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Engineering a Robot for a Specific Job

Thu, 2017-07-20 04:46

With labor costs increasing and robot costs declining, collaborative robots have become an increasingly popular alternative to human labor. More and more, robots are filling a skills and cost niche – provided you have the right robot for the right task. One of the most efficient ways to replace labor with a robot is to create the robot specifically for the job that needs to be done.

Bruce Welty was running the third-party warehouse company, Quiet Logistics, that utilized collaborative robots to bring goods to human workers for packing. “We were using a robot from Kiva Systems in our warehouse. The robots would find the inventory and bring it to you,” Bruce Welty, founder of Quiet Logistics and chairman of Locus Robotics, told Design News. “Amazon liked the robots so much they purchased the company. We were a customer of Kiva Systems, but once Amazon bought them, they were no longer selling them outside Amazon.”

It was time for Quiet Logistics to find a new source for robots. “Our first thought was that we have a great company and now we can’t run it. We thought, how do we protect that?” said Welty. “We were headed to zero. We needed the robots to execute against the contracts we had signed. We needed to protect our asset.”

Searching the World for the Right Robot

Welty had to find a solution quickly, as the robots were integral to the company’s business model. “I flew around the world trying to find an alternative robot. I came back and told my board we couldn’t find the right robot, so we created a company to make the robots.”

Welty’s team launched Locus Robotics and created a robot that could take warehouse functions a few steps further. Technology had advanced, so the robot could also advance. “We came up with the next generation of a warehouse robot,” said Welty. “Technology changes so capabilities change. We liked a lot about the Kiva robots, but we also hated a lot about them, so we looked at what we could do with a clean slate.”

Designing a Robot from Scratch

When traveling the globe to find a robot replacement, Welty found that 14 companies had copied Kiva overseas, but Kiva held US patents, so the copycats were not a viable solution. Instead, the team needed to engineer a robot from scratch. “We decided we had to own the whole thing,” said Welty. “We had to invent things in software that didn’t exist and do things with the robot’s capabilities that had never been done before.” The engineering team soon found that the software programming was the biggest challenge. “Building the robot isn’t nearly as important as the software,” said Welty.

As well as programming in new capabilities, the Locus Robotics team also kept an eye on the economics of the new robot that would eventually be called LocusBot. “We came up with a system that is as fast or faster than the previous robots at half the price,” said Welty. “We started working internally in 2013. We had a prototype in 2014. We enhanced it and brought it to market in 2015, and then announced its availability in 2016.”

Teaching the Robot to Solve Its Own Problems

Welty found that the specific nature of what the robot had to accomplish helped the engineering team develop a solution. “We told our engineers, this is the problem we’re trying to solve,” said Welty. “If you have a really clear problem, it helps to focus the engineering. It’s amazing what good engineers can do when they know the problem.”




One important function the team built into the robot was the ability for the robot to do its job without a human boss looking over its shoulder. “Our robots are autonomous. We tell them: go to point B, and we don’t care how you get there,” said Welty. “If it runs into a block, it figures out another path. It creates an alternative. The robot is smart. It can find its way around. That function is really hard to program.”

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.

12 Hydraulic Hybrids That Go Heavy Duty

Thu, 2017-07-20 03:15




Senior technical editor Chuck Murray has been writing about technology for 33 years. He joined Design News in 1987, and has covered electronics, automation, fluid power, and auto.


The Embedded Systems Conference (ESC) is back in Minnesota and it’s bigger than ever. Over two days, Nov. 8-9, 2017, receive in-depth education geared to drive a year’s worth of work. Uncover software design innovation, hardware breakthroughs, fresh IoT trends, product demos, and more that will change how you spend time and money on your next project. Click here to learn more! 

Could China’s ban on scrap plastics have a silver lining for U.S. plastics industry?

Wed, 2017-07-19 12:30

China notified the World Trade Organization yesterday that it intends to ban the import of certain scrap materials by the end of the year. Among the items on the list are most scrap plastics, including polymers of ethylene, styrene, vinyl chloride and PET, according to a release from the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI; Washington, DC).

