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Articles from 2009 In March


Digital Power Gains Momentum

Digital Power Gains Momentum

Microchip Technology Inc. yesterday unveiled a family of digital signal controllers (DSCs) and reference designs aimed at power conversion for end applications ranging from industrial products and hybrid cars to medical instruments and lighting systems.

The new products are part of a growing trend toward so-called "digital power" in which a power supply's functions and energy flow are controlled by a digital mechanism rather than by traditional analog methods. Proponents of digital power say its primary advantage is its software-based flexibility, and they claim that translates to lower costs, reduced part counts and better performance of end products.

"We've seen some of our customers, when they transition from an analog design to a full digital design, reduce their part count by 50 percent or more," says Bill Hutchings, product marketing manager for Microchip's new line of DSCs.

Microchip's new line of DSCs, which includes seven products, is said to be a good fit for digital power conversion applications because it combines the features of digital signal processors (DSPs) and microcontrollers. The signal processor portion does quick calculations and handles pulse width modulation, while microcontroller functionality helps in communications and so-called "housekeeping functions."

Yesterday's announcement included seven embedded processors known as the dsPIC33F GS Series (view a video of the products). The second-generation family includes devices ranging from 18 to 44 pins and memory sizes from 6 KB to 16 KB. Microchip augmented yesterday's introduction with the rollout of an AC/DC reference design based on the new dsPIC33F GS controllers.

"We're not only coming out with silicon," Hutchings says. "We're coming out with reference designs to support these products."

Microchip engineers expect the products to see use in DC/AC power inverters, AC/DC power supplies and DC/DC converters. End applications include electric vehicles, hybrid cars, battery chargers, industrial motor control, LCD televisions and various types of lighting, including fluorescent, LED (light-emitting diode) and HID (high-intensity discharge). The technology is said to be gaining traction in medical power supplies as well as in aerospace and military.

"A lot of applications are going digital," Hutchings says. "Building adaptive control into an analog control chain is a lot easier than building adaptive control into software."

New Magnesium Sheet Process Targets Medical, Auto Applications

New Magnesium Sheet Process Targets Medical, Auto Applications

Thixomat will introduce a new magnesium sheet technology at the Society of Automotive Engineers Congress in Detroit, MI April 20 to 23. NanoMag is a new technology for fine-grain high-strength magnesium sheet with nanometer microstructures for automotive, aerospace and other applications.

Thixomat makes the sheet by injecting magnesium alloys in a liquid state into a large cavity in an injection molding machine. The plate is then rolled and heat treated to achieve its final shape and mechanical properties.

"The process, developed in conjunction with the Department of Material Science & Engineering at the University of Michigan and under the sponsorship of the National Science Foundation, offers numerous advantages in material integrity and cost savings over any other product now available," says Steve LeBeau, Thixomat's CEO. NanoMag is a subsidiary of Thixomat.

The key to the NanoMag technology is its ability to create fine-grained strengthening of magnesium alloys at low cost through a process called the Thixomat Thermal Mechanical Process, or TTMP. The net result is a magnesium sheet with properties similar to steel and with a comparable strength-to-density ratio as that of steel but at one quarter the weight.

NanoMag can be used as a base material to the manufacture of fuel cells and electronic products. LeBeau believes the process also will gain wide acceptance in the biomedical industry for temporary connecting pins and plates since magnesium dissolves in the body with no adverse effects.

"We've learned that the density and strength of NanoMag material is more like human bone than virtually any other currently popular implant materials," says LeBeau. Because of this, he sees the possibility of the use of the process for biodegradable implants for hard tissue.

Honda, BMW Drive Aluminum Use Higher

Honda, BMW Drive Aluminum Use Higher

Automotive use of aluminum continues to rise as North American automakers look for proven technology to reduce curb weight.

A new study by Ducker Worldwide, commissioned by The Aluminum Association, reports the percentage of aluminum in cars averages 8.6 percent, an all-time high. That's up from just 2 percent in 1970 and 5.1 percent in 1990. The use of aluminum in cars and light trucks is projected to be nearly 11 percent of curb weight by 2020.

Globally, the amount of aluminum content for light vehicles is 7.8 percent of the average worldwide light vehicle curb weight of 3,185 lbs in 2009. According to the study, growth in aluminum content is predicted to continue at a rate of four-to-five lbs per vehicle per year and approach 300 lbs per vehicle worldwide in 2020.

"As automakers seek to innovate and differentiate themselves with more fuel-efficient cars and trucks with a reduced carbon footprint, the time to use advanced materials like aluminum is now," says Buddy Stemple, chairman of the Aluminum Association's Auto & Light Truck Group.

More than 50 vehicles produced in North America contain over 10 percent aluminum content.

