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Articles from 2013 In August


From Napkin to Production

From Napkin to Production

After a night out with the guys, burning through five bar-napkin sketches, the perfect product idea is born. Or is it? How do you determine if your idea is worthwhile and worth pursing?

A common mistake that entrepreneurs, and even large medical-device companies, tend to make is that they start with an idea that propels them essentially to the middle of the product development process.

For example, a device manufacturer realized a need in the market for an improved version of its device. One of their engineers had an idea, and he spent six months engineering a prototype. At that point, he realized it needed a better-looking handle, so he decided to employ some design.

The design team realized there were several better ways to create a device to meet the need, and they prototyped a version to show to the manufacturer. At that point the manufacturer said, "That seems great, but we have six months of engineering expenditure on what we already have, and we can't depart from that now."

That device never made it to market.

When critical preliminary steps are skipped, they can't be magically introduced at a later stage. In this case, usability research, criteria definition, and ideation exploration activities had been skipped over, and the group went straight to engineering to test an early concept. It can be painful to do the development process over if you skip steps.

Most entrepreneurs we work with are very passionate about their ideas. They demonstrate an uncommon stick-to-itiveness that is important to make their idea reality. But don't fall in love with your own idea.

It pays to investigate the idea. Try to come up with as many different product solutions as possible. Then evaluate the various solutions, even with actual users, to get it down to the best one. A lot of work must occur before you get to that one particular concept.

Design-driven thinking forces you to think about many important factors before leaping into engineering the details of one concept. With a design-driven mentality, you will be not only considering defining the need, but also defining the needs surrounding the need. This type of thinking requires investigation into the world that the user lives in, talking to users, finding pain points, and converting those issues into need statements. It involves producing design criteria from those need statements, and letting the creative team come up with as many concepts as possible to fulfill those criteria.

Many people understand when they have discovered a legitimate need. How you solve that need takes a lot more investigation into the nuances of the needs surrounding the need.

If you follow a process with a design-driven mentality and you have a good holistic creative team, some wonderful magic can arise from their efforts leading to innovative solutions you would have never thought of otherwise.

Tom Kramer is passionate about making ideas become reality. You can either find him at Kablooe Design, helping his customers develop the latest and greatest products, or speaking at various industry events on the topics of innovation and optimizing the product development process.

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Good Robot Gets All the Blame

Good Robot Gets All the Blame

I ran into a robot problem at the General Motors Oshawa Truck Plant during the GMT800 Project. One of the engineers was complaining that a robot had positions that were changing randomly. The engineer's theory was that the robot-controller architecture was flawed, i.e., the entire controller-series design was defective. I had not been on shift when any of the problems happened, but I doubted the controller was the problem.

Then, one day I happened to be on shift when the problem occurred. The robot had been stopped at the corrupt position. After inspecting the situation, the robot was stepped through the program, and the positions were correct. The robot work cell was put back into production, and I watched the cycle for a short time.

Luckily, after a few cycles I noticed the presentation tooling misfeed a part to the robot. I asked the operator to stop the robot, and then I asked a tool maker to inspect the tooling. The tool maker confirmed that the part had been misfed. If the part is presented to the robot incorrectly positioned, it will then be placed in the wrong position. The presentation tooling was adjusted, and I did not hear of that problem again.

This entry was submitted by Glenn Aitchison and edited by Rob Spiegel.

Glenn Aitchison's first field service job was in 1987. Since then he has worked in robotics, automotive, as well as industrial automation and machinery. He received his Certificates of Qualification as an Industrial Electrician and as an Industrial Mechanic (Millwright).

Tell us your experience in solving a knotty engineering problem. Send stories to Rob Spiegel for Sherlock Ohms.

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Average Vehicle Age Hits 11 Years

Average Vehicle Age Hits 11 Years

If you're driving a 10-year-old car, don't feel bad. It turns out that your 10-year-old vehicle is actually younger than more than half the cars on the road today.

Thanks to better parts, more reliable designs, and a serious economic recession since 2009, the average light vehicle is now 11.4 years old, says a new study from research firm R.L. Polk & Co. The study, based on a review of more than 247 million US car and light truck registrations, adds that the average age of today's vehicles will continue to climb over the next few years.

