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Articles from 2001 In December

Ethernet comes to the factory

Ethernet comes to the factory

Imagine having a car custom built to your specifications in just three days. Not an "option package" car, with various options lumped together, but a truly custom car, with individual choices of everything from paint color to upholstery material to tires to stereo system. You order your car on Tuesday, and you're driving it that weekend.

Farfetched? Yes, for now at least. But at least one of the many barriers to the three-day car-a lack of shared data between assembly lines and car makers' managers, dealers, and suppliers-could soon be disappearing. Ethernet is coming to factory floors, and it's connecting production equipment to the corporate and commercial worlds.

Ethernet in the factory means that shop floors can share data with corporate Ethernet networks and the Internet, providing advantages both in commercial collaboration and production. Plant-floor equipment, for example, can automatically submit real-time inventory requests that reflect up-to-the-minute-not forecast-materials requirements. These requests can automatically and directly go by e-mail to a manufacturer's inventory suppliers, eliminating human delay and paperwork. Ethernet can also bring large amounts of detailed plant-floor data into a company's front office, where decision-support systems can mine the data for trends that can lead to operational improvements.

So far, such data sharing has been limited, because Ethernet hasn't been totally suited to replace, or even to connect to, industrial fieldbuses. As a fieldbus, for example, Ethernet has lacked the real-time performance needed for fast, precise control of sophisticated production equipment. In addition, standard Ethernet doesn't have sufficient electrical noise immunity to operate reliably around high-energy devices such as welders. Office-grade Ethernet also has difficulty tolerating the high temperatures, mechanical stresses, and dirty conditions of industrial environments.

The outlook for plant-floor Ethernet is rapidly improving, though, as technology improvements bring higher speed, more ruggedness, and greater noise immunity. In addition, new configurations of Ethernet make it more deterministic than before, meaning that it's possible to more accurately predict the transmission-to-receipt time of an Ethernet message. Determinism-important for precise machine control-has until recently been the exclusive domain of certain fieldbuses.

Ethernet's suitability for harsh environments is improving in several ways. In areas of high electrical noise, for example, fiber-optic cable, instead of Ethernet's usual twisted-pair copper-wire cable, makes noise immunity essentially a moot issue. Fiber-optic cable is expensive, but prices are coming down, and, according to Robert McKeel, vice president of marketing for GE Cisco Industrial Networks (Charlottesville, VA,, its use is increasing. "In places where noise immunity really matters," McKeel notes, "they're going to pay the extra money."

Cable connectors-literally one of industrial Ethernet's weakest links-are improving, too. Ethernet's standard RJ-45 connector, in the form of a modular phone plug, is barely rugged enough for an office environment, says Paul Wacker, technical marketing manager for network-component supplier Lantronix (Irvine, CA, Fortunately, says Wacker, several companies are starting to make RJ-45 connectors with added features for strength and durability. The RJ-45 connector may be surrounded, for example, by a screw-on, hermetically sealed, DIN-type housing that incorporates strain relief.

Even with technological improvements, however, Ethernet won't be replacing many fieldbuses anytime soon. Buses such as DeviceNet and Profibus, already abundantly in place, are still more suitable than Ethernet for many applications. It wouldn't be cost effective to connect Ethernet to a simple sensor, for example, and office-grade Ethernet can match fieldbus ruggedness only with costly additions and modifications, if at all.

Where Ethernet can't replace fieldbuses, it can link to them, connecting everything together and transferring data from intelligent devices to the front office.

To add an Ethernet link to existing equipment, you have several options. The easiest way is simply to add a small module that connects to an existing device's serial port on one side and to an Ethernet network on the other. A Lantronix Device Server, for example, is about the size of two decks of playing cards and includes all of the elements needed for device networking-a processor, a real-time operating system (RTOS), a TCP/IP network-protocol stack, and a web server.

If you want to design Ethernet into a product, rather than adding it on, many companies offer you both board-level and chip-level products to choose from. The Lantronix CoBox Micro Device Server, for example, is a small circuit board (1.6 x 2.0 inches) that implements all the functions of larger Lantronix modules. You can add it to your design simply by creating a circuit-board interface. For high-volume applications, you might consider a chip-level design, in which case you could employ an IC.

