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Articles from 2004 In February

Making the link

Making the link

As complex products move from initial concept to first prototype and beyond, there are a number of people who could benefit from easy access to design data. Such access would speed the creation of drawings and renderings while also reducing the potential for errors.

CadSoft Solutions Inc. of Pewaukee, WI, has devised a program that lets what it calls "casual users" work with design data. "There are a lot of people like technical illustrators and model builders who need to use this data, but they don't want to learn CAD software. This lets them read in Catia data and use it for illustrations," says timothy Olson, president of CadSoft.

These casual users typically find that access to design data done with programs such as Catia can save them significant amounts of time. The CadSoft tools are designed to augment traditional modeling tools, since they use software icons and techniques geared to non-engineers instead of designers who use CAD tools. "Our focus is not on functionality but on usability. We want the casual user to be able to create models of interest without learning techniques they will only use a few times," Olson says.
The software takes advantage of modeling techniques that have emerged in recent years, linking them to simple user interfaces. Olson notes that time savings can be several hours for a drawing that would take a full day if illustrators used CAD software.

Leaner, not meaner

Leaner, not meaner

Lean manufacturing is an industry buzz word, but the technique has to extend all the way through a corporation's supply chain if the benefits are to be fully realized. That requires close interaction between vendors and suppliers.

"We all have to make sure all our suppliers have the same quality levels and efficiencies we do. All inefficiencies end up sooner or later passing through to the customer," says David Nelson, president Global Supply Chain Management at Delphi Corp.

Toyota and Honda are leading examples of the new lean manufacturing techniques that eliminate inefficiency, Nelson says. Delphi itself has made substantial improvements, says the Thursday morning keynote speaker. In one plant, quality defects have declined 71 % since May 2002, while inventory levels have been trimmed 83%.

To make sure its suppliers understand the benefits and techniques of improving efficiency, Delphi has placed its engineers in supplier facilities, where the Delphi supply engineers do largely the same jobs they perform in Delphi buildings. But the improvements are quite noticeable at facilities around the globe. "We're seeing double digit improvements in most areas, and most of those numbers don't start with a 1," Nelson says. Some improvements are as high as 50%, he adds

Nelson offers a number of incentives for manufacturers who work closely with their suppliers, helping them improve their efficiencies by operating leaner. Reduced costs and shorter lead times are leading benefits. One key way managers can improve efficiency is to realize that "questioning things encourages thinking," he says. Manufacturing personnel can play a big role in helping companies change their cultures, he adds.

Government aims to help exporters

Government aims to help exporters

The Dept. of Commerce is making a concerted effort to help manufacturing companies export good. In the U.S. Export Pavilion at Manufacturing Week, seven agencies explained their roles, which range from disseminating timely data on what's imported and exported to regional assistance in target countries.

One possible starting point for companies that want to increase their exports is to examine data for products in their field. That's collected by an agency normally thought of only once a decade when the census comes out.

"We process 5 million records each month, providing timely data a month after it's collected," says Richard Preuss, senior foreign trade advisor at the Bureau of the Census. This information lets companies see how many units of their product were shipped in a given time and where those units went. Pricing and other trend information are also available.

Recent legislation requires all export filings to be done electronically, so government workers are helping companies make the transition from paper. Another service is that the international offices can help companies find customers, providing lists and helping visitors maneuver through the operation. These local offices can also provide information on local customs regulation and other country-specific data. Additionally, the U.S. Export-import Bank can help finance international sales, while the Small Business Administration provides export training seminars and other services.

Along with government agencies, the pavilion included the National Customs Brokers and Forwarders Association of America Inc., which can help companies move their goods overseas.

Trade shows are increasingly being seen as an effective avenue for the Department to increase awareness of its programs. "This has been a terrific show for us," Preuss says.

Companies turn outside for new ideas

Companies turn outside for new ideas

A novel collegiate program that combines students from multiple disciplines is seeing solid success, measured in part by corporate investments for the development work students to over the course of a full school year.

The interdisciplinary program at the University of Illinois at Chicago combines engineers, industrial designers and business majors, getting them to work together on projects that are set by corporate sponsors. Those sponsors provide overall goals and the support the university needs to run the class. Maytag and Cosco are among the firms that have paid $50,000 for the ideas that the students provide.

For that investment, the companies get as much as 4.5 man years of effort as the students work over the course of 30 weeks. The projects are normally designed to move the company into areas where it has minimal presence. "This year, we're working with an innovative toymaker that wants to bring its patented air motor to new markets," says Stephen Melamed, adjunct assistant professor at UIC.

