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Articles from 2009 In July


Superconducting Generators May Enable Wind Turbines to Surpass 6 MW Limit

In a few blustery places, wind turbines are nearly cost competitive with conventional fossil energy, and tax credits designed to stimulate renewable energy growth are enabling profitable deployment of wind power in many parts of the country. West Texas, for example, is awash in wind turbines, like this majestic wind farm visible from I-20 near Loraine, TX.

Sea of Wind Turbines

Emerging Energy Research, an industry research firm, predicts that approximately $27 billion was spent on wind turbines in 2007, and over $55 billion is expected to be spent annually on this technology by 2015. With that kind of investment, a new approach is needed to enable wind energy to stand on its own and compete against fossil energy without artificial economic incentives (which will not last forever).

One approach to drive down cost has been to build bigger wind turbines. Among the largest turbines in the world is the 6 MW-peak E-126 built by Enercon (see: “Construction of world’s most powerful wind turbines in progress in Emden“), which sits on a gigantic 131-meter tower and has a mammoth rotor diameter of 126 meters. Wind turbines, however, cannot grow indefinitely due to practical limitations of physical size and weight. Components must be transported over roads or rails and 130+ meter towers must support the mass of generators in high winds.

To surpass the 6 MW practical wind turbine limit, a new technology is needed that can improve power output without increasing generator size and mass. Enter American Superconductor (AMSC), which is boldly synergizing this old energy technology (wind) with a new technology (superconducting wire). Using high-temperature superconducting (HTS) wire, which exceeds the current density of copper wire by 100 times, wind turbine power is increased without the size and weight penalties associated with scaling up conventional generators.

As reported in “NREL to validate 10-MW superconductor wind turbine,” AMSC announced an agreement with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and its National Wind Technology Center (NWTC) to validate the economics of a 10 MW superconducting wind turbine. NWTC researchers will evaluate performance, manufacturing, and operating costs of AMSC’s 10 MW HTS wind turbine to estimate the actual cost of electricity generated by this system.

HTS wire has already seen a little action carrying current on the grid (see my blog posts: “2G YBCO Superconducting Wire May Improve Grid Security” and “Superpower’s 2-G Superconducting Cable Slated For Grid Installation“). However, this AMSC-DOE partnership represents a pioneering attempt to contain wind turbine size by deploying superconducting wire technology in generators. A company press release, “AMSC and U.S. Department of Energy Agree to Collaborate on 10 Megawatt-Class Superconductor Wind Turbines,” give more details: “superconductor technology will enable a 10 MW-class generator system that would weigh approximately 120 metric tons, compared with approximately 300 metric tons for conventional direct drive generators with this power rating.”

While their approach shows promise to make wind turbines cost competitive with fossil fuels, AMSC has some technical hurdles to overcome. According to “Superconductors to boost wind power” in Physics Today magazine, HTC wire is still very expensive. To compete with conventional copper, HTS wire needs to fall from $100/kA·m (achieved in low production volumes) to $15-$30/kA·m. Moreover, unique to superconducting wind turbines are maintenance and operating costs for cryogenic equipment to cool HTS wire below its critical temperature. These costs are not present in conventional wind generators.

Moog’s New Electric Servoactuation Solution Designed for Easy Installation, Longer Life

MOTION CONTROL: Drawing on its experience with power generation, flight simulation and subsea equipment, Moog has unveiled an electric linear servoactuation solution, which has been designed as a convenient alternative to hydraulic actuation. Engineers can apply Moog’s electric actuation solutions to a multitude of general industrial applications including damper control, security barriers, pick-and-place robotics and metal forming presses.Moog’s new solutions promise longer life, greater efficiency and productivity because of the use of superior materials and design. For instance, the innovative design of Moog’s ball screw, which translates rotational motion to linear motion inside the servoactuator, extends its life by twice that of traditional designs. And although Moog’s electric linear actuation solution draws less power than hydraulic alternatives, it sacrifices none of the precision, speed and productivity engineers need.

“Moog’s electric linear servoactuators incorporate our innovative ball screw design combined with carefully selected materials and manufacturing processes” said Rob Nicholl, engineering manager, Electric Linear Servoactuator Product Line for Moog Industrial Group in North America. This design results in higher efficiency and higher dynamic load capacity, providing up to two times the life of competing technologies. Moog’s new product is also an improvement over roller screw designs.

Moog has more than 25 years of experience designing electric solutions for motion control.
Moog’s new solution for engineers makes installations quicker because of such things as simple mounting and automatic configuration of the servoactuator.

Moog is introducing three offerings to the marketplace. First is a Standard Electric Linear Servoactuator for use with most linear actuation applications. Moog’s Standard Electric Servoactuator features: One of the industry’s smallest footprints; maximum force of 70 kN; rod speeds up to 640 mm/sec; and, an absolute encoder for transmitting position and feedback data.

Second is a Flexible Electric Linear Servoactuator for higher forces, rod speeds and longer strokes. Moog and its customers can tailor almost every feature of the Flexible Series to meet application-specific needs. Moog’s Flexible Electric Servoactuator includes: Longer strokes than the Standard solution; inline and foldback design; motor windings that can be tailored to meet application-specific needs; maximum force of 115.59 kN; and, rod speeds up to 1,600 mm/sec.

And, third, is Moog’s pre-engineered package option including the Standard Electric Linear Servoactuation Package and Flexible Electric Linear Servoactuation Package. Each package includes Moog’s servoactuator, servodrive and commissioning software. Moog’s commissioning software automatically uploads preset system tuning parameters from the absolute encoder when starting up the solution, which customers can rely on to save significant time.