Ethernet still hasn't made big inroads in industrial environments, but its advantages are paving the way for it. One often-cited advantage is lower cost of components, because of Ethernet's high-volume production for commercial use. Another is simplified operations, because the same type of network can exist in offices and on the plant floor. Ethernet also offers easy connection to web-based software applications, enabling monitoring and control of plant-floor equipment from remote computers with a web-browser interface.

Probably Ethernet's biggest draw, though, is simply that it can move data back and forth between the plant floor and the wider corporate and commercial world. As GE Cisco's McKeel says, "People are now getting their arms around a lot of data, because they can, and it's going to give them a lot of benefits."

Like this column? Help us target the editorial to your specific interests by filling out a survey about embedded systems. Send an e-mail to [email protected] with "Survey" in the subject line and we'll e-mail it out to you. Thanks!-Karen Auguston Field

Seals upgrade connectors

Seals upgrade connectors

Circular plastic connectors (CPCs) predominate in industrial settings, but also find use in tractor trailers, locomotives, agricultural machinery, and off-road equipment. Occasionally, design engineers applying connectors in industrial and vehicular applications have retrofitted O-rings, die-cut gaskets, and gels as seals to connectors to minimize intrusion of moisture and other contaminants. But these do-it-yourself seals often meet with limited success.

Source of the problem. Connector seals must prevent contamination infusion from two sources. The first is from the area surrounding the individual wires leading into the contact interface. Wire grommet seals must surround each wire to obstruct moisture that might condense on the wire insulation and then trickle down into the contacts. If the wires are wrapped in a cable sheath, then one overall seal can sit between the cable sheath and the connector.

The second source of intrusion is the interface of the two connector halves. For a circular connector, the interfacial seal can be a resilient ring or a gasket cut to accommodate the connector shape.

Two interfaces on a CPC connector, the wires entering the connector and the interface between connector halves, must be sealed against particles and moisture.

CPCs consist of a plug and receptacle assembly (see figure). The connector halves may join two cables, or join a cable to a panel or PC board. The CPC housing is generally nylon, which resists most chemicals seen in industrial environments. With stainless steel springs providing a relatively high normal mating force, the contacts have high reliability. Stainless retains its spring properties under a wide range of temperature variation. The springs also keep the pin contact centered in the socket cavity. For high-vibration applications, higher performance springs and contact systems are available to increase normal force.

To assemble a connector, a technician inserts individual wires ranging in size from 24 to 14 AWG through the holes at the back of the connector (see figure). Prior to insertion, the assembler fits the wires with crimped pin or socket contacts. As they are inserted, the wire contacts lock into place in the housing. A threaded coupling ring on the plug assembly secures the two connector halves together, correctly mating the internal pins and sockets.

Sealing the deal. CPCs come in several sizes to accommodate up to 37 wires. Each position can handle a range of currents from low signal levels to power levels with 40A or more, depending on the type of loaded contacts. In many cases, the application calls for a CPC with a combination of many signal lines and a few power lines. Because a CPC connector housing can accommodate various wire sizes, different wire grommet seal glands are generally required. Manufacturers often provide color-coded wire entry seals to facilitate mating a narrow range of wire sizes to a proper seal.

In the CPC, a resilient silicone mask configured with a grid of holes corresponding to the contact positions serves as the set of wire's grommet seal. A plastic pressure plate with identical hole positions snaps into place to protect and retain the seal at the back of the connector.

Silicone and fluorosilicone serve as good resilient sealing materials for connectors because they resist most industrial chemicals, are highly elastic, and exhibit virtually no outgassing when properly cured. Residual volatiles from other seal materials can outgas within the connector and corrode its contacts.

The wire holes in the silicone mask may not extend completely through the seal. A thin membrane of resilient silicone remains to handle those applications that don't require a full complement of wire positions in the connector housing. In assembly, the technician pushes the wire contact completely through the hole, breaking through the membrane at the far end of the mask. If a wire contact is later removed, the connector manufacturer will provide a polypropylene plug to seal off the empty hole.

