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Articles from 2009 In September


"Hot Wheels" Gets a Whole New Meaning

"Hot Wheels" Gets a Whole New Meaning

I complained about lousy suitcases recently, but I must confess that I never realized how bad things could really get. Though this story about a cheap roller bag, submitted by Robert Oppenheimer (no relation to that Oppenheimer)  goes back a few years, it’s a true made by monkeys ordeal:

“I bought a rolling bag for one of my very infrequent business trips. Granted that it was a bit on the inexpensive (pronounced ‘cheap’) side, but it did work nicely–up to a point.

I was running late getting to the Albuquerque, NM airport for a trip back to NYC. I dropped off my rental car and ran the quarter mile to the terminal - dragging my rolling bag along behind me. I was unaware of anything abnormal until I entered the terminal and noticed folks staring at me.

Stopping for a moment to catch my breath, a strong smell of burning plastic overtook me. Seems that the wheels on my bag had been rubbing against the wheel well of the rental car, generating enough friction to start melting. The axles also did not have any bearings and caused heating. Thankfully this was pre-9/11 or I’m sure that I would have been detained.

I wound up picking the bag up and carrying it to the baggage check. When I got home, I did a tear-down and replaced the wheels with ones from an old roller blade. Although the repair looked promising, I never had to use it for another business trip.”

KNF ‘NF600’ Self-Priming Diaphragm Pump Offers Compact Solution for Dosing or Transferring Liquids

The new KNF NF600 self-priming diaphragm pump for dosing or transferring liquids incorporates advanced four-diaphragm technology to promote smoother and continuous flow, low pulsation and vibration, quiet-running performance, and maximized efficiency. This compact solution (as small as 135 mm x 111 mm x 105 mm) can deliver a nominal flow rate of 6 l/min, suction height of 8.8 in. Hg, and pressure up to 15 psig. These pumps are well equipped for medical diagnostic analyzers, dialysis liquid circulation, water treatment and analysis, ink-jet printers, and semiconductor operations, among other applications.NF600 pumps are available in three motor types (ac, brush-commutated dc, or brushless dc) and can provide stable pumping action over a potential service life exceeding 50,000 hours. The pumps require minimal maintenance and are designed without tubing to eliminate possible pump failure due to tubing fatigue or rupture. Their corrosion-resistant PP/PVDF/FFPM/PTFE envelope can handle acids, caustics, and other harsh materials. Highly chemical-resistant versions expand application potential.

Other noteworthy pump features include NFS grade TPF and TP heads and specially engineered anchor valves contributing precision and reliability. A wide standard range of materials, voltages, and frequencies can be specified and pumps can be easily customized for any application. Specialized accessories include diaphragm pressure control valves, pulsation dampers and hoses.

- Edited by Liz Taurasi

EcoCAR Challenge Throttles into Year Two

EcoCAR Challenge Throttles into Year Two

Seventeen university teams are heading into the next stage of the three-year EcoCAR: the NeXt Challenge automotive engineering competition, convening in Boston this week for additional training designed to prepare them for the validation and testing work that comes with year two.

The competition, established by the United States Dept. of Energy (DOE) and General Motors and managed by the Argonne National Lab., challenges university teams in North America to reduce the environmental impact of vehicles while retaining performance and safety standards and without sacrificing consumer appeal. The teams are charged with reengineering a donated 2009 Saturn Vue to explore advanced propulsion and clean vehicle solutions, including full-function electric, range-extended electric, hybrid, plug-in hybrid and fuel cell technologies. The students have to comply with real-world engineering processes to design and integrate their advanced technology designs and they are also working to incorporate lightweight materials to improve aerodynamics and to utilize alternative fuels such as ethanol, biodiesel and hydrogen.

Rather than being a forum to generate production-ready new, alternative vehicle technologies, the EcoCAR challenge is really about fostering a breeding ground for up and coming engineers, introducing them to key technologies and indoctrinating them in real-world design processes. "While the technologies that go into the vehicles are definitely cutting edge, we don't think one of these vehicles is going to change the world or outperform GM," says Mike Walstrum, control and simulation engineer at the Argonne National Lab. "We're trying to acclimate students to the real-world environment. Our goal is to develop engineers of the future who can really hit the ground running and start their careers off by developing environmentally friendly automotive applications."

To that end, the teams are settling into year two of the competition, focused on the testing and validation stage of their designs. While model-Based Design tools  such as SimuLink from The MathWorks and others from National Instruments were used the first year to create the engine components, the tools will now play a role in optimizing and testing the design parameters and the control software prior to the build stage where the teams create near-production-ready components. Model-Based Design is important to the competition — and design teams, in general — because it allows engineers to test a variety of scenarios quickly before launching into the more costly and time-consuming physical implementation.

