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Articles from 2015 In July


Exclusive: A Closer Look at NASA's Orion Glass Cockpit

Exclusive: A Closer Look at NASA's Orion Glass Cockpit

After 10 years of evolution, the prototypes of NASA’s Orion “glass cockpit” are finally reaching maturity.

The cockpit, a first for a NASA spacecraft, will be a critical part of Orion’s maiden manned mission in six years and distinguishes itself by virtue of its ability to eliminate a small mountain of switches and heavy wiring. “The Space Shuttle had about 2,000 switches and controls, in addition to all of its displays,” noted Dr. Lee Morin, astronaut and lead crew interface for NASA’s Orion Cockpit Rapid Prototyping Lab (RPL), during a recent visit to NASA by Design News. “During dynamic flight, about 1,247 of those were available to the crew. But that will change with the glass cockpit.”

Indeed, the glass cockpit represents a monumental change for NASA and its design engineers. Instead of the well-known cornucopia of switches, Orion’s capsule will employ six flat screen monitors about 20 inches from the noses of the astronauts, who will lie strapped beneath them. The monitors are called a glass cockpit because most of the spacecraft’s instruments are represented as images on them. All but 56 of the 2,000 switches will be transformed into software icons.

”The goal was to build a cockpit user interface – a dashboard – that would allow the crew to control the spacecraft on these deep space missions,” Morin said.

Creating the glass cockpit has been a decade-long labor of love for engineers in the RPL. The design team prototyped hardware and software for the avionics, “drove” the prototype cockpits on simulators, evaluated displays and user interfaces, and corrected deficiencies. Then, they repeated this process again and again for 10 years.

MORE FROM DESIGN NEWS: Exclusive: Take a Look Inside NASA’s Orion Spacecraft

Key to the process was the presence of astronauts at the Johnson Space Center. “We’ve had about 50 astronauts in here,” Morin said, referring to the RPL. ”Human factors people assign them to do different tasks and then we get their feedback.”

To speed the evolution of the glass cockpit, RPL’s team built many of the prototype parts themselves, rather than purchasing them off the shelf from vendors. The team built parts in a 3D printer and did subsequent machining. Morin, who keeps a four-axis milling machine in his garage, cut many of the hardware components, including mounts for the cockpit displays. He also used Arduino boards to prototype some of the display software. “These parts don’t have to fly in space,” he told Design News. “We can do it economically, get it just the way we want it, and produce it very quickly.”

In some cases, engineers built interface devices that will eventually be used aboard Orion’s space flights. One such part, known as the Cursor Control Device (CCD), will serve as an alternative to a computer mouse. Initially starting out as a box, the CCD was gradually transformed to a steam iron shape before evolving into a hand-friendly plastic blob containing rocker switches and castle switches. The current iteration of the CCD is expected to reside on the left side of each seat, near the astronauts’ knees. It will enable astronauts to move their cursors around the screens and select control icons.

Morin said that NASA engineers considered a wide variety of alternatives before settling on the current shape. “We had things that looked like motorcycle grips and Klingon battle swords,” he said. “There were some pretty wild-looking designs, but we eventually gravitated toward the blob.”

To test it for every imaginable human factor, a NASA branch chief even brought in his 9-year-old daughter. “He explained how it worked and asked if she was able to turn it on,” Morin recalled. “She did it right away. That was the acid test.”

MORE FROM DESIGN NEWS: NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission: Innovative or a Waste of Time?

The current evolution of the glass cockpit uses three large DU-1310 screens from Honeywell International, Inc. It also employs electronic procedures software (dubbed “eProc”) that will enable the team to eliminate hundreds of pounds of paper manuals from the Orion’s storage space.

Team members say that refinements on the Orion capsule will continue, but they don’t expect major changes at this point. “We’re approaching it with an intent that we don’t make lots and lots of changes,” Stuart McClung, NASA’s crew and service module functional area manager, told Design News. “There’s an expense to keeping a design team in place.”

Still, the journeys ahead continue to provide motivation for engineers to bring the glass cockpit as close to perfection as possible. “We know that these are the screens that the first humans who go to Mars will be looking at, as that mission unfolds in the decades ahead,” Morin said.

Senior technical editor Chuck Murray has been writing about technology for 31 years. He joined Design News in 1987, and has covered electronics, automation, fluid power, and autos.

Augmented Reality Is Finding Success in Enterprise

Augmented Reality Is Finding Success in Enterprise

There is no doubt that augmented reality is a powerful next step in computing. Blurring the lines between the physical and the digital, AR will allow us to engage in the real world while leveraging all the benefits of being connected.

While there are tremendous opportunities in the consumer space for AR, augmented reality is expected to see the most growth over the next few years in enterprise, thanks in part to the introduction of head-worn wearable tech. In fact, a recent report from Juniper Research suggests that the enterprise augmented reality app market is expected to reach $2.4 billion by 2019, growing tenfold from 2014.