A peripheral seal within the CPC connector's threaded coupling ring seals the connector halves interface. The rear seal closing off wires entering the connector is often a series of three progressively smaller annular glands (inset).

As a rule of thumb, a reliable wire grommet seal design incorporates three annular glands in each silicone wire-entry seal cavity. The gland diameters get progressively smaller as the wire is pushed through, forming progressively tighter seals. Another seal design guideline is that the hole in the resilient material must be 10 to 30% smaller than the wire diameter, depending on the gauge.

Having to seal a connector may limit the wire size used because smaller wire gauges are difficult to seal. Thus, to attain a proper seal, connector-manufacturer engineers may recommend a larger gauge wire than required to carry the current in the application.

Perimeter seals. A resilient material positioned between the receptacle and plug connector halves constitutes a perimeter or interface seal. For CPC connectors, this is generally a silicone ring. In other cases, a cut gasket that follows the shape of the connector does the job. The connector housings are typically molded with a gland to retain the gasket and maintain a proper seal. In some cases, however, the seal is simply bonded to the plastic housing with adhesive. The overall effectiveness of sealing is subject to international standards and tests (see sidebar).

In high vibration environments, interfacial seals provide another advantage for CPCs. Without the seal, a small amount of float may exist between the two connector halves. Under conditions of high vibration, fretting caused by this relative motion may degrade the contacts. But the peripheral seal acts as a shock absorber, removing the float between the two housings.

Panel seals. Another kind of sealing occurs when the connector mounts in a panel and the designer simply wants to prevent the passage of dust or fluids between the two compartments separated by the panel. For example, wires from a dashboard pass through a bulkhead to the engine compartment. CPCs fitted with a square flange, resilient gasket, and mounting screws hold these connectors tight against the bulkhead. Maintenance people can spray down the engine compartment without water getting through the bulkhead into the cab. In refrigerated appliances, such as panel seal may be necessary to keep the polyurethane foam insulation from seeping into the refrigerator or freezer compartment during manufacture.

In many cases, to meet the requirements of a particular application, the connector manufacturer can retrofit panel seals. Or the manufacturer may provide an optional version of the connector (simply by adding a flange to the periphery) pre-configured to provide a panel seal, usually neoprene rubber.

To summarize, the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) sets standards for defining degrees of electrical connector seals. By studying the application, the design engineer can determine the IEC standard and choose an appropriate connector. In general, high sealing standards will raise connector costs and require more care during assembly. Responding to concerns over sealing CPCs, Tyco Electronics initiated a development program to re-engineer these connectors to incorporate the noted factory designed and installed seals.

Laser maps terrorist damage

Laser maps terrorist damage

Engineer Dave Bloomquist may make the people living and working in buildings surrounding Ground Zero in New York City feel a little safer. The University of Florida professor is assessing the structural integrity of buildings surrounding the World Trade Center, providing more detailed and accurate information than has ever been available to recovery workers. The entirely new technique uses airborne laser swath mapping (ALSM) and ground-based laser scanning. Bloomquist's technique combines millions of laser measurements with aerial and digital images of New York City into a three-dimensional model. "Several surrounding buildings near Ground Zero may not be structurally salvageable," says Bloomquist. "There is concern that several are slowly deteriorating." He is also analyzing the Pentagon for signs of structural damage. For more information, go to

