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Articles from 2008 In July

IBM Ups Ante with PLM

PLM is becoming serious business for IBM. The computer giant is reinvigorating its 20-plus year relationship with Dassault Systemes, along with intensifying its PLM resources by adding new centers of excellence and expanding the number of consultants and domain experts.

IBM is making a broader play around PLM in response to customers' increasing focus on innovation as a means to drive top-line revenue growth. "PLM is maturing to the point where it's no longer engineering's best kept secret," says Mark Lefebvre, director of global marketing for IBM PLM. "It really is a means for a company to transform itself."

Lefebvre says companies both large and small have long recognized PLM's ability to take time and costs out of the equation thanks to the operational efficiencies it can drive. But what they're starting to discover, he says, is PLM not only means you get products to market faster and at less cost, but with the right strategy, you can push more innovative products to market in a timely fashion, which is the only way to grow and differentiate a company in this crowded global economy.

The first pillar of IBM's announcement is it's expanding its long-time relationship with Dassault to resell the V6 PLM platform, including ENOVIA for global collaboration and product data management, CATIA for virtual product design, 3Dvia for 3-D virtual product documentation and DELMIA for digital manufacturing.

In addition, IBM is now overseeing 10 Global PLM Centers of Excellence, and the long-time PLM partners will co-coordinate an International Competency Center for PLM research and development. IBM is also adding to its consulting arsenal by manning a team of more than 2,000 PLM consultants along with 60 PLM industry experts that are now assigned to its research and development organization.

While IBM has been a reseller of PLM products for years, these latest efforts and its recent acquisitions of related technologies also serve to broaden its PLM story. The company has scooped up additional non-CAD focused PLM pieces over the years, including the Maximo enterprise asset management (EAM) tool for tracking asset data, which is invaluable for post-production service after sales, and the Telelogic customer requirements management tool. IBM also recently announced the $340 million acquisition of iLog, a French-based maker of business rules management software, which expands its SOA (Service Oriented Architecture) and PLM integration capabilities.

The integration and business process piece is where PLM customers can expect added value with IBM. "The value customers can expect out of IBM is the ability to help them integrate a PLM environment into the enterprise to collaborate across the supply chain both inbound and outbound," Lefebvre says. "PLM is migrating from a CAD-only or PDM-only platform into a broader play ... and IBM is expanding to address these other areas."

Flooring Company Takes Innovation Cues From Mother Nature

Call it nature's way of coming full circle. More than a decade after Interface Inc. Chairman Ray Anderson embraced his vision to lead the company on a path to sustainability, the carpet manufacturer's R&D group is well along in a transformation to take its innovation and new product design cues from that most highly regarded source-- Mother Nature.

Anderson, who credits customers for getting him to think seriously about environmental impact well before it was the blockbuster business imperative, assembled myriad teams as far back as 1996 to develop a framework for what a sustainable, non-oil dependent company might look like. The teams examined everything from how the company sourced its materials to its energy consumption and its product development processes to retool with a sustainable edge. The goal: To convert Interface to a completely sustainable business model by 2020.

Today, Interface is well ahead of the sustainability pack, having traveled about 40% of its way through its transformational journey. Led by the vision of Anderson, Interface is among a growing number of industry pioneers that believe wholesale changes to all facets of a company are imperative not just for success, but for survival. "We've built an industrial system that lived off Mother Nature's savings, not its cash flow and that can't go on forever," explains John Bradford, Interface's vice president of operations and R&D." We're starting to see some of the social and economic issues that will happen whenever oil becomes truly scarce. The face of business will absolutely change if we can't break our oil addiction."

The exploration of sustainability led the Interface R&D group to the practice of biomimicry, which looks to nature as the muse for innovations around engineering and manufacturing. One of the first principles adopted in the product development area was to mirror how nature reacts to negative energy, first by evaluating inputs and then adapting. Following suit, the Interface R&D group went out to the marketplace and sought negative input. "Five years before, we might have asked customers what they wanted and the answer would be, `what we have, but cheaper,'" Bradford explains. "We started asking different questions like what they hated about what they already had. It was then we started hearing about things that were opportunistic for new and greater business."