Big players such as Google, Epson, and Microsoft, as well as startups such as DAQRI and Atheer Labs, have doubled down on the enterprise as a major part of their roll-out efforts for their smartglasses. Google Glass, which originally launched as a consumer beta program (XE or Explorer Edition), is rumored to see its second version be exclusive to the Glass at Work partners as an EE or Enterprise Edition.

Atheer Labs originally sought to disrupt the consumer space with its AR glasses before canceling its Indiegogo and switching its strategy to the enterprise space. And despite some examples of HoloLens being used in the home, Microsoft’s first partners are those in the professional space for its mixed reality wearable.

AR-capable glasses make sense in an enterprise setting. From a form perspective, they free up the hands of the user and provide immediate information at eye level. Augmenting the reality of an employee also has measurable benefits, such as improving productivity or reducing the chance of injury, which makes it more plausible to build a business case for organizations.

Early HoloLens partner Trimble is leveraging Microsoft’s mixed reality glasses to take architecture, engineering, and construction to the next level. Trimble and Microsoft demonstrated use of the HoloLens head-mounted display back at Microsoft’s Build Conference earlier this year. There, Trimble showed how its modeling software could be used by architects to display models as holograms placed in the real world and allow them to better analyze their design decisions. Trimble’s collaboration platform was also shown as an effective way to review and resolve construction issues with remote teams in real time.

MORE FROM DESIGN NEWS: Virtual Reality Industry Is Getting Even More Real

Like Trimble and HoloLens, DAQRI is aiming to set a new standard for industrial wearables. DAQRI touts its smart helmet as the “world’s first wearable human machine interface." Unlike Google Glass or HoloLens, every aspect of the DAQRI helmet was designed for industrial application right from its sensors to the battery capability, which is meant to last an entire shift. One of the key differentiators for DAQRI’s helmet is its ability to track entire environments and objects in 4D using the helmet’s unique sensor package and 360-degree cameras. DAQRI’s helmet is currently being used to improve efficiency, safety on the job, and cost savings for Fortune 500 companies in aerospace, energy, and transportation.

APX Labs is using its Skylight platform to enable various wearables for the enterprise, including smartwatches such as Apple Watch as well as smartglasses such as Google Glass, Epson Moverio, and Recon Instrument’s Jet. Its platform allows workers to use smartglasses to do things like share their view on a live two-way audio and video call to collaborate or leverage a remote expert or pull up reference materials, overlay guides and help videos to show how a procedure should be performed. Skylight is already in use by major aerospace manufacturers, oil and gas producers, and utilities, enabling them to simplify tasks, reduce errors, and improve cycle times.

As the cost of smartglasses decreases over time and developers quickly ramp up on the use of the software development tools available to them, we are sure to see the use of AR as a tool become more commonplace in enterprise, which only means that the days are numbered for the traditional “dumb” safety goggles and helmets.

MORE FROM DESIGN NEWS: Video: See How Ford Used Virtual Reality to Design the GT Supercar

Tom Emrich writes about emerging technology including wearable tech, 3D printing, and the Internet of Things for many technology, lifestyle, and news publications. He is currently the Editor-in-Chief for Designers of Things, Senior Editor at BetaKit, and the wearables writer for MobileSyrup. Tom’s writing covers launch announcements, funding news, hands-on device reviews, industry analysis, and editorial.

Taking it Slow to Stop Burning Rubber

Taking it Slow to Stop Burning Rubber

Our company had about a dozen similar injection molding machines, but only one would burn the rubber as it flowed to the die after breaks and lunch. Since a cycle was 20 to 40 minutes for 2 or 4 parts, depending upon the die, it was a big hit to productivity. The workers tried speeding up the feed so rubber would speed past whatever hot spot was causing the burn, but the condition persisted.

They topped out on the feed mechanism and asked for my help. They needed a feed mechanism that could go faster and was incrementally controllable, not just the 4 or 5 clickpoints of the current one.

I devised a system using compressed air that could be adjusted with a knob on the supply line for convenient side-of-the-machine adjustment--previously operators had to climb a ladder behind the machine to adjust the feeder. For moving the hot rubber along I chose off-the-shelf straight gear teeth. A 6-inch gear cost about $120, and an 8-inch gear cost about $700.

By my calculations the 6-inch gear would go a little faster. My cheapness got the better of me--perhaps a little bit was enough. If not, I could clean the pair up and return them for credit towards the $700 pair.

The mechanism was built and installed. When doing the calculations I counted on the stated force of the air motor, which is often rated at 100 or 120 psi while shop air usually hovers around 80 to 90 psi.

After it was installed, I was out on assignment for a few days. When I returned, I got word that it was too slow. I went to the machine to fetch my feeder for the gear swap--but the operator wouldn't let me take it.

"Haven't had any burned parts for three days," he said. "No scrap." The supervisor said he still can't explain it, but slowing down the feed solved the burning problem.