ISRI notified the Office of the United States Trade Representative and the U.S. Department of Commerce of “the devastating impact such a ban will have on the global recycling industry,” said ISRI President Robin Wiener in a statement. The ban also includes “mixed paper and slags and drosses,” and there’s word that China is “considering additional notifications in the future on other scrap materials.”

Much of the plastic scrap that was exported to China, particularly PET, was reground and reprocessed and then shipped back to the United States as RPET. Thermoformers especially saw a big demand for RPET, but the problem was that RPET was getting as expensive as virgin PET. This topic came up with various materials suppliers I spoke with a couple of years ago at an SPE thermoforming conference.

RPET is far from being “green,” given the extensively long supply chain and shipping methods. To wit:

  • Baled scrap is hauled from recycling companies by tractor-trailer rig or train to a port in California, where it is loaded into containers;
  • the containers are shipped to China, where they are trucked to a reprocessing facility and ground and processed into pellets;
  • the pellets are put into gaylords and shipped back to the United States as RPET.

No wonder RPET was nearly as costly as virgin PET! And just imagine the carbon footprint!

“With more than $5.6 billion in scrap commodities exported from the United States to China last year alone, the trade in specification-grade commodities—metals, paper and plastics—between the United States and China is of critical importance to the health and success of the U.S. recycling industry,” said Wiener. "If implemented, a ban on scrap imports will result in the loss of tens of thousands of jobs and closure of many recycling businesses throughout the United States.”

Wiener stated that there are “155,000 direct jobs supported by the U.S. industry’s export activities, [with workers] earning an average wage of almost $76,000 and contributing more than $3 billion to federal, state and local taxes. A ban on imports of scrap commodities into China would be catastrophic to the recycling industry.”

Or not. Just maybe China is giving us a golden opportunity to “reshore” this industry. After all, isn’t the goal to bring back more manufacturing to the United States and create more jobs for U.S. workers, reduce costs, improve quality, shorten the supply chain and have a more sustainable carbon footprint? A ban by China on plastic scrap is the answer to all of these objectives. China’s ban on scrap plastics could revive an industry, provide lots of new jobs and be good for the planet!

Instead of complaining to the Feds and whining about China banning our scrap plastic, let’s take advantage of this tremendous opportunity. That’s the American way! After all, one person’s trash is another person’s treasure: This could be just what America—and the plastics industry—needs!

10 Automotive Ideas That Didn't Pan Out

Wed, 2017-07-19 04:45




Senior technical editor Chuck Murray has been writing about technology for 33 years. He joined Design News in 1987, and has covered electronics, automation, fluid power, and auto.


Also see:

Dummies Book Takes a Crack at the IT/OT Conflict

Wed, 2017-07-19 02:18

Not surprisingly, a book about industrial cybersecurity becomes a deep dive into the endless conflict between information technology (IT) and operational technology (OT). Each of the two professions has an unequivocal mandate, and the mandates are in direct conflict. IT is devoted to security; OT is committed to uptime. Put simply, IT says, “If you don’t load this patch, you’ll get hacked,” while OT says, “If we shut the plant down for your patch, we’ll blow our quarter.”

Tripwire, a Belden company, has partnered with John Wiley & Sons to produce Industrial Cyber Security for Dummies, a short book authored by David Meltzer, Tripwire’s CTO, and Jeff Lund, a product manager at Belden. The book takes a look at the details of how to secure an industrial network. Digital copies are available free at this Belden link.

The Battlefield of IT and OT

The idea for the book and the content was derived from the authors’ years on the ground working to solve the differences between IT and OT. “I’ve been talking to people in the industry about cybersecurity and industrial control systems. There are two different worlds. The IT world and the people who do cybersecurity have little insight into how industrial networks work, whether it’s a factory or a water plant,” Meltzer told Design News. “When I talk with OT people who are running the industrial plants, cybersecurity is a different world to them. They’re working on keeping the plant running.”

Meltzer’s battle scars from the IT/OT wars stretch back two decades. “Twenty years ago I was working on IT security, and someone took that IT security into the plant. The security application took down the plant,” said Meltzer. “When that happens, the IT team gets put in the penalty box for two years. They told us, ‘We’re not letting you near this again.’”

