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Articles from 2008 In November

Spreading the Word on Robotics

It's one thing for mechatronics experts to cluster among themselves, sharing insights on their various disciplines. It's quite another for someone like Eric Gradman, a roboticist at a company called Applied Minds in Glendale, CA to spread the word about his passion for robotics. He spoke at an event called Mindshare in mid-October in Los Angeles, which brings together on a monthly basis an audience as diverse as engineers, technologists, artists and dancers.

Of course, Gradman is not your ordinary roboticist. Sure, he has a master's degree in robotics from the University of Southern California. He believes robotics encompasses mechatronics. "When I talk about why I enjoy robotics so much, I say, when I'm confronted with a problem, only in robotics do I get the choice of solving it in hardware, software or electronics."

But he's also an interactive artist and a circus performer. (Admittedly, roboticists and circus performers both employ a basic understanding of physics in their work).

Nor is Mindshare your ordinary event. According to one of the founders, "We're intrigued by the cross pollination that arises from gathering individuals who might not otherwise interact. It is an energetic mix of open-minded people from architects to programmers to writers to painters to engineers and all others in between."

Clearly, Gradman, Mindshare and mechatronics all share a multidisciplinary view of the world.

Still, Gradman chose a unique perspective with which to discuss robotics with the Mindshare audience. His presentation was titled "The Perils of Robotics: When Good Robots Do Bad Things." When he came up with the title, he wanted to avoid giving a dry presentation about robotics. "I love robotics," he says, "but it may have been that I was having a particularly frustrating week at work, because I got to thinking about the many ways that robots can fail."

So why do good robots do bad things? "Robots can misbehave," says Gradman, who started out his presentation with the example of Kenji Urada, one of the first workers ever to be killed by a robot, "but they can't be evil or stupid. It comes down to a human failure to design around a problem. Robots fail because we don't know how to solve all the problems (in robotics). We don't understand how to make them succeed yet."

Gradman says there are multiple ways robots foul up basic activities they're supposed to understand, including:

Sensing their environment. When robots use lasers as sensors to understand their environment, they can be fooled by reflective materials. The laser can be diffused to a point where it can't recognize an object. This is fine, Gradman says, except very expensive sports cars tend to have exactly the kind of paint job that fool the lasers. "In a parking lot full of cars, the robot will run into the most expensive one," says Gradman. "I think that in the future, to avoid hostile robots, people will wear clothing made of silver lamé and mylar."

Modeling their environment. Gradman works frequently with computer vision, so he's come to understand robots' limitations in this area. In his presentation, he showed examples of a robot accurately tracking the face of a woman who's moving around a room. But he also shows an example of a robot using standard tracking algorithms that is fooled into thinking a smiley face painted on a human hand is another human face.

Planning a course of action. Sometimes engineers ask robots to take an action that requires too much flexibility in too small a space or too short a time, Gradman says. "All of a sudden the robot is asked to do something that's both fast and impossible, and without safeguards you could put people in danger." And sometimes robots just don't do what they're supposed to.

Acting to achieve the goal. And sometimes there's just hardware failure. Gradman included in his presentation video of Honda's Asimo robot ascending a set of stairs, turning to descend a second set of stairs, and toppling forward catastrophically.

Why are robots prone to failure? The answer is simple, in Gradman's eyes. "Robotics is still about human beings putting together robot systems. We become part of the robot for a brief period of time, and idiots can cause more damage through robots than any robot can by itself."

For all his humorous examples of robotics failure, Gradman is highly optimistic about the future of robotics. In September, he attended IROS 2008 (Intelligent Robots and Systems) in Nice, France. "It's very clear from listening to all the talks there that we are rocketing ahead in state-of-the-art sensing, planning and modeling," Gradman says. "Processing power is increasing, so we can build more nuanced algorithms and more sophisticated mathematical techniques to deal with interesting exceptions in data. Sensors are getting better, and our methods of dealing with the sensor data are getting better. Brilliant researchers are making great inroads in all these things, so we're on the path to solving a lot of the problems I talked about."

Spreading the Word on Robotics_ImageA

Mediocrity in the Design Process: Marinara sauce gone wrong.