In all production problems an engineer should always consider whether it is the tool and not the production method at fault. At the same company one engineer worked late into the second shift to try out a new mold which had taken two months to machine and polish. The molds are supposed to be heated up prior to the first run, but the thermocouple read 40 degrees shy of the necessary temp. The engineer turned up the heat, then turned it up more.

After two hours of this, he could feel the heat radiating from the machine, yet still cranked it up a bit more. By the time it dawned on him that his thermocouple might be defective, he'd reached 1400 degrees F. He turned it down and removed his die, which had started to warp like a Salvadore Dali painting.

It was unsalvageable. Even worse was that product wouldn't make the spring lineup in a very seasonal business.

Tell us your experience in solving a knotty engineering problem. Send stories to Chris Wiltz for Sherlock Ohms, and read more cases here.

The Anatomy of a Cyber Security Assessment

The Anatomy of a Cyber Security Assessment

With cyber security becoming such a dangerous issue, we'll likely see industrial plants undergoing increased scrutiny with an eye toward safety. We may even see government-mandated cyber security reviews, since a breach at an industrial plant could pose a health and safety risk to a community.

Over the last five years, the DuPont Co. has regularly monitored all aspects of the security of its Sabine River Works plant on the Gulf Coast of Texas. The plant produces ethylene copolymers used in plastic packaging. The monitoring process began with a full security assessment. The assessment focused heavily – though not exclusively – on cyber threats.

The DuPont assessment was prompted in part by a 2014 report from Germany's Federal Office for Information Security (BSI) about an attack on an unnamed German steel mill. “Nobody cares about cyber security until it happens to somebody similar to you,” Cody Joines, DCS manager at DuPont’s Sabine River Works plant, explained, during a presentation on DuPont’s security assessment at a Siemens Automation conference in June.

MORE FROM DESIGN NEWS: Cyber Spy Versus Spy Hits the US Government Hard

He has a point. The Sony hack was colorful, but the attack in Germany was closer to home for industrial plant managers. The incident caused physical damage to the facility. Sophisticated attackers used spear-phishing and social engineering to gain access to the steel plant's office network. From this entry point, they made their way into the organization's production network. Control components and entire production machines suffered outages due to the attackers' actions. The outages prevented the plant from appropriately shutting down a blast furnace, leaving it in an undetermined state. This resulted in significant damage to the plant, BSI noted in its report.

DuPont corporate instructed the Texas plant to do an internal cyber security assessment. “We conducted an inventory of our automation process and control (A&PC) devices, developed a simple network diagram of the A&PC systems, performed risk versus consequence assessment for each A&PC device, performed security gap analysis of current security practices, and estimated the effort and funding required to close the security gaps,” said Joines.

Launching the Assessment

Early on, DuPont plant managers decided to bring one of their principle automation vendors into the assessment. “We brought in Siemens so we would have another set of eyes to see what we had, and to do a vulnerabilities assessment so we would know what to protect,” Joines said. “We wanted to find relevant, new, and undiscovered vulnerabilities and risks.”

On the first action day of the assessment, Siemens personnel and the plant managers conducted a meeting to discuss the process, tour the plant, and do an active network analysis. The team looked at physical security as well as online security. Corporate IT was also involved to give access to all of the connected networks. After the first meeting, the data digging went on for weeks. “We did all this during normal operation,” Joines said. “Nothing stopped during the assessment.”

MORE FROM DESIGN NEWS: Certification Training Brokers Peace Between OT and IT

Joines noted that the team analyzed all the data – a lot of data – and came up with a report. “The report included a list of initiatives or action items that needed to be done, and we attached priorities and recommendations to each of the action items,” Joines said. “It was a long list with long and short descriptions. We looked at what could go wrong and how likely it was to happen.” The team then used the risk analysis to come up with priorities.

In describing the ranking of risks, Joines noted that if a risk could do a lot of damage and it was very likely to happen, it was considered high priority. If the risk couldn’t hurt anyone or damage DuPont’s stock price, and it wasn’t likely to happen, then it was considered a low priority. “We created a list of high-risk, medium-risk, and low-risk items,” Joines said. “We also assessed the cost to addressing each risk, and we looked at the cost of the damage if things did go wrong.”

Measuring Risk Against Protection Costs

Joines noted there was a range of things that were part of the risk mitigation, each with its own cost and assessed effectiveness. “You could spend a lot of money on a smart firewall or a little money on a simple firewall. IT corporate worked with us to determine the cost of risk,” said Joines. “Some companies will do all of the inexpensive items first, others do all of the high-risk items first.”

The assessment team created a prioritized list of what to do, which became the plant’s plan of attack. “Cyber security is not a one-stop thing. You don’t fix it and walk away. So part of the solution was to put in a monitoring and alarm system for network cyber security,” said Joines. “You can also prioritize the alarm system. If one thing happens and another thing happens, you can assess that it’s a red event.”