Vehicles manufactured by Honda and BMW average more than 340 lbs of aluminum per vehicle. General Motors, Honda, Toyota, BMW, Hyundai and Volkswagen all increased the amount of aluminum content of their North American vehicles from 2006 to 2009.

Much of the gain is coming in engine blocks and steering knuckles with penetration of aluminum blocks reaching nearly 70 percent. More than 22 percent of vehicles currently made in the U.S. have aluminum hoods, an all-time record.

"We're seeing continued growth of automotive aluminum because of the relevant advantages it offers, such as improved fuel economy and vehicle safety," says Stemple. "In fact, hybrid and diesel vehicles when paired with aluminum can actually pay consumers back faster than if those vehicles were made of heavier steel."

Material experts and body engineers surveyed in this study expect 25 percent of fuel economy improvement to come from weight savings, while powertrain experts predict 50 percent of the improvements will be the result of weight reduction.

Other options, such as carbon fiber reinforced plastics, are still on the drawing boards for parts on expensive cars, such as certain Corvette models, but remain too pricey for most vehicles.

Why is the use of cell phones discouraged around gas pumps?

This is another one of those puzzlers for me.  I’ve noticed recently that the number of posted signs prohibiting cell phone usage around gas pumps has gone down.  Often times they seem to disappear when the pumps are upgraded or replaced. So what’s the deal?    Well, let’s look at what we know:  Gasoline really only burns in its gaseous state, not in the liquid form.  This is why you may have heard someone say that you could extinguish a cigarette in a bucket of gasoline.  DON’T try this.  For a while the liquid gasoline will most definitely extinguish the cigarette and the path the cigarette has to take to get to the liquid will have it move through gasoline vapor mixed with oxygen - a deadly combination.  In order or gasoline vapor to ignite, it also needs oxygen and a heat source.  The gasoline vapor / air mix must be in the range of 1.4 percent to 7.6 percent.    That tells me that your ignition source, on a calm day, will need to be a few inches to no more than a few feet away from the liquid gasoline (I haven’t done the calculations so it is just my swag).

Once we have the right mix of gas vapor and air, we need an ignition source that can provide the proper ignition temperature.  For this mix of gasoline vapor and oxygen, we need at least 495 degrees Fahrenheit (280 degrees C).   The only practical way you get that kind of temperature is a spark or flame. This is why smoking a cigarette while pumping gas will put you in the category of the fools.  This is also why we are told to keep ourselves well grounded while we get in and out of our car so that we create one of those nasty static electricity sparks while pumping gas.    The problem here is that none of this relates to cell phone usage.  In this case we must ask - what are we afraid of?

A cell phone draws the most current when transmitting and much of this power going to send those little signals out the antenna at someplace between 850 MHz and 1900 MHz (and up to 2100 MHz in Europe and Japan).  This is all low frequency stuff, meaning that these electromagnetic waves won’t really do anything in free space unless you have a liquid and really high power (in the hundreds of watts) like a microwave oven.   The other path is moving a wire or electrical conductor through the cell phone transmission to generate a current.  Unfortunately, we again need a lot of power to get a voltage high enough for a spark.  So that rules out raw emissions of the antenna, leaving other sources for a spark - namely where the battery connects to the phone.

Fortunately, some really smart people have studied things like this and there are many guidelines for operating electronics in environments where flammable gases are present.  You will see this referred to as Class 1 Division 1 or Intrinsically Safe.  You can do your own research here but in general, you want to keep the voltage under 30 volts and the current under 300 mA.   Fortunately, modern cell phones have batteries less than 10 volts - most are closer to 6 volts and are also in the safe current range.  That wasn’t true in the analog bag phone days, however, so I believe these cell phone safe signs are a throw-back to the old analog days.  So, unless you are going to do something stupid like remove you cell phone battery and short it out within a few feet of filling your gas tank (which would  start a toxic fire), you should be fine. Just make sure to keep yourself well grounded, because static electricity is probably your biggest safety risk.

The impact of environmental regulations on electronics manufacturers

The impact of environmental regulations on electronics manufacturers

Here’s an in-depth paper that covers the Impact of Environmental Regulations on Electronic Manufacturers. Michael Kirschner, president of Design Chain Associates, a firm the helps companies comply with regulations, authored the paper for the December 2008 Conference on Resource Recycling. In the paper, Kirschner notes that “while (manufacturers) are able to comply with these regulations, they are experiencing extraordinary difficulties doing it in an efficient and effective manner, so costs are extremely high and the results are not nearly as dramatic as hoped for by the regulators.”

A gadget that parallel parks

Here’s a gadget that does a better job of parallel parking than I do. Give me one for my minivan!