During most of the first semester, 30-40 students identify the problems given them and start looking at opportunities for new products. The next step is to define traits for products. In the second semester, they do mock-ups of actual products and describe the required technologies while also suggesting marketing plans.

A key aspect of the effort is to make sure the interdisciplinary teams understand each other and work towards a common goal. "Team dynamics are the number one issue for any team's success," Michael Scott, another UIC professor who spoke during a Manufacturing Week technical conference. He notes that student feedback has been very positive to date, as has corporate response.

Sensor technology addresses many needs

Sensor technology addresses many needs

Exhibitors in the Sensors Pavilion at Manufacturing Week are pushing technology forward in many systems, meeting varied applications in the diverse industrial automation field.

Mikron Infrared of Oakland, NJ is unveiling a non-contact temperature measurement system that is one of the first that can work with shiny metals. It's also one of the fastest monitors in the market, checking temperature in just 500 microseconds. The sensor can detect temperatures as low as 122 degrees F, even with shiny metals. That's usually a problem, since reflections can cause remote sensors to read temperatures of reflected objects, not the desired metal component.
High accuracy and load capability are the keys of a High Capacity Series Load cells from Interface Inc. of Scottsdale, AZ. The company's proprietary strain gage technology provides high temperature compensation and high output and circuit efficiency. The line's capacity runs up to 1,000 kilos. The system is packaged in frame that can hold 1 million pounds.

Saving time is the key benefit of the EVN series electro mechanical switches from Honeywell Sensing and Control of Freeport, IL. The switches, originally developed for use in elevators in Europe, have simplified techniques for attaching wires, cutting installation time by as much as 50%.

The High Capacity Line from Interface can weight loads up to 1,000 kilos.

Composite body panels, hold the paint

Glass-mat-thermoplastics (GMT) have been around for years now, finding a home in automotive interiors among other applications. But these materials, which consist of short-glass-fiber mat in various thermoplastic base resins, have not made any headway in exterior automotive components where cosmetic, structural, and production concerns have limited their appeal.

That situation may soon change. Engineers for GE Advanced Materials (Pittsfield, MA), one of the suppliers behind the Azdel Inc. GMT materials, have been working on ways to extend GMT materials into automotive body panels as well as other demanding large-part applications such as recreational vehicles. In the United Kingdom, GE and BI Composites recently created sports car hood from Azdel Superlite, a polypropylene-based material with a glass content of 42 to 55 percent. This composite hood, which replaced steel and goes into production in 2004, meets stringent Class A finish requirements the old-fashioned way-with a polypropylene-friendly primer and a coat of paint. Still, Azdel offered some important advantages in this application. The thermoplastic composite hood has about the same stiffness as the steel it replaces but weighs about 50% less. It promises a cost edge too, since GMT materials can be formed on lower-pressures than steel. "Low-pressure forming reduces the size and cost of processing equipment." and slashes tooling costs, explains Luca Saggese, a project engineer in GE's

Large Part Group.
Looking further down the road, GE has even more ambitious plans for GMT. In the company's Polymer Processing Development Center in Pittsfield, engineers in the company's Large Part Group have developed ways to use compression molded GMT in conjunction with a thermoformed skin made from the company's weatherable SLX film. The resulting automotive body panels, or other large parts, would offer a Class A finish without paint, according to Tom Dunton, GE's who leads GE's large part processing efforts. This technology targets not only vertical panels but also horizontal panels, which have more demanding thermal and mechanical requirements. "We're looking at a total body solution," Dunton says. 

GE engineers have successfully produced a variety of test parts on equipment installed in their development center. But Dunton says there's still more work to be done on materials and process development before this paintless in-mold-decorated composite technology is ready to roll.

In some ways, the materials system itself doesn't pose much of a challenge for body panels. SLX, a material based on polycarbonate, has been developed specifically to offer the weatherability, high-gloss levels, chemical resistance, surface finish, and scratch resistance needed for exterior automotive parts.  It recently chalked up an exterior application on the roof module of the SMART roadster.  And with its adjustable glass content, GMT can attain the stiffness, impact, strength, and CTE properties needed to meet typical automotive structural requirements. "Most of these properties depend on the glass," Dunton notes.

This method for producing composite body panels involves several steps, including thermoforming the in-mold-decorating film and then combining it with the glass-mat-thermoplastic substrate inside a compression molding tool.

