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Teledyne LeCroy Debuts PCI Express 5.0 Test Solution

Design News - 8 hours 40 min ago

 Teledyne LeCroy is rolling out a software solution that promises to speed physical layer testing of PCI Express (PCI-e) 5.0 transmitters and receivers.

The solution, known as QPHY-PCIE5-TX-RX, accelerates the test process by automating transmitter characterization and receiver calibration. It’s aimed at leading-edge engineers who are developing fifth-generation PCI-e chips for servers and network products. “It’s going to make it much faster than doing it manually, because it’s all automated,” Patrick Connally, technical marketing engineer for Teledyne LeCroy, told Design News. “And it’s going to be much more repeatable.”

At DesignCon, Teledyne Lecroy demonstrated the PCI-e 5.0 solution on its LabMaster 10 Zi-A oscilloscopes. (Image source: Design News)

The software solution, announced at the recent DesignCon 2019 conference, will reach the market this month. It works with Teledyne’s LabMaster 10 Zi-A oscilloscopes and Anritsu’s MP1900A signal quality analyzers, guiding the user through the process of making the necessary connections between the instruments and the device under test. It then automatically configures the system to make the appropriate measurements, performs the test procedure to spec, and compares the results to the appropriate limits in the compliance specification.

The new solution answers an industry need to move to the next level of the PCI Express (Peripheral Component Interconnect) standard. The PCI-e standard, which is essentially a high-speed serial connection, has steadily been boosting its bit rate in response to an industry demand for greater bandwidth. The third generation of the PCI-e standard, which was finished in 2010, offered speeds of 8 GT/s (giga-transfers/sec) and the fourth generation featured 16 GT/s. PCI-e 5.0, which is just rolling out now, boosts that number to 32 GT/s.

Teledyne LeCroy is targeting early adopters of the fifth-generation standard, many of whom are likely to want an automated solution. “It’s a pretty sophisticated test process and it’s time-consuming to do it manually,” Connally said. “So we’ve automated it in a closed loop system because customers are starting to ask for it now.”

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Initially, the company expects users to apply the solution to servers and data center applications. Ultimately, it will trickle down to desktop computers, laptops, and tablets, but that migration will take time, Connally said.

“In the beginning, it will be limited to a fairly small number of early adopters,” he told us. “But as the specification moves on, and the eco-system grows, then the market will get a lot bigger.”

 Senior technical editor Chuck Murray has been writing about technology for 35 years. He joined Design News in 1987, and has covered electronics, automation, fluid power, and auto.

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Shell Buys sonnen

Design News - 19 hours 40 min ago

Royal Dutch Shell, generally considered to be the largest oil company in the world, has been placing a lot of bets lately on alternatives to fossil fuels. Involvement in several giant off-shore wind projects, purchase of electric vehicle (EV) charging networks, and now the acquisition of 100% of sonnen, the innovative German battery grid storage company, all point to Shell’s desire to transition to a portfolio that is not entirely dependent to oil and gas products.

A solar PV system combined with a sonnenBatterie system will allow a homeowner to cover about 75% of the yearly home energy requirement.

Buying sonnen is an interesting move for Shell. In May of 2018, the oil giant had invested $70 million in the battery company. At the time a press release from sonnen reported, “This partnership will include innovative integrated energy propositions, enhanced EV charging solutions and the provision of grid services that are based on sonnen's virtual battery pool.” The goal was to provide financing for accelerating growth in both the United States and Australia.

Sonnen was formed in Germany in 2010 to address the storage battery market for homeowners with photovoltaic (PV) solar arrays. Its sonnenBatterie is a fully integrated system that includes battery modules, an integrated power inverter, a power management systems, and electronic meters to monitor power consumption in a building, for PV solar power generation, and to feed power into the grid, or to allow power-sharing within its own sonnenCommunity. In many ways, the company competes directly with Tesla and its Powerwall home energy storage system.

Distributed Power Generation

Although oil and natural gas, fuels that Shell produces, are sources of energy that are used to generate electricity on power grids, sonnen has focused on distributed power systems such as home PV solar. By adding the company to its portfolio, the oil giant can ensure that it remains a major part of the electricity market.

“sonnen is one of the global leaders in smart, distributed energy storage systems and has a track record of customer-focused innovation. Full ownership of sonnen will allow us to offer more choice to customers seeking reliable, affordable and cleaner energy,” Mark Gainsborough, Executive Vice President New Energies at Shell, said in a news release. “Together, we can accelerate the building of a customer-focused energy system in support of Shell’s strategy to offer more and cleaner energy solutions to customers,” he added.

Christoph Ostermann, Chief Executive Officer and Co-Founder of sonnen, echoed those thoughts in the same news release. “Shell New Energies is the perfect partner for helping us grow in a market that is expanding rapidly. With this investment we’re excited to help more households to become energy independent and benefit from new opportunities in the energy market. Shell will help drive the growth of sonnen to a new level and help speed up the transformation of the energy system,” said Ostermann.

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Meeting The Goals?

Although Shell will obviously continue oil exploration and extraction, investing some of their fossil fuel profits into renewables and alternative energy systems, such as produced by sonnen, is promising.  Shell has created a yearly Sustainability Report since 1997 and in the 2017 edition notes that, “We believe that the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which are largely caused by burning fossil fuels, will transform the energy system in this century.”

In 2017, Shell announced a goal of reducing the net carbon footprint of the products that it produces by around half by 2050. The company also has a goal of a reduction of 20% by 2035. It remains to be seen whether the investments in alternative energy companies and the company’s other actions can lead to the kind of dramatic reduction in greenhouse gas emissions that will be needed to stabilize the climate.

 Senior Editor Kevin Clemens has been writing about energy, automotive, and transportation topics for more than 30 years. He has masters degrees in Materials Engineering and Environmental Education and a doctorate degree in Mechanical Engineering, specializing in aerodynamics. He has set several world land speed records on electric motorcycles that he built in his workshop.

 

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The Future of 3D Printing Is in the Materials

Design News - 20 hours 10 min ago

The hype is finally beginning to dissipate when it comes to the promises of 3D printing and additive manufacturing. Ok, we get it now. 3D printing can’t actually “manufacture anything.” Practicality is becoming the new path in determining production quantity and materials. At the Pacific Design and Manufacturing show earlier this month, a panel of experts in 3D printing discussed the role of materials in assessing whether an object should be printed and how it should be printed.

The materials of the future will determine how 3D printing will fit into the world of manufacturing. (Source: 3diligent)

During the panel, The Key Differences & Benefits in Printing with Metal vs. Plastics, Cathy Lewis, consultant at CLL Management Group, noted that the application determines the material. “We need to balance our excitement about the types of material available with the needs of the specific application. If you are prototyping, stay with plastic. Then if you need a particular quality in the actual production, you can look at metal.”

Even if the production of the object needs to be metal, design iterations to get the design right may be best completed in plastic. “Design is essential. Taking your CAD knowledge and turning it into something beautiful takes time,” said Lewis. “You need design engineers who know what they’re doing, designing for performance. Play with plastic first. Then, when you do move to metal, your support structures are different, and they are more painful.”