Welcome to the New Days of Risky Connectivity

Meltzer noted that the security solutions that worked 20 years ago will not work in the next 10 years. “Twenty years ago, plants were not connected, and the industrial side was running proprietary IP. Now that they’re connected it creates a security issue,” said Meltzer. “You have to talk to the OT side about how important security is and how security will actually increase your availability.”




While the Meltzer/Lund book is a short primer, the book points to places to access further information. “There are a variety of standard bodies if you want to get into depth on cybersecurity in industrial networks,” said Meltzer. “We reference them in the book. The standards bodies have hundreds of pages that detail what to do. We’re not trying to replicate that information. We’re trying to point readers in the right direction for getting more detail.”

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.

Don’t Sound the IC Engine’s Death Knell Yet

Tue, 2017-07-18 05:20

If the internal combustion engine could talk, it might follow the lead of Mark Twain and tell us that reports of its death have been greatly exaggerated.

Predictions of the engine’s extinction have recently been numerous, however, starting with Volvo’s statement last week that it would phase out its gasoline- and diesel-only powertrains by 2019. Within hours of the announcement, The New York Times wrote that Volvo had become “the first mainstream automaker to sound the death knell of the internal combustion engine.” The Times story was soon followed by multiple headlines around the world declaring “a historic end” to the internal combustion engine. And, at virtually the same time, French President Emmanuel Macron pledged to rid France of gasoline and diesel engines by 2040.

All in all, it was a bad week for engines. But the good news, at least for the engines, is that forecasts of their demise may be premature. Industry analysts this week pointed out the obvious – that Volvo has no intention of abandoning IC engines.

In its own press conference, the company’s executives said mild and conventional hybrids will still be a big part of its lineup, meaning that engines will continue to play a role for the foreseeable future. “They are electrifying all of their cars, but they are not going all-electric by any stretch of the imagination,” Sam Abuelsamid, research analyst for Navigant Research, told Design News.

Abuelsamid acknowledged that Volvo’s press release, headlined “Volvo Cars to go all electric,” was ripe for misunderstanding. At the same time, though, he described it as a publicity “masterstroke.”

Indeed, it was a masterstroke because it obliquely drew some attention to a nugget of news that would have otherwise been ignored: That is, Volvo is joining a growing contingent of automakers planning to move to so-called “mild hybrid” technology.


Volvo is joining a growing contingent of automakers moving to 48V mild hybrid powertrains. (Source: Volvo Cars)


Mild hybrids are a mini-trend within today’s auto industry. The new versions use a toned-down form of electrification – a 48V electrical architecture, instead of the 300V, 400V and even 600V used in their full-hybrid brethren. Coupled with a relatively small lithium-ion battery (roughly half a kilowatt-hour), the mild hybrids can do enhanced start-stop, along with regenerative braking. They can turn off the internal combustion engine before coming to a complete stop, re-launch the vehicle on electricity, and fire the engine back up after it’s already in motion. Or they can “sail” – that is, shut down the engine at highway speeds and coast for a short time on electricity.

Moreover, 48V electrical architectures offer a big benefit for engineers who are trying to add power-hungry new features, such as heated seats, heated windshields, electric power steering, and infotainment systems. Unlike today’s 12V systems, which offer about 2-3 kW of power, a 48V system can produce 10-12 kW.

For all those reasons, many automakers are looking at some form of mild hybridization. Volvo, Audi, PSA Group and Mercedes-Benz have all announced plans to implement 48V architectures.

That means, of course, that all of those automakers plan to keep using internal combustion engines. The big OEMs aren’t investing in this technology with the intention of throwing it all away in two years to go fully electric. Lux Research has predicted that seven million vehicles worldwide will use 48V architectures by 2024. And Navigant has said that 55% of vehicles will use start-stop technology by 2024. The point is, these IC-engine-based technologies are growing, not declining.

By comparison, fully electric vehicles will account for between four and 5.6 million new vehicles annually by 2025. That’s out of a projected total of 105 million worldwide. To put it another way, most of the rest of the 100 million or so light duty vehicles will still use internal combustion engines in some form in 2025.

So, despite reports to the contrary, the “death knell” is a long way off. “The internal combustion engine is so cost effective and convenient compared to any other technology, it’s not going away any time soon,” Abuelsamid said. “At least through 2030 and beyond, the vast majority of vehicles will still use them.”


