

PHENIX is a groupwide strategic initiative launched in 2007 to achieve harmonization of enterprise PLM methods, processes, tools and data between EADS business units, which include Airbus, Eurocopter and EADS Astrium. The harmonization effort is designed to improve communications between the various EADS divisions, helping to reduce time to market and increase product quality. The other major goal of the initiative is to facilitate design collaboration across an extended supply chain, where different partners located around the globe are responsible for the design and production of various components on an aircraft.

In addition to the MSC.Software simulation products, other tools selected for the PHENIX project include Dassault’s CATIA, ENOVIA and DELMIA PLM suite, which serve as “Backbone B,” or the CAD/CAM-related building blocks; and PTC’s Windchill, which functions as the Enterprise PLM backbone for the project. This “Backbone A” functions as the master product definition, supporting such tasks as configuration management, data management and lifecycle management, while the “Backbone B” piece is more about 3-D Master Reference activities related to digital mockup.