“Moog’s Standard and Flexible Electric Linear Servoactuation Packages provide industry-leading sustainability solutions,” said Sal Spada, a director of Motion Control Research for ARC Advisory Group. “Energy efficiency, reliability, plus ease of set-up and installation, lower the total cost of design and ownership for both new and retrofit applications.

“By reducing a manufacturer’s energy consumption, these solutions can also help to reduce a manufacturer’s environmental footprint,” added Spada. “Design engineers that form partnerships with providers that embrace objective and systems-oriented perspectives on the technology achieve and often exceed desired goals. Moog is an excellent example of an industrial solution provider with the technology-neutral perspective and mechatronic systems approach that are so critical today.”

Detailed specifications for Moog’s Standard and Flexible Electric Linear Servoactuators and Packages are available at http://info.moog.com/servoactuators

moog-for-web.jpg

A Barometer That Measures Your Height

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EMI Causes Wireless Keyboard Cursor to Move Mysteriously

EMI Causes Wireless Keyboard Cursor to Move Mysteriously

Responding to our blog post on EMI causing computers to spontaneously reboot, Gupta Harshwardhan (a dyed-in-the-wool mechanical engineer) wrote in wondering whether the HP wireless keyboard+mouse on his office desktop was suffering from the same problem. Every now and then, he said, the cursor would creep towards the left as if directed by a spirit hand.

(Okay, he didn’t add that last bit in — we’re taking a little editorial license because we like ghost stories.)

Though the clues were scant, we asked Daryl Gerke, an EMI expert who is co-owner of the consulting firm Kimmel Gerke Associates, to speculate on the case:

“EMI is always a possibility, but there may be many other causes such as a failing component or thermal issues. The symptoms, however, do match with an RF source causing upsets. If EMI related, I doubt it is due to other typical EMI sources, such as power transients or electrostatic discharge. These usually result in resets, lockups, memory corruption, etc.

One possible scenario is a nearby cell phone, making supervisory transmissions to the local cell tower. I’ve seen that problem in my own office. If the cell phone is next to my “expensive” $8 speakers, I can hear a ticking sound for a few seconds when the cell phone transmits. The insidious thing is that you don’t need to be talking on the cell phone — the supervisory transmissions are short, but they occur on a regular basis (3-30 minutes typical.)

Another similar source would be a mobile RF transmitter, such as a VHF/UHF “walkie-talkie.” I’ve seen that problem in both hospitals (fireman, paramedics) and industrial facilities (security guards.)

Another EMI possibility is electromagnetic radiation from transients, rather than regular radio transmitters. This can be a bit of a sleeper, since it is often unexpected. Nevertheless, we’ve seen upsets to electronic equipment 20-30 feet away from human electrostatic discharge (or during ESD testing.) In one case, a variation on this theme was resets due to an X-ray machine one floor below the vulnerable system. When the X-ray fires, it can also cause a big electromagnetic transient.

Just two weeks ago, I chased down a problem due to radiated transients from the inverters in a large UPS system. Whenever the vulnerable equipment was brought close to the UPS, it would beep and go wild. The good news there was that a 0.1 uF capacitor on a critical line fixed the problem. Lest I make it sound too simple, diagnosing the problem and figuring out just where to place the critical cap took some effort. Actually, we put in a whole bunch of filtering, and then backed stuff out. When the dust cleared, we found only the one cap was actually needed. Ah, if only they all ended up so simple…

If all else fails, we can always blame the software. (I’m a hardware guy, or course…)

Follow-up: We emailed Gerke’s response to Harshwardhan. He responded: “A hint is enough for a good engineer, I suppose. The mouse + keyboard transceiver was sitting next to my Wi-Fi transceiver. I have moved it away. Seems okay now.”

Case closed.

Engineer and Team Bring Glass Cockpit Technology to Small Airplanes

Engineer and Team Bring Glass Cockpit Technology to Small Airplanes

Gus Kyriakos was the youngest recipient ever of the Volare Award, presented by the Airlines Avionics Institute. He's a shirtsleeve manager, not an office dweller, with over 35 years experience in the avionics industry and a person who considers the term "impossible" to be a personal challenge.

Kyriakos embodied the skills and mindset needed to implement a new approach to Glass Cockpit design and Aspen Avionics wanted him.

Aspen Avionics' founders, Peter Lyons and Jeff Bethel were searching for a way to bring the latest advances in Glass Cockpit avionics to those aircraft owners and pilots that operated the small, less capable aircraft.

Aspen's Glass Cockpit approach would use MEMS (Micro-machined Electro-Mechanical Systems) to electronically mimic the operation of the mechanical gyroscopes so common in small aircraft.

Because of MEMS, a Glass Cockpit has a much higher MTBF than mechanical gyroscopes. And, since there's a flat panel display available, many more features can be added such as moving maps, traffic and weather information which greatly enhance safety.

Normally, all of this takes up a large amount of space on the instrument panel but Lyons and Bethel's dream had resulted in an epiphany. Why not install the avionics directly into the holes made available by the removal of the old mechanical displays?

After all, one of the principle reasons for the installation cost run-up was the need to destroy the OEM instrument panel since all competing equipment required large mounting holes.

The Dream Weaver

Trained as an EE, Gus Kyriakos loved hardware design but he also understood software and mechanical issues. He had the ability to see a design problem both in isolation and within the larger context of a system. He was an in-the-trenches engineer and his resume was impressive.