Mediocrity in the Design Process: Marinara sauce gone wrong.

An end user should not be using a mediocre product, and let me explain how marinara sauce relates.

Before super-mega-markets, I would imagine markets had fewer varieties of many products. Those products were likely produced to try to please as many customers’ taste buds as possible. Let me presume that customers only had different preferences between texture and spice of sauces. The two axioms below represent the design space and two functional requirements for each user and the product placement is depicted by the sauce jar, relative to the consumer desire on the two-dimensions.


As depicted above, a product that tries to serve all end users isn’t very effective at capturing much of a market – it’s mediocre for most customers.

The neutrally spicy and neutrally textured marinara sauce doesn’t appeal to anyone who prefers a sauce that is any single characteristic of smooth, chunky, spicy or plain. It’s a tragedy of compromise.

Instead, differentiating the pasta sauce into specific varieties provides many more customers a reason to purchase a marinara sauce variety that fits them well. For figurative purposes, the graphic below shows a sampling of varieties you might find on a store shelf today.


An ideal goal of a design is for everyone to have a product that fits them perfectly, but it’s obviously impossible to reach this.

Pasta sauce aside, back to technology and mechatronics..

A conical example of a technology design choice initially gone wrong: the all-in-one printer-fax-scanner-copier. It took years to master the design, and mediocrity was the main theme of the device for a long time after its introduction. No single function worked well, and often the machines didn’t work at all.

A recent trend I’ve seen are so-called do-it-all robots. One module-based robot from Louisiana State University looks promising, but I don’t think I’d want a single robot that tends my yard, cleans my toilet, and detects intruders. First, I’d rather have a robot that does one of these well. More on this mechatronic design in a future post.

A product time line often starts as a widely-targeted (mediocre) product and slowly adapts to specialized user-centric product designs. This may simply be the nature of adoption in a market, but many technologies have had large growing pains during their proper specialization. Computers evolved from a few consumer types, to many diversified types. I predict the next big diversification will occur in robotics, once a niche for robotics booms, it can be exploited to fund further specialties.

My questions to you: Why are conveniences often introduced as all-in-one and do-it-all devices?

Counterfeiters pass off lead-free parts as exempt

Counterfeiters pass off lead-free parts as exempt

In a weird twist, some counterfeiters are passing off lead-free parts as though they are parts exempted from the RoHS directive. In a recent article in Components in Electronics, the compliance consulting firm, Design Chain Associates notes that some counterfeiters have re-labeled RoHS-compliant parts as containing tin/lead solder. Certain industries such as defense, aerospace and medical equipment are exempt from RoHS rules because tin whiskering in pure tin solder can cause problems in extended use of extreme environments.

Design Chain Associates notes that manufacturers can avoid much of the counterfeiting risk by sticking with known component manufacturers and known distributors, particularly franchised distributors.

G.M. should look at Honda, a model 21st Century Company

G.M. should look at Honda, a model 21st Century Company

If General Motors (G.M.) wants to emulate another auto maker, it should look no further than Honda. Honda is what a 21st century “mobility” maker should look like. And it clearly the most innovative of all auto makers.

 The company gets more U.S. patents than any other auto maker by a wide margin. With 677 in 2007, it was awarded nearly double the number of Toyota and GM which were second and third, respectively. And Honda’s new Greensburg, Indiana plant (its fifth in the U.S.) that just opened is a model of efficiency.

Honda is also the greenest car company. It largely ignored the gas-guzzling SUV and pickup craze. Sure, it has the Pilot and ungainly Ridgeline which at best (read: highway) deliver 20-23 MPG. But Honda’s seven other models get 25 MPG or better – much better in some cases.  

 What spurred me to write this post was nothing in about the auto business. Rather, it was what Honda is doing in the Combined Heat and Power area. American Honda just introduced a new home cogeneration unit for heat and electricity. It’s basically a very smart generator that runs on propane to produce heat and power. As part of the freewatt system that can deliver as much as three quarters of a home’s heating and electricity, the freewatt system it promises 30% reduction in greenhouse gases over conventional heating systems and annual electric bill savings for $500-$1,000.