Senior technical editor Chuck Murray has been writing about technology for 33 years. He joined Design News in 1987, and has covered electronics, automation, fluid power, and auto.

IoT, Industry 4.0 Encourage FDT Open Standards

Tue, 2017-07-18 04:32

Device network integration is a key goal for automation and control vendors as the Internet of Things and Industry 4.0 initiatives move toward new global standards and enterprise wide connectivity. Integrating these physical assets and achieving scalable and secure access to device intelligence is a key trend as companies look to deploy new network architectures.

FDT is an open standard for enterprise-wide network and asset integration from sensors to the cloud. The newest developments with the technology include enhancements for cloud-based enterprise data access, mobility apps, and use of augmented reality.  But another key milestone has been an ability to offer a bridge for device-specific information using the FDT/OPC UA information model to offer connectivity in Industry 4.0 and IoT applications.

FITS server enhancements will benefit maintenance departments by enabling cloud-based enterprise data access, mobility applications and the use of augmented reality to view virtual content. Image source: FDT Group

FDT/OPC UA Connection

In the last few years, the FDT Group has been working with OPC UA to provide greater access to information throughout the enterprise by making device-specific information available via the FDT/OPC Unified Architecture information model.

New developments are now focused on using this technology as a strategic solution to meeting Industry 4.0 and IIoT needs. This includes:
•    providing device information such as network configuration, device parameters and device-related documents (references to fieldbus profile definitions) for DTMs within the RAMI 4.0 architectural model
•    creating different partial models of device instances as functional groups that share the same data to allow efficient reuse of data and avoid unnecessary overhead

Tens of millions of DTM-enabled devices installed in the field are already using FDT as the hub of data, but integration with OPC UA provides an ongoing infrastructure to make this information available to thousands of other applications and platforms.

Mobility, Cloud, and Fog Solutions

Using the FITS IIoT server to provide additional web services increases the connectivity options for cloud-based enterprise data access, creation of mobility apps, and use of augmented reality for asset management and preventive maintenance.

The concept is to create a standardized approach for mobile access using browser technology or apps where the mobile device can be authenticated to access the server, and then have full access to manage devices on the network. This approach fits well with the growing trend of using apps for plant asset management and preventive maintenance, for example.

Use of augmented reality using a holographic human-machine Interface (HMI) and Microsoft’s HoloLens computing device takes the possibilities a step further. Users are able to view real-time data and analytics using hands-free operation, visualizing sensor status and live data for each sensor location. Users have a normal field of view using transparent glasses with the virtual content superimposed over the real or physical content.

The ability to combine cloud services with mobile applications, and use of augmented reality, is providing technology solutions that will help address lifecycle management issues which are central to FDT-compliant applications. Using FDT/FRAME-enabled control solutions which can also be configured using OPC UA, the management of networks and devices is enhanced, giving access to data without protocol-specific handling and providing support for a wide range of devices.

Celebrate Your Smarts with ESC Minneapolis Keynote on Advancements in Human & Artificial Intelligence

Tue, 2017-07-18 02:01

World-renowned engineer, physicist, and author, Ransom Stephens, and Advanced Intelligence expert, Maria Gini, will take the keynote stage at ESC Minneapolis, November 8-9, 2017, where they will discuss advancing both human and artificial intelligence for the future of engineering and the obstacles that specialists will likely encounter.

"With these keynote speakers, ESC Minneapolis will explore expanding the intelligence and innovation of engineering, be that helping embedded systems designers broaden their own creativity through a neuroscience approach or through AI, widely expected to advance robotics rapidly in the coming years," Suzanne Deffree, content director for the Embedded Systems Conference series and Editor of Design News, says. "Open to all ESC registrants, these keynotes are complemented by more than 39 conference sessions across four educational tracks, plus AI demonstrations in the ESC Engineering Theater, offering attendees the opportunity to expand their own understanding of embedded design and the inspiration behind it."

Ransom Stephens, PhD

Stephens is a prominent physicist, engineer, inventor, and author. A pioneer in jitter analysis, he has invented new methods for extracting signals from noise and has served on several high data rate standards. His many best-selling books include The God Patent, The Sensory Deception, and his latest work The Left Brain Speaks, The Right Brain Laughs.