Matching the Material to the Application

The application should determine both the material and the printing process. “We look at the application and the desired properties to help decide if laser metal is right or if something else is right,” said Melanie Lang, co-founder and managing director of Formalloy. “Metal might be required because of heat. We do a lot with aerospace and automotive, and that means some metal.”

In addition to design considerations, the life of the object in the field needs to be part of the determination on materials. “Once you get the design, then you look at materials. What is your application? Is there heat? Do we need to sterilize the part? Do you have to have a higher heat resistance to improve stiffness?” said Joe Cretella, application engineer at Protolabs. “You start to combine those properties to get to the right material.”

The quantities to be produced is another factor that needs to be taken into considerations when assessing materials. “Certain processes lend themselves to smaller parts,” said Colin Hilkene, CEO of 3Diligent. “If you are scaling up to bigger parts, you’ll need a different technology and different material.”

New Materials Are on the Way

The materials available for 3D printing are a moving target. The right material for an object may not be on the market yet. But it may be coming. “Companies continue to innovate with materials. The greatest number of new patent applications are in materials science, and much of that is for 3D printing,” said Lewis. “In the next five years, we will see an explosion of materials that have never been thought of before.”

While metal 3D printing has commanded attention during recent years, there may be non-metal materials coming that surpass the qualities of metal. “Materials is a big growth area with a steep learning curve,” said Lang. “There are a lot of new materials coming online. You can take something bronze and replace it with bronze-ish that has improved properties.”

Waiting for the 3D Printing Industry to Mature

At this point in its development, 3D printing still has plenty of growth before it reaches anything like technological maturity. As an example, post-production processing for many 3D printed objects is still a time-consuming part of the production process. “One of the biggest misconceptions about 3D printing is that you push a button and the part comes out,” said Lang. “You might have to remove it off a build plate and do machine work on it.”

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Even with the promise of improved materials coming down the pike, the 3D print process itself still needs improvement. “The machines have to get faster. It’s not just the materials we’re waiting for,” said Hilkene. “The materials can work on scale to drive prices down. You also need to know about materials properties. A lot of times, 3D metal does better than casting.”

Rob Spiegel has covered automation and control for 19 years, 17 of them for Design News. Other topics he has covered include supply chain technology, alternative energy, and cyber security. For 10 years, he was owner and publisher of the food magazine Chile Pepper.

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Reader Submitted: How a Ukrainian NGO is Improving Post-Soviet Children's Hospitals Through Design

Core 77 - 21 hours 50 min ago

For The Vlada Brusilovskaya Fund, contemporary interactive design is a way to improve service of post-Soviet children's hospitals. The charitable foundation has been collaborating with both young and experienced Ukrainian designers for three years, aiming to change the relationship between doctors, patients and their parents for the better.


Post-Soviet interior sickness nursed by therapeutic design

Children's hospitals built in the Soviet Union from 1950s to 1980s are easily confused with any other official governmental building of that time. Austere concrete, gloomy dirty-green corridors, uncomfortable waiting chairs on thin metal legs and aggressive red posters on the walls ordering patients around or, more often, prohibiting something... hospital interiors could be associated with a prison rather than with a place where help is found.


However, the first impression is not far from the truth. In Soviet times, architecture was part of ideology. It was aimed at suppressing freedom of will and destroying the sense of self as an independent person.


Most Ukrainian hospitals today look exactly the same as in the 50s or 60s. Since the 1990s, less than 10% of medical institutions in Ukraine have been built or reconstructed.


Children suffer from Soviet official interior design the most. They easily become stressed and depressed. Prolonged treatment in old hospitals leads to mental injuries that are not immediately apparent, but remain for life. This is seen in particular, in adulthood, when they try by all means to avoid professional treatment or get suspicious of doctors and medical institutions in general.

Our organization has undertaken the mission to make the environment of old hospitals friendly, to inspire doctors and provoke the hospital directors to change the appearance of their institutions.


CUBA BUBA #1pioneer box-like play centre for Ukrainian Children's Hospitals, 2017CUBA BUBA #2All CUBA BUBA play centres have the same size (2,4?1,7?2,3m). Architects invented the standard, having studied the Soviet engineering standards for children's institutions.CUBA BUBA #1CUBA BUBA #2second box-like play center for entertainment and treatment, 2017CUBA BUBA #2climbing ropes to create patterns on the walls of the play centreCUBA BUBA #3the third play centre is a home-like version of the first one, 2017CUBA BUBA #4the team expanded the CUBA BUBA environment to include the whole room, 2018CUBA BUBA #4a huge bamboo percussion instrument inside CUBA BUBA #4, 2018CUBA BUBA #4CUBA BUBA #5a working project of the hospital wardView the full project here

Good Design: Ten Examples of Great UX

Core 77 - 21 hours 50 min ago

What do laypeople consider "good design?" I'm not talking about the stuff MoMA sells at their store, I'm talking about the little everyday products and experiences we encounter. Here are ten examples that jumped out at me from a subReddit on the topic:

I love this, though it's no surprise why we don't see it often. Can you imagine trying to frame and install this  ?

"This door in my hotel bathroom can close off either of 2 doorways."

The placement makes better sense than at eye level, though this ought have its own illumination.

"The hotel I am staying at has the fire evacuation plans at ground level so you can see them if smoke has filled the hallways."

Probably fake, but it would be great if this feature actually existed.

"The toaster oven at my parents' house has a button for 'a bit more.'"

I have mixed feelings on this one. (It's a hand sanitizer dispenser on a public bathroom door, if you can't tell.) Could people smoothly operate this while exiting, or is it meant to be used with the door stationary, thus creating a bottleneck at the exit?

"All public bathrooms need this."

Admittedly this is no improvement at all, and is probably more onerous to store than the fold-flat sandwich board variety. But I'm tickled by the fact that it's a banana, so sue me.

"This wet floor sign in a restaurant."

Mo' potatoes, mo' problems.

"This plant holder allows you to collect vegetables without digging out the entire plant."

So smart. Everything from the low-cost pool noodle to the see-through portion for visibility.

"This car park in France has soft barriers between parking spaces to stop people scratching other cars."

I've always thought showers should have a mechanism like this: One feature to control water pressure, the other to set the exact temperature you like. This one appears to only monitor the temperature, but I still like it better than conventional shower controls.

"Shower thermometer."

Just smart.

"This hand cream has a grip so you can close it with slippery hands."

Perfect for vertically-oriented outlets.

"This plug that don't bother others plugs."

Do you have any favorite examples of good design/UX along the lines in these photos?

Ford (Yes, the Car Company) Invents a Conveyor-Belt-Based Bed for Couples

Core 77 - 21 hours 50 min ago

As every couple that shares a bed knows, there is an imaginary 50-yard-line down the middle of that bed, and both parties can get a good night's sleep if there are no advances or losses in territory. When one partner crosses that DMZ, unconsciously thrashing about in the throes of a spicy-Thai-food-driven nightmare, they're literally in for a rude awakening.