Kyriakos had just brought Avidyne Corporation's avionics design facility online in Melbourne, Florida.

Before that, he'd led a 100 person Allied Signal Corporation design team responsible for the development of the TCAS (Traffic - Collision Avoidance System) avionics device. The invention had saved countless lives.

And he had established Rockwell Collins' Communications, Navigation and Surveillance (CNS) Center for Engineering Excellence during his tenure there.

He took a look at what Aspen Avionics had in mind and accepted their offer. He hasn't looked back since that day.

To implement the concept envisioned by Lyons and Bethel, Kyriakos' initial task was to build a team of hardware and software engineers who could translate the founder's Evolution Flight Display System (EFD1000) dream into reality.

So he ramped up the engineering staff and then, with his cadre in place, he updated the existing project roadmap. Kyriakos and his team spent many long days--and not a few evenings and weekends--getting the embryonic product to function correctly. It was fun in a way only engineers understand.

Gus-isms

As the check marks accumulated on the project task list, the EFD1000 iterations continued to roll out of the lab until they had a working prototype. It wasn't a walk in the park however.

Kyriakos had a well deserved reputation of being a hard charger. He demanded nothing more of his direct reports than what he was willing to contribute himself but it was during these days that a new lexicon manifested itself at Aspen: the list of "Gus-isms."

The software team members were found of saying "Gus always challenges us to design well enough to pass the 'Gus Test'. He seems to have an innate ability to break any software within five minutes."

To an engineer working on an intractable interface problem he would say "How hard can it be? We were doing RS-232 in the 70's." Then he'd suggest a solution.

To an EE, he'd sniff the burned up component, look at the schematic and remark that he could "fix that problem with a diode and a zero ohm resistor." He'd then walk away, only to return and help find the real solution if needs be.

And if the project bogged down, he'd simply toss out a remark like "Today doesn't end until 9 AM tomorrow." But a grin would quickly follow.

The Evolution Revolution

In spite of the Gus-isms--or maybe because of them--the engineering team was busy churning out solutions. The product design execution however was constrained by how different the operating environment is in a small airplane compared to an airliner or large business jet.

Unlike airliners, few of the aircraft thought to be candidates for the EFD1000 had flight instruments (or even instrument mounting holes) on the right side of the cockpit. This forces a co-pilot or flight instructor to use the pilot's instruments. It isn't dangerous or even all that difficult but it's not anything like an airliner's cockpit.

This operating difference required the off axis specification for the displays to take on a new importance. Also, the display couldn't wash out in the intense sunlight that's often present during flight.

Cooling issues were another problem. Air conditioning is not present in most small aircraft and temperatures can reach very high levels if the aircraft is left sitting on the flight line in direct sunlight.

Temperature compensation therefore became a huge issue as well as the need for a component ageing regime and the use of fans.

Another problem area was the autopilot interfaces. It seemed that every autopilot manufacturer had a different approach to interfacing issues and each method had to be discovered and addressed. It wasn't so much difficult as it was time consuming.

Looking downstream to follow-on products, reversion parameters had to be devised so that should the EFD1000 responsible for the attitude and heading display fail, another one, normally used for a non-critical function such as a moving map display, could pick up the slack using totally separate electronics.

A battery backup system insured that a total power failure would not cause a loss of ability to control the airplane in instrument conditions. The battery however had to operate in the same potentially high temperature environment as the rest of the package and yet not have its amp hour rating or useful life compromised.

And then there was the software. Because avionics software functionality and safety of flight issues are so closely related, the code was revised again and again until it was 100% fit for purpose and bulletproof.

As the possibility of success came closer, Kyriakos applied his considerable packaging skills to house the electronics in such a way that the OEM instrument panel in an airplane need not be disturbed yet the EFD1000 would be robust enough to survive in the alien environment of flight.

Such an accomplishment is no small feat because of the constant vibration that's present in piston engine powered aircraft.

Guaranteeing a high MTBF for two vibrating printed circuit boards, plus a display, cantilevered from an instrument panel that's also vibrating, is a tough problem but Kyriakos dealt with it using vibration dampening and component reinforcing techniques.

And the chess pieces moved ever closer to the other side of the board.

The Omnipresent FAA

An avionics product, even one that's well designed, still has a huge hurdle to jump before sales can begin. The Federal Aviation Administration has specifications on what's allowable and what isn't. The infamous T.S.O. -Technical Standard Orders - authorization documents are not suggestions. They're the law.

Kyriakos again found himself doing an extended dance with the FAA just as he had at Allied Signal. This time though, he was working for a smaller company. The FAA always looks askance at such companies which made the task all the more difficult.

Fortunately, co-founder Peter Lyons had developed a strong relationship with the FAA at another company which helped immensely. So design decisions were explained and changes made as required. And beneath the gaze of the steely eyed FAA inspectors, the two men pushed the acceptance tests over the finish line.

As a result, the Evolution EFD1000 product received the coveted FAA approval and Aspen Avionics found themselves the poster child for what's possible when a dedicated group of people set out to revolutionize an industry.

John Uczekaj, Aspen's President and CEO, sums things up in a statement that doesn't give his own leadership abilities proper credit but instead recognizes the accomplishments of his employees and Gus Kyriakos:

"Aspen's accomplishments are due to the efforts of many individuals and teams throughout the organization. But without the leadership and knowledge of Gus Kyriakos, Aspen Avionics, as a company, might not have been successful.