Ransom Stephens, PhD

Stephens brings expert-level analysis to ESC by discussing the neural processes that turn insights into consciousness. He will also discuss the physics of lateral thought, the power of perspective, the value of novelty, and how your brain selects and rejects ideas. 

His presentation, The Keys to Innovation: Priming Your Brain to Percolate Brilliant Ideas, will cover methods for fine-tuning the balance of stress and confidence, concentration and distraction that prime our brains to overcome the challenges that technological innovators face. He will cover the neuroaesthetics or perceptions of what makes technological products and discoveries good, bad, and valuable.

"When you announce those two most satisfying syllables -- 'Aha!' -- it means that you're onto something, that you're close to solving a problem, a world-changing innovation, or a masterpiece of art, science, or engineering," says Stephens. "I'm totally psyched to present The Keys to Innovation: Priming Your Brain to Percolate Brilliant Ideas at ESC Minneapolis to my people, engineers. You're the only audience that understands the slide that uses an op-amp to show the feedback loop of innovation."

Following Stephens' keynote, the author will sign and distribute 50 copies of his latest book, The Left Brain Speaks, The Right Brain Laughs, as complimentary gifts to interested ESC attendees.

Maria Gini, Professor, Dept. of Computer Science & Engineering - University of Minnesota

Maria Gini

As a professor at the University of Minnesota, the Editor-in-Chief of Robotics and Autonomous Systems, and Fellow of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence, Gini brings expert insight into the future of AI to ESC Minneapolis.

Gini's presentation, Artificial Intelligence: What Will the Future Be?, examines the progress that AI has recently made and looks at the potential problems with incorporating robots into our society.

During the keynote, she will explore how in the future intelligent systems and robots will become part of our daily lives, helping us with routine tasks, handling dangerous jobs, and keeping us company. But these robots could also become capable of making decisions that violate our ethical principles, take control of our lives, and disrupt society.

Gini plans to demonstrate the advances in AI by utilizing an AI-enabled humanoid robot live on stage as she discusses the art of intelligent systems, future developments, and open challenges.



ESC Minneapolis is Back!
The Embedded Systems Conference (ESC) is back in Minnesota and it’s bigger than ever. Over two days, Nov. 8-9, 2017, receive in-depth education geared to drive a year’s worth of work. Uncover software design innovation, hardware breakthroughs, fresh IoT trends, product demos, and more that will change how you spend time and money on your next project. Click here to register today!




Unlocking Engineering Data for Downstream Consumption is Now a Must

Mon, 2017-07-17 04:13

As strategic product-development improvement initiatives such as Industry 4.0, the digital twin, Model-Based Definition (MBD), and the Model-Based Enterprise (MBE) have taken hold across an ever-increasing number of industries, engineering software companies have been on the front lines, propelling these movements forward via technology. Thanks to their tools, manufacturers have been able to create fully annotated 3D models that include all of the product manufacturing information (PMI) necessary to define, manufacture and control a product.


Digital model containing product manufacturing information (PMI) necessary to define, manufacture and control a product.


However, it’s no longer enough to enable engineers to create a single master model. People need an efficient way to share that information downstream of engineering and have it be easily consumed by a wide range of audiences for a host of different uses — such as the machinists who are making the product, the suppliers who want to bid on supporting it, the technicians who will be servicing it, and so on.

Simply put: if you’re an engineering software vendor, making product information available for consumption outside of your application is now a critical part of your application’s value proposition —and it’s where customers will be won and lost.

Room for Improvement

People have been improvising ways to share engineering data downstream for years. Unfortunately, the results have been less than ideal, often requiring information to be dumbed down or otherwise degraded. For example, CAD models might be transformed into screenshots —and while this might give users an idea of what the part looks like in one orientation, it offers no way to interrogate the rest of the model. In other scenarios, information attached to 3D models, like a parts list, might be exported as an Excel spreadsheet — resulting in a separate document to manage and update throughout the product lifecycle.

