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NXP Wants to Bring Machine Learning to "Edge" Processors

Mon, 2018-06-18 05:00

NXP Semiconductors N.V. has rolled out a machine learning environment aimed at developers of intelligent vision, voice, and industrial applications. The new software environment is said to be unique in that it brings machine learning to so-called “edge” applications, where cost, processing power, and memory availability may be constrained. It also simplifies the process of employing machine learning—especially for engineers who have no idea how to get started.

“Up to now, machine learning has been done by major OEMs and big companies on expensive chips,” Gowri Chindalore, head of technology and business strategy for embedded processors at NXP, told Design News. “We are lowering the barrier for implementing machine learning, so it can go into cost-sensitive, edge-processing applications."

NXP’s introduction of the new software environment may be well timed. Machine learning, which is a subset of artificial intelligence that involves pattern recognition, has seen remarkable growth in recent years. International Data Corp. has predicted that spending on AI and machine learning will grow from $12 billion in 2017 to $57 billion in 2021. Similarly, Deloitte Global has said the number of machine learning implementations will double this year (over 2017) and double again by 2020.

At last week’s NXP Connects conference in Santa Clara, CA, engineers demonstrated a microwave oven endowed with machine learning capabilities. The oven was able to recognize foods—hot dogs, waffles, carrots, and broccoli—in about 100 msec using a $3 processor chip. (Image source: Design News)

NXP wants to play a part in that growth by simplifying the implementation of machine learning. It aims to make that implementation possible, not only in $50 high-end application processors, but in $1 microcontrollers as well.

Software Solution

The new software environment could help that happen in two ways, NXP said. The first way is through the application of a software tool that enables developers to quickly assess how well machine learning would perform on their selected processor chip. The tool tells engineers how much time it would take for their processor to make an intelligent decision and how accurate that decision would be.

At Last week’s NXP Connects conference in Santa Clara, CA, the company demonstrated a microwave oven endowed with machine learning capabilities. The oven was able to recognize foods—hot dogs, waffles, carrots, and broccoli—in about 100 msec using a $3 processor chip.

NXP engineers argued that many such applications aren’t using machine learning today because developers believe that machine learning is reserved for higher-end chips. But NXP wants to change that. “Ninety-nine percent of the people who use a microwave take more than a second to close the door,” Chindalore told us. “They don’t need a $15 processor to do that food recognition application in one millisecond, because it makes no difference to the end user.”

The second way in which NXP hopes to help developers is through the application of a smaller inference engine, which can run on lower-end microcontrollers with less on-board memory. “We take the neural net and squeeze the inference engine out, so it’s now right-sized for running on edge devices,” Chindalore said.

Up to now, he said, the burden of extracting the inference engine has fallen on the application developer, who typically has neither the time nor the mathematical expertise to make it happen. That’s why machine learning has typically been relegated to higher-end chips, he added. “What usually comes out is a very large, memory-heavy neural net. As such, it cannot be put into a resource-constrained edge device.”

NXP envisions the new software environment being used in a wide variety of machine learning applications. It could be applied in smart doorbells, for recognizing people at the front door, or in department stories for assessing the emotions of customers. It could also be employed in handheld devices for so-called “wake word” detection or voice recognition. NXP engineers also foresee its use in industrial machinery.

“You could look at the vibration of a cutting tool and warn the owner of the machinery if the machine is vibrating in a weird manner,” Chindalore said.

Ultimately, the company wants to get the word out to the developer community that machine learning isn’t just for expensive, high-end applications. “Up to now, there’s been a chasm between the early adopters and the rest of the developer population,” Chindalore said. “Our goal is to bridge that chasm.”

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Senior technical editor Chuck Murray has been writing about technology for 34 years. He joined Design News in 1987, and has covered electronics, automation, fluid power, and auto.  

Markforged Says the Next Industrial Revolution Will Be 3D Printed

Mon, 2018-06-18 04:00
Markforged manufactures a 3D printer, the Metal X (shown), which is capable of printing metal parts. (Image source: Markforged)

It took Tesla about five years to go from concept to putting a vehicle on the roads. Andrew de Geofroy, VP of application engineering at Markforged, pointed out that the automobile product cycle hasn't changed in 100 years. Speaking at the Atlantic Design & Manufacturing Expo, de Geofroy said five years was the same amount of time it took Ford to bring the Model T to production.

So how can we bring production up to speed? Markforged believes 3D printing is the answer. The company, which specializes in metal 3D printing, believes additive manufacturing is ready to go beyond plastic toys and prototyping and into creating end-use parts—and someday, even entire working products. He discussed several use cases and applications for metal 3D printing.

So how long until we have a fully 3D-printed car on the roads? The promise has existed for decades, but additive manufacturing is poised to finally disrupt traditional manufacturing.

Watch the full Atlantic Design & Manufacturing talk, "3D Printing & the Next Industrial Revolution," below and be sure to follow Design News on Facebook for more updates.

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

Panel: What Will Factories of the Future Look Like?

Fri, 2018-06-15 05:30
(Image source:  Rodney Minter-Brown on Unsplash)

Tomorrow's factories are going to look very different from today's. The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), the increasing pace of automation, the rise of collaborative robots, and even the emergence of artificial intelligence (AI) in industrial applications are all going to transform manufacturing—not only for products, but for workers themselves.

What are the challenges as IT and operational technology converge on the factory floor? What challenges lie ahead for workers and manufacturers? How can AI be deployed on assembly floors?

Keary Donovan, Market Development Manager at Ellitek; Keith Han Vice, President of Strategic Planning & Engineering at BISTel; and Rodney Rusk, Industry 4.0 Business Leader at Bosch Rexroth, spoke to an audience at the Atlantic Design & Manufacturing Expo about the current state of smart manufacturing and where the industry is headed.

In their panel discussion, “What Does the Factory of the Future Look Like?,” the three discussed everything from the hurdles of legacy systems to the rise and potential of predictive maintenance.

Watch the full panel below. And for more updates, be sure to follow Design News on Facebook.  

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North America's Premier Battery Conference
Join our in-depth conference program with over 100 technical discussions covering topics from new battery technologies and chemistries to BMS and thermal management. The Battery Show. Sept. 11-13, 2018, in Novi, MI. Get registration info for the event, hosted by Design News’ parent company UBM.

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

STACYC: Two-Wheel Electric Motorcycle For Kids

Fri, 2018-06-15 05:00

Ryan Ragland is a former professional motocross racer from Montana. After realizing that racing would not be a long-term career for him, he pursued a degree in engineering. With a deep passion for dirt bikes, it seemed inevitable that he would end up working as an R&D engineer for one of the most prestigious motorcycle brands in the world.

“My son Robby desperately wanted to ride a PW50 (a 50cc gas combustion motorcycle), and as a former racer, I'm not a fan of training wheels on motorcycles,” said Ragland. He scoured the market for a kid’s motorcycle that was safe (and light enough) for his 3-year-old son, but came up empty-handed.

That’s when Ragland put his motorcycle design background to work, experimenting with his ideas for a suitable (safe) bike for his son. He partnered with some colleagues and, using SOLIDWORKS to help with the design, it didn’t take long before the STACYC Stability Cycle was born. “Our concept is to keep a low seat height so the feet can easily touch the ground at any time,” said Ragland. “This provides a stable and confidence-building experience.”

The STACYC Stability Cycle is an electric motorcycle designed for children. (Image source: STACYC)

Designed to Be Kid-friendly
The STACYC is an electric-powered, two-wheel balance bike that weighs less than 20 pounds. The bike uses an industrial-grade lithium-ion battery designed explicitly for STACYC. The batteries are “quick change” so that runtime can be extended with the purchase of additional batteries. Parents can have a battery on the charger and another on the bike and simply swap them out just like you would on power tools.