 It’s worth reading Honda’s entire mission statement. But I will excerpt the top three paragraphs which emphasize its value proposition in terms of mobility and benefits for society:

 “We see the world not as it is, but as it could be.

We see the world through the eyes of dreamers. Because we are a company founded by a dreamer. And we are a company built on dreams.

We see the pursuit of impossible dreams as an empowering force, capable of producing revolutionary ideas. Dreams inspire us to create innovative products that enhance human mobility and benefit society. Honda encourages all of its associates to pursue their dreams. And it’s our mission to share these dreams with others and to make them a reality.”

 I could not find a GM mission statement per se at, but did find one on Google. It’s as follows:

“G.M. is a multinational corporation engaged in socially responsible operations, worldwide. It is dedicated to provide products and services of such quality that our customers will receive superior value while our employees and business partners will share in our success and our stock-holders will receive a sustained superior return on their investment.”

 Which one do you find more inspiring? More accurately, which of the two companies are designing and making the right products for the 21st century?

 When Honda named its first American model the Civic, one senses they really meant it.

Engineers, Meet Social Media

Alex Ruiz is a self-proclaimed geek. As the engineering manager for a Southern California medical device firm, Ruiz spends his days fielding support questions and helping engineers leverage CAD tools more effectively. During off-hours, Ruiz is now playing that role for a much wider audience, making the rounds of vendor message boards and discussion groups to connect with fellow CAD jockeys.
Enter the new world of Web 2.0 and social media, which ushers in a whole new way for people to share information and collaborate. For Ruiz, the technology tinkerer, it was no great stretch to continue his interaction with peers using blogs, microblogging forums like Twitter and even some social networking sites, including Facebook and LinkedIn . Ruiz started informally, trading a few tips here and there, but soon, he was knee-deep in the technology. Today, he's the brains behind The SolidWorks Geek blog, where SolidWorks' users regularly check in to mine his CAD knowledge, and he actively participates on Facebook and in Twitter discussions, in some cases, even weighing in on design discussions with online engineering pals.
"I went from being a CAD manager for 105 users in a company in Southern California to being a CAD manager for thousands of users in 93 countries," says Ruiz. "A lot of these small companies don't have CAD managers, they don't have access to gurus - they don't have time to dig around and find information for themselves. With this new technology, they can send a tweet (a Twitter message) to someone or put a message up on Facebook and get the assistance they otherwise wouldn't have."
Ruizis not alone in his desire to explore the new social media terrain. A small, but growing, set of engineers is starting to turn to blogs, wikis, microblogging tools and social networking forums as yet another way to tap into a collective knowledge base and connect with like-minded professionals. For now, their interaction is mostly related to networking, job searches and trading tips and tricks information on their favorite CAD and design tools. While the social media platforms foster a more open and interactive discourse compared to traditional user groups and online user communities, they are lacking in the security controls, workflow integration and visualization capabilities that would make them viable replacements for full-blown engineering collaboration platforms - at least at this time.
"These tools are a good vehicle for expanding your contacts and sources of knowledge," says Ken Amann, director of research for CIMdata Inc., an Ann Arbor, MI, market research and consulting firm specializing in engineering. "Normal systems are really focused on interacting with people within your work sphere or with defined partners while these new tools tend to have more of an open audience."
The Pulse of the Customer
The promise of social networking hasn't been lost on design tool vendors. CAD vendors like Siemens PLM Software, SolidWorks Corp., Autodesk, McNeel North America and others have setup shop in these social media environments, using forums such as blogs, Second Life virtual worlds and wikis both to deliver helpful information to their engineering users and as a way to capture the pulse of what customers want and what they're saying about their respective products.  
SolidWorks, for example, has found Twitter and Facebook useful for tracking issues and problems related to its software and training programs, according to Matt West, the company's newly minted social media manager. In Twitter, for example, West came across chatter about bugs in the SolidWorks' 2009 beta release, which the company was able to then quickly address. It also became aware of an education outreach opportunity when monitoring a student-driven Facebook network and there have been similar examples going forward.
For SolidWorks' customers, who West admits are just starting to get their feet wet with these new technologies, there's an opportunity to expand their knowledge networks, much more so than with traditional ways of networking. "Instead of being limited to a local user group where 50 people meet once a month and talk or go back-and-forth on an e-mail list, these tools open up that talk to people all around the world," he adds. SolidWorks is also adding more social media-type features to its existing community tools - for example, 3D ContentCentral, where engineers and parts suppliers can share 3-D models - to make those forums more interactive and a natural part of the design workflow.
For Siemens PLM Software and Autodesk®, blogs have become a useful tool for providing customers with content they might not otherwise have had access to. Autodesk® execs and the Autodesk® user base use blogs to share best practices and shortcuts related to the CAD tool, according to Shaan Hurley, platform technology evangelist for AutoCAD and platform products. In a Siemens' PLM Software-sponsored blog, for example, visitors can get all of the history behind the new "steering wheel" interface that is part of Siemens' synchronous technology. There are also company blogs chronicling the highlights of user events and announcements for those who don't attend and Siemens is tapping Second Life to showcase product launches, get early stage feedback on products and highlight its integration story behind the design process and the manufacturing floor.
While the strengths of their communications' capabilities are clear, it's yet to be seen how these social media forums will evolve as real design collaboration platforms, due to concerns about intellectual property and security, according to Chris Kelley, Siemens PLM Software's vice president of online and infrastructure marketing. "Companies are going to have to come up with acceptable use policies - we really do have to figure this out sooner rather than later," Kelley says.
Newcomer Yammer believes it has resolved much of the enterprise control concerns. Similar to Twitter, this microblogging platform lets a closed group send quick, short updates, follow each other and pose questions, and the content is maintained in a central repository, which can be organized with tags for easy access. The software has applicability for engineering groups for updating co-workers on projects, for asking questions and starting discussions and for circulating something of interest amongst a widespread team of colleagues. "One of the main things an enterprise microblogging tool offers is an archive," says Keith McCarty, marketing manager at Yammer.
For Jason Newell, a software engineer at The Charles Machine Works Inc., a Perry, OK, manufacturer of underground construction equipment, it is wikis, not blogs or microblogging tools making the difference in his ability to share knowledge and collaborate with other engineering users. Newell, who supports the SolidEdge CAD tool within his company and was an active participant in the SolidEdge user forums, recently created a SolidEdge wiki to provide a one-stop location for users looking for information about the tool. "There's a lot of information out there about SolidEdge, but a lot of it isn't easily referenceable," Newell says. "How successful the wiki will be is yet to be determined - it all depends on how much the community puts into it."