These approaches to sharing information frequently introduce inefficiencies into the manufacturing process. A study by Lifecycle Insights reported that on average, per week, engineers spend 21.3 hours creating drawings; 6.4 hours answering questions or clarifying drawings; and 5.5 hours generating additional drawing documentation. Meanwhile, on average, per week, machinists spend 8.3 hours creating manufacturing or quality documentation; 4.7 hours answering questions or clarifying documentation; and 4.1 hours generating additional documentation.

Clearly, there is room for improvement. But how best to achieve it?

Multiple Outputs Unlock Your Data

To unlock their engineering data for downstream consumption, today’s applications need the ability to publish 3D data in a variety of outputs that can serve different use cases and workflows:

  • Output 1: CAD standards for interoperability and archiving

Publishing a 3D model in formats such as STEP, JT, 3MF, or other industry standards is very useful for archiving purposes: if you have a product with a long lifecycle, publishing out to a standard ensures that people will still be able to consume the design information decades later, even if the original design vendor is no longer around. This type of output is also very useful for interoperability purposes, enabling downstream users to leverage the model data in other applications.

  • Output 2: HTML/PDF for viewing and collaboration

Publishing your data as an HTML page or a PDF enables anyone downstream to view and interact with your model — with no need for a proprietary viewer or CAD system. This output can be very useful for simple collaboration and communication workflows, particularly around CAD data. If there is an individual who needs to provide some quick feedback or comments on a design, this is a quick way for them to do so, by viewing 3D models in a browser or in Adobe Reader.

  • Output 3: Rich, interactive 3D PDF for generating 3D PDF “apps”

Publishing out data as an interactive 3D PDF enables you to support many different workflows, such as generating smart reports, work instructions, Technical Data Packages, and more. Creating relationships between graphical and non-graphical information can make data come alive, producing an interactive “app like” experience. Best of all, anyone can consume these critical documents with the free Adobe Reader. 

Not every engineering software package has these outputs natively built in, of course. This is where software development kits (SDK) such as HOOPS Publish can come into play, enabling software development teams to easily add simple or complex document output capabilities into existing applications.

SDKs can read source 3D data from a range of industry-standard formats such as STEP, IGES, SAT, XT, and IFC and publish to standards such as STEP, JT, IGES, 3MF, STL, and VRML. It can also publish out to HTML or to a 3D PDF file in either U3D format or Adobe’s preferred Product Representation Compact (PRC) format. The advantage of PRC is that it provides a highly accurate and highly compressed format for describing 3D CAD models, including Assembly Structure, B-Rep, Geometry, and PMI (both graphical and semantic).

What all this means is that if users want to get data out of their engineering applications and use that data later in the product lifecycle, SDKs like HOOPS Publish can make it possible. For example, a CAD application can easily create a lightweight PDF of a 3D model for archiving, while a metrology application can push out an inspections report as an interactive 3D PDF, and so on. It’s all about the ability to generate an output that satisfies a specific user need as the data flows downstream.


Interactive 3D PDF example.


What Customers Want

It’s important to remember that the purpose of unlocking engineering data for downstream consumption is, ultimately, to make life easier for customers. The ability to freely leverage the information contained in a master model offers a lot of potential for making processes more efficient, getting products out faster, lowering costs, and increasing profit margins.




That’s what customers are looking for from today’s engineering software applications —and a big part of the value that software vendors provide is reduced if data is not able to be transmitted and consumed by the people who need to use it. Data that can be easily leveraged downstream is no longer a nice-to-have —it’s a must.


Dave Opsahl is VP of corporate devolpment at Tech Soft 3D,  which provides development tools to help software teams deliver applications. The company has developed a 3D format that is part of the PDF standard and also provides the HOOPS 3D rendering engine.

Researchers 3D Print in Glass

Mon, 2017-07-17 03:26

Move over plastic and metal—thanks to researchers in Germany, there’s a new material that can now used in a 3D printing process: glass.

A team at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) in Germany has developed a process that uses glass for additive-manufacturing techniques, adding the material that goes as far back as ancient Egypt and Rome to the list of materials possible for 3D printing, said Bastian Rapp, the mechanical engineer that led the effort.

“Glass is one of the oldest materials mankind has used,” he told Design News in an interview. “However, the 21st century revolution in manufacturing that began with the advent of 3D printing has so far not included glass.”