"Engineers are good at experimenting with things and trying different configurations, and model-based methods provide a safe playground where they can investigate different configurations," says Paul Smith, director of consulting services at The MathWorks. Because real-world automotive suppliers like GM apply model-Based Design in their design processes, exposing up-and-coming engineers to the discipline and the available tools is critical to their training, Smith says.

For Jeremy Wise, team leader for the University of Victoria's EcoCAR team, learning to embrace model-Based Design has been the ultimate learning experience of the challenge. "At first, I didn't like it," he says, "because you had to do work before you got to play with the engines and motors. I just wanted to get my hands dirty working on the cars. This has given me a taste of the real world."

Did the world’s axial tilt just change?

As far as I know and after surveying the world’s top scientists, there is no evidence of any kind of recent shift of the earth’s axial tilt.  Yet, I understand why people everywhere may be wondering about this.  From my own recent experience, something in the world has recently changed.    Being a person in my mid 40s, my professional career has lived through the evolution of Microsoft Windows.  As such, from Windows 3.1.1 to Windows 95/97 to Windows NT to Windows ME to Windows 2000 to Windows XP and the curse of Windows Vista,  I, like many, have become accustomed to learning how to kill locked up applications with task manager, the need for the daily reboot and the benefit of the cleaning reinstall to clean up my system.   Nonetheless, my systems, no matter how much I increased the memory and processing speed, seemed to slow down over time.   Meanwhile, being a Unix lover from my days at Bell Labs, I also stood by with admiration of the expansion of Linux, an offspring of Unix and Apple’s decision to move their operating system to a stable Unix based kernel.

On the cell phone side, I had reluctantly migrated to Windows Mobile based phones in the hopes of making my life more productive, even though I knew sluggishness and instability was my destiny.  A year and a half ago, I abandoned the daily reboots of my Windows Mobile phone and gleefully followed the masses by embracing the iPhone 3G.  Like it or not, the world was how I expected it would be.

In the last week, however, the foundation of all my expectations has been shaken by two independent experiences.  First, I volunteered to become one of the evaluators of Windows 7 in our corporate environment.   Note, that because of my own terrible experiences with Windows Vista, I had dutifully remained on Windows XP, accepting the fact that my environment continued to get slower and slower in between more frequent cleaning reinstall cycles.  Even though I’m running only a 32 bit version of Windows 7, I have found the experience amazingly satisfying.  My applications and environment has become down-right zippy and my user experience with intuitiveness, connectivity and stability has been surprisingly “Apple-like.”

My second experience relates to my iPhone. After doing what I thought would be an innocuous iPhone software upgrade as part of a periodic sync, all of my non-Applie iphone applications suddenly refused to work.  I dutifully walked through all the troubleshooting steps.  As each one failed, I was forced to do a complete restore of my iPhone, followed by a re-installation of all my applications.  Ugh!   Since that time, my iPhone has gone into unresponsive lala land three times where I.ve had to resort to the double-button-hold system restart - an experience very similar to the curses of my old Windows Mobile Phones.

I suppose more data is needed to determine if something drastic has happened.  Perhaps this is just a blip in the otherwise predictable trajectory.  For now I’m going to enjoy the new found zippiness and stability of Windows 7 and pray that my iPhone returns to normal.

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The Adventure of the Shifty Weights

The Adventure of the Shifty Weights

A ChemE instructor uses this case to teach students that the answer is to an engineering problem often is literally right in front of you

By Marv Havens, Contributing Writer

Over forty years ago, I took the Introduction to Chemical Engineering class with Dr Harvey Grice. He had retired from decades with industry and made it his mission to teach us young students the practical side of engineering. His favorite technique was to tell war stories and bring them to a point. One lecture still stands out after all these years:

Dr. Grice brought in his work notebook from a stint at Birdseye Foods. They had been having a quality control problem on one shift, basically frozen pea package weights would run heavy for a while, then drop and run light, a step-function without any apparent time period. The weight variations were roughly the same magnitude, just heavy or light of the tare weight.

He added that the operator’s job was to pick a package every few minutes and check its weight on a tared mechanical balance. The operator would then adjust the filling operation for more or less weight as needed. Further down the line, the QC department also did a weight check and plotted the data. He gave us a plot of the QC department’s data and asked us to suggest causes and solutions.

marv.jpg

After some discussion, he offered his observations and answer:

Remember that this was decades ago with mechanical balances, meaning a needle against a scale. The balance was tared such that at the correct net package weight, the pointer would be straight up. It seems that on the shift in question, the operator was a bit, uhm, large. She sat on a small stool, “parking” herself to one side. She would then pick up and weigh packages, and adjust the filling operation for what she saw on the needle reading.