It is one of the lightest bikes of its kind on the market today. “I think there are some electric bikes around the 40-pound range,” claims Ragland. “My personal test for a bike is the ‘bunny-hop test.’ If Robby can bunny hop the bike at his age, then it's probably light enough,” said Ragland.

Ragland believes young riders who cannot easily touch the ground with their feet shouldn’t be on a bike. That’s why stability is a theme for the STACYC bike. It is designed so 3- to 6-year-old kids can touch the ground at any time to keep from falling over. Fear is rapidly overcome and the enjoyment of the ride becomes their main focus. This promotes the development of riding skill and allows kids to challenge themselves to improve every time they ride. The STACYC is designed so riders can manage the bike completely on their own without parental intervention.

Unexpected Reactions
When Ragland brought the first prototype home to his son, Robby’s face told the whole story. Soon, Ragland's son was constantly rolling around the neighborhood on that prototype. But Ragland knew that not everyone was a fan of motorcycles. Ragland was worried when he was approached by a woman while walking in his neighborhood with his family. He was pleasantly surprised when the woman asked him about the bike and where she could get three of them for her grandkids. “She didn’t equate the STACYC with a motorcycle because the prototype looked like a bike,” said Ragland. Her reaction told Ragland that they were on to something.

STACYC has started out by selling consumer-direct and has been working to set up a dealer network throughout the USA. In 2018, Ragland expects to manufacture between 6,000 and 8,000 bikes.

Mitch Bossart is an industry writer for GoEngineer.

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Prosthetic Devices Move More Intuitively

Fri, 2018-06-15 04:00

Researchers have come a long way toward developing prosthetic limbs that give patients much of the same functionality that they had before they suffered a loss. Now, a team of researchers at two North Carolina universities has developed new technology to make prosthetic wrists and hands function even more intuitively based on the natural neuromuscular communication that controls normal human limbs.

Scientists in the joint biomedical engineering program at North Carolina State University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have invented technology that can decode neuromuscular signals to control powered, prosthetic wrists and hands.

This new method differs from the current state-of-the art in prosthetics, which relies on machine learning to create a pattern recognition that controls prosthetics, said He Huang, a professor in the program who led the research. In addition to providing more intuitive, realistic movements for prosthetic hands and wrists, she noted that the technology could be used to develop new computer interface devices for applications such as gaming and computer-aided design.

Patterns

With even the most sophisticated prosthetics available today, users of the devices have to “teach” them to recognize specific patterns of muscle activity. The devices then translate these patterns into commands—for example, opening or closing a prosthetic hand—to control the devices, she said.

“Pattern-recognition control requires patients to go through a lengthy process of training their prosthesis,” Huang noted. “This process can be both tedious and time-consuming.”

Scientists in the joint biomedical engineering program at North Carolina State University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have invented technology that can decode neuromuscular signals to control powered, prosthetic wrists and hands, making them easier to use. (Image source: North Carolina State University)

Huang and the team set out to use their knowledge of the human body to make the process of controlling prosthetics more intuitive, as well as reliable and practical. Their technology—which relies on computer models that closely mimic the behavior of the natural structures in the forearm, wrist, and hand—does just that.

The team invented a virtual musculoskeletal model and sensors to receive the signals from the human brain to move a limb. Those signals still exist even if a person loses that part of the body, researchers said. They then send the data from those sensors to a computer, where it’s fed into the model that the team developed.

Motion

“The model takes the place of the muscles, joints, and bones, calculating the movements that would take place if the hand and wrist were still whole,” Huang explained. “It then conveys that data to the prosthetic wrist and hand, which perform the relevant movements in a coordinated way and in real time—more closely resembling fluid, natural motion.”

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To develop their technology, the researchers placed electromyography sensors on the forearms of six able-bodied volunteers, tracking exactly which neuromuscular signals were sent when they performed various actions with their wrists and hands. This is how they created their generic model, which translated those neuromuscular signals into commands that manipulate a powered prosthetic, Huang said.

Researchers tested the device with both volunteers with amputations and those without missing limbs. Both could easily use the model-controlled interface to perform all of the required hand and wrist motions with very little training.

The team is now seeking people with transradial amputations to help them perform further testing of the model to see how it performs daily-living activities, Huang said. “We want to get additional feedback from users before moving ahead with clinical trials.” 

The team published a paper on their work in the journal IEEE Transactions on Neural Systems and Rehabilitation EngineeringWhile the technology is still years away from commercial availability, the team is optimistic for its eventual success in use not only in prosthetics, but for future research into human-machine interfaces, Huang added.

Elizabeth Montalbano is a freelance writer who has written about technology and culture for 20 years. She has lived and worked as a professional journalist in Phoenix, San Francisco, and New York City. In her free time, she enjoys surfing, traveling, music, yoga, and cooking. She currently resides in a village on the southwest coast of Portugal.

Material Performs Differently in the Dark

Thu, 2018-06-14 10:00

A team from Nagoya University in Japan has discovered that an inorganic semiconductor with which they are working—crystals of zinc sulfide—performed differently in the dark compared to in the light. While the crystals were brittle when exposed to light, they were flexible and showed remarkable plasticity when kept in the dark at room temperature.

The research shows promise for using this type of inorganic semiconductor with the next generation of flexible electronics. This application demands strong, electrically conductive materials that have more stretch than traditional semiconductors, researchers said in a press release.

Inorganic semiconductors, such as silicon and gallium arsenide, are indispensable in modern electronics because they possess tunable electrical conductivity between that of a metal and that of an insulator.

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A semiconductor’s band gap—the energy difference between its valence and conduction bands—controls its electrical conductivity. A narrow band gap results in increased conductivity because it is easier for an electron to move from the valence to the conduction band.

Inorganic semiconducting crystals generally tend to fail in a brittle manner. This is true for zinc sulfide, shown here with catastrophic fracture after mechanical tests under ordinary light-exposure environments (A). However, researchers at Nagoya University in Japan found that these crystals can be plastically deformed in complete darkness even at room temperature (B). Moreover, the optical band gap of the deformed zinc sulfide crystals decreased after deformation (C). (Image source: Atsutomo Nakamura, Nagoya University)

With inorganic semiconductors, the problem that electrical engineers are running into is that they are brittle. This characteristic is incompatible with the development of the new generation of flexible electronics. Brittleness can lead to device failure and limits to the application range.

Electrons

Scientists found that the reason for the zinc sulfide’s change in performance had to do with electrons in the material, or lack thereof, explained Atsutomo Nakamura, one of the researchers from the Department of Materials Physics at Nagoya University.

“In the dark, photoexcited electrons and holes are not present in materials,” he told Design News. “The electrons and holes in the light are known to affect electric properties, but little was known about the effect on mechanical properties. We showed an intense effect of photoexcited electrons and holes on mechanical properties. As a result, we found the best mechanical performance in the dark,” Nakamura said.

The work from the Nagoya researchers now demonstrates that the inorganic semiconductors are not intrinsically brittle; this characteristic could potentially be controlled through light exposure, Nakamura said.

“This is one example in an inorganic semiconductor, but one giant leap to realize the best materials with high hardness and flexibility,” he explained. “The significance is in the plasticity, which is the ability to be deformed without fracture,” he added.

Researchers published a paper about their work in the journal Science. They plan to continue to work with the material to solve issues with the mechanisms involved in the relationship between the inorganic semiconductor’s mechanical properties and light exposure, Nakamura said. Researchers also aim to explore the same study with other materials to find the best type of inorganic semiconductors to work with in the future.