SaaS eco-software for REACH and RoHS

SaaS eco-software for REACH and RoHS

Green EcoSystems Group of Colorado Springs, Colo. has introduced Green -EcoSystems software-as-a-service designed to help manufacturing companies address requirements related to the REACH directive. The tool also supports RoHS compliance.

According to the company, key features of Green-EcoSystems include:

  • REACH substances of very high concern analytics
  • REACH article management and REACH Article 33 reporting
  • Establishment of a robust audit trail process to respond to customer compliance audits
  • Establishment of a compliance records archival system to meet the REACH obligation to assemble and keep information for a period of at least 10 years
  • Global RoHS compliance risk analysis, management and audit trail reporting
  • E-waste take-back analytics

Tesla Promises To Roll Out EV With 300-Mile Range

Tesla Promises To Roll Out EV With 300-Mile Range

Tesla Motors says it has begun taking orders for the Model S, an all-electric sedan that carries seven people and travels an extraordinary 300 miles between charges. A press release posted on the company’s website yesterday declares that the new model, expected to cost about $50,000, will be rechargeable from 120V, 240V, and 480V outlets. Using the 480V outlet, the company says the Model S can be recharged in 45 minutes.

The announcement is significant for several reasons: Up until now, pure EVs have offered a driving range of 70-150 miles, with recharge times typically taking six hours. Tesla’s latest claims would represent a huge boost for EV technology.

Tesla says the Model S will offer a choice of three battery packs, which will enable ranges of 160, 230 or 300 miles per charge.

The website press release did not indicate what type of battery would be used, how big the battery pack would be, nor what it will weigh. It also did not say how long it would take to charge the vehicle at 120V or 240V.

The California-based car company said it expects to start production of the Model S in late 2011.

New Conductive Compound Features Carbon Nanotubes

New Conductive Compound Features Carbon Nanotubes

A brand-new plastic compound uses carbon nanotubes to achieve electrical conductivity.

Bosch engineers are the first to specify the new material, Ultraform N2320 C, a polyacetal from BASF. It will be used in a fuel filter housing for the Audi A4 and A5 where SAE standard J1645 (version of August 2006), requires a conductive material.

The SAE standard recommends a maximum specific volume resistance of 106 ohm/cm for materials that will be used in components through which fuel flows. Under measuring conditions according to ISO 3915 (four-point method), the conductive Ultraform attains a value of a mere 30 ohm/cm, making it 30,000 times more conductive than necessary.

This eliminates the risk of electrostatic charging and sparking as fuel flows through the filter.

The new Ultraform is said to retain its polyacetal properties such as toughness, dimensional stability and elastic resilience. BASF says when this material comes into contact with fuels, it is stronger and more creep-resistant than conventional polyacetal.

Carbon nanotubes are fixed in the plastic matrix. The cylindrical carbon molecules have novel properties that make them well suited for electronics and other applications. They feature great strength and unique electrical properties, and are efficient conductors of heat.

A brand-new plastic compound uses carbon nanotubes to achieve electrical conductivity.

ABB Conference Showcases New Motor, Drive Technologies

ABB Conference Showcases New Motor, Drive Technologies

The exhibit hall at the ABB Automation & Power World was buzzing this week as attendees checked out some of the latest technology offerings. Here's a rundown of two new product introductions at the show:

HDP Series AC Induction Servomotor

A major source of energy loss in a motor is due to the iron loss associated with the stator winding. ABB's Fabrizio Galbiati says engineers have addressed this problem in a new line of high performance, low voltage AC motors with a low-loss lamination technology to achieve 95-96 percent efficiency. More significantly, the HDP series motors, which come in a range of sizes and power ratings from 2 to 270 kW, achieve comparable performance to similar motors but with a smaller footprint. The result of a five-year development effort, Galbiati says the design calls for 50 percent less material and employs a cast aluminum rotor to achieve low inertia, features that ABB is betting offset the 20 percent higher price tag than conventional motors. Capable of operating at constant torque, the motor line is targeted at applications such as extrusion machines and coil winders, which require high torque at low speeds. ABB has also introduced a compatible drive for the motor.

HDP Series AC Induction Servomotor

Ultra Low Harmonic Drive

Harmonics are a headache in motor operations, which can lead to useful power wasted in the form of heat. While harmonics are typically managed at the DC to motor point, ABB has come up with an alternative way of thinking about the problem. "We basically found a way to take clean, sinusoidal power and do something to it," says ABB's Peter Walker. Their solution is the Ultra Low Harmonic Drive, which takes the same technology used to convert DC to the motor and uses it on DC to utility power. "So instead of managing the harmonics that are introduced in the process of converting AC to DC, we don't generate them in the first place," he says.

Ultra Low Harmonic Drive