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Articles from 2013 In September


Reader Vote Round 3: Gadget Freak of the Year

Welcome to the third round of voting in the Gadget Freak of the Year contest from Design News and Allied Electronics. The field is slowly narrowing, leading up to our final showdown, which looks like it will be a photo finish!

By now you know the drill -- choose your favorite of the four Gadget Freak projects below. Will it be the automated mailbox? How about remotely controlled room temperature? Or do you just love the ignition-control unit for the Harley Davidson panhead engine? Perhaps the dishwasher indicator that eases unloading?

Every two weeks for the next eight weeks, we will present four Gadget Freak projects that ran in Design News over the past year. They are all great, so you have a tough task. You have to choose the best one.

In two weeks, we will present four more projects. After six periods of voting, we'll take the winners from each of the six voting periods and present them in a final showdown. The winner will become Gadget Freak of the Year and will win an all-expense-paid trip to the Pacific Design and Manufacturing show in Anaheim, Calif., in February to show off the gadget at the Design News booth.

Allied Electronics, a longtime sponsor of Gadget Freak, is celebrating its 85th anniversary. The company had this to say about our inaugural contest:

As a sponsor of the Design News Gadget Freak of the Year Contest, Allied salutes the creators and innovators who, like Allied, continue to push the boundaries of technology to make the world a better place through innovation. You’re the pioneers who will develop the next great life-changing “thing,” and we’re proud to stand behind you every step of the way.

Now, watch the videos below, and then cast your vote.

Gadget Freak Case #237: Dishwasher Indicator Eases Unloading

Gadget Freak Case #236: Remotely Controlling the Room Temperature

Gadget Freak Case #235: Ignition Control Unit for Harley Davidson Panhead Engine

Gadget Freak Case #234: We Love This Automated Mailbox

Round three voting is now closed. {survey 2311}

NASA Seeks Commercial-Sector Tech for Human Missions

NASA Seeks Commercial-Sector Tech for Human Missions

In the comments to a recent guest blog on NASA and space exploration, several people (including me) wrote that extra-orbital crewed missions tend to get more public attention than ones without crews. But as we've pointed out there, and in other NASA space technology stories, the barriers to human exploration are quite high. It costs a ton to ship people out there and give them life support systems that will last a while, as well as materials that protect them from cosmic radiation.

As it turns out, NASA is hard at work on solving those problems. In fact, the agency is on a mission of its own to involve commercial suppliers of technology and materials in advancing human space flight. "We want to develop new technologies and extend existing ones by partnering with the commercial sector to advance long-range missions," Mayur Ahuja, deputy director of engineering for Jacobs Engineering Group, told Design News. "The goal is to lower the cost of operating in space and of sustaining that operation, as well as to increase the performance of space hardware."

Jacobs has been NASA's partner for several years in getting technologies and materials human-rated for space. The company provides a variety of engineering services to the Johnson Space Center's engineering directorate. These include project management, design and analysis engineering, and integration for space hardware. Ahuja said the technologies are for sub-orbital, low-Earth orbit, transorbital, and deep-space missions for exploration. He'll be giving a talk on this subject at the Design & Manufacturing Texas conference in Houston, October 15 and 16.

Ahuja expects to cover several subjects during his presentation. He will introduce NASA's vision for space exploration, discuss engineering developments at the Johnson Space Center, and talk about trends in advancing human space flight; the commercialization of space technology; and the design, development, testing, and evaluation of flight hardware. He will also share NASA's technology roadmap for several different areas.

For example, advanced power propulsion systems are key technologies for supporting long-duration exploration, but are also big constraints on a mission. "Currently, it costs NASA $50,000 just to launch one gallon of water, weighing about 5 pounds, into space," Ahuja told us. So NASA is looking for materials and people who have done research in those areas. "For example, what does it take to develop an integrated power and propulsion system that utilizes waste gas and heat to support the power and life support system?"

One of the most interesting things Ahuja told us was that NASA wants to adapt commercial-sector technology in a modular fashion, like the military's commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) technology movement of several years ago. That's because, depending on what it's building, the agency typically builds only one or a very small number of systems, each time from scratch. "To sustain ourselves in this environment where funding is tight, we're looking for ways to modularize our systems, regardless of the hardware being developed," he said. "If the application is the same in a different system, we want to re-use that technology." In advanced avionics, he will be showing an example of a payload Jacobs developed that streams high-definition video of the Earth as the International Space Station orbits it. Aside from the power board and the controller board, everything else is COTS.

Other technology roadmap topics include autonomous guidance, navigation, and controls; entry, descent, and landing; regenerative environment control and life support systems; high-efficiency in-space propulsion; and energy production and storage. Ahuja said he will be showing the Robonaut robot, which NASA developed in partnership with General Motors, to illustrate mobility systems and mechatronics. In space suit technology, Jacobs and NASA are designing and building next-generation life-support systems that take advantage of miniaturization to reduce weight, mass, and volume. For advanced lightweight structures, they are looking at developing full-scale structures made entirely of self-healing composites. "How can materials repair themselves from micro-meteroid orbital debris strikes?" he said. "Are there next-generation nanotechnologies for self-healing, self-diagnostic materials?"

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Microchip SoC Simplifies Design of Portable Products

Microchip SoC Simplifies Design of Portable Products

A new system-on-chip family could speed development of blood pressure monitors, lab instruments, power meters, and myriad other products by combining a 16-bit microcontroller with high-precision analog components.

Microchip Technology Inc., manufacturer of the new product family, says its design will help product engineers minimize board-level noise problems, eliminate communication bottlenecks, and shorten time to market.