Elizabeth Montalbano is a freelance writer who has written about technology and culture for 20 years. She has lived and worked as a professional journalist in Phoenix, San Francisco, and New York City. In her free time, she enjoys surfing, traveling, music, yoga, and cooking. She currently resides in a village on the southwest coast of Portugal.

48 Volts: More Power Brings More Opportunity

Thu, 2018-06-14 05:00

There is no doubt that the electrification of our transportation system is coming. What is problematic is how quickly consumers will accept fully electric battery-powered vehicles. The step between today’s reliance on fossil fuels and gasoline engines and full electrification is the hybrid. But it can be costly to build hybrids, which must carry both a gasoline-fueled powerplant and a battery and electric motor. The answer, at least in the short term, is the 48 Volt mild hybrid system.

Two in One

All hybrids have two separate powerplants that can work separately or together to propel the vehicle. Most have a gasoline internal combustion engine (ICE) as their main source of power and an electric motor placed between the ICE and the transmission. Under normal driving, the gasoline engine both charges the hybrid battery and moves the car. Under some conditions, the motor will shut off and allow the electric motor to take over drive duties. When braking, the electric motor acts as a generator, putting energy back into the hybrid battery. The energy from this regenerative braking can then be sent back to the electric motor for limited electric drive or used to assist the ICE when accelerating. Hybrids can provide a 20% improvement in fuel economy in urban and city driving.

The problem with a full-on hybrid is cost. Equipping a vehicle with both an electric and gasoline drivetrain is expensive. That’s where the 48 Volt mild hybrid comes in. In this case, a powerful 48 Volt starter/alternator replaces the normal 12 Volt alternator driven by the accessory belt at the front of the engine.

The 48 Volt mild hybrid uses a belt driven starter/alternator to provide an entry level of electrification. (Image source: Valeo)

Bang for the Buck

The device has several roles. Under normal driving, the 48 Volt system acts as an alternator and charges a small 48 Volt lithium ion battery. It is also used to charge the normal 12 Volt battery, working through a DC to DC converter that steps the 48 Volts down to 12 Volts. The system allows energy to be recaptured through regenerative braking as well. This energy can be used to aid in acceleration by being sent back through the system, which then acts like a motor. Or it can be used as a starting motor to restart the engine when it has been shut down while the vehicle is stopped.

“We tend to work on what we call the cost-benefit ratio, which is the dollars to grams of CO2,” Matti Vint, engineering R&D director for the auto supplier Valeo, told Design News. “We are expecting the 48 Volt belt drive system to be a little more than half the cost benefit of a high voltage solution. You get a bigger bang for the buck with a 48 Volt system.” 

Anything over 60 Volts is considered high-voltage (HV). These systems (which can go up to several hundred Volts) require specialized orange color-coded cables and specific connectors and special relays (called contactors) to connect the battery pack to the vehicle. Because 48 Volt is below the HV threshold, the components used can be much less expensive. The 48 Volt pack is also much smaller and can be standardized across a range of vehicles. Hybrids with HV systems need to have their battery packs designed for each individual vehicle, adding cost and complexity.

The reduction in CO2 and improvement in fuel economy that comes from using a 48 Volt belt-driven system is significant. “With a belt-driven system, you are looking at around 8% savings,” Vint told Design News. But belt-driven systems are just the beginning. “There is a move to go from belt driven to machines that are attached to say the gearbox, or to the axle assembly, and even providing some level of EV function. Those would be expected to see higher savings—sort of 15% to 18%. It really depends upon the platform,” said Vint.

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More Than Economy

The advantage of a 48 Volt system is that it can go beyond the fuel savings it provides as a mild hybrid. Because power is equal to voltage multiplied by the current, a 48 Volt system can provide the necessary electrical energy for a variety of functions that are not practical or possible with a 12 Volt vehicle electrical system. Electric power steering, air-conditioning compressors, and engine cooling water pumps have been developed, taking advantage of the extra power available with 48 Volts. Such systems can improve fuel economy by reducing drag on the ICE by only operating when they are required.

The 48 Volt system can be used to improve functionality and comfort. Seat heaters, cabin air blower motors, and window defrosting can be improved by using the higher power available from 48 Volts. The vehicle suspension can be actively controlled through electric actuators that take advantage of the extra power. In the short-term, with belt driven systems, the 12 Volt battery and traditional starter will be retained to operate the normal vehicle electrical systems and to aid in starting on cold mornings.

Vehicle performance can be enhanced through a system like an electrically powered supercharger. “You are looking at technology that customers are willing to buy,” said Vint. “Customers aren’t always willing to pay for fuel economy benefits in the USA market,” he said. The Audi SQ7 SUV, for example, has a 48 Volt electric supercharger that was developed by Valeo.

Valeo predicts that 48 Volt mild hybrid systems  wil capture 20% of the US new car market by 2030. (Image source: Valeo)

Rollout

Europe and Asia are expected to lead the way in the rollout of 48 Volt systems. The Porsche Cayenne and Bentley Bentayga SUVs already are using 48 Volts to power roll-control systems that keep the vehicles level while cornering. Volkswagen recently announced that versions of the popular Golf model will be equipped with 48 Volts to improve fuel economy. In the US, Fiat Chrysler will offer belt-driven 48 Volt systems in 2019 Ram Pickups and the Jeep Wrangler.

Valeo’s Matti Vint explained the expectations for 48 Volts to Design News (see the graph). “Based upon our own market projections, by 2030, we are anticipating about 20% of the market in North America will have 48 Volts. This compares to about 40% for high-voltage—20% for full-hybrids and 20% for plug-in hybrids. In the global markets, we are looking at much higher penetration for 48 Volts—30% instead of 20%.”

Dr. Matti Vint from Valeo will be presenting a talk titled, “Do 48v Powertrains Make Sense for the North American Market?,” at The Electric and Hybrid Vehicle Expo in Novi, Michigan on September 11-13.

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.

The EV & HV Info You Need Now. Join our in-depth conference program to learn about topics from new developments in electric motor design to regulations and rollout timelines. The Electric & Hybrid Vehicle Technology Expo. Sept. 11-13, 2018, in Novi, MI. Get registration info for the event, hosted by Design News’ parent company UBM.

Is Magic Leap the Most Overhyped Company in Augmented Reality?

Wed, 2018-06-13 06:00
The Magic Leap One consists of a Lightpack control and processing unit (left), glasses (center), and a 6DoF controller (right). (Image source: Magic Leap)

In the augmented and mixed reality space, Magic Leap is the company everyone talks about, but no one knows anything about. The secretive startup racked up big funds from high-profile backers like Google and Alibaba with the promise that it was creating hardware that would deliver a level of immersion in augmented reality (AR) that had not been achieved.

In a June 6 livestream on Twitch, Magic Leap unveiled a few more details about its flagship system, the Magic Leap One—discussing many of the device's features, but keeping mum on the juicier technical details.

Shanna De Iuliis, lead technical marketing manager at Magic Leap, sat down with Alan Noon, senior learning resources technical artist at Magic Leap, to give an overview of the Magic Leap One. What they revealed is a system that looks on par to compete with similar offerings, such as Microsoft's Hololens. But there's no indication of the breakthrough innovation that made Magic Leap such a buzzed-about company.

New Innovation? Or More of the Same?

Alan Noon (right) interviews Shanna De Iuliis (left), who wears the full Magic Leap One system. (Image soure: Magic Leap)

De Iuliis described the Magic Leap One as a “spatial computer,” capable of tracking its external environment—and layering virtual objects within it—with a sense of scale as well as persistence (if you leave a room and come back, a virtual object will be where you left it, just like a real one). The major function Magic Leap is pushing at this point is the Magic Leap One's use of “light field” technology, which allows it to mimic the way light reflects off of real objects. Done correctly, this could add even more detail and realism to the AR experience by having virtual objects respond to real-world light.