The process would run along for a while on this adjustment. Then she would shift position to the other side, take more packages and adjust the filling operation accordingly.

Parallax was the problem, depending upon which side the operator sat on. There was an offset (either positive or negative) that correlated with the angle she viewed the needle from. So the filling operation would run heavy for a while, then light, at always about the same offset and with no specific periodicity.

The solution: A bigger cushion on the operator’s stool. And possibly a change in diet that involves more vegetables.

Dr. Grice made the point of his war story a teaching opportunity: For most engineering problems, the answer is literally in front of you. As engineers, our job is to recognize it. Once seen, the resolution is often straightforward. And his lesson is still pertinent today — you cannot solve engineering problems from the office. Get out there and see what is real.

Thanks Harvey. I try to pass on what you taught me.

Contributing Writer Marv Havens is a BC (Before Calculator) Engineer. He is currently a chemical engineer at Sealed Air’s Cryovac Division in South Carolina. Previously, he worked for Shell Oil and Union Carbide. He has thirty patents and teaches in-house classes in Polymer Science. He still contributes to a scholarship fund in Harvey Grice’s name.

FIU Preserves a Piece of Energy Engineering History

At the College of Engineering at Florida International University (FIU), near Miami, an eco-friendly central park is under construction. The centerpiece of this park is not a waterfall or a fish pond. Instead it is an important piece of energy engineering history that I am very pleased to see FIU preserving so well: the university’s 2005 entry in the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Solar Decathlon.

In 2008, DOE conducted a study of the whereabouts of 2005 Solar Decathlon entries, and the results are posted here. Thankfully, true to the nature of the competition they were designed for, all of these houses have now been put to good use. This outcome is in stark contrast to the 2002 Decathlon entries, cataloged here, almost all of which were destroyed or are not longer used.

I recently had an opportunity to view the FIU Solar Decathlon house while the surrounding eco-park was still under construction. I’m an energy engineer. So, this visit was a real treat for me. Imagine how an aviator would feel visiting an SR-71 in a newly built flight museum - it was a pretty similar experience. Here is an image of me peaking into the window of the FIU house.

Called “Engawa” (a traditional Japanese wooden porch) FIU’s entry did not finish well in the overall 2005 Solar Decathlon competition. However, the house was a top finisher in the Energy Balance Contest. To date, it is the only entry from any Florida university. Now it is being put to excellent use as an educational and fundraising piece for energy engineering research. As described in an FIU press release, “Brick by brick: College of Engineering and Computing building park to honor alumni and friends,” a pathway of sponsored bricks is being built from the engineering building to the FIU Decathlon house as a bridge between past and present to honor alumni and friends of the school.

Was The Tesla Story 'A Joke?'

Design News reader Murat Okçuoğlu, an automotive engineer in Santa Barbara, CA, recently sent the following e-mail to us about our September cover story on Design News Engineer of the Year, JB Straubel.

I thought your September cover was a joke.

Tesla has received over $50 million from customers, over $187 million from investors and over $500 million from US government including subsidies but delivered just over 500 cars. This comes to significantly more than $1,000,000 per car.

I agree that emerging technologies need investment and sacrifice, but electric car is not at its infancy, the technology is actually older than gasoline engine variant.

            I though engineering was about reason and feasibility. I am afraid without common sense anywhere on the horizon, US auto industry is heading rapidly to where the British auto industry went, to oblivion.

Since Mr. Okçuoğlu sent the e-mail to me, and since I wrote the cover story in question, I think it’s appropriate that I respond to him, which I’ll do here.

Dear Mr. Okçuoğlu,

Thanks for your e-mail. I enjoyed reading it, even if you did call my cover story a joke.

            Before I address your issues, though, I need to say this: If you’re trying to provoke an argument, you’ll have a hard time starting one here. Right now, my e-mail queue is packed with between 800 and 900 angry notes that I’ve received over the past four years, largely because I’ve argued that electric cars aren’t ready for prime time. Three years ago, after I wrote a column saying how much I disliked the movie, Who Killed the Electric Car?, I even ended up in an uncomfortable public battle with my then-chief-editor, who was a lover of all that’s green. You see, I still believe that the energy density of today’s electric car batteries is too low, the re-charge times are too long, and vehicle costs are too high to make a big impact on today’s market place. And – based on the comments of battery experts I’ve talked to at MIT, the University of California Berkeley and elsewhere – I don’t believe there’s a magic bullet on the horizon. Getting to Electric Car Paradise is going to require a lot of hard, tedious work.