Admittedly it's not the world's most pressing problem. But Ford's designers and engineers had a bit of fun with the phenomenon by devising the "Lane-Keeping Bed," which uses the same lane-keeping sensors that are in their cars to monitor when one sleeper has crossed into another's "lane." Then a conveyor-belt-like surface corrects the situation:

Of course, technically speaking the system doesn't actually separate the partners; following the bed-correction, the one whose space has been intruded upon must still retreat, it's just that they now have more space to retreat to. But hey, we don't see GM, Toyota or Honda doing anything about this.


Dero's FixIt: A Small-Footprint Bicycle Repair Station

Core 77 - 21 hours 50 min ago

Minnesota-based bicycle rack manufacturer Dero describes themselves as "bike parking nerds." The company is obsessed with populating the world with bicycle infrastructure, and in addition to their focus on parking, they've also tackled the area of spot maintenance with their FixIt repair station.

The Fixit includes all the tools necessary to perform basic bike repairs and maintenance, from changing a flat to adjusting brakes and derailleurs. The tools are securely attached to the stand with stainless steel cables and tamper-proof fasteners. Hanging the bike from the hanger arms allows the pedals and wheels to spin freely while making adjustments.Add your choice of an Air Kit bike pump (sold separately) to keep your cyclists' tires topped up and ready to roll.

Here's Jeff DeQuattro of the Delta Bike Project, a nonprofit cycling advocacy organization, running down the FixIt:

The bulk of the FixIt is made from recycled materials:

Here's an interactive nationwide map of where you can find FixIt stations:

If you're an urban planner seeking to integrate FixIts in your community, you can download CAD or REVIT files for the units here.

Sphero's BB-8 Rolled into Robot Fame. Their RVR Prototypes Open Up a Much Wider Universe of Possibilities.

Core 77 - 21 hours 50 min ago


Sphero's RVR prototypes expand on the functionality that made their BB-8 bot a household name.

Late one night in 2015, the Sphero team gathered in their Boulder, Colorado, offices to watch Star Wars Celebration Live, a 30-hour live stream hyping the first new Star Wars movie to come out in 10 years.

The team knew something other fans didn't: this would be fans' first look at BB-8, a lovable new droid character. Disney had licensed their team to make it, but no one had spoken publicly about it. To their surprise, Star Wars producer Kathleen Kennedy jumped the gun and hinted at the toy release in the broadcast.

"Our Twitter started blowing up right away," Sphero cofounder Adam Wilson recalls. "We were like, 'Um, this is gonna be much bigger than we thought.'"

It was. They went on to sell hundreds of thousands of units in just a few days, and the BB-8 toy became the coveted holiday gift of 2015. Wilson estimates that no other company, aside from iRobot, the maker of the Roomba, has made more robots.

The BB-8 bot made Sphero famous.

The explosion of interest proved to be a crash course in how to make indestructible robots that connect to just about any smartphone. But when Wilson looks back at his first product, he concedes that "all you can really do is turn it a color and then drive it around."

Today, as his team shares a first look at their new RVR prototypes on Kickstarter, Wilson is excited to show how much more his latest robot can do. Newbies can still easily set up straightforward commands, but as they get more advanced, they can also attach and run third-party hardware like a Raspberry Pi, micro:bit, or Arduino, using RVR's durable, reliable engine for creative applications like autonomous metal detection, battle bots, environmental sensors, or place-based musical instruments. "Chances are, if you can hack it, RVR can do it," they say on their project page.

RVR is designed to host a wider range of creative uses.Born of open-source principles, simplified to be classroom-friendly

When Wilson and his cofounder Ian Bernstein first started work on Sphero in 2010, they knew they wanted to make robots that kids and experts alike could take apart and make their own. "We had this rule that no matter what we did, we would make this product hackable. It had to have an open API. Nintendo and Microsoft, with XBox, they keep everything so locked up. We always wanted to make hackable robots that you could really program."

The problem, they realized, was that not very many people cared to do that hacking. Or maybe the problem was that not many knew how to do that hacking. "So we decided that the best place to start was educational robots," Wilson says.

Smartphones were becoming ubiquitous, and all kinds of "Internet of Things" inventors were experimenting with connecting physical devices to apps. Their concept for the original Sphero bot was a small rolling light-up ball that you could program and direct from your phone. They positioned it as an educational tool and sold it to classrooms in sets of 12.

"There's something really satisfying about that instant gratification where on the screen you say, 'Go forward, then stop, then turn red,' and the robot does that in real life. We saw kids change from saying, 'I don't like technology,' or 'I don't like robots or computers,' to 'I might want to be a programmer.'"

Robots themselves aren't as exciting as all the things you can do with them

The team had a hypothesis that their earliest models quickly confirmed: most kids don't care about the hardware or software, they want to see what they can do with the thing.

The Sphero Edu app lets users code in JavaScript or drag and drop different functions with block programming, but maybe more importantly, it includes a "community" tab where anyone can share projects and experiments they've run, from lesson plans that teach geography to games built around the colored lights. Teachers have uploaded more than 2 million programs on everything from coding to circulatory systems to color theory to buoyancy.

"We see our robots as a canvas," explains product manager Ryan Burnett. "We're not selling you hammers and saws, we're showing you how cool it is to build your own deck. 'It transforms your backyard! You can do this yourself! And you'll need a couple of skills and tools along the way, but you're building a deck, isn't that cool?' At the end you feel so accomplished."

Gender-neutral toys are important, but a sparkling Star Wars personality proved irresistible

The Sphero team originally liked the idea of creating a gender-neutral robot that all kids could relate to, explains Wilson. Seeing how most robots are tailored to appeal to boys, he thought it was important to be inclusive. But testing Sphero with kids, the team quickly realized that those who played the longest all had one thing in common: they named their robots.

Luckily, the team didn't have to chew on this challenge for too long. Sphero was part of the Techstars accelerator, a prestigious startup support system that had recently penned a deal with Disney. "We had no idea that when we showed up the first week, we would meet Bob Iger," Wilson says. "He pulled up a picture on his iPhone—he had a model no one had seen before because he's on Apple's board—and he pulls up this picture of BB-8 and J.J. Abrams on set. He was like, 'Could you guys make one of these?' We were like, 'Uh, yes. That's what we do. Robot balls.' We made one that night."

Making millions of Disney bots: a crash course in building for everyone

The Disney deal gave Sphero an adorable—and conveniently androgynous—personality to play with. It also forced them to scale up their production faster than they ever thought they'd need to.

After Disney surprised them with the early announcement of the forthcoming BB-8 toy, Wilson called their account manager and asked how many they should expect to sell. "They were like, 'Well, this is unprecedented, there's never been anything like this… Millions?'

The word 'millions' had not been in the plan for us. It was a quick panic, like, 'Dude, we need to start fundraising this week. How are we gonna buy all the materials to make these?'"

They needed more material, more factories, and more test units for all those factories. They got some fast venture capital funding, and expanded their team of about 40 people to about 160.