The Magic Leap One consists of three components: the Lightwear glasses; the LightPack, a body-worn unit that handles all of the processing; and a controller.

The Lightwear features an array of cameras and sensors for environment tracking and other purposes. The headset will give wearers six degree of freedom (6DoF) movement and allow for recording of audio and video. The headset also features a set of eye facing cameras to enable eye tracking for control functions as well as tracking focus. Implemented alongside foveated rendering, this could allow Magic Leap One to render virtual objects with realistic sharpness and blur, depending on where you're looking and where the object appears in your field of vision.

The headset also allows for spatial audio. Rather than a pair of earbuds or headphones (though it allows for the option for these), the Lightwear features an array of speakers around the inside of the headband to allow for 3D audio. This means audio will come from the direction of the sound source. If something is behind you, it will sound like it is behind you, for example.

The Lightpack is the most interesting and, because of that, probably the most secretive aspect of the Magic Leap One. The small unit clips to your pants (not your belt, De Iuliis warned) and handles all of the processing for the unit, connecting to the Lightwear via cables.

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In a blow to the more visually impaired among us, De Iuliis said it is not recommended that users wear the Magic Leap One with prescription lenses on. However, she did say the company is working with partners to develop corrective lens attachments for the headset.

When asked by live stream viewers, De Iuliis and Noon refused to disclose any technical specs on the Lightpack beyond its ergonomics. De Iuliis did offer that the LightPack features a USB-C connector for connecting peripherals and uploading developer content. She also mentioned that the device is WiFi and Bluetooth enabled. Noon said users will have to wait for a later date to find out about the features that developers are really curious about, such as field of view, processor power, pixel count, weight, and of course, battery life. (De Iuliis said battery life would last several hours, depending on the application, but declined to give a hard number.)

If you think back to HP's backpack form factor workstation designed to deliver VR content, the fact that Magic Leap has been able to compress AR functionality into a unit small enough to fit on your pocket is an impressive feat. It's worth noting, though, that the Hololens is fully standalone with no external processing unit required. Magic Leap's engineers may have forgone this option in favor of creating a lighter, more comfortable headset.

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The Magic Leap One controller isn't worth discussing much at this point. Based on the live stream, it appears to offer the same touchpad, point-and-click functionality as controllers for VR headsets like the Oculus Go and Lenovo Mirage Solo. However, similar to Microsoft's Hololens, Magic Leap One will allow for hand gesture control, which opens up a lot more functionality. While it only functions with an expanding library of preset gestures (i.e., flex your finger to “click” on an object), it doesn't seem to offer the same sort of robustness and variety seen with hand gesture controllers like the Leap Motion controller.

De Iuliis said Magic Leap will be constantly expanding its library of gestures for developers, so it is possible that Magic Leap One could achieve fidelity close to or matching that of working with real world objects someday. Factoring in the eye tracking capability and the headset's ability to understand “head pose” (using head position to trigger content in an environment), it's easy to imagine Magic Leap One content having a strong depth of interaction.

This will be particularly important if Magic Leap intends to go after the Hololens market and capture enterprise users, such as engineers and designers. Imagine enterprise users, who are designing a product, being able to manipulate it with their hands, but also to control other aspects of their environment based on where their head and eyes are turned. The Magic Leap One offers support for multi-user environments and interactions, but it will have to provide some considerable advantages and conveniences to a design workflow to win over most engineers.

The Weight of Past Hype

Given that it offers functionality that looks comparable to other offerings in the AR space, such as Hololens, Google Glass Enterprise, and Vuzix AR glasses, it can be hard to see why Magic Leap One garners reactions that range from tepid to hostile.

To understand why, you have to understand the history of Magic Leap and the hyperbole that surrounds the company. Magic Leap began quietly enough when it was founded in 2010. But in 2015, it started attracting big buzz in the tech industry with a series of demo videos (below) outlining the capabilities of its hardware. The company promised that it would achieve what sounded like nothing short of science fiction, seamlessly blending realistic virtual objects with the real world. A lengthy 2016 profile in Wired talked up Magic Leap as a company with the potential to become a major player in tech on the same level as companies like Apple, Microsoft, and Samsung.

The original concept video from Magic Leap was later revealed to be a fake and not shot through Magic Leap's technology. 

But it didn't take long before the cracks began to show. In 2016, The Information conducted an investigation into Magic Leap and found that its high-profile demo video was created by a special FX studio—not filmed through the company's own technology. Reports from Magic Leap employees revealed concerns that the company had oversold what it could deliver and how quickly. There were also reports that the company was working off a less-than-innovative sounding prototype—a device so big employees took to calling it “The Beast.”

As The Information reported:

“The first prototype was the size of a refrigerator, for instance, and was called the “Beast” by company employees, The Information has learned. It used a projector with a motorized lens that enabled images to have more depth and therefore look more realistic. The spectacles that Magic Leap plans to release will use a different kind of lens that aren’t likely to offer the same level of depth, for instance.”

Where's the Magic?

Magic Leap was promising investors that it could take everything The Beast did and cram it into a form factor the size of a pair of glasses. Skepticism around Magic Leap's capability grew to the point that many were calling it vaporware and questioning whether it would release a product at all.

In December 2017, Magic Leap announced that a Creator Edition of its headset will be available sometime in 2018 (no release date has been given as of this writing). It also opened up a creator portal for developers looking to make content for the Magic Leap One. Creators have been rolling out demos for Magic Leap, but they don't appear any more impressive than content offered on Hololens or through the products from Vuzix.

Most importantly, the public has yet to actually see any content actually running on Magic Leap hardware! Live stream viewers were hoping for a live demo and pressed for one. But De Iuliis and Noon, again, said that would have to come at a later date.

After years of speculation and hype, to have the Magic Leap One turn out to be just another addition to the increasingly crowded AR headset market—rather than a game changing innovation—is disappointing at the very least. The market is young, however. With the company still holding back on demos and full technical specs, there is still a chance to wow users. Optimists will hope that the killer app for Magic Leap is just around the corner and that all of the skeptics will owe the company a big apology by year's end. But with things as they stand now, the rest of us can easily be forgiven for being a bit more realistic.

You can watch the full Magic Leap live stream here.

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

It Takes a Village to Create Solid Electrolytes

Wed, 2018-06-13 05:00

It is becoming evident that moving beyond lithium ion batteries is going to require the combined efforts of research labs and battery manufacturers around the world. The extent of such collaboration was made clear in a recent press release from the University of Pennsylvania, detailing research into a solid electrolyte for use in lithium metal batteries.

Presently, commercial lithium ion batteries use a carbon graphite anode electrode and a metal oxide cathode electrode. They are separated by a liquid organic solvent that can pass lithium ions between the electrodes while preventing electrons from making the journey. The organic solvent of the electrolyte is flammable—resulting in a potential for a fire in the event that a lithium ion battery is punctured.

The anode side of a lithium ion battery is made from layers of graphite. Lithium ions are inserted between the material’s layers during charging and are released during discharge. Battery researchers realize that replacing the graphite anode with metallic lithium would allow many more lithium ions to flow during discharge, producing a battery with at least twice the capacity. But during the charging stage of a lithium metal battery, spiky crystalline structures, called dendrites, form on the metal surface. These dendrites can grow through the liquid electrolyte, reaching the cathode and shorting out the battery.

A Solid Approach

A worldwide search is on for a solid or semi-solid electrolyte that can prevent dendrite growth while allowing the easy passage of lithium ions without conducting electrons.