Their work—which uses stereolithography and a unique method leveraging both liquid and solid materials—changes that, Rapp said. “With our work, 3D printing of transparent glass is now possible,” he said. “This closes an important gap in the material palette of 3D printing.”


Researchers at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) in Germany have developed a process for 3D printing complicated high-precision structures made of glass like this one. It’s the first time an additive manufacturing method for glass has been developed. (Source: KIT)


The team achieved their method by mixing nanoparticles of high-purity quartz glass and a small quantity of liquid polymer and then allowing this mixture to be cured by light at specific points by stereolithography. The material remains liquid and then is washed out in a solvent bath, leaving the desired cured structure. Then researchers heat the object, removing the polymer that’s still mixed in the glass.

“We designed a ‘liquid glass,’ which is a transparent liquid-glass nanocomposite which can be processed by state-of-the-art 3D printers,” Rapp explained. “Liquid glass is a mixture of glass nanoparticles suspended in a clear organic polymer that can be cured by exposure to liquid, thereby making the material accessible to 3D printing.”

Once cured, the nanocomposite can be thermally debound, removing the organic polymer that contained the glass, he said. “The remaining object can then be thermally sintered to a dense bulk piece of glass which retains the structure given during 3D printing,” Rapp said.

He and his team published a paper on their work—which has a number of commercial and practical applications--in the journal Nature.

The team is currently spinning off its technology—which can be used with any state-of-the-art stereo lithography 3D printer—to make it accessible commercially in a company called Vitrum3D, Rapp said. The first line of technology formed using the commercial Liquid Glass method will be released by the end of the year, he said.

Meanwhile, in the lab, researchers will continue research to extend the range of materials to include specific glass modifications that allow for manufacturing of colored glasses and glasses that can be sintered at lower temperatures, Rapp added.

Overall, the research will allow rapid prototyping of almost any shape or form in glass, Rapp said, paving the way for “countless applications” -- including lenses for cameras, highly thermally and chemically resistant microreactors, spectacles, and facade elements in architecture, he said.

3D-formed glass also can be used for data processing applications in next-generation computer technology to make small, complex structures out of a large number of very small optical components of different orientations, he added. Additionally, the material can be used in small analytical systems comprised of miniature glass tubes for biological and medical applications.

Elizabeth Montalbano is a freelance writer who has written about technology and culture for more than 15 years. She currently resides in a village on the southwest coast of Portugal.


ACE Awards to Honor the Best in Electronics Design Engineering

Mon, 2017-07-17 02:30

It’s that time of year again, when the electronics design industry takes pause to celebrate the hard work and tireless efforts of a few standout engineers, as well as the products that have made an impact on the design engineering community.

The ACE (Annual Creativity in Electronics) Awards will be held at the San Jose Convention Center, Dec. 6, 2017, in conjunction with the Embedded Systems Conference (ESC) Silicon Valley, the premier event for embedded systems engineers.

The Call for Entries into the ACE Awards will remain open until Sept. 15, 2017, at which time all entries will be reviewed by a panel of industry experts, as well as editors from from Design News, EDN, and EE Times.

Finalists, who represent the best of the best in today’s electronics industry, including the company, executive, innovator, and design and marketing teams of the year, as well as the hottest new products, will be announced Nov. 1, 2017.

This year is particularly exciting, as new categories and awards have been added, including Tomorrow’s Reality, ESC  Speaker of the Year, as well as an automotive category that falls under Ultimate Products. Read about them below and/or click here to check out a full list of categories and awards.


                                CLICK HERE TO ENTER THE ACE AWARDS TODAY!


Tomorrow’s Reality

The Tomorrow’s Reality Award goes to an individual or group of innovators in the electronics industry that have made tangible progress in bringing the future promises of tomorrow to reality through electronics design or embedded systems design. Examples would include advanced technologies as defined by the Embedded Systems Conference such as, but not limited to, machine learning, virtual/augmented reality, artificial intelligence, or autonomous vehicles.

ESC Speaker of the Year

This award is presented to the Embedded Systems Conference (ESC) presenter whose speaking and written contributions for the current year are most highly rated by ESC attendees, Design News readers and educational course subscribers, and the ACE Award judges. (Note that nominations are not accepted for this award category.)

