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Articles from 2008 In September

Wow, Plastic Really is Good for the Environment

Wow, Plastic Really is Good for the Environment

As I’ve written here before, I always brace myself when I see a story about plastics in newspapers or consumer magazines, like Time or Newsweek. The articles are always simplistic and often erroneous. Plastic is always bad. It’s made from oil. Plastic trash lines our roads.  It kills babies. It ruins the oceans. Etc.

What a surprise to read a report on plastics in last Sunday’s Boston Globe, one of the most liberal newspapers in America. The headline reads: ”In Praise of Plastic. Why an oil-sucking, landfill-clogging, non-biodegradable, it’s-everywhere material is so good for the environment. Really.”

The article states simple facts that plastics engineers have been saying for more than 20 years and virtually no one in the consumer media has listened to, or believed, I guess. For example, an author of an EPA study said that plastic packaging is better for the environment because it’s so much lighter than glass. “We were astonished, “said Frank Ackerman, an independent researcher. “Our guess was all wrong.” Several other examples are given. The article concludes that the real problem is that people won’t recycle products.

The wide-ranging report also looks at bioplastics, which I have long railed against as an environmental solution. The article correctly states that bioplastics will not compost in a landfill, and they  foul commercial recycling streams. They also don’t break down easily in oceans or forests. “Strange as it seems, it’s better for the environment to reuse (as many times as possible) and then recycle a bag you already own,” states the article.

Wow. Someone is listening at last.

There are some errors in the article. The Dreamliner, for example, is not made from a type of acrylic. And I don’t agree with all of the conclusions. In my opinion, waste-to-energy is an excellent use for waste plastic, for example. The thermal value of a polyethylene plastic bag is significantly better than coal – and with no pollutants. This makes more sense to me than running up the recycling rate of plastic bags.

Green Engineers Get Accredited

Green Engineers Get Accredited

If green accreditation is any measure, the United Kingdom would appear to be ahead of the U.S.  Its Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE) now accredits as Chartered Environmentalists if they take the required coursework and agree to a Code of Ethics.

“The designation recognises the demonstration of, and commitment to, sustainable environmental management and development. The qualification is awarded by the Society for the Environment (SocEnv) and establishes proven knowledge, experience knowledge, experience and commitment to professional standards in the environmental field,” according to IMechEs web site.

Qualification is based on a point system. CE’s must earn eight points in the classroom work and four from practical experience. They must also agree to a Code of Ethics. A quick check of web sites for the Society of Manufacturing Engineers and American Society of Mechanical Engineers does not list green accreditation although I have inquiries into both to make sure.

IMechE was founded in 1847 and has 75,000 members. The SME was founded in 1932 and boasts “influence” over more than a half million practioners. ASME claims 127,000 members and was founded in 1880.

Engineer of the Year 2008 Martin Fisher

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Engineer of the Year 2008 Martin Fisher

As the founder of KickStart International, a non-profit technology development, Fisher and the engineers he oversees have created a variety of micro-irrigation, oil-processing and building technologies that have resulted in the creation of more than 60,000 small-scale businesses that have lifted more than 300,000 people out of poverty, mostly in Africa.
Our sincerest congratulations go out to Martin Fisher! Read more about him in our feature "The Power of Pumps"

This Year's Finalists:
Our finalists gave Fisher a run for his money in this year's Engineer of the Year vote. Read more about them below.


GM As VP of R&D and Strategic Planning at General Motors, Larry Burns is by all accounts in charge of reinventing the struggling behemoth. He has been a passionate and powerful advocate for GM's efforts with fuel cell vehicles and game changers such as the Chevy Volt with the goal of "sustainable but affordable mobility." Given GM's financial problems and legendary resistance to change, Burns has made considerable progress. Can you imagine a bigger job? Burns, who has overcome deafness, holds a bachelors' degree in mechanical engineering and a Ph.D. in civil engineering. He's been with GM since 1969.


An 18-year man at Medtronic, Van Danacker spearheaded the engineering team that's enabling implanted medical devices to remotely and wirelessly communicate with doctors around the globe. A University of Minnesota-Duluth graduate who holds degrees in computer science and mathematics, Van Danacker has been responsible for the company's remote bedside monitors, as well as the design of the IT infrastructure that enables its pacemakers and implantable defibrillators to "talk" to doctors over the Internet. His remote patient management technology has already been employed in 265,000 implantable devices, and it could mark the beginning of a major change in medicine.