"This is the oldest vehicles have been since we started tracking it in 1998," Polk vice president Mark Seng told Design News. "People are clearly hanging onto their vehicles a lot longer today."

Light duty vehicles have been getting older since 2002, climbing from 9.6 to 11.4 years over an 11-year period, the study said. Over the last few years, the trend toward older cars has been especially noticeable, with the average age jumping from 10.6 to 10.9 between 2010 and 2011, and 10.9 to 11.2 between 2011 and 2012. Polk attributed much of that to the recession, however, as US vehicle sales in those years dropped from 16 million per year to about 10 million.

Seng told Design News that better components and more reliable designs have also been a big contributor to the aging phenomenon. Engines and transmissions have grown more reliable, and vehicle bodies are less prone to rust due to increased use of lightweight plastics. Moreover, electronics have had a surprising effect on reliability, he said.

"For the longest time, everything was tied to maintenance intervals, and consumers had to be trained to have their car checked at a certain number of miles," Seng told us. "Now, the mechanic can plug the car into a computer and show you the exact failure code. So it's much easier to convince the consumer that the car needs to be repaired."

At the moment, the trend appears to be good news for automakers and aftermarket parts suppliers, particularly those who sell to owners of vehicles 12 years old and up. Pent-up demand is creating a bigger market for new cars, with annual US numbers slowly moving back toward the 16 million figure. At the same time, an abundance of 12-year-old vehicles should be good news for aftermarket companies that sell to do-it-yourselfers, who tend to dominate that category.

With or without the recession, however, the trend is clearly tied to product quality, Seng said. "Better maintenance and better parts mean a longer life. It all adds up to a higher-quality vehicle."

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More Seismic Shifts in the 3D Printing Industry

More Seismic Shifts in the 3D Printing Industry

As we've discussed many times before, there are several major changes going on in 3D printing and additive manufacturing (AM). There's so much that I'll be covering multiple seismic shifts in this occasional blog. Today we look at materials.

Last time we talked about the changing relationships between OEMs and 3D printer makers, including joint development and research partnerships and investment. There's also been some consolidation among 3D printer makers, such as 3D Systems' landmark acquisition of Phenix Systems, which brings together under one roof the medium to high end of the industry that works only in plastics with the high end that works in metals.

One of the biggest factors affecting design engineers' use of 3D printing is the type of materials that can be used in a given printer, as well as the cost of those materials. Anthony Vicari, Lux Research associate and lead author of a study we reported on a few months ago, told us then that 3D printer materials are currently being sold at very high margins. Because each machine has its own customized materials set consisting of several different substances, these can be difficult to unbundle. But within each class of metals or plastics, there are potentially many more structural materials that could be used with any given printer.

Consequently, Vicari said he expected to see an open materials market with third-party suppliers selling many more types of materials than are available today. He expects this to happen by 2025, but that's up to 12 years away. I suspect it may happen much sooner. For one thing, new materials and new 3D printing methods are already being invented by university researchers and others working outside the realm of 3D printer makers.

For example, Made in Space, the company working with NASA to build the first 3D printer for use by astronauts, has said it's working on the development of new materials to work in space. At Harvard, a scientist has invented both a new printing method and new inks for the 3D-printing of tiny batteries. North Carolina State University researchers have achieved a mind-boggling feat, 3D-printing tiny structures made from liquid metal at room temperatures, which remain in a liquid state although stable. They're also bendable.

In addition to entirely new 3D-printed materials, new methods for combining them is also proceeding. At MIT, some interesting research in multi-materials 3D printing is being conducted in more than one lab. Markus Buehler's team has 3D-printed bone-like composite materials on the Objet Connex500 multi-material printer. To test their computational model, which aided them in designing three different composite structures, engineers made samples from existing Objet polymers, combining soft and rigid materials on the fly. Another team, which we will be covering soon in depth, is also working with the Object multi-material printer. This time, the aim is to improve the process that starts with specification and ends up with a multi-material 3D-printed object that contains multiple surface textures and colors.

Vicari said that big OEMs that make cars and airplanes, among other things, will want much greater control over materials and manufacturing processes as they bring 3D printing inside to apply it to their own design problems. But individual designers also want a lot more control, as we've seen in the comments section of many Design News stories on 3D-printing.