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One possibility that has received great attention is the use of an electrolyte made from a polymer material. Such a material is called a solid polymer electrolyte (SPE). This is the approach taken by the research group at the University of Pennsylvania. The starting point for the team was Nafion, a sulfonated tetrafluoroethylene-based copolymer that allows the passage of positive ions (cations) without allowing the transmission of electrons. Nafion is commonly used as a proton exchange membrane (PEM) in hydrogen fuel cells.

“Nafion is something of a fluke,” explained Karen Winey, chair of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania, in the press release produced by the university. “Its structure has been the subject of debate for decades, and will likely never be fully understood or controlled,” she added.

The new structure developed in this research self-assembles into hairpin shapes, resulting in acid-lined channels that allow for the efficient transport of lithium ions across the polymer electrolyte. (Image source: University of Pennsylvania)

Mazelike

Because the polymer Nafion has a structure that is random and disordered, it is difficult to study. It contains side chains that occur randomly and that end in sulfonic acid groups. The sulfonic acid draws in water. This process forms channels through the polymer that allow cations to flow through the material. But the pathways for these positive ions are a convoluted maze. If the path could be made more direct, the transport of lithium ions through the polymer electrolyte could be quicker and more efficient.

Superhighway

That’s where the collaboration came in. The University of Pennsylvania group, under Winey, worked with a group at the University of Florida, under Kenneth Wagener. They have developed a new structure that places sulfonic acid groups at an even spacing along the polymer chain. Their approach results in many parallel acid-lined channels through the polymer, which act like a superhighway for lithium ion flow. The structure was determined from another collaboration—this time with Mark Stevens of Sandia National Laboratories.

The chains in the resulting structure form a series of hairpin shapes with a sulfonic acid group at each turn. This allows the polymer to assemble into orderly layers and results in straight channels, rather than the meandering maze structure of the unmodified Nafion. Cationic transport through the modified material is much faster. “We’re already faster than Nafion by a factor of two, but we could be even faster if we aligned all of those layers straight across the electrolyte membrane,” said Winey in the press release.

Build Us a Village

The goal is a solid electrolyte that will be safer than the flammable electrolytes that are presently used. At the same time, lithium metal batteries with solid polymer electrolytes might be both lighter and thinner. Such batteries would also have twice the capacity and the ability to recharge faster than today’s commercial lithium ion batteries.

Beyond the collaboration with the University of Florida and Sandia, additional contributions from researchers at the French National Center for Scientific Research, the French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission, and the Université Grenoble Alpes were noted in the University of Pennsylvania’s press release. The extent of this worldwide collaboration is an indication of how the search for improved battery materials and performance has become global in its scale.

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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Material Paves Way for Electronics, Robots that Can Repair Themselves

Wed, 2018-06-13 04:00

Researchers have been making a lot of progress in developing self-healing materials that can help electronics self-repair. Now, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have developed what they claim is the first soft, stretchable material that can spontaneously re-form electrical connections when the material becomes damaged. This capability makes it well-suited for the next generation of wearable electronics and soft robotics.

Invented by a team led by Carmel Majidi, an associate professor of mechanical engineering, the material is composed of liquid metal droplets suspended in a soft elastomer that are the foundation of the self-repair process, according to researchers. The material can be used in self-healing electrical circuits, which—when produced with conductive traces of this material—remain fully and continuously operational when severed or punctured.

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have developed a flexible, self-healing material that can be used in wearable devices, soft robots, and numerous other applications to help electronics repair themselves. (Image source: Carnegie Mellon University College of Engineering)

The key to the material is its elasticity, which gives it a wide variety of uses, Majidi told Design News. While other self-healing materials for electronics exist, he noted that generally, they don’t have the same flexibility. “The fact that it’s elastically deformable and as soft as natural skin means that it could be used for wearable computing or soft humanoid robots that are safe for physical interaction,” Majidi said. “Other repairable electronics are either mechanically rigid—like conventional electronics—or require manual intervention in order to repair broken connections.”

These new innovations in wearable and other flexible electronic designs, as well as soft robotics, are feeding the demands for new types of self-healing materials. When electronics stay in a hard outer shell, Majidi noted, they don’t necessarily need self-repairing capabilities because they are less susceptible to damage.

“However, as electronics become more pervasive and increasingly used in clothing, medical garments, and human-machine interfaces, they will be subject to stretching, abrasion, and extreme mechanical loading,” he said. “Just like our natural skin, it’s important that these ‘electronic skins’ can handle everyday wear and tear without losing their circuit functionality.”

How It Works

Specifically, the liquid comprises microscopic droplets of liquid metal suspended in a soft silicone rubber, Majidi said. When those droplets rupture, they connect with other droplets to form new electrical pathways so electronics can function uninterrupted by damage.

“We create circuits by pressing a pen against the material to cause the droplets to rupture and form connected, electrically conductive pathways within the rubber,” Majidi explained. “When the circuit line is damaged, the stresses from the damaging load will cause the surrounding droplets to rupture and form new conductive pathways that automatically restore the circuit network.”

The team came up with the bio-inspired idea after many years of working with non-toxic liquid metal alloys and soft rubbers. “We were inspired by neural plasticity and the way that the neurons in nervous tissue can create new synaptic connections and neural pathways when tissue is damaged or diseased,” Majidi said.

Immediate commercial applications for the material include smart textiles that could be used for incorporating electrical wiring into clothing, blankets, or inflatable structures, stated Majidi. It also has a number of scientific uses including bio-inspired soft robotics, wearable computing, and human-machine interaction. “Because of its combination of elasticity, electronic functionality, and self-healing properties, it can function like an artificial nervous tissue for transmitting signals and stimuli,” he said.

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The team plans to continue its work by engineering a soft and stretchable conductive material, which is capable not only of electrical self-repair but also mechanical healing on the way to developing an artificial skin. They envision that skin being able to automatically heal itself when damaged and restore its shape and mechanical integrity, he said. “We also plan to use this material to explore novel applications in human-machine interaction and biologically inspired soft robots,” Majidi added.

Researchers published a paper on their work in the journal Nature Materials.

Elizabeth Montalbano is a freelance writer who has written about technology and culture for 20 years. She has lived and worked as a professional journalist in Phoenix, San Francisco, and New York City. In her free time, she enjoys surfing, traveling, music, yoga, and cooking. She currently resides in a village on the southwest coast of Portugal.

INSPIRE. COLLABORATE. INNOVATE. Atlantic Design & Manufacturing, part of the largest advanced design and manufacturing industry event on the East Coast, is the annual must-attend trade show for discovering the latest in design engineering. Source from the region's most comprehensive collection of cutting-edge suppliers, deepen your expertise with free, conference-level education, and network with thousands of professionals who can help you advance your projects — and your career. From prototyping to full-scale production, one lap of the show floor will help you overcome your toughest manufacturing challenges and keep you up to speed on innovations transforming the industry. Everything you need to take projects to market faster and more cost effectively is here. Click here to register for your free pass today!

How to Hack Amazon Alexa to Build a Connected Thermostat

Tue, 2018-06-12 15:00

According to Amazon, there are over 30,000 skills available for Alexa now. And with a little know-how, we can transform an Echo Dot into a temperature control unit for an attic, greenhouse, un-attached garage, or in any other location in your home that isn't able to be connected to the Internet over WiFi.

The skill in question we'll be using is the Sinric app, which allows Arduino development boards to be connected with Alexa. This project uses Sinric to exploit an inexpensive ESP-01 WiFi module, interfacing to an Amazon Echo Dot. The ESP-01 relies on a very capable 8266-based controller. In this application, the coded module formats and forwards data from Alexa-based requests to the Sinric app, which is interfaced with a 433 MHz-based transceiver (HC-12) and a remote Arduino-based receiver.