Their next concern was quality control for all those units. Fortunately, they had always built the Sphero bots to be durable and simple enough for classroom setup. "A lot of teachers who are now assigned to teach code never learned code in school themselves. When they have a whole classroom of students to guide through lessons, it's disruptive to deal with malfunctions or reassembling broken parts," Wilson points out. They kept the unit simple to set up to accommodate instructors and parents who might not have any robotics experience.

But still, scaling production from a few thousand units to several million forced them to tighten up the product and make it compatible with more smartphone models; even a low rate of error would now mean a tsunami of customer support tickets. "Star Wars forced us to be universal," Wilson says. "We made millions of robots, and we got really confident in our ability to make robots that won't break."

Rolling forward with a new product and hardier hardware

Wilson is glad he started with a relatively simple product. "The crappiest thing about robots is the mechanics part of it, in almost everybody's opinion," he says. "So much of the time, you build something, but once you tell it to move forward, it doesn't go in a straight line."

By the time he made millions of BB-8 robots, he finally felt he had the mechanics down—and he was ready to get more ambitious with a new model.

The team started prototyping the RVR as a more adaptable open-source tool that could let users dream up wilder robot missions, "without getting stuck in the weeds of Kalman filters and loops and all this funky stuff," Wilson says. "RVR just goes right where you say, and it's very simple to deal with."

The prototypes they're putting on Kickstarter have Sphero's impeccable location and movement accuracy, but also add all-terrain tank treads that can navigate arcs, climb inclines, and make precise starts and stops. A color sensor on the bottom lets the robot read and respond to the world around it. And a port hooks up to more advanced hardware like Raspberry Pi, micro:bit, or Arduino boards.

"We intentionally made it look pretty neutral, even though it does have this cute little face, and we put a restrained but diverse suite of sensors in it just to get you started. But we wanted to make a platform that gave the community the freedom to tell us what the robot should be," explains product manager Burnett. "If we're doing our job right, the robot disappears into the background. It's all about what you're accomplishing, what you're creating, or the problem you're solving."

He's started testing it out with Sphero engineers and kids in Boulder, and he's already seen RVR put towards an impressive range of uses: a solar power monitoring device that scouts out the sunniest spot in your classroom or home, a musical instrument programmed to play particular notes as it rolls over different colors of construction paper, a mobile weather station, a safe-box that delivers notes to friends who know the secret code to receive them, a companion who goes to sleep when it senses it's on the color programmed to be its "bed."

RVR's color sensors allow for creative applications like playing a particular note every time it rolls over a certain color. 

RVR will use the same app as Sphero, which has a community tab where users can share all these ideas. And the programs made for Sphero, while simpler than what can be done with RVR, will already be there to get new users started.

"We see people doing crazy stuff with just a robotic ball," says Burnett, "so we're really excited to see what they'll do with this whole world of open hardware."

—Katheryn Thayer

Sphero is live on Kickstarter through March 21, 2019.


SendCutSend: A Speedy Outsourcing Service for Laser Cutting Metal

Core 77 - 21 hours 50 min ago

For prototyping parts in metal, a laser cutter comes in dang handy…if you can afford one. For those of you who can't yet justify the cost, yet would like to make prototypes out of metal, an outsourcing service called SendCutSend offers an affordable alternative with speedy delivery times.

They stock a variety of metals--aluminum, brass, copper, stainless steel, cold rolled carbon steel and hot rolled carbon steel--in at least two different thicknesses. Brass and copper max out at a 4'x4' sheet, while the other metals can go up to 4'x10'.

You can upload your design to get a quote. The company accepts vector files in AI, DXF, DWG, or SVG file formats. Once they've received your design, they'll review it and contact you if they have any questions; if they don't, they'll send you a quote. Once you sign off on it, they'll cut your part(s) and ship them to you in three days or less.

Check them out here.

Clever Medical Design: ZipStitch, a DIY Non-Invasive Substitute for Stitches Based on Zip-Ties

Core 77 - 21 hours 50 min ago

I once got stabbed in the head with a wooden knife, during a martial arts class. To close the wound, I had to go to the ER to get stitches in my forehead. It was both gruesome and expensive. The doc couldn't do much but stitch the wound shut, so if there was some DIY way to close the wound, I'd have done that instead and saved myself the bill.

Well, now there is a DIY way to keep wounds shut, and it's scalable to the length of the wound. ZipStitch is a clever invention that requires no expertise to apply, and operates on the same principles as zip-ties:

The company claims their product is 8x stronger than stitches and leaves less scarring:

And if the length of your cut exceeds the length of the ZipStitch, you can of course just gang them up:

Here's a closer look at the design:

Used in hospitals, ZipStitch is also available to the general public. You can even get 'em on Amazon.


Auto Safety Feature of the Near Future: Airbags on the Outside of Cars

Core 77 - 21 hours 50 min ago

In World War II, tank crews would cover their vehicles in sandbags, logs and even concrete. None of these add-ons would completely stop or deflect an incoming shell, but the idea was that the more material you have to soak up an impact, the less the explosive force would penetrate into the cabin.

This principle would also be useful, if impractical, during collisions between civilian cars. And a German auto supplier called ZF Friedrichshafen AG believes they've found a way to make it practical: Install airbags on the outside of a car.

This video takes a look at how ZF's external airbag would work, with the obvious challenge being that it must deploy prior to an impact, unlike a traditional airbag. We also get a look at a Volvo variant installed around the windshield:

I found the factoid at the end of the video both surprising and, after reflection, logical. Airbags are expensive to replace, so of course they'd lead to a rise in cars considered "totaled" by the insurance industry. Since cars are still easier to replace than human beings, we'll take that deal.

The Parting of the Furniture

Core 77 - 21 hours 50 min ago

So it’s come to this: BILLY is joining the gig economy, and he’ll hold your books and whatever else you see fit until you upgrade to KALLAX or HEMNES, or you finally bring yourself to KonMari all your worldly possessions away.

IKEA recently announced that it is looking to launch a subscription model, in which customers effectively “lease” furniture and trade it back via credit system; depending on the condition, the Swedish behemoth will either refurbish or recycle the used items. Initially limited to the office market, the scheme conjures dainty visions of a low-rent WeWork, all LINNMON tabletops and ADILS legs, and maybe some TRÅDFI smart lightbulbs for good measure. If all goes well in Switzerland, where IKEA is reportedly piloting the service starting this month, you’ll soon be able to rent your kitchen — in Northern Europe, cabinets and appliances are regarded as movable furniture, which the occupant buys and takes with them — and maybe even your next NORDLI.

At first blush, it sounds like another case of the subscription model taking finer slices — or in IKEA's case, an EKTORP-sized chunk — of modern life, from the latest Drake album and The Great British Baking Show to weekly/monthly essentials like groceries or razor blades to seasonal frills like couture. As subscribables go, most articles of furniture fall somewhere between a pragmatic nice-to-have (but not to own) like a car, and an unglamorous necessity like underwear. The initiative not only gives new meaning to the phrase “part of the furniture” — as in piecemeal ownership — but it also just makes sense to shed the deadweight, transubstantiating anchor into ballast. On one hand we covet hygge; on the other hand, we live, work, and play in the cloud. The new model promises the best of both worlds: no longer the angst of “either/or” but the joy of “both/and.”