Markus Buehler's team said this very well in their article in Advanced Functional Materials: "… as 3D printers evolve, we as designers will seize more control over the manufacturing process allowing composites to be synthesized at even finer length scales, with more details and increased control of constituent material properties, opening the doors for the rapid manufacturing of structurally advanced complex multi-hierarchy biomimetic materials with applications in a large range of engineering disciplines."

Stay tuned for the next installment.

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Zuken Expands America's Operation

Zuken Expands America's Operation

Zuken, a global leader in electronic-design automation software, has announced that it will invest $30 to $50 million in its US-based operation over the next three years. The Americas expansion will be anchored by a new Zuken innovation center located in Silicon Valley.

"They're ready to take the business to the next level," Bob Potock, Zuken's vice president of marketing for the Americas, told Design News, during a recent meeting at the company's office in Massachusetts.

Potock said the company will also be expanding its head count, which is good news considering the state of the economy in recent years.

Zuken plans to open its new innovation center in Silicon Valley in September. It will also launch a new website next month, which will offer regional content, including news and event information that is tailored to the Americas audience, Potock told us.

He said the company decided to "make the investment now," because from 2011-2012 it grew about 25 percent. "It's very notable from our perspective," he said, calling the Americas an "untapped market."

Surfing in 3D: Printed Boards Make Waves in Custom Design

Surfing in 3D: Printed Boards Make Waves in Custom Design

As a surfer myself, I know that creating a custom-made surfboard is both a precise and creative science, as well as a painstaking laborious process that takes a lot of time and energy.

Now 3D printing is poised to take the actual handmade production aspect of that out of the equation, with companies like Chicago-based startup MADE Boards emerging that promise 3D-printed quality custom surfboards, wind-surfing boards, and stand-up paddle boards.

I must admit I'm a skeptic about using 3D printing to make a surfboard, being the owner of two custom-made boards and someone who's taken a pounding or two from strong waves.

My first thought is to wonder whether these 3D-printed boards would be strong enough to withstand the often-severe conditions of the sport, and my second is what happens to the custom-board shaper -- an artist in his or her own right -- and the actual craft of shaping a board by hand when 3D printing begins to take over the production process.

I interviewed Shanon Marks -- the co-founder of MADE Boards -- via email to find out more and have my questions and concerns addressed. He founded the company with Mark Laughlin, and is himself an avid sailor, windsurfer, and wave surfer. Marks explained to me how the process of designing and producing a board via the MADE system works, and the philosophy behind the company.

The company was formed for two reasons -- to ensure people ride boards that are best suited to their needs, and also to create a process that produces less waste, and thus is more environmentally friendly than mass surfboard production, Marks told us. He continued:

We know there's a better way to build boards, and for that matter, most things. There's too much waste associated with traditional, subtractive construction processes and our approach removes polystyrene, foam core blanks without sacrificing performance. We only use the exact amount of material we need to create our boards -- and it's all on-demand, removing the burden of inventory, and simplifying logistics. The environmental benefit is immense.

The first step to custom-designing a board from the company is to download a mobile app called VOLUME to a smartphone, and using a case the company provides to protect it from water, take the phone and app surfing (or wind surfing or stand-up paddle boarding). The app starts monitoring the session, collecting data around GPS data, speed, acceleration, deceleration, duration, starts, stops, all cross-referenced with atmospheric, and weather data, Marks said. He told us:

The whole system is built on a social platform and encourages participants to explore the habits and preferences of other riders. VOLUME, and the customization engine on our site, is the primary design influencer. As you ride, it takes note of large-scale patterns and helps you design the perfect board for your style, expertise, and local conditions, acting as your personal shaper.

People can also further customize the board according to their preferences, but the app "takes the guesswork and complexity out of the process," he said.

Engineering Profs Get Low Marks in Princeton Review Survey

Engineering Profs Get Low Marks in Princeton Review Survey

If you've earned a degree in engineering, then you know the frustration of trying to comprehend maddeningly complex course material.

That frustration may be partially responsible for the poor showing of engineering schools in a recent survey conducted by The Princeton Review. The survey, one of many done by the organization, asked college students a simple question: "Are your instructors good teachers?"