MORE FROM DESIGN NEWS: Cisco and Rockwell Partner to Enhance Cyber Security

The time frame from the start of communication about the assessment to the presentation of the report took less than three months. “The conclusion gave us a roadmap to improve our position,” Joines said. “It gave us a blueprint of what we’re going to do. It’s both a check-off sheet and a roadmap.

Rob Spiegel has covered automation and control for 15 years, 12 of them for Design News. Other topics he has covered include supply chain technology, alternative energy, and cyber security. For 10 years he was owner and publisher of the food magazine, Chile Pepper.

Novel Alloy Will Save Money on the World's Most Expensive Fighter Jet

Novel Alloy Will Save Money on the World's Most Expensive Fighter Jet

Lockheed Martin has tapped a near-net-shape castable beryllium-aluminum alloy as part of a cost-reduction program for the runaway Joint Strike Fighter plane.

The F-35 Lightning II stealth fighter is closing in on initial deployment next year with the US Marines, but this hasn’t quelled controversy around its expense. With a production cost of $400 billion and an estimated lifetime cost of $1.5 trillion, it is the most expensive conventional weapons program in history.

Builder Lockheed Martin is addressing this with the “Blueprint for Affordability” announced in 2014. The company and contractors are investing $170 million over two years on materials and processes that will reduce the flyaway cost of each aircraft by $10 million in 2019.

Among the results of this effort is a new version of an azimuth gimbal housing for an infrared electro-optical targeting system. The housing, like the former version, is made of beryllium-based aluminum alloy. The new component, however, is cast in near net shape and machined to specification. The former version was fabricated entirely by machining -- a slow and costly process.

The material now in use is Beralcast from IBC Advanced Alloys Corp., which uses a proprietary casting process it acquired and optimized, said Anthony Dutton, president and CEO.

Beryllium aluminum alloy has only been available as a powder for machining. As a result, components were expensive, time-consuming to fabricate, and had high scrap rates, all of which limited use of the alloy.

The casting process, in contrast, is fast, virtually scrap-free, and more economical, according to Dutton. He declined to reveal specifics about the process, but said IBC worked for four years to improve and validate the technology for Lockheed Martin.

MORE FROM DESIGN NEWS: What's the Future of the World's Costliest Fighter Jet?

Casting beryllium aluminum alloy is difficult because it is a two-phase material, with a 627°C (1,160°F) difference in melt and solid-phase temperatures. “We figured out how to compensate for this and make beryllium aluminum a castable alloy,” Dutton said.

IBC casts the alloy melt into near-net-shape parts and sends them out for machining. A part can be cast in a day, and machining and finishing can be completed in a week -- much faster than before.

Dutton speculates that cost played a big part in Lockheed Martin changing suppliers and surmises the savings with the alloy and process could be in the range of 30 to 40% or more. “The price delta has to be significant.”

The one-piece housing is approximately 18 inches long with a 12-inch-diameter section. It has complex geometries and weighs several pounds, Dutton said.

The benefit of using beryllium alloy in aerospace is its light weight, stiffness, and vibration resistance. The material can be readily substituted for aluminum, magnesium, titanium, and metal-matrix composites.

The initial contract for the gimbals and on-time delivery this month were critical, Dutton noted. “Otherwise, it would be impossible to get another order without a success.” IBC has proven the viability of the castable material and process for aerospace, and Dutton said it can be used for automotive, medical, precision manufacturing, and other markets.

Dutton declined to reveal how many gimbals the company is providing Lockheed Martin. The housings, though, are for LRIP (low-rate initial-production) lots 7 and 8, which total 78 aircraft. Factoring in spares, IBC is likely casting around 85 housings.

Repeat orders would extend the contract to further LRIP and full-production lots, and last the lifetime of F-35 manufacturing, now anticipated to be 20 years. If so, IBC could earn $50 million from the component.

Pat Toensmeier has more than 30 years of experience writing for business-to-business publications. His main areas of coverage have been defense, design, manufacturing, technology and chemicals, especially plastics and composites. He has reported extensively on developments in these areas from the U.S. and Europe, and covered industry events as well in Brazil and Asia. Toensmeier has held various positions at major publishers such as the McGraw-Hill Companies and Hearst Corporation. A graduate of the University of Missouri, he is a contributing editor for several print and online publications. Toensmeier is based in suburban New Haven, Conn.

New Energy-Saving Fan Motor Aims to Disrupt Commercial Refrigeration

New Energy-Saving Fan Motor Aims to Disrupt Commercial Refrigeration

There are various ways for end users of industrial machinery to reduce their energy use. While most organizations, under mandate either by internal policies or state or federal rules, can choose to reduce power consumption in any way they wish, it makes sense to look at machine drives since this is often where the most energy can be saved. Replacing older machinery with new, higher-efficiency equipment is also an option, but can be an expensive one.