Gus has been on a long career journey that led him here. Every part of that journey was preparing him to take a small company's revolutionary concept and turn it into reality. Peter Lyons and Jeff Bethel wanted to offer the General Aviation world 'Avionics for the rest of us.' Gus and his staff helped make that possible."

John Loughmiller is an EE, Commercial Pilot, Flight Instructor and a Lead Safety Team Representative for the FAA.

Read up on all the candidates for Design News' 2009 Engineer of the Year!

Virtual Design Takes off at P&G

Virtual Design Takes off at P&G

When Tom Lange enters a supermarket or Big Box store, he sees waste. A lot of it.

"About 10 percent of the packaging in stores serves no useful purpose," he says. "It doesn't protect the product. It doesn't improve the customer experience. It doesn't do anything. It's only in there because no one engineered it out"

As senior director of modeling and simulation at Procter & Gamble, it's Lange's job to reduce waste not only of finished products but also in the process of designing, testing and creating finished products. Lange is also chief technologist for reliability engineering at P&G, and head of computer-aided engineering.

P&G has made a significant commitment to virtual computing in product design and development. During a conference call with investment analysts in 2003, P&G CEO A.G. Lafley said: "We are significantly expanding capabilities in computational modeling and computer-aided engineering, so we can do an increasing percentage of product and process design through virtual simulation."

In the 2008 annual report, Laffey further commented: "Virtualization is enabling P&G brands to co-design products with consumers. The same technologies allow us to show retailers virtual in-store displays for half the cost and less than half the time required for physical shelf designs. Computer modeling and simulation saved P&G about 17 years of design time in the last year alone."

Lange says the traditional paradigm of focusing solely on physical prototypes no longer makes sense. It's a very expensive and time-consuming process and isn't the best way to determine if a product is fit for use. "We don't build two or three bridges and then break them to see if they work," says Lange. "Why would we do that for products we're developing?"

Virtual designs

One of the big virtual success stories at Procter & Gamble was the development of the first plastic coffee canister.

The AromaSeal canister is a high-density polyethylene coffee container that replaced metal cans in use for 150 years. The new design is blow-molded with a proprietary six-layer barrier coextrusion that provides 12-month shelf life. The new plastic container is dent-resistant, lightweight and stackable. A built-in handle makes the can easier to hold.

The peelable seal includes a patented, one-way valve in the center, allowing freshly roasted coffee to off-gas in the container, eliminating back pressure and the potential for package explosion. Because of the seal, the canister can be filled and sealed immediately after it's roasted, instead of having to cool and naturally off-gas prior to being packaged. The seal also helps preserve freshness, keep air out and equalize pressure during shipping, which is important because the coffee is made in New Orleans and then shipped over the Rocky Mountains to the West Coast.

"Without finite element analysis, we would not have been able to develop this canister," says Lange.

The coffee sold in the plastic canister boosted Folger's market share from 15 percent to 25 percent in three years. The Folger's brand is now owned by Smuckers.

In another example, P&G used FEA simulation to examine fitness of a large number of moving parts in a Braun electric shaver. Virtual simulation identified a single piece in an early design that couldn't pass a required drop test. The shaver was redesigned based on virtual examination.

P&G also does significant virtual testing of bottle strength when stacked in pellets during warehouse storage. "The bottle is a structural element in the warehouse," says Lange. Various load cases in bottles are tested. And that's increasingly important as P&G engineers take thickness and weight out of bottles to reduce solid waste, and cut resin costs.

Engineers also virtually simulate tendencies of metalized labels to peel. "It's all about materials' properties," says Lange. "You can answer those types of questions virtually. If you go ahead and make the stuff, it's an expensive proposition."

10,000 simulations

Lange estimates that P&G conducted 7,000 to 10,000 design simulations in 2008. That work was carried out by a group of 10 highly skilled people. "The only way you can do that much work is through automation of the analysis," he says.

"In a physical experiment, the test includes everything, even the things you don't know about" says Lange. "In the virtual mode, you know everything that's included in the test. But you don't know what you don't know. Is one risk better than the other?"

He points out that virtual modeling, however, is based on testing conducted on real materials. P&G's simulation groups include scientists who conduct tests to build databases for the simulations. In an example outside of P&G, Moldlfow introduced simulation of plastic flows inside mold cavities in 1974. Today, simulations by Moldflow (now part of Autodesk) are based on tests performed on more than 8,000 standard plastics compounds, and more than 4,000 proprietary compounds developed for specific customers, such as General Motors.

Lange is quick to point out that the trend to virtual simulation is being driven in part by rapidly dropping costs for super computing. In 2001, a unit of computing power cost $1.50 in his estimation. Today, that same unit costs 15 cents. Within five years, he feels it will drop as low as one cent.

As a result, simulations are much more fully fleshed compared to point estimates made in past years. An example in plastics is development of stress-strain curves that show performance of compounds at a variety of temperature and pressure points, not just the single-point information on supplier data sheets. As the quality of simulation improves, so does the capacity to capture more information and test more of what you didn't before. Lange describes the simulation process in part as automation of activities done by experts.

Started with Fortran

Lange has been a big fan of computing power since he first punched code on Fortran cards in a college class in 1974. "Computing has changed engineering as much as aviation changed travel," he says. Lange received a BSChE degree from the University of Missouri in 1978. He joined P&G that year as a Product Technical Engineer. His group is part of corporate R&D at P&G, which receives $2 billion in annual funding-more than the GDP of some African nations.