But the materials system still has two hurdles to clear. The first has to do with adhesion between the film and GMT layer. Automotive adhesion tests designed for paint may not shed much light on film's capabilities. "Paint and IMD film are very different," says Saggese, who adds that paints tends to fail in a flaky, brittle manner while films fail by delaminating. At this point, it's unclear just how strong the bond between film and substrate needs to be. For now, GE has worked out its own adhesion values to use for the purposes of application development.

New materials will doubtless help with adhesion. GMT has traditionally been based on polypropylene, but grades based on polycarbonate, PBT, and combinations of the two are also in various stages of development, Dunton reports. In addition to boosting the structural properties above those of polypropylene-based GMT, these other base resins inherently offer a diffusion bond with SLX resin used in the film. "SLX and these other resins have similar chemistries, so they adhere quite well," says Dunton. "We've been getting excellent adhesion."

Then there's the cosmetics issue. Freshly extruded SLX film can achieve something that closely matches a painted Class A finish, but that film can easily develop defects as it goes through subsequent forming steps. "The real trick is maintaining the surface through the entire process," says Saggese.

Sophisticated thermoforming capabilities turn out to be one part of this trick. GE forms the decorative films only male tools-so that the show surface doesn't come in contact with the tool surface. And it must use only the thermoforming tools with critical surface quality characteristics to avoid the possibility of read-through. The company also installed a high-end Geiss thermoforming machine whose advanced film handling and high-frequency heating system play a role in maintaining the surface quality of the decorative films. Not every thermoforming house has the kind of machines needed to make cosmetic skins that are up to automotive standards, Dunton says, "but these capabilities are becoming more widespread."

The second part of the manufacturing process, the compression molding, has proven to be more problematic than the thermoforming.  So far, GE has been forced to make these large in-mold-decorated GMT parts on a compression-molding machine so large that it takes up the space of a small office building.  A 40 x 60-inch part, for example, has requires molding pressures of roughly 4,000 tons. Why so high? As Dunton explains, high pressure contributes to adhesion between the film and substrate. The high pressure also helps with the surface quality by smoothing out any minor defects in the film. Other kinds of GMT parts are already compression molded at pressures this high, but GE engineers want to drive down the pressures as a way to make this manufacturing method more accessible. "Our challenge is getting a good surface and adhesion with much lower pressures," he says.

Dunton believes that with optimized materials and more processing know-how, GE engineers can reduce the required molding pressures by "a factor of 10 or more."  And that's where the real cost savings could come in. From a capital equipment standpoint, that reduction would allow smaller, less expensive compression molding machines. Ultimately, Dunton says, the company would like to develop a process that enables these GMT parts to be made even less expensively on modified thermoforming machines, rather than on compression molding presses. Low pressures also could reduce tooling costs substantially, by allowing the use of aluminum rather than steel tools or the use of thermoforming tooling rather than pricier compression molds.

GE also has to work out a few manufacturing strategies, like how to best automate the film placement in tools.  And it still has some design details to work out, such as the best way to encapsulate or hide the edge of the films. But Dunton sounds confident that the company will overcome all the remaining barriers. "We've already made some parts that would have scared me early on," he says.

GE Advanced Materials is working on paint-free composites for automotive body panels. The company's technology relies on advanced thermoforming machines that can form the in-mold-decorating films without sacrificing Class A surface quality.

Kickass Gimmicks

Sometimes you just need more than a fridge magnet to draw a crowd at an exhibit. How about the whole fridge? Chicago's favorite refrigerator-former Chicago Bears player William "Fridge" Perry-continues to help draw much attention to the Big Ass Fans ( booth on Wednesday when he stopped by and autographed for his followers.

"Everybody says we have a cult following," Big Ass Fans' John Pennycuff says, adding that Perry often travels with the company to trade events nationwide. "We've had such good responses that we stayed so busy pretty much the whole time."

Some exhibitors of this year's National Manufacturing Week have expressed disappointment over the attendance, however, even though the organizer says pre-registrations have grown from last year. Official figures will be released later this week, the organizer adds.

In addition, Big Ass Fans also features another attention-grabber that always travels with the company-a stuffed donkey hanging down from the ceiling and flying backward in a circle, staring at its own rear.

"We do draw a lot of attention," contends Bill Buell of Big Ass Fans marketing, "especially with the name Big Ass."

Even those that lack the touch of novelty could still woo a big crowd if the names are well known enough, comments Tracy Brewer, Trade Show Manager of Grainger (  Using only conventional trade show gimmicks such as freebies and raffles, the company has managed to attract a significant number of attendees, Brewer says.