"The chances of getting to market in one revision are now much higher," Jason Tollefson, senior product marketing manager for Microchip, told Design News. "This is a much simpler design."

Indeed, the PIC24F GC family, as it's known, essentially includes a full analog signal chain -- 16-bit analog-to-digital converter (ADC), 12-bit ADC, and a digital-to-analog converter (DAC), along with an integrated LCD driver and USB. Also included on the chip is a 16-bit PIC microcontroller. "It's really an analog system-on-chip that happens to have a microcontroller onboard," Tollefson told us.

Microchip is targeting battery-powered portable products with high analog content. The chip maker said the new technology could be applied to glucose meters, pulse oximeters, weight scales, wearable sensors, infrared thermometers, gas sensors, and light meters, in addition to blood pressure monitors and lab instruments.

To help designers get started, Microchip also released a starter kit for the PIC24F GC family. "Our goal was to anticipate what they would need and help them get very close to a final prototype with this board," Tollefson said. "The idea was to provide 95 percent of what designers need to develop a handheld analog prototype."

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Buying IP Is Not for the Faint of Heart

Buying IP Is Not for the Faint of Heart

This month, Microsoft announced that it had reached an agreement to purchase Nokia's handset business for $7.2 billion. Recalling that two years ago, Google purchased Motorola's handset business for nearly twice that much, ($12.5 billion), it seems like Microsoft got a steal of a deal. Or did it?

Having spent a large portion of my career as a development engineer in the telecom industry, I've seen many interesting phenomena: the birth of cellular technology and its explosive growth; the bungled transition from analog to digital in the 1990s, when Motorola lost its top market position; and the ultimate growth curve that added more bells and whistles to this commodity than its little cast-chassis could hold. The cellphone, which was originally a status symbol for trend setters, ultimately became a mere commodity.

Being on an engineering development team, working countless days and nights toward the day when your product finally launches, you always had the vision that you had designed the best device the world could ever see. The marketing launch would be glorious. But then, you'd watch the fanfare quickly fade into absolute oblivion, due to the sheer number of competitors who concurrently developed a closely related offering. That once-in-a-lifetime project for which you missed your kid's birthday and ate cold pizza for dinner four nights a week during tool-release time turned out to be just a tiny, meaningless cog in the gigantic machine called the telecom industry. You had nearly sacrificed your wife and family for what? A crumby commodity, just like corn or pork bellies. So what was the point?

I think Google would say the intellectual property (IP) was the point. IP was the jewel in the $12.5 billion buyout of Motorola -- its IP portfolio. Motorola had amassed a healthy library of very desirable patents over the years, and because of it, it had become well known on the street as a leading technology and innovation company. Motorola management didn't leverage or enforce the patents with any strength, but that's another story. Google owns them now, and it plans to better apply the value proposition of this newly acquired IP.

As I read about the deal between Nokia and Microsoft, I noticed Microsoft paid a very healthy $7.2 billion, but only for the handset business. The deal did not include the ownership of Nokia's patent and IP portfolio. Instead, Nokia agreed to license the IP for Microsoft's use but maintain full ownership of its coveted portfolio. So was this a good buy? Microsoft's stockholders didn't think so, and the NAV of Microsoft fell sharply on the news.

Microsoft's funds would have been better spent if they just stayed in the bank. Handset businesses cost a lot of money to run. Development requires large, multi-disciplined teams of people, all drawing nice salaries, and tooling alone can cost millions of dollars for a mass production launch. The completion is fierce, and losing money is a very realistic scenario. The bank may only pay a 0.9 percent return, but it's guaranteed, and it's positive.

Jim Tracy is the founder of Future Product Innovations. He has worked in the telecom, defense, automotive, and medical industries and is recognized for his achievements in advancing technology.

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Don’t Talk About the Temperature Gap

Don’t Talk About the Temperature Gap

When I worked for AGM Glass Machinery, they were considering representing a company that made glass tempering ovens. I was onsite during the start-up and commissioning to learn the system, with the intention of being able to provide local support.

The oven and the engineer were from Finland. The engineer went to great lengths to explain to me how the control program used a recipe to cycle different heating elements on and off in order to heat the glass evenly over a period of time, starting at 70F.

I was also reading and making copies of the operating manuals and parts manuals for reference. One thing I noticed was that the pyrometer had a sensing range from 90C up to a temperature that I don't remember.

I was puzzled, wondering how the controller could run through the portion of the recipe from 70F to about 200F, when it couldn't see any temperature below about 200F.

The next day I told the engineer about the sensing range of the pyrometer, and I asked him how the control program used the portion of the recipe from 70F to 200F. He didn't answer. And he actually did not talk to me for the next two days.

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

Tell us your experiences with Monkey-designed products. Send to Rob Spiegel for Made by Monkeys.

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Critical Connections

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All Under One Roof

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Slideshow: Apple iPhone 5c Teardown

With an array of colors to choose from (white, blue, pink, green, and yellow), we decided upon blue. What makes the iPhone 5c different from the <a href="http://www.designnews.com/document.asp?doc_id=268115&itc=dn_analysis_element&"" target=""new"">iPhone

The tornado of new Apple devices has taken us over the rainbow, and we have landed in the world of technicolor. We now "c" the light, but what will we "c" inside? Only tools, time, and tenacity will tell.

We know you are as anxious as we are to find out exactly what the "c" means. Here at iFixit, we like to answer the hard questions in life: "Why is it called the c? Why can't Apple name devices in a way that makes sense? What will the insides be like? You asked; we answered. So join us for a colorful taste of the Apple rainbow as we tear down the iPhone 5c.

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