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Articles from 2008 In August


Survey Says Engineers Need Better Battery Understanding

A new survey identifies runtime and capacity as the most important battery features for portable applications, but also suggests many engineers lack knowledge of some of the up-and-coming battery chemistries, such as lithium-ion.

Nexergy, Inc., which created the survey and sent it to 3,000 engineers and marketers, says the results showed most engineers select batteries based on their definition of performance rather than cost.

"First and foremost, performance is key," says John Costa, executive vice president of Nexergy. "People feel you can truly achieve a competitive advantage with a better designed battery pack." Costa added while runtime and capacity fared best among respondents, cost was the fifth most important feature among engineers.

Still, Nexergy learned many engineers were only vaguely familiar with lithium-ion battery technology, despite its growing popularity in new products and in the news media.

"We found that people were just not educated on emerging battery technologies," Costa says. "Many weren't aware of lithium-ion or they simply didn't know about the trade-offs that are involved in using it."

Costa says the survey questioned engineers about the trade-offs associated with various lithium-ion chemistries and found 49 percent of respondents couldn't respond to those inquiries. Many respondents weren't aware of such issues as energy density, safety, discharge rate and cycle life and how they differ from one battery chemistry to another. Those issues may be critical when choosing the right chemistry for a notebook PC or a handheld power tool, he says.

"There may be a lot of engineers who are familiar with lithium-ion," Costa says. "But within that category, there's standard lithium-ion, lithium polymer, high-drain and iron-phosphate. It's not as simple as saying 'lithium-ion' and engineers need to know the differences."

Detroit Slow to Add Eco-Features, Study Says

Detroit Slow to Add Eco-Features, Study Says

Still reeling from the sharp increase in gas prices, American automakers have fallen behind in the creation of eco-friendly electronic features, a new study says.

iSuppli Corp., a market intelligence firm, says the ability for a vehicle to generate an eco-friendly driving route or provide real-time feedback about driving patterns has been mostly limited to Audi or Germany, Fiat of Italy and Kia of South Korea, as well as Honda and Nissan of Japan. Meanwhile, the study says, such features have been nearly non-existent in the U.S.

"Europeans and Asians have definitely brought the features to the market more quickly," says Phil Magney, vice president for automotive research for iSuppli. "But it's certainly not due to any lack of technology on the part of the Big Three. They have the same technologies, they're talking to the same people and they're working with the same supply chain as the Asians and Europeans."

iSuppli analysts say eco-friendly features could be important for automakers in the near future, particularly if gasoline prices continue to rise. The ability to create an eco-friendly route, for example, could matter to car buyers who are trying to reduce the amount of gasoline they burn as they travel to and from work every day.

Ironically, the incorporation of such features isn't costly for automakers. Calculating a high mpg route, for example, requires modifications to some of the routing algorithms in the navigation system. No extra hardware is necessary, Magney says. Yet by adding such algorithms, a navigation system could calculate the route based on such variables as traffic, road slope and overall distance.

Similarly, real-time driver feedback could use software algorithms to alert drivers to the fact that they may be accelerating too fast or braking too hard, thus enabling them to burn less gasoline in the long run.

Magney says American companies fell behind in this area largely because the U.S. felt the pinch of high gas prices after Japan and Europe.

"It has to do with the rapid run-up in the price of fuel," Magney says. "The domestic OEMs weren't able to anticipate the potential demand for these types of applications."

In contrast, European and Asian countries have always had higher fuel prices, often running twice those of U.S. prices. "European and Asian brands have always been a bit more sensitive to the economy," Magney says. "Detroit has just been caught off guard by this."

Machine Vision Seeing in Color

Machine vision systems in general are starting to see the world a lot more clearly of late. "Applications have become a lot more demanding," says Paul Kellett, director of research for the Automated Imaging Association. "What you're starting to see more of, and this won't come as a surprise to anyone, is a trend toward higher speeds, higher resolution and greater use of color."  Kellett also sees an upswing in the use of 3D vision systems, which grew by 5 percent last year to make up 14 percent of application-specific vision system sales.

Omron Electronics taps into all of these trends with enhancements to its high-end vision systems to improve speed and color performance. Among those enhancements is a groundbreaking 3-D system that the company has not yet started to sell in North America – but will soon.

With its latest FZ2 systems, Omron has introduced True Color Vision sensors that can capture over 16.77 million colors. Tom Kahn, manager of the company's vision and RFID products, says the data volume associated with the color capabilities is more than 65,500 times greater than the volume associated with previous black-and-white image processing. "This vision sensor approaches the color-processing capabilities of the human eye," Kahn says.

Omron has upped the ante on speed as well. Its previous standard camera offered an input of 30 fps, or 33.3 ms. But a new 300,000-pixel camera bumps up that speed to 80 fps or 12.5 ms. For its high-definition 2-million-pixel cameras, which are just one of many camera options available on the FZ2, the capture speed is 30 fps, or 33.3 ms. "That's about twice as fast as earlier two-million-pixel cameras," Kahn says. Other architectural changes include the addition of an expanded memory buffer for each camera, which allows for continuous image capture while the system's main memory crunches measurement data.