No Bailout for GM or Chrysler: Part III

No Bailout for GM or Chrysler: Part III

I recently blogged that restructuring of the American steel industry was a good model for US auto makers. Soon after, the New York Times suggested the same. Well, now I have another one: the American mold manufacturing industry. Ten years ago, US mold makers were under attack from Asian competitors who benefited from lower costs. Sure, the folks who owned those businesses were plenty scared, just as Rick Wagoner of GM is today. No one suggested that the mold makers should be bailed out, probably  because they lacked size and clout. Despite that, the importance of tool building to the US economy could not be debated.

Many mold makers went out of business, particularly in Michigan. The ones that survived though are world competitive. One example is NyproMold, which now makes highly innovative products such as modular tooling and multi-shot spin stack tools. NyrpoMold uses the most productive and newest technologies, such as Laser Cusing and fluids flow analysis. And there are several more top-of-the-line American tool makers who didn’t just beg for a bailout. They adapted and grew.

It’s a long list that includes: Hi-Tech Mold & Engineering, Rochester Hills, MI; Triangle Tool Corp.,Milwaukee, WI: Rexam Mold Manufacturing, Buffalo Grove, IL; MSI Mold Builders, Cedar Rapids, IA; ABA-PGT, Manchester, CT; and Hi-Tech Mold & Tool, Pittsfield, MA. There’s also a long list of Canadian mold makers who are at the top of the competitive curve.