P&G's work in simulation dates to the 1980s when the company began work on reliability engineering - which is basically the study of why systems fail. Lange calls that "pathology work" and it's the low end of potential for virtual study. Reliability engineering makes broken systems work faster, rather than designing optimal systems from the beginning, in Lange's view.

P&G engineers studied systems used at Los Alamos, and then developed models that could predict systems' performance. The approach was first used on a retooling of a production line for Pampers diapers. The tools were then used to improve product designs, avoiding $80 million in capital costs in the 1990s.

Lange is careful to distinguish simulation work from the work done by product design teams. "They're worried about, shape, equity and artwork. Lange defines equity as locomotion that gets people excited. We work on the simple things: Can we pack it? Will it break? Does the lid fit? Are we making the most economical use of materials?"

Physical prototypes become the confirmatory experiment later. "So instead of the prototype being a 'Let's see what happens'; it's 'We expect this to work.'"

For touch-and-feel prototypes, P&G makes widespread use of rapid prototyping equipment. "Those aren't what I'm talking about," says Lange. "I'm talking about the ones where someone says, 'Make me three pallets' worth I can run on the packing lines."

Modeling and simulation employees are embedded in the businesses at P&G where designs are made. The core group works on tool sets that are used by the deployed employees.

As the power of simulation has grown, so has its deployment within Procter & Gamble. It has evolved beyond product development into process development. In what Lange describes as a virtual race track, engineers start with a CAD file and simulate the progression of a bottle on a packaging line. Simulations show the tendency of some bottle designs to bump and fall, clogging the line. Expensive work-arounds are avoided by the line simulation. Sometimes a simple change in container design can solve the problem.

Role of pathology

Lange says many organizations use their modeling simulation groups to perform design pathology work. That is, to determine why designs did not work after the fact. It's a virtual trial-and-error system," says Lange. "I only use pathology work to build the credibility of our organization. The real goal is to conduct analysis-led discovery. I want to develop 128 different versions to make sure that we are optimal when we first go into production." Lange describes analysis-led discovery as determination of the optimum space where design engineers should be working. "When you're operating in this space, you're really cooking."

As a final step, Lange says it's important that engineers involved in virtual simulation formally quantify their savings with involvement of financial staff for credibility. Savings at P&G are broken into four buckets: capital avoidance, materials savings, innovation savings, and new business creation, such as the Folgers can. Lange says his group saves about five times its costs on average based on data confirmed by P&G finance officers.

"When I go to management ask for $1 million for a new computer, they are taken back," says Lange. "But I ask, how much would it cost for 153 mass spectrometers? How much would it have cost for the molds to make those prototypes? How many people would it take to build and test those prototypes? That computer cost is actually pretty cheap."

The P&G modeling and simulation group operates in a 3,500 core processing environment that includes work for computational chemistry. Lange's group likes to work on big models. Million-element problems are not uncommon. "We are trying to use models that are predictive, not just relatively correct," he says. That's a sea change from the way finite element analysis has traditionally been used, he says.

There are some caveats in the outlook for modeling and simulation of engineering work.

One is the lack of adequately trained candidates coming out of engineering schools. Lange feels that schools are still training engineers much as they were 30 years ago and not providing adequate capabilities in computer skills. P&G maintains relationships with 65 different universities around the world, in addition to government-funded research centers, such as Los Alamos.

Another is the lack of engagement of smaller companies. "The Fortune 50 really gets it," says Lange. "If you have 50 engineers in your company, at least one or two of them should be doing simulation and modeling work," he says. "At some point, you have to make a decision to do this." Some small companies, however, are successfully using engineering service providers for modeling and simulation work.

Read up on all the candidates for Design News' 2009 Engineer of the Year!

Tim Wojcik Brings 'Consistency of Purpose' to DRX-1 Wireless DR Detector

Practical. Encouraging. A constant voice of reason. Not quite the adjectives you'd expect to describe the engineering lead on a ground-breaking new medical device project. But for the Carestream Health Inc. team, which developed the first cassette-sized, wireless digital radiography (DR) detector, the steady, calming presence of Tim Wojcik, research program leader, was instrumental in navigating the unknown technical waters surrounding the DRX-1 project.

Wojcik's 30-plus years in engineering positions within the digital imaging space, including prominent positions on two prior, first-to-market digital imaging products, gave him the breadth of technical know-how and leadership experience necessary for Carestream Health to deliver on its aggressive design goals for the DRX-1, which became commercially available in June. Moreover, Wojcik's consistent style of leadership and engineering practicality kept the project in management's good graces during some pretty significant setbacks, while guiding the team through a series of design tradeoffs to ensure it was first-to-market with a category-changing product. For those reasons, Design News nominates Wojcik as one of our Engineer of the Year candidates for 2009.

"Tim was the guy that kept this project going," says Bill Wendlandt, Carestream Health's technical project manager for the DRX-1. "He was able to bridge the gap amongst all the disciplines-mechanical, electrical, imaging scientists and suppliers-and put the pieces together that made sense. Because of the breadth of his technical experience, he had the ability to see how those different pieces could be synchronized."

In Search of Disruptive Technology

What Wojcik and Carestream Health set out to orchestrate was no small task. For more than 30 years, the healthcare industry had been in transition from older projection X-ray technology to the higher performing digital radiography (DR), but the conversion was stalled. While DR offers improved diagnostic quality and productivity advances, health care organizations were slow to adopt the new technology because of the high cost of the equipment and the additional expense of converting existing facilities to accommodate the new, larger-size gear.