David Danitz, vice president of Research and Development at Novare Surgical Systems in Cupertino, CA, invented a new type of fully mechanical laparoscopic surgical instrument that allows more precise surgeries at lower risk. Called RealHand, this technology is designed to mirror the surgeon's hand direction with the added benefit of tactile feedback. As such, when the surgeon's hand moves in one direction, the instrument tip exactly follows. Small articulating links connect the jaws to the shaft and the handle to the shaft, which can vary in length from 24 to 45 centimeters. These new instruments are enabling surgeons to perform scar-less surgery entirely through the belly button or other natural orifices. David Danitz joined Novare Surgical in 2000. after serving at Computer Motion as a project manager for the Zeus Surgical Robotic System. He earned a BSME degree with high honors from the University of California at Santa Barbara, and an SMME degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.


A physician with a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering, Todd Kuiken has performed the seemingly impossible task of creating an artificial limb that enables wearers to feel. Kuiken, who has worked on the concept for more than 20 years, has enabled test patients to feel the touch of other human beings on their artificial hands, and is working on enabling them to use their hands to simultaneously squeeze and feel.

 Read about past winners in our Engineer of the Year Hall of Fame!


Lear Stops Whiplash with Dynamic Head Restraint

Lear Stops Whiplash with Dynamic Head Restraint

Lear Corp. is using a mechanical system featuring custom assembly equipment to meet brand-new head restraint safety systems required by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, European New Car Assessment Program and the new Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS 202a).

The U.S. mandate requires automakers to either install in all front-row seats a solution for a dynamic option, such as ProTec PLuS, or for a static option, such as firmer and larger head restraints that are closer to an occupant's head. "Lear's ProTec PLuS dynamic system allows for a more comfortable seating system and greater design flexibility than a static solution," says Don Bernhardt, vice president of seat engineering in a Lear statement. "Additionally, ProTec PLuS, if activated, resets itself automatically."

The riveting assembly system was developed jointly with engineers from Avdel who described the system at the Assembly Technology Expo in Rosemont, IL on Sept. 23. "In rear impact collisions, the passenger's body is forced back into the seat, deploying a mechanism that pivots a mechanism up and forward to cushion the passenger's head," says R.A. Karby, applications engineer at Avdel. "This lightning-quick response significantly reduces the force and movement of the occupant's neck."

One key to the assembly is a highly repeatable process that joins three parts: the head restraint harp frame and two small stamped steel brackets with plastic bushings. The brackets are the core component that pivots the headrest up and forward. The role of the bushings is to prevent noise and rattle during operation of the car.

Five sensors ensure the assembly is accurate, says Karby. Sensors, for example, monitor and balance force and distance of rivet application strokes. "If a hole is too large, if a bracket is missing or if a part isn't quite correct, the system senses these problems and will not cycle," says Karby. Other sensors test for the presence of the plastic bushings. "If all process parameters fall within predetermined limits, the application is date- and time-stamped and can be archived for future reference," says Karby.

The workstation uses Avdel Stavex steel breakstem rivets with a unique crimp design which provides a wide grip range, which provides a smooth bubble formation on the back side of the application. High shear and tensile strength eliminate the need for several grip fasteners.

The assembly process takes about 22 sec. The first car to use the system is the 2009 Cadillac STS.

Lear Stops Whiplash with Dynamic Head Restraint

Herman Miller Launches Aggressive Environmental Design Initiative

Herman Miller Launches Aggressive Environmental Design Initiative

Herman Miller, the office furniture manufacturer, is pushing major soft drink producers such as Coke and Pepsi to remove antimony oxides from their plastic bottles as part of a major green design initiative.

Antimony oxide, which is used as a catalyst in the production of bottle-grade polyester, is a potential health hazard to humans, says Scott Charon, new product business development manager of Herman Miller, which is putting a strong emphasis on recycle content such as bottle waste in its office furniture designs. The Celle, for example, has 33 percent recycle content and the Teneo, due out later this year, will have a recycle content of 24 to 42 percent.

Antimony oxide is part of what Charon calls Herman Miller's "X" list of materials that are avoided in new furniture design. Concern about antimony oxides comes from a report issued in 2006 by the Institute of Environmental Geochemistry at the University of Heidelberg in Germany concluding there is "unambiguous evidence" that antimony trioxide leaches from polyester water bottles. "Comparison of three German brands of water available in both glass bottles and PET containers showed that waters bottled in PET contained up to 30 times more Sb (antimony)," the report states.