Optical device transfers data fast

Optical device transfers data fast

Betty Lise Anderson wasn't looking for the Holy Grail of optical interconnections, but she thinks she may have helped find it. The associate professor of electrical engineering at Ohio State University (OSU) worked with Professor Emeritus Stuart A. Collins Jr. in the ElectroScience Laboratory developing an optical true-time delay for phased-array radar. And then one day, the idea for the optical interconnect hit them. "We reasoned that with a few modifications the device could help eliminate data-transfer bottlenecks," says Anderson. She says the new device transfers data faster than other devices, in electronic hubs that transfer light pulses to electrical signals and then back into light pulses, when downloading information over the Internet. The interconnect uses mirrors for reflecting the light, instead of transferring the light into electrons and then back into light again. "We joked that if we could find a way to make this work, we could rule the universe," says Anderson. The new patented device is a silicon computer chip covered with hundreds of thousands of tiny mirrors. Each mirror measures only a few tens of millionths of a meter across. The mirrors catch individual beams of light from fiber optic cable and reflect them to their destination, bypassing the traditional electronics that slow optic transmission. Andersen explains that the OSU design is tolerant of vibrations and has a built-in redundancy. "If one micromirror fails, another will take its place," she says. The OptiConnect Company is developing and will eventually commercialize the technology. For more information, call (614) 675-4100 or go to

Elastomer gets sticky

Elastomer gets sticky

Santoprene has never been much of a joiner. The same polyolefin matrix that gives this family of thermoplastic vulcanizates (TPV) its chemical resistance and mechanical performance also imparts surface energies so low that Santoprene didn't stick to dissimilar substrates without the aid of an adhesive or primer. Advanced Elastomer Systems (AES) has now found a way around this reluctance to bond.

The company last month rolled out three new "enhanced bonding" grades that adhere to metals, polymers, and engineered textiles without the need for adhesives or primers. Available in 65, 80, and 85 Shore A hardnesses, these new elastomers feature modifications that allow them to form chemical bonds with other materials during melt processing. "Think of them as 'hot-melt TPVs," says AES technology manager Marvin Hill. "They process and function like a TPV but bond like a reactive hot-melt adhesive."

A brawny bond. Applied to their substrates during overmolding or extrusion operations, the new materials produce nothing if not a robust bond. AES tests show adhesive peel strengths ranging from 15 pli to more than 30 pli, depending on the substrate and processing methods. "It's really more of a structural bond than a tack bond," Hill notes.

The enhanced bonding grades represent just the latest effort in AES' strategy to make Santoprene adhere to a wide range of substrates without relying on pricey solvent-based adhesives. Starting in 1997, AES brought out grades that adhere to nylons, EPDM, and styrenic compounds like ABS.

The new enhanced bonding grades add etched fluoropolymers to the list of compatible plastics. More significantly, the technology extends Santoprene's reach into new classes of materials. According to Hill, the new bondable grades stick to aluminum, brass, and copper as well as to galvanized, cold-rolled, and stainless steels. They also adhere to polyester and other engineered textiles, including ones with epoxy coatings or carbon-fiber reinforcements. What's more, the enhanced bonding materials can also serve as tie layers in laminate structures made from otherwise incompatible materials. According to Hill, this tie-layer capability promises to allow the creation of new functional laminates-such as flame retardant or UV resistant materials-without worrying about the compatibility of individual layers.

Properties preserved. From a physical and mechanical property standpoint, the enhanced bonding grades stack up nicely to standard Santoprenes of equal hardness. With a specific gravity of 0.90, the new grades have one of the lowest gravities in AES' portfolio, opening up possibilities for weight-reduction uses.

The materials do have a slight temperature tradeoff: They cover a service temperature range from -50 to 121C, about 10 degrees lower than standard Santoprene. "Tear strength and elongation are comparable with other Santoprene grades," reports AES applications engineer Mike Goncy. The 85 Shore A grade, for example, has a tear strength of 1600 psi, an elongation at break of 750%. Likewise, the new bondable grades have abrasion resistance and flex fatigue life similar to standard grades.

Other than the slight loss of heat performance, the only other drawback to the new materials appears in injection molding applications, where it could be more susceptible to release problems. Because the bondable Santoprene sticks so well to metal, mold cavities need to be made from chrome steel or coated with Teflon, Goncy reports. And the material slightly limits part design freedom too. "Lots of undercuts would be tough," Goncy adds.

Many uses. Minor molding considerations aside, the bondable materials are poised to go into a host of diverse applications. Hill says the materials could serve in reinforced sheet goods for office furniture, appliances, containment systems, and conveyor belting.

Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics Specialty Hose Div. (Mantua, OH) has already used an enhanced bonding grade in its new Synflex carpet cleaning hose. It withstands temperatures up to 250F and handles pressure up to 1,250 psi, reports Product Manager Rachel Jones. "These hoses also weigh 2/3 less than traditional wire-braided rubber hoses," she adds.

And AES has been working with an undisclosed customer to develop integrated washers and gaskets, which would eliminate the solvent bonding of EPDM to metal washers. As an overmolding material the new bondable grades offer colorability and soft touch of previous elastomers-but with a better adhesion to the substrate than a mechanical bond alone would provide. Other uses under investigation include sound damping laminates. "You could use the new grades whenever you want to marry a flexible, colorable elastomer with rigid structural components," Hill concludes.

Sparing the adhesive doesn't spoil the bond
Bond strength, pli
Substrate Santoprene 80TB Santoprene 85TL
Etched Teflon (Acton Type II) 22 19
Thermoplastic urethane 9 41
Etched PVDF 12 15
Borosilicate glass (primed) 12 15
Carbon fiber fabric 29 32
Kevlar, Nomex 30 33
Bronze 18 14
Aluminum 33 55
Tin 15 35
Brass 11 19
Copper 21 20
Stainless steel 12 22
(Source: Advanced Elastomer Systems)

3DView gets communication capabilities

3DView gets communication capabilities

Today's product development teams take "gee-whiz" CAD model visualization software for granted, but under growing pressure to collaborate long-distance rather than travel, they should welcome new communication features in Actify Inc.'s 3DView release 4.0. Led by a free download of Actify's SpinFire viewer, the new release lets team members view e-mailed designs with notes, measurements, and cross-sections.

Version 4.0 aims for unlimited sharing of lightweight design files that the company describes as "complete, accurate, and secure design information in a highly compressed file." The new version adds direct measurements such as distances and angles. According to Cristiano Sacchi, Actify's vice president of engineering, the new release makes design feedback communications more effective, and makes it easier to involve non-engineers.

A long-time user of 3DView, Sean Halpin, design manager for automotive supplier Eifel Mold & Engineering (Fraser, MI), says, "3DView 4.0 makes sharing designs and collecting feedback easier. It brings non-CAD users into the process via rapid dissemination of designs and collection of everyone's input."

3DView gives non-designers view-only files meant to assist manufacturing with CAD-independent visualizations of geometry and associated measurements. The program supports most CAD formats, including CATIA, Unigraphics, I-DEAS, Pro/E, SolidWorks, Solid Edge, Mechanical Desktop and Autodesk Inventor. Users can annotate the files and publish them to a website, where SpinFire lets them rotate, pan and zoom the design, as well as see detailed cross-sections. To see how it works, check out

Additional Details...Actify Inc., One Kearny St., 3rd Floor, San Francisco, CA 94108; Tel: (415) 421-1840; ; or Enter 507.

Compact valves are high cycling

Compact valves are high cycling

The DV series of valves from TPC Pneumatics are five-port solenoid valves that have high life expectancies, thanks to wear rings that prevent abrasion. The company tests their new DV1000, 3000, and 4000 valves to 50 million cycles.

"Our smallest valve in the DV series is the DV1000," says Joseph Cina, TPC's application engineer. "It has a 0.2 gpm flow rating, but the width of the valve is only 10 mm."

The DV3000 has a 0.5 gpm flow rating. Its width is 15 mm. The width of the DV4000 is 18 mm. It has a 9 gpm flow rating.

The valves have 10/32-, 1/8-, and .25-inch port sizes. "All the valves mount to sub-bases and manifolds in medical, semiconductor, packaging, and other machine applications," says Cina. Other applications for the products include medical equipment and food processing equipment.

The DV1000, 3000, and 4000 valves have non-polar coils. Response time is less than 12 milliseconds for the DV 1000. The DV3000's response time is 18 milliseconds and the DV4000's response time is 30 milliseconds.

Exhaust collection systems in the valves prevent dust contamination during pilot exhaustion.