            So why would we choose a Tesla engineer for the magazine’s top award? First and foremost, because our readers voted for him. Second, because I think our readers were right. Third, because Straubel did some of that hard, tedious work.

            In your e-mail, Mr. Okçuoğlu, you mentioned reason, feasibility, and common sense. By traditional measures, there would be nothing reasonable or feasible about spending $1 million per vehicle. But traditional measures aren’t at work here. We’re worried about wars in the Middle East, reliance on undependable sources of oil, and something now called Climate Change. So we need another way to power our vehicles – if not today, at some point in the future.

            From what I can tell, JB Straubel’s helping us get there. The best battery people I know were shocked that the Tesla Roadster got 244 miles to a charge. Most experts believed Tesla would do good to get half that. Even Bob Lutz of GM admitted to being impressed. And Tesla’s engineers did that work before the U.S. government laid $465 million on them.

            So, Mr. Okçuoğlu, I do understand your concerns. I even share many of them. But I’m afraid our old, hard-headed methods of cost-benefit analysis don’t apply here. Straubel won for a good reason: He stretched the state of the art in technical arena that’s important to the country. That’s what makes an Engineer of the Year.

            Now I’ve got to go tend to my e-mail. There’s a cold wind blowing, and I have a feeling the queue’s going to be filling up again.

Was The Tesla Story 'A Joke?'

Was The Tesla Story 'A Joke?'

Design News reader Murat Okçuoğlu, an automotive engineer in Santa Barbara, CA, recently sent the following e-mail to us about our September cover story on Design News Engineer of the Year, JB Straubel.

I thought your September cover was a joke.

Tesla has received over $50 million from customers, over $187 million from investors and over $500 million from US government including subsidies but delivered just over 500 cars. This comes to significantly more than $1,000,000 per car.

I agree that emerging technologies need investment and sacrifice, but electric car is not at its infancy, the technology is actually older than gasoline engine variant.

            I though engineering was about reason and feasibility. I am afraid without common sense anywhere on the horizon, US auto industry is heading rapidly to where the British auto industry went, to oblivion.

Since Mr. Okçuoğlu sent the e-mail to me, and since I wrote the cover story in question, I think it’s appropriate that I respond to him, which I’ll do here.

Dear Mr. Okçuoğlu,

Thanks for your e-mail. I enjoyed reading it, even if you did call my cover story a joke.

            Before I address your issues, though, I need to say this: If you’re trying to provoke an argument, you’ll have a hard time starting one here. Right now, my e-mail queue is packed with between 800 and 900 angry notes that I’ve received over the past four years, largely because I’ve argued that electric cars aren’t ready for prime time. Three years ago, after I wrote a column saying how much I disliked the movie, Who Killed the Electric Car?, I even ended up in an uncomfortable public battle with my then-chief-editor, who was a lover of all that’s green. You see, I still believe that the energy density of today’s electric car batteries is too low, the re-charge times are too long, and vehicle costs are too high to make a big impact on today’s market place. And – based on the comments of battery experts I’ve talked to at MIT, the University of California Berkeley and elsewhere – I don’t believe there’s a magic bullet on the horizon. Getting to Electric Car Paradise is going to require a lot of hard, tedious work.

            So why would we choose a Tesla engineer for the magazine’s top award? First and foremost, because our readers voted for him. Second, because I think our readers were right. Third, because Straubel did some of that hard, tedious work.

            In your e-mail, Mr. Okçuoğlu, you mentioned reason, feasibility, and common sense. By traditional measures, there would be nothing reasonable or feasible about spending $1 million per vehicle. But traditional measures aren’t at work here. We’re worried about wars in the Middle East, reliance on undependable sources of oil, and something now called Climate Change. So we need another way to power our vehicles – if not today, at some point in the future.

            From what I can tell, JB Straubel’s helping us get there. The best battery people I know were shocked that the Tesla Roadster got 244 miles to a charge. Most experts believed Tesla would do good to get half that. Even Bob Lutz of GM admitted to being impressed. And Tesla’s engineers did that work before the U.S. government laid $465 million on them.

            So, Mr. Okçuoğlu, I do understand your concerns. I even share many of them. But I’m afraid our old, hard-headed methods of cost-benefit analysis don’t apply here. Straubel won for a good reason: He stretched the state of the art in technical arena that’s important to the country. That’s what makes an Engineer of the Year.

            Now I’ve got to go tend to my e-mail. There’s a cold wind blowing, and I have a feeling the queue’s going to be filling up again.