QM Power, a Missouri-based manufacturer of electric motors, generators, and actuators, is attempting to enable both. It recently publicized data around its Q-Sync permanent-magnet synchronous fan motor with an integrated motor drive installation for two commercial refrigerator cases at a Kansas City supermarket, showing 27.38% less watt draw, 55.74% better power factor, and a net 53% reduction in amp draw/total energy usage compared with an electronically commutated motor from a major supplier.

Verified by Oak Ridge National Laboratory for the US Department of Energy (DoE), the QM Power motor amounted to taking one out of every two fan motors off the grid for the commercial refrigeration application.

The Q-Sync’s electronic control circuit gets the motor to speed quickly and drops out of the circuit once synchronous speed is reached. It works on an AC waveform, avoiding AC-to-DC power conversion to elevate efficiency and power factor.

Although QM Power was hesitant to provide further details on its technology, the ORNL- and DoE-backed results gives the company the confidence to believe that Q-Sync will launch a wave of fan motor retrofits, with end users even potentially choosing to swap out ECMs in their applications.

QM Power is currently working with the DoE to demonstrate the technology in up to 50 different grocery-store sites, according to company president and CEO, P.J. Piper. The UL-approved synchronous motor solution is meant to be a drop-in replacement to ECMs, according to the company.

The company is one of four emerging energy-saving technologies receiving up to $6 million in funding from the Energy Department. The projects are aimed at showcasing energy-saving technologies for the commercial building industry.

MORE FROM DESIGN NEWS: 6 New Plastics For Everything From Cables to High-Speed Fans & Motors

“We’ve already got projects in Kansas City, California, and Texas,” Piper told Design News. “The DoE hired Oak Ridge National Laboratory to validate the results. Of the first projects we’ve already completed, we’ve reduced amps by over 50 percent compared to ECMs, through our solution’s synchronous design. The advantage is that, unlike ECMs, the Q-Sync doesn’t require power conversion from AC to DC and back to AC,” he said.

Piper said that any equipment with a fan-related application could benefit. QM Power’s first offering is for fractional horsepower applications (9-to-12-watt fan motors), but it hopes to work its way up to 1-HP motors. The DoE and USDA are sponsoring QM Power in programs to scale into these additional air handling applications.

“What a lot of these industries are coping with now is DoE minimum efficiency regulations by type of equipment,” he told Design News. “The technologies exist to help them reduce energy, and there’s a bit of a carrot-and-stick thing where the utilities are also giving rebates to induce customers to reduce energy and use more energy-efficient equipment.”

Piper said that with a power factor that is 50% higher than that of ECMs, QM Power can offer a longer warranty on its motors because they’re more reliable. He added that they’re priced the same as ECMs.

MORE FROM DESIGN NEWS: Monkeys Got to My Refrigerator Motor

Piper noted that in the future, the QM Power solution can benefit compressor and other variable-speed applications. Energy-intensive data centers could get the kinds of power savings they are eager to implement either for regulatory compliance or energy rebates.

“What we’ve really invented is an innovative, low-cost way to start high-efficiency synchronous motors that avoid the continuous power conversion losses in ECM solutions,”Piper said.

Tracey Schelmetic graduated from Fairfield University in Fairfield, Conn. and began her long career as a technology and science writer and editor at Appleton & Lange, the now-defunct medical publishing arm of Simon & Schuster. Later, as the editorial director of telecom trade journal Customer Interaction Solutions (today Customer magazine) she became a well-recognized voice in the contact center industry. Today, she is a freelance writer specializing in manufacturing and technology, telecommunications, and enterprise software.

This Strange Japanese Hotel Is Staffed by Robots

This Strange Japanese Hotel Is Staffed by Robots

While we here in the US still struggle to come to terms with robots increasingly interacting with humans, the Japanese have been ahead in their acceptance of robots as part of everyday life.

Japan already has restaurants that feature robotic wait staff, has produced plays with robot actors, and used eerily human robotic guides at a Tokyo museum. So it should come as no surprise that Japan has taken another step with service industry robots by opening a hotel that mostly substitutes human staffers with robots.

At the appropriately named Henn'na Hotel -- or “Strange Hotel” -- English-speaking guests are greeted by a robotic dinosaur at the front desk, while humanoid robots greet Japanese guests. The hotel also features a robot concierge and robot bellhops to take luggage to rooms. However, hotel security employees -- perhaps because they need to act more intuitively -- are human beings.

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“Incorporating advanced technology, Henn-na Hotel is the first hotel of its kind in the world,” according to the English version of the hotel’s website. “Our smart, modern facilities are not only environmentally friendly, but also add to the fun and comfort of your stay.”

The robots used at the hotel, which is located at Huis Ten Bosch, a theme park in Nagasaki, are Actroid humanoid robots that have been developed by Osaka University and manufactured by Kokoro. They appear similar to and have the mannerisms of a young Japanese woman, can speak several languages, and can make hand gestures and reciprocate eye movements.