The valves have push-and-lock overrides and require no lubrication. The wear ring attached to the spool prevents abrasion.

TPC Pneumatics is a new North American business unit of the Tanhay Group, a multinational operation in Seoul, Korea established in 1973. TCP is the largest manufacturer of pneumatic products in Korea.

Additional Details...Joseph Cina, 12411 McCann Dr., Sante Fe Springs, CA 90670; Tel: (800) 347-3954; , or Enter 508.

Hot Products

Hot Products

Bug-killer coating

The latest flat-rolled steels from AK Steel have it in for bacteria and mold spores. Thanks to an ionic-silver and ceramic coating from AgION Technologies (Wakefield, MA), the steels meet the Environmental Protection Agency standards for an antimicrobial agent, according to AK applications engineer Eric Welte. AK can apply the AgION material to both carbon and stainless steels, using either a liquid or a powder coating process. The thickness of the coating varies from 0.2 to 2 mils, depending on abrasion requirements. "You can still see the polish of stainless steel through the thinnest of the coatings," Welte notes. The new steels target HVAC, appliance, food equipment, and medical applications. AK is even building a concept house from the material to show how it keeps mold at bay. What's more, Electrolux's Fridgidaire brand will use the antimicrobial steels in a new line of stainless steel consumer appliances. AK Steel : Enter 515

Stainless beefs up solenoids

The latest stainless steel alloy from Carpenter Technology goes into corrosive operating environments that can spell trouble for solenoids. Carpenter Chrome Core 29 Solenoid Quality Stainless stacks up favorably against Type 430FR stainless. The two materials have similar magnetic properties-including high resistivity-but Chrome Core 29 outshines Type 430FR when it comes to corrosion resistance. In corrosion tests (ASTM G150), Chrome Core 29 exhibited a critical pitting temperature of 14.8C, compared to 5C for Type 430FR. As for magnetic properties, the new alloy offers a saturation flux density of 13.2 kG, coercive field strength of 1.26 Oe, residual induction of 5.20 kG, and a maximum permeability of 1,624. In its annealed condition, Chrome Core 29 has a tensile strength of 586 MPa, a yield strength of 379 MPa, and a Rockwell B hardness of 85. Carpenter Technology Corp. : Enter 516

Say good-bye to beryllium in mold making

For mold-making applications that can benefit from the cooling power of copper, but can do without beryllium, Ampco Metal Inc. has developed a new copper alloy. Called MoldMATE 90, the material features a high thermal conductivity of 90 Btu/ft/hr/ degrees F, better than the 60 Btu/ft/hr/ degrees F offered by a beryllium copper grade (2% Be) commonly used in mold making. At the same time, MoldMATE 90 has enough nickel in it to meet the hardness and mechanical properties that tooling components require. Ampco Metal Inc. : Enter 517

MoldMATE versus other mold materials
Material Thermal conductivity, Btu/hr/ft/ degrees F Hardness, Rockwell Tensile strength, ksi Yield strength, ksi
MoldMATE 90 90 31 RC 136 126
BeCu (2.0% Be) 60 36 RC 175 155
BeCu (0.5% Be) 125 95 RB 110 90
P20 tool steel 22 30 RC 140 110
Aluminum 80 86 RB 78 74
Source: Ampco Metal Inc.

In Brief - Fastening, Joining & Assembly

In Brief - Fastening, Joining & Assembly

For those who can never seem to find the keys to their industrial cabinets, DIRAK has developed a new series of swinghandle and quarter-turn latches with built-in combination locks. Made from diecast zinc, both kinds of latches can be supplied with black-epoxy or chrome-plate finishes. Both types fit within standard DIRAK installation openings for its modular systems. The quarter-turn latch, for example, accommodates openings up to 16 x 19 mm and works with doors up to 20-mm thick. The locks come in three- and four-wheel versions and allow users to set their own combinations. Enter 577