Moreover, given the rise of adjacent life-slicers like Airbnb and upstarts like Wayfair, at least a couple other startups offer the very same. In fact, IKEA’s foray into virtual ownership might also be likened to WeWork for another reason: The idea has existed for decades. Outlets like Rent-A-Center have long offered a rent-to-own financing model for “brand name” furniture, not to mention the countless vendors for office furniture rentals (the coffee machine in the kitchen of my workplace bears a barcode-sticker from one called “Office Essentials”).

Of course, there’s little basis for these comparisons (not least because details remain scant). None of those other companies comes close to processing 1% of the world’s lumber and cotton every year; nor do they have a catalog circulation that rivals the Bible, Koran, and Harry Potter. Yet even at thousands or millions of times the scale of any putative competitors, IKEA sees the same twofold upshot. First, as the consumer-facing proposition described above, tapping into a segment of the population who prefer to lease (or “share”) and not own, whether due to evolving taste, eco-consciousness, or simply because so many of us young people are so transient these days. Secondly — and more importantly — as a Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR, in business lingo) campaign, in keeping with the broader “People & Planet Positive” sustainability strategy it launched in 2012. As executive Torbjorn Loof told the Financial Times, IKEA is looking to “reduce its climate footprint by 15 per cent in absolute terms, which translated into a 70 per cent reduction per product by 2030 due to growth.” Victor Papanek would be proud.

A circular economy won’t come cheap — it’ll certainly be more change than you’ll find between your sofa cushions when you swap it for another one...

Which is all to the good, until you start to ponder the as-yet-TBD logistics of the whole enterprise. Does it include or entail delivery and/or installation, or was that in the PowerPoint slide about upselling white-glove concierge service as an additional revenue stream (here it’s worth noting that IKEA acquired Taskrabbit in 2017)? Will customers still be forced to subject themselves to chaotic parking lots and aggravating queues to rotate their POÄNGS, or will the distribution hubs be dedicated sites in up-and-coming industrial parks? Just how many pulverized, reconstituted FROSTAs does it actually take to make a brand new PAX? If pick-up and delivery are included, will subscriptions inspire a second-order “IKEA Effect,” a self-esteem-boosting pseudo-DIY microdose via monthly MALM? And how much would it cost per annum to subscribe to just the tiny wooden dowels and those vanishing pegs for mounting the shelves of said PAX — parts of the furniture, as it were? (To this last rhetorical question, the answer is that IKEA is also reportedly considering launching a replacement-parts service.)

But those are just the easy questions, the superficial ones; even if the Swiss live more austere lifestyles than Americans, those issues can ultimately be A/B-tested and focus-grouped away. The bigger picture has less to do with how we regard the domestic sphere — cloud-hygge — than with IKEA as a prism for how we consume stuff today.

The Colossus of Almhult

The crucial difference between IKEA and the companies listed above (with the exception of Gillette, and maybe Netflix) is that it actually produces the things it will be leasing. The sui generis giant is a veritable case study on economies of scale and the positive feedback afforded by supply-chain savvy, from the trees to hex-wrench-wielding customers like you and me (or, if you prefer, a Taskrabbit).

As much as this globalized apparatus enables it to deliver on its promise of affordable quality — the original dream of modern design — the reality is that the products are often regarded as temporary, if not outright disposable. Keeping step with the relentless march of obsolescence, it’s a reputation that IKEA won’t shed any time soon, oft-derided as it is for statistically significant rates of user error and materials that are flimsier than jokes about them. (In fairness, I’ve found many IKEA products, from kitchen cabinets to my personal fave, the BEKVAM stepstool, to be sufficiently sturdy.)

IKEA-spotting in Brooklyn

In theory, it is precisely the nasty, brutish, and short lifecycle of such products that makes them prime candidates for the circular economy; one could argue, vis-à-vis Papanek, that the 21st-Century amendment to quaint visions of high-quality, mass-produced goods for everyone would be a circular, guilt-free approach to consumption — again, the best of both worlds. In practice, it seems absurd to amortize the cost of, say, a $13 side table over the duration of its average lifespan (“yours for less than a dollar a month!”) precisely because it’s so cheap and cheerful — less than the cost of a decent cocktail in Manhattan, or your Uber ride home from the bar. All else equal, it’s just plain simpler to toss that LACK when you’re done with it than to assume the opportunity cost of reselling (much less refurbishing) the damn thing.

This is the double-edged sword of a dominant multinational consumer-goods brand-cum-retailer operating at post-industrial, mass-market, high-volume/low-cost scale: IKEA’s superlatively value-engineered products are widely and cheaply acquirable, generally serviceable, guiltlessly disposed of. Insofar as BILLY is a minimum viable product designed for maximum marketable profit, IKEA is a krona-making machine; its margins neither razor-thin nor overstuffed but sufficiently plush, cleverly vacuum-packed yet still offering plenty of cushion for the bottom line. A circular economy won’t come cheap — it’ll certainly be more change than you’ll find between your sofa cushions when you swap it for another one — and it remains to be seen as to whether IKEA will eat its profit margins or try to squeeze the difference out of its customers. (Duly noted that IKEA also derives its success from questionable labor practices, complacency in consumer safety, and sketchy non-profit governance, but those are topics for another time.)

A Circular Argument

Circling around to the far side of the product lifecycle, it’s worth relating an ongoing crisis in the waste management industry (drowned out by various more strident headlines of late). As of last year, China — by far the world’s largest processor of post-consumer recycling — is no longer importing Western waste, effectively strangling the outflow of scrap paper and plastic from Stateside operators. It’s too complexly wicked an economic problem to summarize here (thankfully the likes of the New York Times and Wall Street Journal have done so), but the short version is that your local blue/green-bin hauler used to turn a profit by selling your Amazon boxes (properly broken down, please) and discarded clamshells to China, and now they’re probably paying for the privilege — or, more likely, quietly dumping it in landfills (at least until the robots come).

What does that have to do with IKEA taking back your MELLTORP, replacing a screw, and shunting it to the as-is section? Nothing, and everything: Besides a friendly reminder that the first R is “reduce,” it seems that even the greenest of intentions are beholden to the unforgiving logic of free-market economics.

Hence, a paradox: On one hand, only a company with IKEA’s heft, insulated as it is from the vagaries of market volatility, can meaningfully combat climate change, i.e. by bringing its prodigious efficiencies to bear on the problem. On the other hand, the calculus of a circular economy simply may never equal the unquantifiable — and frankly inconceivable — scale of what’s at stake. In its very thorough analysis of China’s “National Sword” policy (as the scrap stoppage is known), the Financial Times compares the annual gross tonnage of recycling worldwide to “the weight of 740 Empire State Buildings,” but I couldn’t tell you what that means in terms of impact per person, much less what I as an individual can do to help. (The easy answer would have been to properly clean and sort our recycling, but we literally missed the boat on that one.)