There is no debate that antimony can be an irritant in humans. It's listed as a priority pollutant by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the European Union. There is debate about the extent of its role as a carcinogen. Charon told Design News in an interview that Herman Miller is relying on a chemical consulting company called McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry (MBDC) in its exploration of potentially harmful chemicals.

"We're also concerned about fluorinated chemicals and we're moving away from halogenated compounds," Charon said in a sustainability conference session during National Manufacturing Week in Rosemont, IL. PVC is also being designed out.

"We are designing products very differently now and designing a product until the end of its life," Charon says.  Herman Miller is using a cradle-to-cradle design approach espoused by McDounough Baumgart in which the company takes responsibility for its products for their complete life.

Complete analysis of chemistries of all materials used is one approach. Another is design for disassembly. Herman Miller is avoiding use of adhesives assembly and processes such as sonic welding that make disassembly more difficult. It should be possible, says Charon, for a worker to disassemble a Herman Miller product in less than 30 sec with a common tool. Materials must also be clearly identified to facilitate recycling.

The catch, of course, is how much this will actually take place because of high costs and lack of recycling infrastructure in the U.S. Herman Miller is exploring a pilot program in which federal prison inmates would be enlisted to test disassembly. The third area is use of recycled content, where the old soft drink bottles become an issue.

"We use a simple spreadsheet to score all of our products three times during the launch process: the early stages, middle stage and then when we launch a product," says Charon. Those scores plus issues such as costs and supply chain factors are all taken into consideration.

One other goal is use of biobased materials. Herman Miller has developed Kira fibers for use in wall coverings that contain polylactic acid, a corn-derived polymer developed by Cargill. The material quickly degrades when composted, says Charon.

Motion Control Market Still Growing

Motion Control Market Still Growing

The general motion control market, while certainly not immune from the ups and downs of the global economy, seems poised to hold its own over the next few years. A new study from the ARC Advisory Group forecasts that the worldwide market for general motion control technology will experience a compounded annual growth rate of roughly 6.7 percent over the next five years, growing from $6.0 billion in 2007 to $8.2 billion in 2012.

That’s not quite as good as the growth from 2006 to 2007, which came in at just under 9 percent. Yet it’s not bad given current economic trends. “We don’t think everything that’s going on in the world economy will last for another five years,” says Himanshu Shah, an ARC senior analyst and principal author of the study, “General Motion Control Worldwide Outlook.”

If that growth does come to pass, you can give much of the credit to globalization. “While there has been a steady demand for machinery in the highly developed regions, many machinery builders are experiencing unprecedented demand from developing countries, including China, India, as well as the countries of Eastern Europe,“ Shah reports.

According to Shah, globalization is causing manufacturing companies to invest in new capacity. Take automotive, for instance. The rapidly expanding middle class in Asia, Eastern Europe, and Latin America is creating demand for automobiles, resulting in new local factories and increases in capacity at the existing production facilities.  Additionally, more and more parts for the automotive industry are being sourced from Asia.

He predicts that some of the same market forces will likewise trigger capacity increases in a variety of other industries, including consumer goods, food and beverage and electronics.

So what does all this mean from a technology standpoint? Shah points to “higher accuracy and higher productivity” as two overriding desires of machinery buyers throughout the world. These goals favor a variety advanced motion control technologies such as mechatronics, integrated safety, direct drive, linear motors and higher-power drives and motors. And he expects the dollar amount of these cutting-edge technologies to grow over that five year period. “As part of the normal evolution of motion control systems, these technologies will see more use in coming years than they do now,” he says.

Chevy Volt, Performance Capabilities Subject to Change

Chevy Volt, Performance Capabilities Subject to Change

Did I hear that right? A Chevy Volt radio ad this morning concluded with a line like performance capabilities subject to change or may vary. I think it was the former. Should I be surprised given the GM’s rush to get this electric car into production by late 2010? That’s how fluid the battery situation is. The ad touts that you might seldom buy gasoline if you travel 40 miles or less day. Are people going to shell out big bucks for a car whose capabilities are subject to change? That said, I can appreciate GM’s candor.  With the economy the way it is, it seems everything is subject to change by the hour.

Bill Gates on the Financial Crisis, Innovation

Bill Gates on the Financial Crisis, Innovation

Want to feel better about the current financial crisis? Listen to Tom Brokaw’s interview with Bill Gates whose optimism  about innovation and the economy is matched only by his wealth. Gates thinks investment in innovation will continue on through the crisis. Why do I think Gates is running for something? He comes off as a guy who might have some macro answers. I interviewed him a dozen times or more when I was editor of PC Week, an IT newsweekly. He’s come a long way since he was a difficult and sometimes combative CEO in 1980s and 1990s.