Carestream Health, formerly the Health Group of Eastman Kodak Corp., had been in the DR business for eight years, but was looking for a breakout way to differentiate itself from larger competitors in the market. Sold by Kodak in May 2007 to an affiliate of Onex Corp., Carestream Health had enjoyed success with its Computed Radiography (CR) products, which were less expensive than DR and easy to install since they plugged right into existing X-ray equipment. Yet CR wasn't the disruptive force to jumpstart the conversion due to productivity tradeoffs associated with having to read and erase each image from the CR plate. Portable DR technology, the other possibility, was not highly regarded in the field because the cabling that was required often got in the way of positioning and patient care.

As head of Carestream Health's research group, Wojcik viewed the gap as an opportunity to create a game-changing DR offering. In 2005, his group got together with key product line managers to hone in on concepts that might spawn a disruptive DR product and they zeroed in on the idea of creating a DR detector with the same kind of plug-and-play architecture that CR technology had with the existing X-ray world. Wojcik and a small R&D team quickly got to work on the concept, but over the next year, the emerging design was met with a lukewarm response by the sales team, which had concerns about integration and the go-to-market strategy behind such a completely different product. Undeterred and still convinced of the concept's breakthrough appeal, Wojcik and his team kept refining the wireless, cassette-sized DR detector design, while doing everything in their power to build enthusiasm and foster sponsorship among the business line groups and upper management. Under Wojcik's direction, the shunkworks R&D team continued its quest for nearly three years before the project eventually got the green light from management to be a top priority for commercialization.

"The big idea didn't click right away," says Paul Taillie, Carestream Health's commercialization business manager for the DRX-1. "Tim was the champion. Under the covers and in public with management, he kept the idea alive and wouldn't let them toss it aside based on the lukewarm reaction from the field."

The idea sounded simple enough: Create a portable and easy to operate DR unit, at an attractive price point, that would integrate into existing X-ray equipment, eliminating the need for costly room makeovers. Yet the simplicity of the concept masked a highly complex design. For one thing, the new DR detector had to be a fraction of the size of traditional DR units, which weigh in about 40 pounds. That meant in the 14 X 17-inch space of a traditional X-ray cassette, Wojcik's team had to pack in some serious horsepower, including a glass sensor panel, radio, scintillator, battery and power management electronics. The unit also had to have a highly durable design to protect the sensitive image sensor panel from the wear and tear of everyday use, not to mention, accommodate wireless capabilities that delivered flexibility for patient care, while upholding high-performance image quality without interference from other nearby hospital systems.

A Series of Tradeoffs

Wojcik admits his "consistency of purpose" helped the team negotiate the right tradeoffs for this ambitious design. "We never deviated from the goal of having a cassette-sized form factor and to make the product portable," he says. "Many said we should make the detector bigger to give us more design space or to skip the wireless. But our competitors had made these tradeoffs, and I knew we had to stick to our guns-if we followed them, we'd lose track of the whole point of being a defining product."

Wojcik's breadth of experience, specifically in imaging engineering, likely accounts for his ability to make those kind of tough calls. With a degree in electrical engineering from Rochester Institute of Technology, Wojcik started out at Kodak as a manufacturing engineer and "swam upstream from there," he explains, taking roles in product development, commercial program management and eventually making the leap over to the labs and innovation side of R&D. Being part of the engineering team for two other ground-breaking projects, the first medical laser printer and the first clinical CR system, also helped prep Wojcik for his role on the DRX-1 project.

The wireless component presented the biggest test for Wojcik's self-described "consistency of purpose." While his research team and the commercialization engineering group spent a significant amount of time early on doing parallel development on core parts of the DRX-1 system, including the mechanical packaging and the electronics circuitry related to the image subsystem, it left the wireless component to later on in the process, figuring it was a turn-key part of the system. That decision ended up haunting Wojcik and his team. Interference problems with the radio were degrading imaging performance, and many on the business side and in engineering management wanted to release the DRX-1 as a portable, tethered unit, adding wireless in subsequent versions.

Taille describes a meeting where the wireless function was taken off the table and participants were actively discussing alternative plans. "A band of people were motivated to change the original plan and dump the wireless, and I was on the fence because at that point, things were pretty dismal," he recalls. "Tim stood up in that meeting and said he thought we were selling ourselves short if we didn't go for the full intent of the original product concept. The spirit he conveyed at that one particular meeting helped turn it around. People left the meeting, and wireless was still very much alive."

Wendlandt believes Wojcik was able to turn things around for a couple of reasons. For one thing, Wojcik wasn't bent on flexing technical muscle on every turn of the DRX-1. For example, he steered the team to make tradeoffs around performance, believing it was more important to have a plug-and-play DR detector that could integrate with the existing X-ray form factor rather than having a larger unit capable of higher image quality.  Wojcik also benefited from years of experience and technical know-how along with a systems engineering focus that lent credence to his decisions.

"In a project as complicated as this one where you need to have people with expertise at the individual subsystem level, you don't always find that person that can put it all together, especially early on," Wendlandt says. "You take someone with the same management skills that Tim has and put them in the same position and they may not have been as successful. The cornerstone of his success was having the vision, keeping it in front of management and producing a product someone actually wants."

Read up on all the candidates for Design News' 2009 Engineer of the Year!  

Tesla Engineer Boosts EV Range to New Heights

When Carol Straubel's 14-year-old son was re-building an old electric golf cart in 1989, she found herself driving the boy from town to town in Wisconsin, sometimes as far as 50 miles, in search of batteries, tires and electric motors.