IKEA Sustainability Strategy, June 2018 [PDF]

IKEA, for its part, publishes annual reports with sales and environmental impact figures; per the latest statistics [PDF], raw materials were by far the biggest contributor to its total greenhouse gas emissions at 38%, followed by a vague category called “Customer product use” at a notable 23% (also notable: the methodology isn’t provided). Perhaps even more surprising is the fact that “Customer transportation to stores” comes in next at 14%, slightly higher than “Production” (12%), and shockingly more than three other categories — “Goods transport,” “IKEA stores” and “Product’s end-of-life” — combined (4% each). The subscription model might chip away the beginning and end of the lifecycle, but it turns out that we, the end users, are responsible for nearly as much of the footprint.

Indeed, it’s business as usual on the Western front, climate science be damned. Sure, we shudder and quake at the latest special reports and assessments; we applaud the international accords and agreements (and more recently the Green New Deal); some of us even strive to be more conscientious about our consumption habits. The tragic irony is that the natural world — the backdrop of life long before furniture was invented — is not only literally “part of the furniture,” in the form of raw materials, but also that its destruction is equally part of the contemporary environment, in chair and air alike, and is all the more invisible for it (at least until the next superstorm/megafire/polar vortex cometh).

To that point, IKEA has branded itself with a veneer of sustainability several years now — whether you call it greenwashing or baby steps — and a recent sequel to its best-known TV spot duly captures the change of heart in a kind of #16yearchallenge. Where the original 2002 ad ended with a punchline equating new with better, the follow-up flips the script: “Many of you feel happy for this lamp. That's not crazy — reusing things is much better.” It’s certainly clever for the brand to acknowledge the second, third, and nth lives of its products; heirlooms they ain’t, but, having bought and sold many IKEA products over the years, I can attest to the demand for a secondhand SÖDERHAMN as well as the dubiousness of a cheap KLIPPAN on Craigslist (either way, they tend to depreciate faster than you can unpack them).

Conversely, if advertising presents one face of the company, it’s also worth looking beyond the CSR, PR, FSC, etc., to its actual growth strategy: where it’s placing big bets. As of last year, that happens to be India, where it opened its first store in August (just a month before “Lamp 2” aired in Canada); if Bloomberg’s Billy Bookcase Index is any indication, IKEA is right up there with Big Macs and Starbucks — indicators of purchasing power parity — as a bellwether for a solid middle class. As with China’s chokehold on recycling infrastructure, the move is equally symbolic and symptomatic of largely opaque socioeconomic and geopolitical forces. More tellingly, IKEA’s calculated gamble on India affirms that profit remains its number-one priority, with sustainability coming in second, third, or nth place — it’ll have to wait in line behind all of those giddy new customers, carts piled high with shiny new stuff.

Bringing It All Home

Here in New York, a visit to the big yellow-and-blue box entails navigating a similar housewares maze but slightly different huddled masses, from college kids to three-generation families to young couples of every race, color and creed bickering about the decor of their first place together. If nothing else, IKEA assembles a truly diverse — perhaps even representative — constituency of shoppers: students, parents, hipsters, yuppies, immigrants, residents, liberals, conservatives, tired, poor, rich young old white black Hispanic Asian gay straight both neither all-of-the-above, all groping the upholstery and sucking down soft serve, all struggling with unwieldy flatbed carts with one wayward wheel, all spending more than they thought they would because what’s another 5-10-15 bucks, all losing themselves in the endless aisles and bins (or dare I say sunken place) of consumerism.

The real question, then, is this: How do you convince them — which is to say us — not only to recycle their things when they’re done with them, but also to reduce, reuse, and treat things better in general? Or more specifically, how do you incentivize them to pay a premium, a.k.a. a subscription fee, to cover BILLY’s pension plan and life insurance, when they have their own to worry about? After all, the vast majority of IKEA customers are looking for functional forms at the lowest possible pricepoint; nothing more, nothing less. Is it even possible for the budget-friendly Scandinavian titan to upsell sustainability as “part of the furniture” (to recycle the metaphor one last time — see what I did there)?

A cynic might respond that a more appropriate idiom would be “rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic” — to hell with Spaceship Earth, those TÄRNÖs are a bargain at $15 a pop. As Papanek, a notorious doomsayer himself, put it (writing about a packaging concept in Design for the Real World): “Much more than these Swedish experiments will have to be done to save us from product pollution.”

All told, the significance of the gesture — and that’s all it is for now — has little to do with aesthetics (Scandi-lite), quality (passable), or optics (what do you get when you mix blue and yellow?); rather, it’s the fact that IKEA, itself a product of the machinery of late capitalism, is drawing a line in the sand in order to turn back the tide of globalized consumerism. A Herculean task if not a Sisyphean one, this undertaking will require far greater investment than virtue signaling — it demands a wholesale transformation of IKEA’s entire business model, bending the linear logic of revenue growth back upon itself; not merely seeing the forest for the trees, but seeing the environment for the furniture; seeing the whole for its (ahem) parts.

To bring it full circle back to BILLY, he was “dreamed up in 1978” — seven years after the publication of Design for the Real World — “by an IKEA designer called Gillis Lundgren who sketched it on the back of a napkin, worried that he would forget it.” The 2017 account in BBC continues: “Now there are 60-odd million in the world, nearly one for every 100 people — not bad for a humble bookcase.”

From the consumer’s point of view, that’s either a lot of storage space or a lot of expendable junk; from IKEA’s perspective, that’s an impressive sales figure or a bumper crop of recyclable material. But to the extent that the latter dichotomy is not mutually exclusive — not “either/or” but “both/and” — we all share the responsibility for the things we consume.

If BILLY can do his part, each of us can do our part too.


Design Job: A Tasty Job Offer: Trader Joe's is Seeking a Packaging Designer in Boston, MA

Core 77 - 21 hours 50 min ago

Packaging Graphic Designer Location: #1 - 160 Federal St. 12th Floor, Boston, Massachusetts 02110 Career Level: Mid-Level Pay Range: $60,000+ annually depending on qualifications and experience Education: Bachelor's Degree Who are we? Trader Joe's is your favorite

View the full design job here

Husqvarna's Crazy "Backpack Chainsaw"

Core 77 - 21 hours 50 min ago

Wielding a chainsaw can be tiring. Getting tired leads to accidents, so I call it quits as soon as I start to feel fatigued. That's a luxury I can afford because I'm harvesting firewood on a relaxed schedule, not performing silviculture for a living. I admire the professional arborist that can wield a chainsaw all day long.

For the arborist involved in thinning operations, Husqvarna has invented a special chainsaw to make things easier.

By breaking the tool up into its constituent components, the 535FBx "Backpack Chainsaw" distributes the machine's weight in an intelligent way while increasing reach and reducing operator fatigue:

Once the tank is empty, obviously the operator would need to wriggle out of the harness to refill it. So my suggestion: Add dual gas tanks to the helmet, like those baseball hats that hold beer. When the operator bits down on a tube, gas flows through another tube and into a machine. I know, I'm brilliant!