The results, published in the 2014 edition of The Princeton Review's The Best 378 Colleges, didn't show engineering professors in a good light. Engineering schools -- including Georgia Tech, Cal Tech, New Jersey Institute of Technology, Stevens Institute, and the US Merchant Marine Academy -- made up five of the worst seven in a category called "Professors Get Low Marks." Three more appeared in the bottom 20. That's particularly telling, when you consider that just 26 of the book's "best 378" could be considered engineering colleges.

To be sure, some of those results are inevitably tied to the complexity of the course material. Every year, engineering schools dominate a Princeton Review survey question about students' numbers of out-of-class study hours. This year, eight engineering colleges (including the top two) landed in a category called "Students Study the Most." Conversely, no engineering schools were named in a category called, "Students Study the Least."

Still, there's a growing belief that engineering schools and their professors could do better in many cases. "The results of the (Princeton Review) survey don't surprise me at all," David Cole, chairman emeritus for the Center for Automotive Research and a former mechanical engineering professor at the University of Michigan, told Design News. "You're going to find some wonderful educators in engineering and you're going to find some who are not good at all."

Cole cited several possible reasons for the poor showing of engineering profs. Some engineering professors are quantitative thinkers who relate better to ideas than to people. Others suffer from problems with the language and culture. Today, it's estimated that more than half of the PhD.-level engineering instructors come from other countries. Moreover, many engineering profs are narrowly oriented toward their own area of research, and may not be enthusiastic about teaching broad introductory courses, Cole said.

"In academic environments today, the rewards tend to be oriented toward research, and not teaching," Cole told us.

Disinterested instructors are especially problematic for first-year engineering students, who tend to be in greater need of context. "Too often, students don't understand the relevance of the material, particularly in the first couple of years," Ray Almgren, a vice president of marketing at National Instruments who is working with universities to shore up engineering education in the US, told us. "They tend to get bombarded with theory during those years, without any explanation of the relevance."

Almgren said that engineering profs deserve some leeway in these matters, largely because the course material can be so time-consuming and difficult, especially for young students. Still, he said, colleges need to be more attentive to the learning needs of students. "Hard is fine," Almgren told us. "But we also want them to find their classes interesting."

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Materials Spotlighted at Design & Manufacturing Show

The design of the single-passenger Personal Transport Vehicle - Ground (PTV-G) by Redbud Technology <br />uses an articulated steering geometry: Because the inclined steering pivot is located behind the driver, <br />the car reacts like a two-wheeled moto

This is an exciting time to be writing about materials as well as using them. The choices of metals, plastics, coatings, and adhesives have never been broader, and new ones are becoming available at a rapid rate. At the same time, some materials that aren't as new to some manufacturing and assembly processes are being adapted to other production methods, such as 3D printing.

Some of this variety is reflected at the Design and Manufacturing Midwest Show in Chicago, September 10-12. Materials on display there include forged and welded metals and alloys, plastics and elastomers, rubber, coatings and finishes, and adhesives. Others are powder metals, magnetics, polymers used in 3D printing, and ultra-hard materials like sapphire, carbides, and ceramics.

Click on the photo below to view a brief photo gallery:

Several different kinds of assembly technologies are also represented at the show, reflecting the wider variety of manufacturing methods available to today's engineers. These include injection and other types of plastics molding, 3D printing, die casting, and metal injection molding. For example, Dynacast International makes small engineered parts using metal injection molding and die cast processes, employing the company's own proprietary methods for both. Applications for these parts include consumer electronics, healthcare, automotive, hardware, and computers and peripherals.

On the plastics side, there's been a gradual increase for some time across many industries in the use of engineering plastics to design structural and semi-structural parts and systems. DM&M Show exhibitor Geist Plastics, for example, makes custom pipes and other round products, such as those used in irrigation, using extrusion. Some of this increase is due to transportation industries like aerospace and automotive pushing for lighter materials that still meet the performance specs. Other factors include an increase in the use of plastics for healthcare. But some of the change is also simply because there are more materials that can do the job.

Some dramatic uses of plastic for structural parts include the plastic bearings made by show exhibitor igus inc., called iglide, and deployed in a concept car designed by students. Different parts and subsystems of the single-passenger car, called the Personal Transport Vehicle - Ground (PTV-G) are being designed by separate groups of students at various community colleges, universities, and high schools, under the guidance of Redbud Technology. The plastic bearings, donated by igus, are being used in the car's independent rear suspension, as well as in its rear wheel lean-and-tilt mechanisms. Unlike metal parts, the plastic bearings don't need lubrication or maintenance and won't corrode.