Parts List:

Qty.  Part Digi Key# Notes         1 Amazon Echo Dot     1 Ardurino Nano 1738-1017   1 ESP-01     2 HC-12 wireless communication module      2 HCT11 Humidity/Temp Sensor     1 5 to 3.3 volt(200ma) regulator module     1 33uF/25V Cap 493-10938-1-ND   5 3.3K CF14JT3K30CT thruHole 2 2K CF14JT2K00CT thruHole 2 NPN transistors (translator) 2N3904FS-ND  TO-92 2 2Pin male header 277-1667-ND 0.1" centers  3 Dual (screw) Terminal 732-5315-ND 0.2" centers    Perf Board, single sided clad, 0.1” pattern V2010-ND  as required  (see text)   Arduino shield   as required  (see text) 1 Opti-coupler   TCp817BC9G Optional-PC817 1 NMOS transistor  IRFZ44NPBF Optional-IRFZ44 1 Relay module(rated 10A contacts)   Optional- 1 47 nF capacitor BC2686CT   1 1N4001 diode 641-1310-1  

DOWNLOAD THE SOURCE CODE FILES: alexa_Attic_baseINO.pdfalexa_Attic_INO.pdf

alexa_Attic_INO.pdf

The Arduino based controller described here is coded to provide sensor, fan, and vent controls.

The ESP-01-based hardware includes a single, named output port control, providing on/off (relay) or as a dimming feature with a fader function. The output is provided with a de-bounced (push on, push off) momentary input to manually alternate the output port. The Sinric app is installed on an Alexa associated tablet or phone. It then gives you explicit control anywhere, along with the Alexa voice-based control thru the app.

The Sinric app is one of several that may also be available, and there are several ways to get the Alexa to interface into the ESP-01. I used the Sinric app because it had the graphic interfaces for switch, light, thermostat, and volume, allowing me to communicate more than an ‘On’ or ‘Off’ variable.

The switch and light modules are defined and ‘dropped in’ to the Sinric app to accommodate the combinations of features used in the project. The ESP-01 base is ‘expected’ to be customized using multiple key settings taken from the Sinric app. The base code also may be ported into the several other (and larger) 8266 based chip modules, including a WeMos mini D1.

Entering ‘set’ in the serial monitor attached to the remote controller application returns the following parameters, which may be altered (saved to EEPROM). The S1off/S2off entries are for sensor temperature offset and fan%/pump% are for fan and pump humidity trip offsets. The profile # establishes the ‘power up’ default profile. The APIkey is the last 4 characters of the provided Sinric key. Each parameter is saved to EEPROM.

The remote Arduino-based controller was assembled on an Arduino shield and is coded to provide indoor and outdoor sensors, two fans, pump, and a vent control.

The HC-12 has 100 configurable channels, beginning at 433 MHZ and offers links up to 1000 meters. (The 1000 meters is a pretty ideal spec.) I have configured my application, using the configurable link bit rate and transmit power to support ~500 feet.

The function is intended to be used to automate attic, cooler, or greenhouse ventilation fans. The controller can be used in an un-attached garage, barn, or in any other location not connected to the Internet.

F1 'temp set’ (on the schematic) may be included to allow a manually +/-4 degree offset to be used for the trip temperature. The F1/F2 jumper allows the fans to be operated separately (FanH disables FanL before being powered) for split coil fans. The vent output is asserted eight seconds before FanL is enabled and is disabled two seconds after all fans are disabled.

The application is based on a selected profile and may be defined or changed in code to provide for specific applications, environments, and season of year. These are defined as:

  • Minimum differential inside/outside temperature for second fan operation
  • Maximum outside humidity for pump to operate (with offset)
  • Maximum outside air humidity for fans to operate (with offset)
  • Temperature trip setting (code includes fixed +/-2 degree hysteresis) for low fan operation

Voice commands allow:

  • Trip temperature override (not saved in EEPROM)
  • Remote application enable; enable or disable remote controller application
  • Fan High override: forces fan high on or returns fan to be under controller
  • Fan Low override: forces fan low on or returns fan to be under controller
  • Selected profile to be used, 3 are defined above (max =10), saved in EEPROM

FanL is enabled when the profile trip is satisfied and FanH is enabled when the profile-defined difference temperature is meet.

The ESP-01 base is coded to define and schedule different HC-12 channels using a channel table. This allows voice commands to be forwarded to different receiver applications maintained in the ESP-01 base. The project may be used as a voice commanded remote system. Or, the remote Arduino-based application may be used separately.

Power for the ESP base (3.3V/.12A [ESP-01] and 5V/.12A [relay]) are taken from the 120VAC using a small enclosed AC-DC 5V wall adaptor and 3.3V regulator.

While the remote application is complete and operational, it is an example that you might use to implement your own functional requirements.

For any specific setup help or documents William Grill can be reached at contact@riverheadsystems.com.

[All images courtesy William Grill]

Red Tape and 5 Market Disruptors: What’s Next for Medical Device Design

Tue, 2018-06-12 06:00

Engineering and other technical advances continue to transform our daily lives in areas ranging from transportation to medicine. Medical device design in particular is undergoing a transformation with the evolution of robotics, sensing, and other technologies. In fact, the parallel development of many of these technologies is leading to several disruptive trends in the medical-device design space. Design News had the opportunity to chat with Bryce Rutter, founder and CEO of Metaphase Design Group Inc., ahead of the panel he moderated at MD&M East, part of the Advanced Manufacturing Expo, aptly titled, “Secrets of Disruptive Medical Device Design.” 

Rutter’s company specializes in human-factor ergonomic design in the healthcare industry, which gives him a unique point of view. Their goal is to look at how products are used and identify where the pain points are. Interestingly, just interviewing or surveying people in these scenarios doesn’t provide adequate information. Medical device developers must take note of how individuals describe working with devices, but then observe them to see how they actually behave with them. The reason for this multi-faceted approach is that humans often have a knack for compensating for little annoyances—yet they do so unconsciously. Ideally, a medical device will be a more seamless extension of the user’s mind and body.

Red Tape

Yet such observations are not very easy to accomplish. According to Rutter, “With HIPAA constraints, going in to observe a surgery and do a time-motion study, in which you’re recording the procedure (this is where the a-ha moments lie—watching how people behave with the current systems) is considerably challenging. It has slowed down the design process because on average, it can take three to six months to go through all the approval processes with a hospital to gain access. By that I mean, the sign-offs from each person on the clinical team in most cases--the surgeon and assisting surgeon, circulating nurse, patient, risk management, hospital lawyers, etc. That has really slowed down the process and made it much more challenging.”

Rutter notes that the solution has been to go with more simulations by using cadaver labs, live animal labs, or test simulators and bringing users in and trying to mimic real behavior as close as possible. It’s kind of the 80/20 rule—you’ll get a lot, but you won’t get everything. But in many cases, the cost and the timeline are just out of the reach of many medical companies to try to persevere and get into the hospital.

The Hydrodebrider from Metaphase Design Group, which is essentially a power washer that goes up your nose, is an example of how human factors engineering, hand function, and manufacturing intersect in a very positive way. (Image source: Metaphase Design Group)

As medical design teams work to overcome these challenges, they also are reaping the benefits of technology developments. As technology boosts the development process, medical device developers should more easily be able to create products that are a more seamless extension of the end user’s mind and body. At the same time, the products should avoid causing stress, eroding dignity, and otherwise creating a negative experience for the user. Rutter points the following technologies or technology-enabled capabilities as the biggest current disruptors:

1. CAD and Rapid Prototyping

“Once you’re in the design phase, something that continues to counteract that increasing lag time to get in and get through that gauntlet of legal permissions is the speed of CAD and rapid prototyping,” states Rutter. “That’s a fantastic development for us; time to market across the product development cycle has been decreasing so we can be a lot more responsive by bringing products to a prototypical form for testing and validation and also getting them to market faster than we could have two or three years ago.”