Plastic Bags are Recyclable, So Why Can't We Throw Them In Recycling Bins? PBS Explains

Core 77 - 21 hours 50 min ago

Plastic bags have this recycling symbol right on them…

…and yet we're not supposed to throw these scourges into the plastics recycling bin. And if you fill them with recyclable materials, like plastic bottles, and throw that into the recycling bin, guess what: The entire bag and its contents will end up in the trash rather than being recycled.

Why? In this short video, PBS demonstrates what happens to plastic bags when they go into the conventional recycling system:


This Japanese Version of a Nail File is Cylindrical (and Of Course, Multifunctional)

Core 77 - 21 hours 50 min ago

Here's an innovative take on a rather humble object, the nail file. The original form factor gets you detained by the TSA. In contrast, this Japanese version is a short, innocuous cylinder with multiple filing functions:

We don't have a line-by-line translation available, but we can clearly see that it performs three functions (not sure why they're touting four): In the first image below, it rounds the nail. In the second image, it appears it cleans beneath the nail. And in the third image, one uses it like a regular file, with the abrasive-textured flat machined into the surface.

Small enough to fit any purse or pocket, the compact Nail File Cylinder's main innovative elements are the two circular files that allow you to work on broken nails in the same way you would work an old-school manual pencil sharpener. Add two more regular files on its sides and you have a mini toolbox capable of fixing everything from a hair-thin splinter to a full-on break. If you ever wished to have 24/7 access to your manicurist, now you can!

This being from Japan, where packaging is everything, it looks like you can choose to carry it in a ring box or a pouch:

The ring box stirs a thought: If they do away with the first function, perhaps they could produce wedding bands with the latter two functions. Perfect for married couples who enjoy manicures and DIY.

Design Job: Commit to Innovation as a UX Design Principal at 3M in Maplewood, MN

Core 77 - 21 hours 50 min ago

At 3M, we apply science in collaborative ways to improve lives. With $32 billion in sales, our 91,000 employees connect with customers all around the world. 3M has a long-standing reputation as a company committed to innovation. We provide the freedom to explore and encourage curiosity and

View the full design job here

Why 3D Printing Is Going to Need Blockchain

Design News - Wed, 2019-02-20 12:30
(Image source: Pixabay)

If 3D printing technology wants to get ahead of its inherent security issues, the best way would be to adopt blockchain.

Speaking at the 2019 Pacific Design & Manufacturing Show, Jack Heslin, President of 3D Tech Talks, a 3D printing consultancy, said as 3D printing becomes cheaper, easier, faster, and more ubiquitous, the very nature of the technology is going to demand the security afforded by blockchain.

It's all about what Heslin called the Digital Thread of Additive Manufacturing (DTAM), “the single, seamless strand of data that stretches from the initial design to the finished, 3D-printed part.”

If you've never heard of such a thing for 3D printing that's okay, because Heslin said such a thing really doesn't exist. “The [3D printing] process is linear, but it's not single or seamless,” he said.

3D-printing moves through several stages: from concept, to CAD file, to generative design (when available), to the actual 3D print. Then comes the post print process, and finally support if and when it is needed. All these steps each represent a point of vulnerability in which a 3D print can be corrupted or even stolen, putting company's intellectual property at risk. “The digital thread of manufacturing has vulnerabilities. Design files can be stolen,” Heslin said. The one that scares me the most is that design files can be hacked to deliberately put in a flaw...I'm not saying it's happening right now, or it's easy to do, but it is a concern.”

Research has already shown 3D printing has a growing need for cybersecurity. Researchers from New York University's Tandon School of Engineering for example have found that there are serious security issues around 3D printing that could present significant safety hazards due to counterfeit parts and products, or products being deliberately printed with hidden flaws and built-in failures.

The Liberator (shown) is a single-shot gun that can be 3D-printed using unsecured files available on the Internet. (Image source: NotLessOrEqual [CC0]) 

In 2016 researchers from the University of California, Irvine demonstrated a novel approach to 3D printer hacking when they revealed that the source code to produce 3D-printed parts can be stolen by recording the sounds the printer makes.

All of this leads to implications for a number of issues Heslin pointed out. Aside from printers being taken offline by malicious entities and concerns of stolen IP there are also larger issues, particularly around gun safety. For several years now a debate has raged about 3D-printed guns. Recently, a would-be domestic terrorist in Texas was arrested and sentenced after he was found in possession of an illegal AR-15 assault rifle that he was able to assemble with the help of 3D printed parts created using files freely available on the Internet.

One step beyond this, Heslin noted, would be the illegal and unauthorized printing of military machine parts and weapons or hacking 3D printer files to do deliberate damage to sensitive equipment or machines. In a 2016 paper, “dr0wned – Cyber-Physical Attack with Additive Manufacturing” a team of researchers were able to hack a PC connected to a 3D printer and from there make secret alterations to the 3D printing files for a $1000 drone that caused its propellor to fail mid-flight.

So how does blockchain address all of this? Blockchain works by creating a distributed, encrypted ledger across any number of parties that can be used to verify not only identities but also the status of any particular job. That means every entity involved in any stage of a 3D print is aware of what all the others are doing at any time in a safe and secure manner. Since a blockchain is decentralized, meaning no single entity owns it, stealing or altering a 3D printed file from a blockchain is not about tricking a single computer or printer – you'd have to hack every entity that was a part of that particular chain, which is exponentially more difficult, if not sometimes impossible.

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“When you have multiple stakeholders in the process you have to ask is consensus required across stakeholders,” Heslin said. In that regard blockchain can provide authority to print and authority to send files to be printed.

He also pointed to the audit trail benefits offered. “We all know about Six Sigma and ISO – a lot of it is about audit trails,” Heslin said. “Blockchain, by nature, is an audit trail. It shows every edit and iteration in the process.” Furthermore, because the audit trail is decentralized it becomes immutable and cannot be erased.

Even as early the conceptual level there are benefits. “If you're a design engineer and you send parts to a service bureau to be 3D printed, you don't know if anyone else printed that part,” Heslin said. “Look at a site like Thingiverse. You can see how many times a file has been downloaded, but you have no idea how many times something has been printed...or if its being sold without your permission.”

There are already companies working on this. In 2017 GE filed a patent for an additive manufacturing (AM) system that is “an AM device configured to implement a distributed ledger system...wherein the the distributed ledger is a blockchain ledger.” The basic premise of the system is to use blockchain to identify and verify builds, and the authors of those builds, in an AM system.

Wipro, an India-based IT consultancy, is developing a blockchain system for AM specifically targeted at fighting IP theft. As the company's website states:

“3D printing empowers small manufacturers to create new products anywhere. The creators can share the files to a secluded printing facility. Blockchain can help set up such small independent value chain to make the production processes nimbler. The smart contracting application can ease out the transactions to assure integrity of product history, production process details, ownership and much more. It will also help to locate the most feasible printing facility and reduce the negotiation time regarding price, date of availability etc. At last the blockchain would capture the digital trail of the product, with details such as the type of raw material used, the source of raw material, production parameters, technical specifications, where it was manufactured, how it was stored and maintained etc.”