New threaded studs from Atlas Engineering address blind attachment applications-those where only one side of the workpiece is accessible for fastener installation. Made from steel, these SpinTite Blind Threaded Studs are intended as an alternative to tapped holes, weld nuts, and self-tapping screws. The studs are available in thread sizes #6-32 through 3/8-16 as well as M4 through M10 with lengths ranging from 0.5 to 1.088 inches and 12 to 25.9 mm. Enter 578

Plastic assemblies that have to be taken apart and put back together may benefit from new threaded inserts from PEM Fastening Systems. Available in brass, stainless steel, and aluminum, the new SI Inserts include versions for ultrasonic welded, heat-staked, molded-in, and pressed-in installations. All are available in a wide range of unified and metric thread sizes. Enter 579

The latest adhesive from Loctite Corp.'s Dexter Electronic Materials Div. targets electronics attachment to a variety of advanced substrates-including those found in PBFAs, CSPs, and array packages based on flexible tape and organic laminates. Called QMI 546, the adhesive is PTFE-filled, thermally conductive, and qualified for lead-free, 260C reflow applications. The material targets large die(>500 mil) applications and those with substantial differences in substrate CTEs. Enter 580

Kids learn engineering can be cool

Kids learn engineering can be cool

Ray Almgren joined National Instruments in 1987 as an applications engineer. He spent 10 years as a product manager prior to becoming director of engineering. In his current role as vice president, product strategy, he leads a team of senior product managers and technologists that focus on a strategy for development and positioning of NI's measurement and automation products. Involved since the beginning of NI's Robolab programs, he is a strong believer in education. Almgren received a BS in Electrical Engineering from the University of Texas, Austin.

National Instruments is highly involved in bringing science and technology to elementary schools in the Austin area. The company donates equipment and funds, and more than 50 employees donate their time to the Robolab program that uses Lego building blocks and NI software to expose students of all ages to technology.

DESIGN NEWS: Employees donate thousands of hours of their time to this program. What's in it for NI?

ALMGREN: At NI, our social mission is to improve education in our community and to encourage more young people to become scientists and engineers. Obviously we are looking to make a positive impact on the community, but a secondary benefit is that our employees know that they are working for a company that cares about education and is trying to give something back to the community.

Q: How did you get this program started?

A: Interestingly enough, this wasn't something that the company officers started or that evolved out of a corporate edict. It was a grass roots efforts started by some of the employees who wanted to make a difference. We initially got involved in 1998 when Lego asked us to develop a version of our LabVIEW software for use with a new Mindstorms product that would be marketed to elementary schools. At that time, I asked Chris Rogers, a professor at Tufts University who had the original idea for the product, what we could do for him to support the program. Personally, he didn't want anything from us, but he did ask us to do something in Austin with the elementary schools.

Q: How does the program work?

A: You can't bring this program to the schools successfully without first training the teachers. So we partnered with UT Austin, who already had a program established through its mechanical engineering department to teach elementary school teachers about science and technology. Each summer, they run workshop sessions to teach the basic principles of Robolab. At that time, each NI volunteer teams up with a specific teacher. They will then work with that teacher in the classroom for one to two hours per week during the school year. In addition, we sponsor a competition during our annual user conference and trade show.

Q: How many students and teachers have you reached in the three years you've been running this program and what kind of an impact have you made?

A: We've trained about 100 teachers over the course of the program and reached about 1,500 kids this year alone. And although we're not keeping specific statistics, we believe that we are making a positive impact. Some of the stories we hear are really great. An autistic child at one of the schools, for example, has improved his communication skills through the Robolab program and displayed an incredible talent for working with algorithms and control logic. We feel enough encouragement about the program that we are contemplating rolling it out to other U.S. cities by partnering with schools and companies.

Q: What advice would you give to engineers who may be thinking about starting up a similar program in their area?

A: First and foremost, you have to have three partners involved: A local school district, a local college or university, and the company itself. The importance of the university involvement is that it provides a repeatable, dependable mechanism for teaching the teachers. Otherwise, a company might feel really good about donating equipment to schools, but it won't go anywhere from there.

Q: Who can people contact at NI for more information about your program?

A: Julianne Bash, Community Relations Manager, at (512) 683-5383 or [email protected].