The FZ2 system offers nine different types of smart cameras and a variety of related components. And a single controller can handle up to four cameras, allowing users to mix and match black-and-white and color cameras as needed for a given inspection job.

And soon those inspections will take place in 3D. Omron has developed its first vision-based 3D measurement system, one capable of making real-time hole, gap and defect inspections as well as handling part selection tasks on moving assembly lines. "Obviously, it was developed for automotive applications," says Kahn, though other assembly operation involving parts with complex shapes would be a natural fit too.

Kahn believes the vision-based system could replace some of the lasers now used for these applications. "The vision systems have a greater range and field of view than the lasers, so you can locate them further from the line," says Kahn. The trade-off for that location flexibility is accuracy. "Laser systems tend to work within the micron range," he says. "Our new vision system won't be that accurate, though it will be well within the range of automotive body panel tolerances."

Real Wireless Products

Real Wireless Products

Suppliers continue their quest to provide new wireless products to support the standards they support. ZigBee provides a good example of recent progress. ZigBee wireless sensing addresses automatic meter reading applications, home, building and industrial automation. Recently, the ZigBee Alliance announced the public availability of its ZigBee Smart Energy public application profile. In May, the Alliance certified 19 ZigBee Smart Energy products. One example is Ember's Smart Energy Suite. A collection of embedded software, tools and silicon to simplify the delivery of devices certified to ZigBee Alliance's Smart Energy (SE) Profile, the Smart Energy Suite a complete Smart Energy Profile reference application, other application-appropriate software and uses Ember's EM250 system-on-chip and the EM260 network co-processor.

Real Wireless Products_ImageA

Machine Vision Keeps An Eye on Workers

Optical devices such as light curtains have long been a mainstay of machine safety systems, but Pilz has rolled out its first true machine-vision safety product.

Called SafetyEye, the system uses a small-aperture 3-D camera to perform body detection tasks around production machines and robot cells. According to Eric Hollister, SafetyEye's product engineer, the system mounts above the equipment it monitors and can cover some large three-dimensional spaces. Mounted at about 7.5m, for example, it covers an area of roughly 75 sq m. Should a worker or other object stray into SafetyEye's detection zone, the system can trip a machine or robot shut-down. The system also allows the creation of a "warning zone," in which intrusions would trigger only a slow-down of machine processes.

It's tempting to make a direct comparison between SafetyEye and existing optical safety components like light curtains or laser-based systems. Yet a safety system based on true machine vision does differ in terms of how it is specified and in the kind of design and cost advantages it offers.

In terms of the specs, SafetyEye has a reaction time in the neighborhood of 300 ms, which is slower than many laser-based systems. Yet Hollister points out that 2-D, horizontal laser systems need to factor in a "depth-penetration" that essentially requires them to broaden their detection zone beyond what their reaction time alone would dictate. "In a 2-D system, you have to account for the fact that people can lean into the detection zone," Hollister says. With a 3-D system, however, that depth penetration factor can be eliminated. "In the end, that equals out SafetyEye's additional reaction time," he says.

As for design advantages, one SafetyEye above a machine or robot cell promises to take the place of multiple safety devices and physical guarding elements. For example, a typical rotary table for robot cell loading might have two light curtains, one vertical and one horizontal. "One SafetyEye could monitor that entire robot cell," Hollister says.

And fewer devices can have big implications in simplifying the design of safety systems. "Think of all the wiring and development work you save when you start eliminating light curtains and electronic gates," Hollister says. And when production lines change over time, which they often do, there's no need to relocate and rewire the safety systems.  "You just reprogram the SafetyEye to accommodate the line changes," he says.

Even though the SafetyEye hardware alone does have an initial price 4 or 5 times greater than, say, a low-cost light curtain, the installation flexibility and wiring reduction more than make up for any price premium, Hollister argues.

Pilz is not pushing SafetyEye for all applications. Light curtains are still most appropriate for hand-based operations, such as press guarding. "SafetyEye is really just intended for body detection," Hollister says.

SafetyEye debuted in Germany earlier this year and has just launched in North America, where Hollister says it is currently being commissioned in its first two robotic safety applications.

Electronics Module Could Bring Tolling to All Roads

Electronics Module Could Bring Tolling to All Roads

A new technology being developed by Siemens Mobility and NXP Semiconductors could enable counties and municipalities to charge tolls on virtually every highway, not just on the major arteries that employ toll booths today.

Siemens and NXP are teaming up on the development of an electronics module that would combine global positioning satellite (GPS) technology with the popular GSM (global system for mobile communications) cell phone standard and near-field communications (NFC) security technology. Together, the technologies would enable toll collection from greater distances than the short-range RFID systems used on major highways in the U.S. today, and they would eliminate the need for expensive infrastructure, such as toll booths.

"When you build toll gates, it's a huge investment and it only covers the main roads," says Jeroen Alting von Geusau, business manager at NXP Semiconductors. "Using GPS and GSM in a system like this, you could cover all the small roads and the big roads, too. That's why people find it so interesting."