Where blockchain is typically looked at more on the software end, as with Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies that have made it so popular, Heslin said 3D printing holds an “interesting extra layer in that this deals with physical products.”

And while cyberattacks against 3D printers have been confined mostly to research labs, 3D printers will only become a more enticing target for hackers as more and more printers are connected via the IoT and more and more companies trust 3D printers with sensitive files and information.

There's a shift happening in which what's most valuable won't be the end product, but rather the information that enables that end product, Heslin said. “You can't say with certainty that we can do this. But this issue is serious enough you have to address this.”

Chris Wiltz is a Senior Editor at  Design News covering emerging technologies including AI, VR/AR, blockchain, and robotics.

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What Is Synthetic Biology? And How Will it Transform Manufacturing?

Design News - Wed, 2019-02-20 05:00
Just Egg is created by using plant cells to produce a product with the same texture, taste, and nutritional value as real eggs. (Image source: Just)

When engineers think of raw materials they often think of the various ores and minerals that make up our devices and their components. Biologists, on the other hand, think in terms of the cells that make up the basic building blocks of various organisms.

But that distinction may be dissolving thanks to an emerging field called synthetic biology. It's a field that combines engineering principles and biology. And if its ideas proliferate we may someday use more and more biological materials in our devices...and we may be crafting those materials in a manner similar to how we assemble electronic and mechanical components in a factory. Imagine being able to assemble food products in the same way we assemble cell phones or cars – by combining a standardized and reliable set of base components.

“The world is changing and traditional means of manufacturing and sustenance aren't going to get us where we need to go,” Sridhar Iyengar CEO of Elemental Machines, a data science and Internet of Things (IoT) solutions provider to companies in the synthetic biology industry among others, told an audience at the recent 2019 Pacific Design & Manufacturing Show. “It's estimated there will be 10 billion humans on the planet by 2050. It's a problem in terms of transportation, food, sustainability, housing, and building materials...We can't continue manufacturing products for human sustenance the way we have.”

But synthetic biology offers a solution by aiming to use biology to make products, Iyengar said. Imagine, for example, if biological materials could be created in factory, using machines that can build biological systems using artificial means.

Iyengar was first to admit the concept sounds like science fiction. But there are actually some striking examples of synthetic biology being applied today that he pointed out to the audience.

The Chicken or the Egg

Can you make eggs without chickens? According to San Francisco-based Just you can. And the company does. One of its products Just Egg is an egg product made from plants. “An egg is just a bunch of molecules and proteins,” Iyengar said. “[Synthetic biology] sees animals as manufacturers. If you deconstruct it, an egg is a bunch of proteins. Proteins are hard to make in a lab, but guess what's extremely good at making proteins...cells.”

By exacting proteins from mung beans the company is able to use those proteins to create a substance with texture, consistency, and taste of egg yolk. It is also cholesterol-free and requires less water and fewer carbon emissions than raising chickens, according to Just.

Another company, Not Company, is taking a similar approach to milk, creating milk without cows (it's called Not Milk). From a biological standpoint, “milk is a bunch of proteins with additional molecules like fats and carbs,” Iyengar pointed out, meaning again, it can be produced using the right combination of reconfigured cells.

He added that widespread use and production of cow-free milk would also have a positive environmental impact. “Cows emit methane. Methane is about 20 times more damaging to the environment than CO2 from cars. In that sense, cows are more dangerous than cars.”

And if you think all of this is limited to less hearty foods, Just and other companies like San Francisco-based Memphis Meats are developing cell-based meat that doesn't require animals.

Emeryville, CA-based Bolt Threads creates fabrics and other materials using yeast proteins to create synethic spider silk. Aside from making a $314 tie (which Bolt Threads sells), spider silk is hailed by many researchers for its tensile strength and other properties that could lead to the development of next-generation composite materials.

A video from Just explains how the company was able to manufacture meat for chicken nuggets by re-engineering proteins. 

The Cancer Question

Synthetic biology can utilize plant or animal cells. Think of each cell as a factory, only one that makes biological products instead of electrical and mechanical components and parts. By modifying those cells in a lab by inserting new raw materials (in this case DNA, instead of raw minerals) cells can be configured and reconfigured to produce whatever is needed. Thus a plant cell can produce egg-like protein, or an animal cell can produce meat without the need of having to raise and slaughter an animal.

But this is also where limitations and challenges come in, according to Iyengar. “One of the problems of using animal cells is that they grow old and die. So on one hand you need to continuously get more and more donor cells and when you do that the growth phase can be very tricky,” he said.

“Ideally what you want is the same cells over and over again,” Iyengar added. This is because different cells are like their own separate factories, each requiring unique protocols. Once you differentiate a cell it needs its own process, which defeats all of the efficiency offered by synthetic biology.

There is one type of animal cell that doesn't die however – a cancer cell. Cancer cells will grow ad infinitum and provide an endless number of factories and materials for synthetic biologies. “But in order to make this work you're using donor cells that are in a way cancerous...That's not very appealing,” Iyengar said.

The current solution, he said, is to take donor cells and grow them up inside of bioreactors that facilitate their development as though they were in a natural environment. He also said the larger industry is moving toward the idea of creating repositories of stem cells that can be used to create any type of cell needed for synthetic biology.

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Would You Brew Your Dinner?

There are still significant technological and social hurdles for synthetic biology, Iyengar said the biggest ones today have to do with public perception. After all, it's not very appetizing to tell someone their steak dinner was made with cancer cells.

There is also the issue of cost. 3D printing has been suggested as a viable means of producing meats for example by companies such as Spain-based Nova Meat, which creates meats with the texture and taste of real meat, but using plant-based means.

“The challenge with 3D printing is cost,” Iyengar said. “Mass-produced foods are costly and won't scale with 3D printing.” He did however note that molding is an option that could scale. “[Synthetic biology companies] are actually borrowing a lot of ideas from injection molded plastic and things like that,” he said.

But even with that scale there's still a need to bring down the overall manufacturing costs. “Manufacturing the first lab-grown burger cost $3000, that was seven or eight years ago. Now it still costs a few hundred, he said. “The price is coming down with new tools.”

And none of this even factors in the regulatory side. Iyengar noted that FDA, FTC, various lobbying groups, and more are going to have a vested interest in the technology. Is a lab-grown steak still a steak? Should it then be regulated like meat, for example?

The bright side is there are already examples of synthetic biology moving away from self assembly and moving toward mass production. Beer is probably one of the oldest examples. “Most beer is genetically modified,” Iyengar said. “The idea of brewing your steak dinner may not be very attractive, but humans have been doing it for hundreds of years. You can brew your dinner the same way you brew beer. That's one way synthetic biology will massively transform sustainability.”

Chris Wiltz is a Senior Editor at  Design News covering emerging technologies including AI, VR/AR, blockchain, and robotics.

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Correction:  A previous version of this article said the spider silk tie from Bolt Threads cost $700. The correct price is $314.