Interestingly, even the Asian tool makers are being tested by the newest breed of low-cost tool builders in India. Nokia and Motorola have both opened new plants there. The tool making will follow.  Building tools for cell phones was once at the top of the technical food chain. Now it’s a commodity. The same is true for tools used to make inkjet cartridges for printers.

Make the auto manufacturers adapt and compete. No handouts. No bailouts.

ebm-papst Engineering Solutions

ebm-papst specializes in solving air-moving challenges for markets that range from IT and telecommunications, to household appliances, and industry.

In addition to offering thousands of off-the-shelf solutions, ebm-papst also offers expertise for solving unusual or difficult requirements involving challenges as diverse as air flow, acoustics, telecommunications standards, or EMI. Application engineers and an on-site testing lab provide customers with the ability to assess air flow, noise, environmental factors (including salt fog chambers), and temperature extremes and overall system performance.

"We provide a one-stop solution," explains Joe Landrette, an ebm-papst Project Engineer. "Customers not only get our selection of products but they also get our expertise and our abilities to help create answers tailored to their needs."

For instance, he explains, customers frequently look for special capabilities in a fan tray. In one instance, a company needed to increase air flow through an enclosure by about 10-15 percent but they faced a design limitation of 350 watts for their power consumption. This limit effectively precluded adding more or larger fans. "Because we have all kinds of expertise under one roof we were able to redesign the drawer itself to improve air flow and then change the control board approach by building most of the functionality into the fan," explains Landrette. The result was a solution that fit within the design limitations - saving power and boosting performance.

Typically, ebm-papst application engineers work with the customer to select air moving products that can best meet design goals such as high efficiency. But ebm-papst can also help customers take the next step using their onsite, state-of-the-art testing lab, which is equipped with four air flow chambers able to handle anywhere from 150 CFM to 24,000 CFM. Each chamber has been designed to meet AMCA210-99 and ISO5801 requirements.

The lab can also look at other key performance details including sound, temperature, and velocity tests. Then, ebm-papst design and electrical engineers can help hone the design into a packaged air moving device incorporating an enclosure, fan controls, handlers, filters, gaskets, etc.

Landrette notes that the process is highly collaborative. "In addition to our own multi-discipline team, using Pro-Engineer software, we are also able to involve the customers at all stages of the process," he says. As a result, working prototypes can be developed very quickly and evolving to the customers needs.

The design capabilities at ebm-papst are also wedded to on-site manufacturing. For example, processes such as sheet metal cutting, stamping, forming, rolling and welding are can all be performed within company facilities. On-site manufacturing equipment includes:

  • TruPunch5000 CNC press
  • TruLaser 2525 cutting machine
  • Flexibend folding machine
  • Fabrivision Flat Part Measurement and Digitizer,
  • Haegar automatic inserting machines
  • Electrostatic powder paint booth
  • ESD assembly area

Further capabilities include adding custom controller PCB's, power supplies, electronic filters, air filters, wire harnesses, and labeling to the final assemblies.

"We really offer the capabilities of a design and a fabrication facility in one," notes Landrette.

For more information, Call 860.674.1515 and ask for any application engineer or email

Beyond the "Black Box"

Good things come in small packages - and large packages, too. The truth is, while logic may warn us that "beauty is only skin deep," when it comes to selecting technology products, the outward evidence of functionality and purpose can be just as important as what's going on inside in swaying a potential purchaser.

For better or worse, the "great equalizer" is becoming regulation. Standards and industry codes such as the National Electrical Manufacturers' Association (NEMA) rating system and the International Protection (IP) codes widely used in Europe tend to make designers think in similar ways. For instance, NEMA intrusion protection requirements often play a role in the material choices and in how an enclosure or cabinet is put together.

On the other hand, there is an expanding array of materials available to designers. Enclosures are no longer simply stamped steel. Polycarbonate plastics and fiber glass are becoming more important, though many still prefer the durability and price points of traditional metal enclosures. And, in all cases, methods of finish have often grown more sophisticated, too, ensuring that products can look good while meeting functional requirements.