Radical R&D

That research was the springboard for some radical new thinking around design. Following the principle that everything is different in nature, Interface began to experiment with designing patterns and color schemes that were varied, instead of honing its development and manufacturing operations to produce consistent fabrics or colors. "Not a single blade of grass is the same color nor is a single leaf the same size," Bradford explains, "meanwhile we try to design everything in perfect harmony." As a result of that effort, Interface began to have two dye lots in the same tile and to make every tile design different on purpose. The resulting product line, called Entropy, fast became a top selling carpet style, and the innovation doubled the size of Interface's business between 2002 and 2007, he says.

Next, the R&D group began to apply biomimicry practices to traditional product development. In one example, the group determined that buyers selected carpet tile over products like broadloom when they required flexibility, say for moving offices. "Yet we were gluing carpet tile to floors," Bradford says. An R&D team hit the drawing board and conducted months of studies on glue and nature, evaluating organisms like mussels, flies and the suction cups on octopus. Finally the teams determined that nature didn't use glue, but rather applied gravity. The resulting Interface product innovation was TacTiles, a way to leverage the dimensional design of the tile backing to employ gravity to make it hold. "We had to totally change the way we thought about installation," Bradford says. "We brought the products to market two and a half years ago, and we're now selling 2 million a month."

Flush with its success, Interface pushed the concept even further. Feeding off nature's idea of feedback loops and realizing that the TacTile design supplied a node every 50 centimeters, the R&D team began an exercise of questioning what the floor knew that could be useful to building inhabitants. Using new advancements in RFID (radio frequency identification) technology, Interface is now pilot testing a product, due out in 2009, that essentially creates a GPS (global positioning system) of everything in a building. Applications are numerous, including those around security, tracking retail traffic and helping hospitals keep track of lifesaving equipment and patients.

While such innovations indicate Interface is cruising on the sustainable innovation track, there have been bumps along the way. Changing the culture of the R&D and engineering organization was a major challenge as was encouraging engineers and designers to problem solve in different ways, Bradford says. Having strong leadership drive the vision was crucial to getting engineering buy in. Interface's R&D group also prioritized creating a culture that would encourage people to share. "You need to have a culture that is trustful and that doesn't have a problem with making mistakes," he explains. "Celebrating missteps along the way and having faith in the process is probably one of the most important steps."

Another big hurdle to conquer was encouraging the R&D group to branch out into areas where it didn't necessarily have expertise. "A major challenge to this is that Mother Nature takes you places you've never really been," he says. "RFID is a perfect example. You don't think of RFID and carpet together."

One of the tools that helped Interface make such connections was the Goldfire innovation platform from Invention Machine. Goldfire's deep search capabilities, domain expertise and access to all kinds of third-party resources, including patent literature and engineering communities, enabled the R&D group to incorporate external domain knowledge into its innovation processes, not to mention, build on prior concepts and ideas.

"We as engineers and designers tend to be specialized-we know our subject matter well, but oftentimes when you're talking about biomimicry or innovative problem solving, those are solutions that lie outside the domain of our direct experience," says Jim Todhunter, Invention Machine CTO. "Goldfire can help people look at biomimicry issues that are outside of their area of expertise. It provides access to outside domain knowledge and internal information so they don't have to reinvent the wheel."

Along with encouraging engineers to challenge their way of thinking, Goldfire also has capabilities and methodologies to help Interface analyze possible failure modes, which aids in its ability to winnow down the number of possible design choices. Being to able to kill projects more quickly means the company doesn't waste money on pursuing bad ideas. The software and product development changes have also sped up the innovation process to be three times faster than it was previously and it's made ideas that do get commercialized far more marketable.

"What we've done is taken our eye off our competitors and put our eye on our customers and started to innovate for them," Bradford says. "As a result, we're developing products that are more appealing and we're more successful in R&D."