Rutter considers rapid manufacturing technologies to basically be an outgrowth of rapid print models that are production grade. “We can rapid print metal components without having to have any expensive tooling,” he tells Design News. “With these smaller companies, as their volumes increase, we reach an inflection point where the volumes now can support a heavy capital tooling program. That’s been a big change in bringing things to market.”

2. Robotics

“The whole area of robotics is transforming surgery,” notes Rutter. “It’s transforming it because the robotics can shrink down to a size and be controlled through some type of surgeon interface that allow minimally invasive surgeries, which were typically considered to be laparoscopic, to be shrunk down even further. The research is in that the less disruption you do to the body in any procedure, the faster the recovery time. Robotic surgery, when it allows you to get small and very precise and actually makes surgeons better surgeons, has a dramatic impact on the speed and efficacy of the surgery.” Expect this area to make strides quickly, as it’s public knowledge that two big companies--Stryker and Medtronic--are looking at that area and have put together groups to pursue business.

3. Remote Care

People everywhere have begun doing more for themselves at home than at a clinic or hospital, and this trend is only expected to increase. According to Rutter, “The increase in self-administered drug regimes through auto-injectors or wearables—for example, a wearable that you would slap on your belly that slips a cannula subcutaneously, which would be automated and deliver a certain amount of a drug at specific intervals—that’s an area that would be quite disruptive in terms of the pharmacology side and how we actually deliver drugs. Rather than having to go into the doctor’s office to get a shot or go to the hospital or clinic to get an IV drip, we’re all going to be taking care of that ourselves.”

4. Personalized Care

This impressive trend is going to personalize pharmacology and be extremely disruptive while having a very positive output for patients. As Rutter describes it, “By taking our blood and spinning it down and testing it against a variety of potential drugs that could help us and also ‘type training’ each of those drugs, the future will be that the doctors say, ‘Alright, for Bryce, we want you to take this drug and because of your body mass, metabolism, and disease state, this is the perfect concentration for you.’” Three of us could have the same disease, he notes. But because it’s personalized, the amount of drug and the frequency at which we would take it would be customized to our own bodies.

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5. “Smart” Instruments

Another area that’s going to be disruptive, generally speaking, is having manual instruments be “smart,” Rutter tells Design News. Here, embedded in manual instrumentation is some technology that will facilitate their use by providing certain types of feedback to the user.

As companies evolve their design and manufacturing processes to incorporate and even create these technologies, they also need to balance the need for input from end users. “With the  FDA’s requirement for formative and summative testing, you have to go out and talk to the people who use your design,” Rutter notes. “Until that was a mandate, about 75 percent of all healthcare manufacturers would engineer products with incredible technology, but forget that there were users involved—actual humans that had to pick it up, figure out how to use it, and much of that fantastic technology couldn’t be accessed because it was so difficult to use or so non-intuitive.”

According to Rutter, the impact of this mandate—to run usability testing regimes on products through the early development phases and then, as you zero in on a final design, testing that design with actual users—and also being forced by the FDA to test with all different types of users because they all have different experiences and capacities, both physical and cognitive—has really had a very positive effect. It means that the products that get to market now have really taken into account users of all types. Between such user insight and the evolution of technology, the design of medical devices will continue to improve—making healthcare easier, more comfortable, and more effective.

Nancy Friedrich recently joined Design News as Editor-in-Chief and Content Director. With a 20-year background in covering the electronic and mechanical engineering segments, Nancy has expertise across many areas. At Design News, she plans to focus on wireless and related areas.

INSPIRE. COLLABORATE. INNOVATE. Atlantic Design & Manufacturing, part of the largest advanced design and manufacturing industry event on the East Coast, is the annual must-attend trade show for discovering the latest in design engineering. Source from the region's most comprehensive collection of cutting-edge suppliers, deepen your expertise with free, conference-level education, and network with thousands of professionals who can help you advance your projects — and your career. From prototyping to full-scale production, one lap of the show floor will help you overcome your toughest manufacturing challenges and keep you up to speed on innovations transforming the industry. Everything you need to take projects to market faster and more cost effectively is here. Click here to register for your free pass today!

 

3D-Printed, Muscle-Like Hydrogel Can Walk Underwater

Tue, 2018-06-12 05:00

Researchers have developed a 3D-printed smart gel that can walk underwater and even grab and move objects. The development paves the way for innovations in medicine, robotics, and devices that can be used underwater. A team of engineers from Rutgers University developed the material, which they said can not only self-actuate when submerged in water, but even bump into things without damaging them. 

The soft material is flexible and thus easier to design and control, as well as less expensive to produce. These aspects make it well-suited to a variety of applications, said Howon Lee, an assistant professor in the university’s Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering.

A human-like 3D-printed smart gel walks underwater. Comprising about 70 percent water, the material—developed at Rutgers University—can be used for innovations in medical devices and soft robots. (Image source: Daehoon Han/Rutgers University-New Brunswick)

“Our 3D-printed smart gel has great potential in biomedical engineering because it resembles tissues in the human body that also contain lots of water and are very soft,” he said. “It can be used for many different types of underwater devices that mimic aquatic life, like the octopus.”

Researchers are developing more and more sophisticated robots that can move and perform functions like humans. Soft materials are advancing the development of such machines because of their innate flexibility and other characteristics that make them attractive to researchers, Lee said.

The material developed by the Rutgers team is a hydrogel—materials that stay solid despite their 70-plus percent water content. These types of materials already are found in the human body, diapers, contact lenses, Jell-O, and numerous other things that people use every day. The gel resembles muscles that contract because it’s made of soft material, is comprised of so much water, and responds to electrical stimulation, Lee said.

The Rutgers team used a 3D-printing process to fabricate the material. During the process, they projected light on a light-sensitive solution that becomes a gel. They then placed the hydrogel in an electrolyte—or salt-based liquid solution—and used two thin wires to apply electricity to trigger motion. 

The resulting material is about one-inch thick and can walk like a human, Lee noted. It can perform motions that include walking forward, reversing course, and grabbing and moving objects. “This study demonstrates how our 3D-printing technique can expand the design, size, and versatility of this smart gel,” he said. “Our microscale 3D-printing technique allowed us to create unprecedented motions.”

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The researchers were able to control the movement of the smart gel by changing its dimensions, Lee explained. Thin material is faster than thick, and the gel bends or changes shape depending on the strength of the electrolyte and electric field. 

The team published a paper on its work in the journal ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces, with Rutgers doctoral student in mechanical and aerospace engineering Daehoon Han as the lead author. Researchers also published a video on YouTube showing how the material works.

As mentioned, the material has a versatile array of applications, researchers said. In addition to its use in soft robotics that can self-actuate, it can be used to develop artificial heart, stomach, and other muscles. Devices for diagnosing diseases, detecting and delivering drugs, and performing underwater inspections also are possibilities for the material, Lee said.

Elizabeth Montalbano is a freelance writer who has written about technology and culture for 20 years. She has lived and worked as a professional journalist in Phoenix, San Francisco, and New York City. In her free time, she enjoys surfing, traveling, music, yoga, and cooking. She currently resides in a village on the southwest coast of Portugal.

INSPIRE. COLLABORATE. INNOVATE. Atlantic Design & Manufacturing, part of the largest advanced design and manufacturing industry event on the East Coast, is the annual must-attend trade show for discovering the latest in 3D Printing technology. Source from the region's most comprehensive collection of cutting-edge suppliers, deepen your expertise with free, conference-level education, and network with thousands of professionals who can help you advance your projects — and your career. From prototyping to full-scale production, one lap of the show floor will help you overcome your toughest manufacturing challenges and keep you up to speed on innovations transforming the industry. Everything you need to take projects to market faster and more cost effectively is here. Click here to register for your free pass today!