Related posts:

Materials Spotlighted at Design & Manufacturing Show

Materials Spotlighted at Design &amp; Manufacturing Show

This is an exciting time to be writing about materials as well as using them. The choices of metals, plastics, coatings, and adhesives have never been broader, and new ones are becoming available at a rapid rate. At the same time, some materials that aren't as new to some manufacturing and assembly processes are being adapted to other production methods, such as 3D printing.

Some of this variety is reflected at the Design and Manufacturing Midwest Show in Chicago, September 10-12. Materials on display there include forged and welded metals and alloys, plastics and elastomers, rubber, coatings and finishes, and adhesives. Others are powder metals, magnetics, polymers used in 3D printing, and ultra-hard materials like sapphire, carbides, and ceramics.

Click on the photo below to view a brief photo gallery:

Several different kinds of assembly technologies are also represented at the show, reflecting the wider variety of manufacturing methods available to today's engineers. These include injection and other types of plastics molding, 3D printing, die casting, and metal injection molding. For example, Dynacast International makes small engineered parts using metal injection molding and die cast processes, employing the company's own proprietary methods for both. Applications for these parts include consumer electronics, healthcare, automotive, hardware, and computers and peripherals.

On the plastics side, there's been a gradual increase for some time across many industries in the use of engineering plastics to design structural and semi-structural parts and systems. DM&M Show exhibitor Geist Plastics, for example, makes custom pipes and other round products, such as those used in irrigation, using extrusion. Some of this increase is due to transportation industries like aerospace and automotive pushing for lighter materials that still meet the performance specs. Other factors include an increase in the use of plastics for healthcare. But some of the change is also simply because there are more materials that can do the job.

Some dramatic uses of plastic for structural parts include the plastic bearings made by show exhibitor igus inc., called iglide, and deployed in a concept car designed by students. Different parts and subsystems of the single-passenger car, called the Personal Transport Vehicle - Ground (PTV-G) are being designed by separate groups of students at various community colleges, universities, and high schools, under the guidance of Redbud Technology. The plastic bearings, donated by igus, are being used in the car's independent rear suspension, as well as in its rear wheel lean-and-tilt mechanisms. Unlike metal parts, the plastic bearings don't need lubrication or maintenance and won't corrode.

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Fuse Holder Follies

Fuse Holder Follies

I was troubleshooting a simple power supply that had power connectors in and out, a four-position switch, a step-down transformer, a fuse holder with a fuse inside, and a pilot light. It came to me for fixing because there was simply no output from the power supply.

First, I checked the switch, and it seemed to work. The transformer also worked. There was power going to the transformer and the fuse was OK. Everything inside the power supply seemed to work, but the power was simply not there.

I checked everything again with a VOM Simple analog meter. The result was no load on the power supply; no apparent problem. I applied a load, just a 6V, 4 amp incandescent lamp, which is what the power supply was supposed to light. I looked for a voltage drop across every point in the power supply -- there were not very many.

I found a 7.5V potential across the fuse holder, but I previously checked the fuse and it was OK. I checked the fuse again, and it was still OK. The only thing left was the fuse holder. Sure enough, the fuse holder failed. There were no cracks or breakage, but there was no contact to the fuse either.

Now a fuse holder is what I call a passive component. It doesn't do much in the way of affecting the circuit. This particular fuse holder was made in Switzerland and contains German components. Only the Germans can make a fuse holder that fails. There was nothing complicated about it, just a screw-in-post type fuse holder.

I replaced the fuse holder with an American one that fits in the same hole and has terminals in the same place. I applied the 60 cycle smoke test -- 60 Hertz to some folks. All is now well.

This entry was submitted by Howard Gorin and edited by Rob Spiegel.

Howard Gorin repairs ophthalmic instruments. He is also a second source for repair parts for the equipment he services. He is connected with the Charles River Museum of Industry and Innovation.

Tell us your experience in solving a knotty engineering problem. Send stories to Rob Spiegel for Sherlock Ohms.

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