Robots are not the only aspects of the hotel to feature the latest technology and forward-thinking concepts. Instead of typical room keys, guests access their rooms via facial recognition. To save energy, the rooms do not have refrigerators, and if guests want to watch TV, they can do so by requesting tablet devices distributed by the hotel.

MORE FROM DESIGN NEWS: The US and Japan Will Fight in a Giant Robot Battle

In other energy-saving efforts in line with the hotel’s concept, motion sensors turn lights off when no one is in the room, and a radiant panel air-conditioning system uses electromagnetic waves to transfer heat directly from one object to another without affecting the air in between. These type of systems use less electricity than typical air-conditioning systems.

While there are benefits to replacing human hotel staff with robots -- no tipping required, for instance -- there also are some limitations. The robotic concierge, for example, can’t perform tasks a human concierge might perform, such as make restaurant reservations or do other errands for guests. It does, however, provide information about events and dining at the hotel using voice recognition.

The hotel also has a different take on room prices, with guests bidding on rooms during peak season rather than being offered set prices. Prices will be about 7,000 yen (about $60) for a single room to 18,000 yen (about $145), the highest possible price after bidding, for a triple room, according to the hotel.

Elizabeth Montalbano is a freelance writer who has written about technology and culture for more than 15 years. She has lived and worked as a professional journalist in Phoenix, San Francisco and New York City. In her free time she enjoys surfing, traveling, music, yoga and cooking. She currently resides in a village on the southwest coast of Portugal.

Just-in-Time Training Helps Designers Cope with Rapid Software Changes

Just-in-Time Training Helps Designers Cope with Rapid Software Changes

Designers today are constantly acquiring updated software tools to keep up with fast-moving product development. In turn, software developers are continuously pushing out new and more powerful versions of their solutions.

Caught in this upward spiral, a designer might find that the CAD classroom training from just a few years ago is no longer relevant to the new software capabilities. A sudden shift to a new product or work assignment can require the designer to get up to speed on long-forgotten CAD functionalities that were covered in the classroom but never used.

“Classroom training historically has been very good for learning things like math or English,” said Tony Glockler, CEO of online CAD training provider SolidProfessor, speaking with Design News. “But those topics are static. Technical software is always getting better, always developing new functions. The change happens rapidly, so in a few years the software can become almost unrecognizable. Sitting in the classroom is just not the appropriate way to learn it.”

The value of just-in-time software training, whose goal is to deliver the exact knowledge or skill that the user needs at just the right time, can thus rise.

Most know how to search Google or YouTube for solutions to problems. But in a world of fast-changing software, how do you know that the answer you found works with the most recent version of a product? And how do you qualify the person who posted the solution?

Those kinds of questions prompted Mike Spicer, CAD administrator at sensor manufacturer Kavlico, to search for a more reliable training solution. The company, a Solidworks customer, faced a challenge around the diversity of skill levels among its designers. He related, “Some had never used Solidworks before, while others had been using it every day for years.”

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Kavlico team members weren't always sure of what to do when they encountered a new problem or when they hadn't come across a certain situation for a while. Just telling users to consult the manual or search for a solution online wasn't bringing the team, as a whole, up to speed. “We needed a skills development solution that would allow us to standardize skills across our team while simultaneously raising the bar for everyone,” Spicer said.

Ultimately, Kavlico decided that SolidProfessor's approach could give the company the kind of formal technical training program and on-demand resources its designers needed to make the best use of Solidworks.

“Just-in-time learning” is sometimes used as a catchall term for non-traditional educational models, delivered outside the standard degree programs offered at universities. And, indeed, providers of “lifelong learning” experiences are flourishing and attaining massive user bases. Khan Academy delivers free short video lectures on focused topics. Coursera partners with universities to deliver free access to MOOCs, or “massive open online courses,” which comprise a mixed bag of filmed lectures, readings, problem sets, and interactive forums.

However, they don't offer the kind of in-depth and up-to-date lessons needed by technical designers, engineers, and other professionals.

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On-demand training providers SolidProfessor and Lynda.com target professionals who are trying to learn specific software programs or solve specific problems. Subscribers gain access to libraries of video lessons and tutorials. Lynda.com offers a broader inventory, ranging from development to design to animation to video to general business topics. SolidProfessor is dedicated to CAD, CAM, and BIM software, with particular expertise in Solidworks and Autodesk products.

As an example, SolidProfessor's Solidworks offerings include a “Detached Drawing Tutorial” that focuses on the associativity between parts, assemblies, and drawings, such that a change to a part is automatically propagated to related assemblies and models. That makes sense, but what if you wanted to make edits in a Solidworks drawing without affecting the part file or vice versa?

SolidProfessor is certified as a solution partner for the software it teaches. SolidProfessor subscribers receive advanced notice of new software versions, so they're able to field lessons on new versions, tools, and features as soon as they're released.