Of course, enclosures have a vital functional role, too. Not only must they protect components from damage - and users from harm - they also must effectively support air handling. So, issues like fan placement and air flow need to get more attention. Moreover, since the combination of fan and enclosure usually contributes more than anything else to the audio characteristics of a product, it is important that designers recognize and master airflow and sound production issues. The choice of fan size -- common fan sizes include 40, 60, 80, 90, 120, and 140 mm -- and fan type can be a start. But not all fans are alike in terms of reliability, airflow, ability to operate successfully under flow restrictions, in particular, their sound output.

Furthermore, sound output includes not only the movement of the air but also vibration associated with motor operations - and this in turn is a product of both the mounting system and the inherent characteristics of the device. It is this last item that can be most critical. Simply picking a fan based on physical fit, published air handling rating, and price can be dangerous. Testing may show that the fan produces high levels of vibration. Or some fans in the same series may vibrate more than others if this aspect of design is not carefully monitored.

So, the bottom line is that enclosure design should not be an afterthought. Aesthetics, performance (including electrical and EMI aspects), sound and other factors need to be considered and built in from the start. That way you can ensure bang from your box and bang for your bucks.

GM's Wagoner Doesn't Understand Free Market Economies

GM's Wagoner Doesn't Understand Free Market Economies

GM CEO Rick Wagoner made his case for a federal bailout in a column in the Wall Street Journal Nov. 19. I’m still not a fan.

Here’s a brief summary of his case:

•    GM has already axed a ton of people.

•    The Chevy Malibu demonstrates that GM can make cars that people want.

•    GM is trying to re-establish its lead in advanced propulsion technology.

•    The auto industry affects a lot of people outside of Detroit and is critical to the health of the US economy

I like GM cars. I only buy GM cars. But I have no interest in engaging Mr. Wagoner in a virtual debate, point by point, because I think he misses the point of a free market economy. We don’t have debates to determine which companies survive and which companies fall. The market decides.

New Fastener Problem Plagues Boeing 737s

New Fastener Problem Plagues Boeing 737s

Fastener problems continue to affect Boeing.

Deliveries of 737s are now being delayed as Boeing replaces nut plates that had been installed on the aircraft since August 2007. Specifications require the nut plates to have an anti-corrosive cadmium coating. For reasons that aren't clear, coated and uncoated nut plates were intermingled in bins, making it difficult for assemblers to pull the right parts. The problem was discovered last August at a Spirit AeroSystems factory in Wichita, KS. The assembly plant provides fuselage and wing components for Boeing aircraft.

The nut plates are used to fasten bundles of wires and other parts to the inside of fuselages. There are thousands in every aircraft. According to one source, fewer than 30 percent of the nut plates installed since August, 2007 are defective.

"We're replacing them as we find them," Boeing spokeswoman Vicki Ray told the Associated Press. "Also to be addressed is the in-service fleet, and we're still working on a plan for that." She says the defective fasteners are not an immediate safety risk. Boeing plans to inspect 394 of the 737s already in service.

Cadmium coatings are applied to ferrous and nonferrous metals to provide resistance to corrosion. Like zinc, cadmium also provides sacrificial protection to a substrate such as steel by being preferentially corroded when the coating is damaged and small areas of the substrate are exposed. Electroplating accounts for more than 90 percent of all cadmium used in coatings, and is normally specified in thicknesses between 5 and 25 mm.

The Boeing Materials Group did pioneering work on the use of cadmium coatings in aircraft all the way back to the 1960s. Significant work has been conducted on replacing the toxic cadmium in recent years, but the recent problem at Boeing was strictly a supply chain error.

As previously reported in Design News, fastener shortages were a major problem in the early production ramp-up of the Dreamliner 787 program. At first, there was just a shortage of fasteners. Later, it was reported by Boeing that there also were installation problems. Some of the fasteners in the Dreamliners were not flush, and there was a gap between the structure and the head of the fastener, according to Boeing spokeswoman Mary Hansen. Another problem: The fastener's pin was at times the incorrect length.

"We're going to remove and replace every one and work with our partners to get this fixed as quickly and effectively as possible," Hansen said.

The Federal Aviation Administration issued a new directive in August about the need for more inspections of a fastener problem affecting cargo doors on 747s.