"We have our own suppliers here," she adds. "We have knowledgeable staffs and lots of interactive things. We have received 6,000 surveys this year compared to 5,800 last year."

ENCHANTE: Former Chicago Bears defensive player William "Fridge" Perry signs autographs at the Big Ass Fans booth on Tuesday. The sports star has been traveling with the company to trade shows over the years, drawing a cult-like following, says Big Ass Fans' John Pennycuff. At right, one of the Big Ass fans with the flying donkey.

Patent Pending

Patent Pending

Engineers who want to patent their creations face a number of challenges, but the rewards of having a patent can be substantial. Patent filing is like most government filings, an involved process that requires some effort to complete.

Advice for getting through this thicket was the topic of a conference session headed by Robert L. Burns. He told rapt attendees that patent applications must be handled properly so they will hold up in the rare event that they're challenged in court.

"It's not too unusual to find areas where someone didn't cross all the Ts and dot all the Is, and often that makes it possible to get the patent invalidated," says Burns, of the law firm Finnegan Henderson Farabow Garrett & Dunner LLP of Washington D.C.

While urging would-be patent filers to pay close attention to their filing, as well as when and where they divulge information on their invention, Burns notes that most patents are never challenged. "Usually, when a company sees a patent mark, they back off," he says.

Another form of protection is to copyright the documentation that ships with the product. That can be particularly important overseas, since a U.S. patent only covers companies in the U.S. and its territories.

"Companies in Asia involved in piracy usually knock off the manual if they pirate the product. If you don't have a patent there you can still have some legal recourse with a copyright," he says.

Patent filers also need to understand that receiving a patent is a lengthy task. Most of the time, the patent office will routinely refuse a patent to see if the filer wants to pursue it further. For those who do opt to continue, the typical waiting period is three years from filing to final approval or denial.

Manufacturing in Space

Manufacturing in Space

NASA's reach extends well beyond its interplanetary research, with a number of programs that can benefit the multitudes who remain within the earth's gravitational pull. Some NASA technologies can be used in medicine and manufacturing, while others are being used to reduce air transportation gridlocks.

The agency is being rejuvenated now, partly because of a move to refresh the workforce that has a number of aging baby boomers, as well as the challenge recently handed down by President Bush, who suggests sending a man to Mars. The latter could have significant impacts here on earth by fostering new technologies that could be licensed for other applications.

The Space Exploration Initiative detailed by President Bush earlier this year "is about our destiny as explorers, not a destination," says J. Victor Lebacqz, associate administrator for aerospace technology at NASA.
In his Wednesday morning keynote, Lebacqz described many NASA activities including initiatives such as the Technology Transfer Partnerships Program, which helps industry employ NASA technologies. One technology is a lower weight aluminum alloy that could be used in car engines and other applications. Another is a CCD used in the Hubble that is being used to improve the effectiveness of mammograms. A technology for detecting the presence of bacterial spores may prove useful for spotting anthrax, which could save the U.S. Post Office millions of dollars per year.

Lebacqz also notes that NASA is "re-energizing" it relationships with academia, partly in order to replace workers like him, noting that his graying hair is common in NASA. "That is not good if you want people who are going to be on the job a long time."

NASA is also working on aerospace and has developed software being used by the FAA to reduce gridlock in the skies. That's again becoming an issue as the effects of the Sept. 11 tragedy wane. NASA is also developing promising techniques for reducing the noise pollution from a sonic boom, which could bring the return of supersonic air travel.
Lebacqz asked audience members to think about the "exciting manufacturing challenge" of assembling the International Space Station. "Think about orbiting around the earth at 1,700 mph and putting things on a machine." He noted that the Space Shuttle is necessary for the completion of the Space Station.

Pneumatic Actuator Choices Expand

Pneumatic Actuator Choices Expand

Firestone Industrial Products debuted a new range of pneumatic actuators this week that consist of engineered-plastic molded elements welded together in a sealed unit.

Called the Polyactuator 70-P-13, the line has no pistons, rods, or sliding seals so friction, bending, scoring, and wear disappear as potential problems.

They take a small footprint too. Minimum height on the new models, says Firestone, is 0.6 inches (16mm), which means they can fit in very tight spaces.

The new models are capable of strokes up to 0.5 inches (13mm) and forces over 100 lbs (0.45kN) at a pressure of 50 psig (3.5 bar).

Firestone says its engineers have tested the product under laboratory conditions for millions of cycles. Result: no product failure or degradation in performance, the company reports.

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