Al Bredenberg is a writer, analyst, consultant, and communicator. He writes about technology, design, innovation, management, and sustainable business, and specializes in investigating and explaining complex topics. He holds a master's degree in organization and management from Antioch University New England. He has served as an editor for print and online content and currently serves as senior analyst at the Institute for Innovation in Large Organizations.

Advanced Metals Gaining Ground in Lightweight Vehicles

Advanced Metals Gaining Ground in Lightweight Vehicles

Thanks to a bevy of new high-strength steels and aluminum alloys, vehicle designers are cutting weight and boosting fuel efficiency. They’re also enhancing acceleration, shortening stopping distances, and improving handling with smart, strategic materials use and topography. And they’re doing all that not just on high-end sports cars but with high-volume, middle-of-the-road vehicles.

“Using high-strength steels, we saved up to 55 lb on the frame of the F-150,” said Pete Friedman, manager of the Manufacturing Research Department at Ford Motor Co. “The frame is now wider and stiffer than the outgoing model, and yet it’s still lighter.”

Indeed, engineers are seeing the benefits. Ford uses a high-strength, dual-phase steel for about 78% of the F-150’s frame, up from about 23% on earlier models. The high-strength steel, offering yield strength of about 70 ksi, is mostly responsible for a 55-lb weight loss for the frame. Moreover, the high-strength steels combined with aluminum alloys in the body to trim about 700 lb, taking the F-150 from about 5,500 lb to 4,800 lb.

The F-150 isn’t alone. The 2015 Chevy Colorado features more than 70% high-strength steel in its body structure. Similarly, the Acura TLX promotes rigidity, boosts fuel efficiency, and cuts emissions by using 52% high-strength steel. Meanwhile, the 2015 Chrysler 200 features 60% high-strength steel in its frame.

MORE FROM DESIGN NEWS: Why Ford Was Able to Use Aluminum in F-150 Truck

“You can get the weight out with other materials, like carbon fibers, but you do it at a very significant cost penalty,” said Dean Kanelos of the Steel Market Development Institute. “With high-strength steels, there’s no big cost penalty.”

The migration to high-strength metals has been brewing for a couple of decades. Dual-phase and boron-based steels with higher yield strengths began creeping into the auto industry more than 10 years ago.

Today, autos are using high-strength alloys with yield strengths in excess of 200 ksi. The Chevy Colorado, for example, employs steels with yield strengths ranging from about 145 ksi to as high as 217 ksi. Such steels are used throughout the frame, with the A- and B-pillars getting the strongest materials.

Similarly, automakers are employing manufacturing processes (rolling followed by hot stamping) that enable them to vary gauge thicknesses of A- and B-pillars. That way, the middle of the pillar can have thicknesses around 2 mm for greater buckling resistance while the ends use a thickness of 1 mm. “You can put the weight and strength specifically where you need it,” Kanelos said. “And you don’t have to put extra weight in areas where you don’t need it.”

One of the motivators for such changes is tougher crash standards. Automotive engineers who want five-star government crash-test ratings find that conventional mild steels (36 ksi) simply don’t provide the desired results. To achieve the higher ratings, they selectively apply high-strength steels in the cab structures. That way, the passenger compartment is less likely to deform under load, so that airbags are allowed to do their jobs and save vehicle occupants during some of the worst frontal crashes.

Looming corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards are another motivation for auto engineers. It’s said that for each 1% weight reduction, a 0.5% bump in fuel economy results.

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As it stands today, automakers are expected to reach company-wide averages of 54.5 mpg for their vehicles by 2025. By employing new alloys, engineers can cut the weight of their frames and bodies and, in some cases, employ smaller engines.

High-strength steels aren’t the only solutions, however. Some exotic sports cars – Aston Martins and Jaguars being prime examples – have used aluminum bodies for years. But the emergence of aluminum in mid-market and entry-level vehicles is a relatively new phenomenon. The F-150 was one of the first, topping off its high-strength steel frame with an aluminum cab, hood, tailgate, floor, and front end, along with high-strength aluminum fenders and doors.

Ford said the expertise for such transformations came from lessons learned via Aston Martin and Jaguar. Using sophisticated computer modeling techniques employed by the two luxury sports car manufacturers, Ford engineers were able to adopt a 6000 Series aluminum alloy that’s commonly used in aerospace and military designs. The alloy offers yield strength of about 30 ksi -- and about 45 ksi when the material is heat treated.

The big advantage is less mass. Although aluminum’s Young’s Modulus is low, it has a density that’s about one-third that of steel. As a result, design engineers can compensate for the inherent lack of stiffness by using thicker parts.

“We have more volume, more thickness, on every panel of the F-150,” Friedman said. “But because the density is only one-third, we still weigh less.”

To be sure, the weight advantages of aluminum don’t apply to every structural situation. The key is the type and magnitude of the loads. “There&rsrsquo;s a reason why we used a steel frame in the F-150,” Friedman said. “We could have made an aluminum frame, but we wouldn’t have saved much weight.”