NXP will provide a chip and basic software that combine all the functions for toll collection, such as GPS, NFC and GPRS (general packet radio service). Interfaces for flexible telematics applications, such as traffic information, will be provided on the automotive-grade, single-chip platform. Siemens will develop the on-board unit (OBU), integrating NXP's single chip and software.

NXP engineers say the system will have capabilities that go beyond road tolling.

"You could provide traffic information and road tolling, and you could combine it with existing (aftermarket) navigation systems," Alting von Geusau says. "With this, you get a total telematics system that could perform all kinds of functions."

Staubli’s Robot for Solar Panel Automation

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TI Rolls out Low-Power DSPs

TI Rolls out Low-Power DSPs

Texas Instruments (TI) has introduced a device roadmap that is said to include the industry's lowest power, floating point digital signal processors (DSPs).

Aimed at portable products that typically have days or weeks of battery life, the processor roadmap includes 15 new multi-architecture devices. TI engineers say the new processors could be employed in software-defined radio, bar-code scanners, e-books, audio recorders, digital stethoscopes and hands-free car kits, among other end products.

"Developers are trying to squeeze twice as much performance out of their products and still keep the same battery life," says John Dixon, low power product line manager for TI. "These devices can give them the same battery life with more performance or the same performance with longer battery life."

The new platform of processors includes TMS320C674x DSPs, which combines low power with high precision, the TMS320C640x DSPs, which offer high performance at half the power and the OMAP-L1x SoCs, which combine multimedia performance with low power. Another family of processors known as the TMS320C550x are targeted at applications that need maximum battery life.

TI engineers say the TMS320C674x family offers some of the best power numbers of any floating point DSP.

"We've reached a new power threshold with that device," Dixon says. "It has 20 times lower standby power than existing floating point DSPs, and it runs at one-third the total power of any other floating point DSP on the market."

TI has targeted the TMS320C674x for the fourth quarter of 2008 and plans to roll out the TMS320C640x and the OMAP-L1x for early 2009.

The rollouts are part of a larger strategy by TI to introduce new power-stingy devices. Earlier this summer, TI unveiled an MSP430 microcontroller that offers active current consumption that's three times better than its previous generation.

The DC-3's Connection to Bulldozers

The DC-3's Connection to Bulldozers

The Wall Street Journal Saturday ran a fabulous piece on the DC-3 airplane, an estimated 500 of which are still flying. Tens of thousands were made, 3,000 during the war effort in the Soviet Union.  What struck my eye was the wing testing when the plane was designed. According to an interview in 1985 with chief designer Arthur Emmons Raymond to celebrate the plane’s 50th birthday,  bulldozers were run over the wings to test their strength. When was the last time you heard about stress testing like that? A cursory check of the web revealed no DC-3 ever crashed from structural failure.  I wonder if I should suggest bulldozers to the 787 stress test folks at Boeing. Famous for their relative size and strength, the DC-3 could glide back to earth even when it was under half power or without it entirely. Here’s one recent account of a crash after an engine failed.  All walked away without serious injury.

The legendary Raymond died at 99 in 1999 and his obituary reads like a veritable (and brief) history of commercial aviation in its formative years. PBS aired an episode on the venerable plane in a series on commercial aviation called “Chasing the Sun” a few years ago. The DC-3 more than any other plane ushered in the era of commercial air travel.

Software Firms Stepping up to Eight-Core Challenge

Makers of switches, routers, media gateways and base station controllers are already finding software development support for an eight-core microprocessor that's not scheduled to begin sampling until 2009.

Green Hills Software, Inc., MontaVista Software, Inc., and Wind River Systems, Inc. are all working on development tools with Freescale Semiconductor prior to the rollout of its QorIQ P4080 eight-core communications processor. Freescale has also partnered with simulation software firm Virtutech to create a first-of-a-kind hybrid simulation environment for the P4080.

The P4080, pre-announced at the Freescale Technology Forum in June, is designed for backbone networking and enterprise-level switching and routing. It supports eight Power Architecture e500mc cores on the same chip and operates at less than 30W at speeds up to 1.5 GHz. Freescale says it set the wheels in motion on the new chip because customers in the communications arena were asking for more performance.

"We were trying to get the best power, performance and cost and keep it below 30W, because we know customers have trouble cooling above 30W," says Steve Cole, senior system architect for Freescale's Network Systems Strategy Office.

To enable visibility into the multi-core environment, Freescale partnered with Virtutech, which is using its Simics simulator on the P40480 platform. Prior to the development of silicon, Simics is enabling developers to partition cores and codes and bring up the operating system, as well as develop, debug and test software.

Green Hills, meanwhile, has entered a development agreement to produce advanced debugging tools for the QorIQ. In June, the company announced availability of a secure, multi-core optimized networking and routing solution for the QorIQ processor portfolio.

Similarly, Wind River is implementing a pre-silicon software development solution that is expected to help users migrate existing projects to the P4080 hardware and MontaVista has unveiled a Linux Support Package to help users jump-start the development of Linux-based devices on the P4080 platform.

"There are eight cores running on this device and programmers need visibility into what's going on," says Robert Redfield, director of partner business development for Green Hills. "That's what this is all about."