"He was passionate about it," Straubel recalls. "He wrote to the manufacturers for information. He worked on it every day, all day long, all evening long, until he got it to run."

What Straubel didn't know back then was that her son, "JB" Straubel, would still be on a motor-and-battery mission 20 years later. JB Straubel, now the chief technical officer of Tesla Motors Inc., is the winner of the 2009 Design News Engineer of the Year award, largely because he's as obsessed with electric vehicles today as he was when he and his mother were crisscrossing Wisconsin in search of golf cart parts in 1989.

The difference, though, is that the 2009 version of JB Straubel is now applying that same fire and passion to a mission that's meaningful not just to him, but also to the global auto industry and to the nation, as well.

"It really feels like we're trying to change the world," says JB Straubel (JB stands for Jeffrey Brian; he prefers not to punctuate it) of his company's task. "There's a real David and Goliath feel to it."

If the task of changing the world is daunting, however, that hasn't stopped Straubel and his fellow engineers at Tesla. Before rolling out the prototype Tesla Roadster in 2006, the company's engineering staff set their sites on an incredibly ambitious 250-mile battery-only range for the vehicle, and then came within a hair of meeting it. The Roadster's final, EPA-verfied, 244-mile range was approximately three times that of the now infamous General Motors EV1, which hit the streets a decade earlier. 

That stunning achievement not only turned heads among such competitors as General Motors, it set the stage for the emergence of electric vehicles in a way that hadn't been expected yet by the automotive community. At the time, most engineers wondered aloud about the range and costs of electric vehicles (EVs), especially since no production cars had yet reached 150 miles, let alone 244.

"It would have been substantially easier to make a car that was quick, handled well, and did everything else the Roadster does, but had 150 miles of range," Straubel says now. "But holding the bar at the 200-mile level was something that was critical to changing perceptions about EVs. From the earliest days, it was something we set out to do."

A Bigger Vision

For Straubel, however, taking aim at daunting EV goals now looks more like a matter of destiny than determination. Since finding the rusty, 30-year-old golf cart in an Egg Harbor, Wisconsin, junkyard 20 years ago, Straubel appears to have been on a trajectory that would inevitably land him in world of vehicle engineering. While still in junior high school, he built a working hover craft for a science fair. Another time, he commandeered his family leaf blower to construct a blow furnace, which he used to melt aluminum, although it was never clear why a pre-high-school-age boy needed molten aluminum.

"JB was born to be an engineer," Carol Straubel recalls. "He was always passionate about anything that had wheels and required engineering."

Not surprisingly, Straubel's college days also neatly positioned him for the world of alternate propulsion. At Stanford University's School of Engineering he created his own academic major in energy systems engineering and earned a master's degree in it.

"It was a great fit for me because it let me follow my passion," Straubel says now. "It's kind of eerie to see how my career has followed what I wanted to do at the time."

Straubel joined Tesla at the ground-floor level in 2004 after stints at Rosen Motors, which built hybrid powertrains for cars, and after attempting to start his own company aimed at creating electric airplanes. Before arriving at Tesla, he also worked with Stanford colleagues on a solar vehicle racing team and kept in touch with friends at AC Propulsion, which built an electric sports car capable of going from 0 to 60 mph in under four seconds. No matter what Straubel did, electric propulsion was always at the core.

"I was talking to anyone and everyone to promote the idea that EVs had turned a corner," Straubel recalls. "I told them that with new battery technology, they could go much, much farther than anyone thought was possible. I wanted to demonstrate my ideas in a working vehicle and break a few perceptions."

Through his aerospace connections, Straubel eventually met PayPal entrepreneur Elon Musk and described his ideas. Musk subsequently invested in Tesla Motors (which was looking for an initial round of funding) and brought the 29-year-old Straubel on board as chief technology officer.

"Elon had a much bigger vision for (the company)," Straubel says. "It aligned so well with what I was already doing that it was impossible not to get excited."

Reality Strikes

For Tesla Motors, however, the transition from a loose group of Silicon Valley rebels to automobile manufacturer was not an easy one. Suddenly, the company's engineers had to worry about issues such as manufacturability, reliability, safety and cost. The idea of building a high-end, high-performance, electrically-powered two-seat vehicle now looked more daunting, especially since the new engineering team had almost no experience in the auto industry.

From the beginning, however, Straubel had no intention of backing off his primary goal, which was to build a car with enough range to change those public perceptions.     

"We wanted a 250-mile range," Straubel recalls. "That was the number we were gunning for from Day One."

Led by Straubel, the engineering team began by picking a small form-factor lithium-ion battery cell, like those used in consumer electronics. In all, Tesla engineers employed more than 6,800 of the cells, which measure 18 mm in diameter by 65 mm long (slightly larger than a AA battery), in a pack that weighs about 450 kg (990 lbs). By combining thousands of small cells, rather a few huge ones, the engineering team was able to maximize heat removal because the smaller cells offered vastly more surface area, they say. In a white paper on the subject, Tesla's engineering team explains that the surface area of the 6,800 batteries is 27 square meters - about seven times more than if they had used 20 large batteries. That means they have about seven times more area for heat transfer at the surface of the cells.

Moreover, Straubel and other Tesla engineers teamed up to create a patented cooling system that mitigates the possibility of thermal runaway - a phenomenon that has been known to happen, however rarely, in laptops and other consumer electronic products that use lithium-ion. Tesla's cooling system uses a manifold and cooling tubes to run a 50/50 mix of water and glycol through the pack, drawing heat away from the batteries. As a result, the possibility of a cell sparking and setting a neighbor afire is dramatically diminished.