Below are some excerpts (Brokaw’s questions are paraphrased). Would you vote for him as president?

Can entrepreneurs still get capital?

“In terms of investing new medicines or improving software and coming with new ways of doing things, the level of investment will stay very, very high. This country in terms of its science and innovative businesses, it’s a great thing for the world. We need a risk-taking culture. The mechanism of risk-taking is not under threat. Even if we did have an economic cycle that was negative, a lot of that endures. In the long run, the U.S. is going to do very, very well. The uniqueness of our universities, science and risk taking - all of that is very much there. It’s just the financial sector that has developed these imbalances. We’ll see our way through it and continue to be a fantastic country and have a great economy.”

Do you worry about a “cataclysmic” event?

“The effect of a depression would be incredibly bad for all countries. The U.S. economy doing well is very, very important to the world.  [We have] challenges like price of food going up and political instability. Fortunately, the general trend line has been very positive. In 1990, over 20 million children died of diseases. A few years ago, we had that below 10 million. It should be zero.”
How can innovative companies help the poor?

“Companies should think about their innovations and how they can help the poor. If you’re a drug company, there are diseases you can put a little extra effort into. If you’re a cell phone company, there are illiterate farmers who want to know farm prices or health advice. It’s taking less than 5% of their innovation power and thinking about these things. Young people want to work for companies that are more involved in that type of innovation.”

Are we going to wipe out malaria?


Liquidity Crunch Could Affect Cash-Raising at Startups

Liquidity Crunch Could Affect Cash-Raising at Startups

Design engineers surely will feel some heat from the current financial liquidity crisis, even assuming the proposed bailout plan is enacted and has a positive effect. It will be hard, particularly in the short-term, for companies to raise capital. All companies are affected, but the hardest hit will be small, entrepreneurial firms that are burning cash. One area of concern could be the fledgling companies that are attempting to build a bioplastic industry in the United States. The Chief Operating Officer at Cereplast, a bioplastic startup in California, announced a decision to concentrate all manufacturing at a plant n Seymour, IN and focus sales activities on a smaller, targeted group of prospects. The move comes as Cereplast prepares for the second phase of a previously announced joint development agreements with Danone and Peugeot-Citroen. Big companies will also feel at least some pain. GE announced it will take on less debt in the fourth quarter to improve its financial liquidity.  Less debt means less spending. Will that mean some slowdown in development of its aggressive wind energy program? We don’t know right now. GM is putting significant financial muscle into Chevy Volt even though its cash position is weak. GM is looking for federal help, possibly in the form of tax benefits, to ease purchasing of the Volt.

Dassault Helps Microsoft Shape Virtual Earth

Touting a new 3-D remix capability, Dassault Systemes has released the latest version of Shape, its free 3-D modeling software, which also lies at the core of the newest release of Microsoft's Virtual Earth platform.

The new Shape 2.0, aimed at consumers who want to get their feet wet building 3-D models and similar to Google SketchUp, will now allow users to construct or "remix" 3-D scenes using models contributed by other users on the community's content library. By entering a search term, users can pick from an array of previously developed models and insert their find into any of their 3-D projects to more easily complete their design, according to David Laubner, director of product marketing for 3DVIA. For example, someone building a 3-D representation of their house to publish online could complete and accessorize their site with furniture, cars or other types of models posted by any of the 45,000 registered users of the 3DVIA site, Laubner says.

"This is designed to be the YouTube of 3D or the Flickr of 3D," says Laubner, explaining the 3DVIA community. "(With Shape 2.0), we're trying to make it as easy as possible to get going in 3D. Things are moving forward every week, there's a new virtual world and people want to experience things in 3D. This is designed to give them a jumpstart."

Building on a partnership announced last October, Microsoft this week announced its latest version of its Virtual Earth platform, which will feature the Shape 2.0 technology. Laubner says the pair had conducted focus groups, which showed consumers' desire for a simple 3-D sketch tool, hence the impetus for useability enhancements such as interactive tutorials with videos and improved user navigation tools along with the remix feature of this latest version.

Virth Earth-3DVIA is designed for both professionals and consumers looking to create realistic 3-D scenes.

Dassault Helps Microsoft Shape Virtual Earth