Cost is also an issue. Aluminum is still more costly than steel. That’s why engineers say they never set out to build an all-aluminum or all-high-strength-steel vehicle. They look at the desired fuel efficiency goals, safety needs, and cost considerations and then weigh their options.

“We’re material agnostic here,” Friedman said. “We simply want the best material for the application.”

Senior technical editor Chuck Murray has been writing about technology for 31 years. He joined Design News in 1987, and has covered electronics, automation, fluid power, and autos.

Suppliers Challenge PVC Cables with Green Alternatives

Suppliers Challenge PVC Cables with Green Alternatives

Suppliers are chipping away at the dominance of the venerable polyvinyl chloride (PVC) electrical cable with rollouts of new environmentally safe, recyclable alternatives.

Targeted at applications ranging from automotive instrument panels to surgical tools to consumer electronics to automation systems, the new breed of cable is thinner, tougher, more flexible and, yes, greener. That’s why a few big manufacturers have started to move away from PVC and adopt the new technology, despite a price bump that can range from 10-20%.

“We’re seeing a transition among certain companies – mostly industry leaders – that have started migrating away from PVCs,” noted Brian Hanlon, general manager of Hueson Corp., which makes a variety of PVC alternatives.

To be sure, it’s going slowly. Suppliers estimate that only about 5% of the market is now replacing PVC-based cables with alternatives in the US. But a 2011 list of OEMs involved in the PVC Alternatives Project included some of industry’s heaviest hitters -- Alcatel-Lucent, Dell, IBM, Lenovo, Cisco Systems, and Dow Chemical, among others.

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By most accounts, there’s a good reason for such participation. PVC plastics, used in the insulating jacket of cables, are said to be an environmental contaminant in virtually every phase of their lifetimes, from production to use to disposal. They degrade after their service lives, have been known to leach contaminants, can’t be easily recycled, and are a problem in fires.

“This is a material that’s been proven reliable for more than 50 years,” noted Kevin DePratter, director of research and development for Northwire, Inc., which makes a PVC alternative. “It’s going to be hard to replace it because of the cost factor, but it will eventually be used less and less.”

A growing number of material suppliers and cable manufacturers now offer PVC alternatives. Northwire, for example, markets a PVC-free, thermoplastic elastomer called ecoPOWER, as well as a PVC-free cable alternative called EnduroFLEX, which is available as a thermoplastic urethane or a thermoplastic elastomer. Both products can be employed in industrial automation, defense, aerospace, and automotive, among other applications. For the medical industry, Northwire also offers a phthalate-free replacement for silicone-jacketed cables, called BioCompatic. BioCompatic typically serves as a cable jacket and insulation assembly for applications that include diagnostic equipment, surgical tools, and leads of various types.

Similarly, AlphaWire has introduced a family of products, known as EcoGen, which are based on a modified polyphenylene ether (mPPE) thermoplastic, which contains no phthalates, halogen, or heavy metals. The family has spawned several products, including EcoCable, a cable said to be 40% smaller and 44% lighter than standard 600 V continuous flex cables.

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One of the beauties of such products is their recyclability. “mPPE’s can be recycled in any standard recycling bin,” said David Trahan, business development manager for AlphaWire. “Whereas a PVC cable would have to go to a special area for recycling.”

Such products offer more than greenness, however. They incorporate mechanical advantages, such as toughness and flexibility, as well as temperature ranges of -40°C to +105°C. “The industry is looking to find replacements for PVCs,” Trahan adds. “That means you need a material that can meet the temperature ranges and flexibility requirements of PVCs.”

Hueson Corp. has also rolled out alternative products based on modified polyphenylene ether (mPPE) thermoplastics. Its mPPE-based product line incorporates multiple members of the Enviro-Wire family, including: a halogen-free version rated at 600 V and 105°C for appliances; an automotive version that’s 25% lighter than PVC-based cables; a multi-conductor version targeted at electrical equipment; an Enviro-Mini for internal use in electronic equipment; and an Enviro-Tuff Cable for CNC machines, production lines, and petrochemical applications.

Suppliers say that one of the unexpected advantages of the PVC-free cabling is the size. The insulating properties, toughness, and flexibility of such materials enable users to cut cable diameter, often as much as 40%. “You can drastically reduce wall thickness,” said Hanlon of Hueson. “The cost is probably about 20% higher, but that has to do with the economies of scale of the market.”

Sale of such products is moving faster in Europe, suppliers say. But they expect US-based manufacturers to increasingly catch on. “PVC is still a mainstay,” said DePratter of NorthWire. “But as customers come to understand the mechanical attributes and their proven track record, they’ll start to open up to the alternatives.”

Senior technical editor Chuck Murray has been writing about technology for 31 years. He joined Design News in 1987, and has covered electronics, automation, fluid power, and autos.