"As the energy density of these cells increases, the number of packaging and cooling problems increases," Straubel says. "You're trying to package a lot more energy into a much tighter space and suddenly cooling becomes a big issue."

Pulling The Right Levers

Despite the engineers' best efforts on the battery, however, Straubel and his team quickly found that they were still falling far short of their 250-mile goal. Even with a battery pack energy density approaching 200 W-hr/kg, Straubel says, the vehicle initially achieved a range of about 170 miles. Worse, there was no obvious culprit to blame for the shortfall.

"It's one of those classic problems where there's not a single major solution," he says. "It really takes a broad systems-level viewpoint to understand all the little ‘levers' you have, and to understand that you can pull 10 or 15 small levers to get a good outcome in the end."

Indeed, Tesla's team pulled a multitude of those "levers" to reach their goal. Primary among those was improving the vehicle's aerodynamics, decreasing its rolling resistance, changing the brake calipers, adjusting tire pressure and switching from a two-speed to a single-speed gearbox.

For Straubel, the stickiest of those problems was the gearbox. Early on, the engineering team had envisioned the high-performance vehicle as a two-speed, despite the fact that an EV's torque curve enables it to work in a single-speed configuration. Over time, the engineering team ran into difficulties, the biggest one being that the vehicle was far less efficient than they had expected. Engineers argued whether the extra gears, clutches and weight were really a benefit to the vehicle.  

"We sat around a table and said, ‘Look, we'd be better off with a single speed vehicle where we put more focus on increased torque and power out of the motor, rather than relying on this old-world solution of complicated gearboxes and moving mechanical parts,'" Straubel recalls. "In hindsight, it was absolutely the right thing to do."

The engineering team also squeezed out a tiny bit more range by employing a so-called a "roll-back seal caliper" in the brakes. The device, which pulls the caliper away from the disc when the brakes are released, eliminates residual drag forces between the caliper and disc when the brakes aren't being actuated.

Straubel says that the caliper and other small fixes enabled Tesla to boost its range toward to the 250 range. EPA tests on a dynamometer by a third-party vendor verified that the Roadster achieved a total range of 244 miles.

"At some level, you're always hoping to do better," Straubel says of the fact that their effort fell short of 250. "But we were happy to get to 244."

Man On A Mission

Colleagues say that Tesla couldn't have done it without Straubel's quiet leadership. Straubel stayed the course on their goal of 250 miles and was flexible when the team needed him to be, they say.

"When a strategy doesn't appear to be working, JB is able to stop on a dime and change the company direction," notes Kurt Kelty, director of energy storage systems for Tesla. "Not only is he able to change his own direction, he's able to rally everyone around him to support the new direction."

Most important of all, Straubel's dedication to the EV cause seems to be the result of a strongly held set of beliefs. Kelty says he has witnessed Straubel's sense of cause, even outside the confines of Tesla. "I've caught him on business trips changing light bulbs in hotels to CFLs (compact fluorescent lamps)," he says. "He has even bought a box of light bulbs and provided the box to the hotel manager and shown him how easy it is to make the change."

"JB is at Tesla because he believes it's the best place to put his efforts in order to make electric vehicles happen," adds Drew Baglino, senior electrical engineer at Tesla. "He really does think that this is where he can make the most impact on a problem that the U.S. and the industrialized world has."

Straubel's efforts to change perception of EVs are evidently working. After Tesla earned some measure of public success with its stellar EPA rating, former GM executive Bob Lutz admitted to changing his mind about electrics. "They have a real shot at success," Lutz told Newsweek magazine in December, 2007. "Their Roadster, if and when fully reliable, is an extremely attractive proposition."

To be sure, the road hasn't always been smooth for Tesla, and multiple stumbling blocks still lie in its path. In November, 2008, Newsweek pointed out that Tesla was traversing a rocky road after its first 40 Roadsters went out of the factory with drivetrains that needed to be replaced. The company has also been beset by messy firings and legal entanglements, and a few reviewers have complained that the vehicle isn't reaching its 244-mile range (A Wall Street Journal review said the vehicle achieved ranges of approximately 144 and 168 miles). Moreover, price tags for early Roadsters have passed the $100,000 mark, making it a more logical choice for wealthy celebrities like George Clooney and Matt Damon than for middle-class Americans.

Still, reviewers have been generally positive. Car and Driver, Edmunds.com, and Automobile Magazine, among others, have been enamored with the vehicle, especially its 3.9-second 0-to-60 mph acceleration. It has "smooth with amazing acceleration, comfortable seats, and plenty of head and leg room," notes Design News reader Stuart Koford of Cincinnati, OH, who owns a Roadster. "No problems so far."

Straubel, however, won't be satisfied until he can change more of those public perceptions about EVs. Recently, Tesla announced that it will produce a seven-seat sedan called the Model S, which will offer a variety of ranges up to 300 miles, starting at $49,900 in 2011. By going to larger production volumes, Straubel believes he can drive the battery price down to $300/kW-hr, ultimately placing pack cost "in the ballpark" of $18,000. That, he says, would help cut the overall cost of the car. For now, however, Straubel plans keep pushing the mileage envelope. Challenges like those are what keep him going, say those who know him best.

"To find a place to do what he loves is amazing," notes Carol Straubel. "And to have it matter to so many is that much better."

Read about the runners up for Design News' 2009 Engineer of the Year!

Engineer and Team Bring Glass Cockpit Technology to Small Airplanes

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