The Self-Assembling Battery

Tue, 2018-06-12 04:00

Battery research into new materials for anodes, cathodes, and electrolytes brings news of breakthroughs almost daily. But there are few reports of research into the basic architecture of the battery. Perhaps that’s why a recent press release and scientific paper by a team at Cornell University is so interesting: It details a concept for a 3D, self-assembling battery with a gyroidal structure.

It’s not the first time that the Cornell University research group, led by Dr. Ulrich Wiesner, has published about the practical use of gyroidal structures. According to a 2016 Cornell press release, “The gyroid is a complex cubic structure based on a surface that divides space into two separate volumes that are interpenetrating and contain various spirals.”

3D on a Nanoscale

In an ordinary battery, the anode and cathode are more or less parallel to each other on either side of a non-conducting separator that also contains the electrolyte. If the components could be integrated into 3D architectures on the nanoscale, it has been suggested that batteries could be built with improved power capability. But traditional fabrication techniques haven’t allowed such architectures to be explored.

The idea from the Cornell group is to intertwine the components into a self-assembling, three-dimensional gyroid structure. The structure includes thousands of nanoscale micro-pores that are filled with the components needed to allow energy storage and delivery. The self-assembly refers to the ability of the gyroid structure to organize and grow based upon the arrangement of its nanoscale components.

Previous work from the same laboratory included a gyroidal solar cell and a gyroidal superconductor. Joerg Werner, lead author on the current work, was developing a self-assembling filtration membrane when he began to wonder if the same concept could be applied to a battery design.

The anode (grey, with minus sign), separator (green), and cathode (blue with plus sign) layers (not to scale) self-assemble into a 3D battery structure. Each layer is about 20 nanometers thick. The molecular structures of each layer is also presented. (Image source: Cornell University)

Anode and Cathode

According to the latest Cornell press release, “The gyroidal thin films of carbon—the battery anode, generated by block co-polymer self-assembly—featured thousands of periodic pores on the order of 40 nanometers wide. These pores were then coated with a 10 nanometer thick, electronically insulating but ion-conducting separator through electropolymerization, which by the very nature of the process produced a pinhole-free separation layer.”

The freedom of holes and porosity in the separator was considered crucial. Piercing of the separator can cause short circuits and fires in traditional battery designs. After adding the separator, the cathode material—made from sulfur—was added in an amount that didn’t quite fill the remaining pores. Sulfur doesn’t conduct electricity, so a layer of electronically conducting polymer was then deposited over the sulfur.

“This three-dimensional architecture basically eliminates all losses from dead volume in your device,” said Wiesner in the Cornell press release. “More importantly, shrinking the dimensions of these interpenetrated domains down to the nanoscale, as we did, gives you orders of magnitude higher power density. In other words, you can access the energy in much shorter times than what’s usually done with conventional battery architectures."

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Proof of Concept

A proof-of-concept lithium ion sulfur battery was constructed, with a functional carbon anode intercalated with lithium ions and a sulfur cathode. They were separated by an ultrathin electrolyte phase. Each layer was less than 20 nanometers thick and extended throughout a macroscopic demonstration battery.

The good news is that the initial test battery did function. However, charging and discharging the battery resulted in volume changes in the sulfur that could not be accommodated by the electronically conducting polymer. The polymer eventually ripped apart and the battery no longer worked. It did, however, indicate a new and very different possible direction in battery architecture—one that deserves significantly more study.

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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Digital Tools Force the Rethinking of Manufacturing

Mon, 2018-06-11 09:00

Making the shift from a conventional factory to a digital plant involves a collection of technologies across several processes. In some cases, it's a matter of making traditional systems more efficient, as in automating an assembly line. In other cases, it means rethinking those processes, as in shifting from preventive maintenance to predictive condition monitoring. Plant managers often select first-step changes that deliver clear return on investment (ROI) while presenting little cultural change. Once they reap those benefits (and the resulting ROI), they move to more challenging, and sometimes expensive, technologies like robotics, IoT, and data analytics.

The shift to digital-based manufacturing re-imagines everything from design and production through the supply chain and customer service. (Image source: American Society of Mechanical Engineers)

Even if the first steps are modest, moving to the digital plant means rethinking the traditional design and production processes. “The path to digital transformation includes product innovation and leveraging advanced tools, from design through development and production,” John Jaddou, co-founder of Addeation, told Design News. “It means re-imagining a new way of designing something and using digital tools.”

Jaddou will be part of a panel during the session, The Practical Path of Digital Transformation, on June 14 at the Atlantic Design and Manufacturing Show in New York City June 12 – 14.

Competition Is Prompting the Transformation

Adopting digital tools isn’t simply a decision to improve efficiency—though it is that. It’s also an effort to become more competitive. “Manufacturing is competitive. There is pressure from abroad and from Wall Street to improve productivity and design differentiated products. You drive growth and bottom-line improvements through cost compression,” said Jaddou. “There’s also pressure from customers, who want speed, quality, and a high level of service. When we click on something, we expect the product to arrive on time, for it to not be damaged, and for it to work as expected.”

In order to stay competitive and improve operations, manufacturers are finding they have to change—and that change will likely involve digital tools. “Companies have been trying to meet their needs with analog processes. Now, they want to be agile; they want to compress the development cycle. So they’re moving from analog to digital,” said Jaddou. “They’re turning to new technology to automate their design and production. That might include using machine learning for predictive maintenance to keep the process from going out of control. That’s the low-hanging fruit.”

Digitizing the Entire Operation

Moving to greater efficiency usually requires improved communication, and that means greater connectivity.  “One move to digital is to sync the shop floor with the back office. The digitization of the shop floor and the back end has been great. Just a few years ago, we were using paper documents and instructions,” said Jaddou. “Reports were once a week or once a month. We would make a prototype and ten weeks later, we got a response from engineering.”

Communication and connectivity through digital tools offer the opportunity to compress the design and production cycle. “Now, we have a connected machine and the company information is in the cloud. Design and manufacturing are no longer static. It’s real-time and rich with innovations,” said Jaddou. “We can quickly get performance or process information. We can see if we’re in full production. We can evaluate if the process is in control or not. Everything becomes faster and proactive.”

Digital communication is moving beyond design and production to include suppliers. “The supply chain is also moving to a digital platform, so there is increasing accountability,” said Jaddou. “You can see who has carried out which task, and you can see if there’s a hiccup. You can quickly see bottlenecks and address them.”

Efficiency without Sacrificing Quality

In the past, efficiency came with a tradeoff in quality. Jaddou notes that digital tools have changed that balance. “Quality is no longer sacrificed for efficiency. We can push the limits of process. We know when we’re out of control, and we know where we would be out of control, so we can push the process,” said Jaddou. “People are pushing this because there is explicit and implicit payback. You can visually see where something is in the supply chain. You can measure how long it takes for a process to move from task to task.”

Those implicit and explicit paybacks show up as compressed design and production cycles. “You can see how long it took in a traditional way and how long it takes in a digital way,” said Jaddou. “The result of moving to digital is that product development is shrinking from 18 months to three months.”

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While the returns from the shift to digital processes are measurable, they do come with costs—both financial and cultural. “Some of the advanced manufacturing seems easy, but it’s actually complicated. Robotics, additive manufacturing, the IoT—we hear that they’re relatively easy to incorporate, but that’s far from the truth,” said Jaddou. “It sounds great, but there are not many people who are schooled in design for function or 3D printing.”

Rob Spiegel has covered automation and control for 17 years, 15 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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