News Is Just Dribbling From the Phoenix Mars Mission

News Is Just Dribbling From the Phoenix Mars Mission

There hasn’t been a ton of news coming our of the Phoenix Mars Mission, which landed in late May and is still struggling with soil delivery to on-board labs. Scientists worked with engineers last weekend, examining how the icy soil on Mars interacts with the scoop on the Lander’s robotic arm. They are experimenting with various techniques to deliver a sample to one of the instruments.

“It has really been a science experiment just learning how to interact with the icy soil on Mars — how it reacts with the scoop, its stickiness, whether it’s better to have it in the shade or the sunlight,” said Phoenix Principal Investigator Peter Smith of the University of Arizona.

A month ago, it was announced that initial chemistry experiments had yielded useful information. “We are awash in chemistry data,” said Michael Hecht of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, lead scientist for the Microscopy, Electrochemistry and Conductivity Analyzer, or MECA, instrument on Phoenix. “We’re trying to understand what is the chemistry of wet soil on Mars, what’s dissolved in it, how acidic or alkaline it is.” Three more wet-chemistry cells are still available for use later in the mission.

The Martian soil appears to be an analog to soils found in the upper dry valleys in Antarctica. The soil just below the surface on the landing site is described as very basic, with a pH of between eight and nine. Compounds of salts found there include magnesium, sodium, potassium and chloride.

Another analytical instrument, the Thermal and Evolved-Gas Analyzer (TEGA), has baked its first soil sample to 1,000 degrees Celsius (1,800 degrees Fahrenheit). TEGA scientists have begun analyzing the gases released at a range of temperatures to identify the chemical make-up of soil and ice. Analysis is a weeks-long process.

Would the conditions present support life? Well, nothing has been discovered yet that would rule that out.

Boeing's McNerney on "Innovation and Invention"

Boeing's McNerney on "Innovation and Invention"

I came across this speech “Innovation and Invention” that Boeing CEO James McNerney gave at the University of Michigan College of Engineering early last year. The speech exposes “myths” and “facts” about innovation a la Jim McNerney. His decidedly corporate take on innovation includes “rigor and discipline” as Fact # 5 about innovation in the corporate environment.

With stops at 3M and GE prior to taking the helm at Boeing, McNerney had long preached the Six Sigma in research philosophy. In the speech, he decries the “eureka” or serendipitous moment and asserts innovation is a team sport requiring discipline and hard work. McNerney pokes holes in the urban legend that 3m Scientist Art Fry alone discovered  Post-It Notes as the result of a “eureka” moment. Fry had help from 3M’s lab, marketing and manufacturing arms, notes McNerney, who was 3M CEO from 1999 until 2005. At 3M, McNerney implemented the controversial Six Sigma in research which was unpopular among many long-time 3M researchers and scientists. McNerney’s successor George Buckley scrapped Six Sigma in research.

Whether you agree on not with his very corporate position on engineering innovation, his speech is a worthwhile read. Not surprisingly, McNerney is an MBA type, not an engineer. However, his three employers - Boeing, 3M and GE - have all been engineering companies. Engineers rule in the rhetorical sense, but not in reality!

New Report on U.S. Bridges Released as I-35 Bridge Collapse Anniversary Approaches

New Report on U.S. Bridges Released as I-35 Bridge Collapse Anniversary Approaches

Nearly one year to the date of last year’s I-35 Bridge Collapse in Minneapolis, a report released yesterday says at least one in four U.S. bridges needs repairs and at least $140 billion is needed to make them.

According to the report, 152,000 of the country’s 600,000 bridges are either structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. The report says the five main problems facing these bridges are: age, congestion, soaring construction costs, lack of funds for maintenance and the staggering costs associated with new bridges.

More than a dozen people were killed and 145 injured when the I-35 bridge collapsed Aug. 1, 2007 bridge collapse. The NTSB determined the bridge collapsed under the weight of tons of sand and construction materials that were stored at two of the structure’s weakest points. See the report here.

Bridge safety continues to be a concern across the nation. Last weekend, a 1,200-lb chunk of concrete fell onto highway traffic after the slab tore off the underside of an overpass in St. Paul, MN. An inspection on the I-35E overpasses says the 50-year-old bridge is “structurally safe.”

If you’re concerned about troubled bridges in your state, you can check them out here.

Engineering for Safety header

With the dawn of a smart highway, evolving networking technology and safety standards and virtual advances, the importance of safety is moving to the forefront of engineering.

New Diesel Engines Fire Up Powder Metals

New Diesel Engines Fire Up Powder Metals

The next generation of North American-built diesel engines, scheduled for introduction during the 2009 to 2011 timeframe, is a bright spot for an otherwise weak powder metal industry. New PM applications include cam gear drives, idler gears, timing system sprockets, and fuel injector gears. Powder-forged connecting rods and PM bearing caps are currently being tested and the outlook is good. General Motors put $69 million into its DMAX diesel engine plant in Moraine, OH to manufacture a new Duramax 6.6-liter V-8 turbo diesel engine that will meet 2010 emissions standards. DMAX Limited is a joint venture between GM and Isuzu Motors Limited and was established as a diesel engine company in 1998. About half of new cars in Europe feature diesel engines, which are more energy efficient than cars with spark ignition systems.

New Zinc-Aluminum Molding Alloy Targets LEDs

A new metal molding alloy creates new mechanical design options for light-emitting diodes, shielded housings, heatsinks and other applications.

Called Xyloy, the material combines zinc and aluminum in an alloy that allows processing in a conventional injection molding machine, allowing significant cost savings compared to die cast parts.

"Die casting requires heating and keeping a large amount of metal in a molten state," says Jim Miller, product manager for Xyloy at Cool Polymers Inc., Warwick, RI. "That's a large draw from an energy standpoint. With injection molding, you're only heating a small amount of metal at any one time." It's an increasingly important factor as hydrocarbon prices soar.

The newly developed material is also cost competitive with plastics and offers important mechanical advantages, as well as shorter cycle times. Key mechanical properties are:  ultimate tensile strength, 325 MPa (47 kpsi); yield strength, 250 MPa (36 kpsi); elongation at break, 2 percent and thermal conductivity, 110W/mK (764 BTUin/hrft²F). Mold shrinkage is just 0.5 percent.

The trick in the technology is developing alloys with a broad enough temperature range that their viscosity can be controlled in an injection molding machine. "To work in a conventional injection molding machine, you want the material to behave like a polymer does," says Miller. "You want a viscosity that isn't too high or too low over a wide range of temperatures." ?That transition for metals generally is extremely sharp.

The melting point for zinc is 787F and aluminum, 1,221F. ?Special injection molding machine barrels can handle thermal loads up to around 1,100F. ?Cool Polymers is working on the development of other lightweight, nonferrous alloys. Steel is out of the question because of its high melting point. Stainless steel, for example, has a melting point of 2,550F.

PROTOTYPE THIS! Series Makes Innovation A Discovery

PROTOTYPE THIS! Series Makes Innovation A Discovery

If you’re sick to death of the reality and dumb games shows crowding the air waves this summer, Discovery Channel’s  fall programming lineup is offering a welcome reprieve.

The new PROTOTYPE THIS! 13-part series kicks off this October, providing viewers with the opportunity to live with a team of engineers through the design process—from the early drawing board stage through production and view all the ups and downs along the way. The series, shot entirely in high definition, features a so-called dream team of electronics specialists, engineers, professors and special effects experts who combine their various talents and ideas to create forward-thinking products that tackle the modern inconveniences and problems we all confront on a daily basis. Some of the innovations on tap for the series: a road rage-proof car, a six-legged robot that carries a human through any terrain and a waterslide simulator that provides an amusement park-like thrill ride from the comforts of home. Perhaps the most out there is a high-tech alarm clock that, get this, provides the usual wake-up chime along with an automated shower, valet service and mechanized butler to kick you out the door. Now couldn’t you use one of those? Blazingly Fast! Blazingly Fast!

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