Ultimate Products – Automotive

This award recognizes the most significant electronic components and products introduced between Jan. 1, 2016, and June 30, 2017. The 2017 categories are:

  • Analog ICs
  • Automotive – NEW!
  • Sensors
  • Power
  • Software
  • Test and Measurement Systems and Boards
  • Processors (CPUs, MPUs, MCUs, SoC FPGAs...)
  • Logic/Interface/Memory
  • Reference Designs
  • Development Kits
  • Passives, Interconnects and Electromechanical
  • Wireless/RF
  • LEDs and Lighting


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When You Train Robots With VR, You Only Have to Teach Them Once

Fri, 2017-07-14 04:30

The best workers are the ones whom you can show a task once, then have them do it perfectly from then on. While collaborative robots like Rethink Robotics' Baxter are able to mimic assembly tasks after a real world walkthrough, teaching robots can be a time-consuming physical task. And even once the robot is taught it won't necessarily be able to adapt to a situation dynamically. Having one misplaced part in a bin, for example, could derail a robot's entire process.

OpenAI, a non-profit AI research company has developed a solution around this – a system that trains robots in virtual reality (VR) environments. When successfully deployed this system allows robots to learn a task after only seeing it once.

With OpenAI's system, a robot can learn a behavior from a single demonstration via a simulator, then reproduce that behavior in different setups in reality. (Image source: OpenAI) 

OpenAI, which boasts the likes of Tesla CEO Elon Musk, PayPal founder Peter Thiel, and Y Combinator founder Jessica Livingston among its sponsors, has created a working prototype of the system that allows a robot to learn and dynamically perform a block-stacking task. The hope is that this will be a stepping stone toward creating robots and cobots that can learn and adapt to even more complex tasks in the future.

“Initiation allows humans to learn new behaviors rapidly. We'd like our robots to learn this way too,” Josh Tobin member of technical staff OpenAI explained in a video released by OpenAI.

The system works by combining two deep learning neural networks, one for vision and one for imitation. The vision network processes what the robot's camera is seeing and the imitation network then figures out what actions the robot needs to take to perform its assigned task based on what it's seeing.

The vision portion of the system was trained using a method called domain randomization, which allows for simulated images to be associated with real images. “We generate thousands of object locations, light settings, and surface textures and showed them to the neural network,” Tobin said. “After training, the network can find blocks in the physical world, even though it has never seen real images from a camera before.”

The imitation neural network was trained using one-shot imitation. Essentially, when using one-shot imitation a network learns a task (i.e. stacking blocks into a tower) and then figures out how to achieve its result regardless of its situation. Combining this with the visual neural network means the robot is able to figure out how to stack blocks on its own in a variety of conditions. There's no need for the blocks to be laid in the same arrangement each time, as the machine can recgonize the block, then place them where it needs them.

OpenAI is not the only group looking to use virtual simulations to train robots. Earlier this year, GPU maker Nvidia announced Isaac, a system for training robots in virtual environments using reinforcement learning (having a robot do a task over and over until it gets it right). The Isaac system in part utilizes the OpenAI Gym, an open source toolkit released by OpenAI for developing and comparing AI algorithms.

A video released by OpenAI further explains its virtual training system:


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Chris Wiltz is the Managing Editor of Design News.

First Iron-Based, Light-Emitting Molecules Have Potential for Low-Cost Solar Cells, Displays

Fri, 2017-07-14 02:58

Researchers in Sweden have advanced the effort to develop more environmentally friendly materials for solar cells and displays with the development of the first iron-based molecule that can emit light. 

Scientists at Lund University in Sweden have successfully manipulated the electronic properties of iron-based molecules so that they better resemble the ruthenium-based substances typically used in metal-based dye molecules that form the basis for applications such as solar cells and displays.

Chemists have been developing these dye molecules for more than 50 years and have sought to use common metals like iron, but to date no one, until now, has been able to develop an iron-based dye molecule that can emit light, said researcher Kenneth Wärnmark, professor of chemistry at the Faculty of Science at Lund University.


The chemical model for the first iron-based molecule that can emit light, invented by researchers in Sweden with potential to develop more environmentally friendly materials for solar cells and displays. (Lund University)


“We want to replace expensive, toxic, and scarce metal such as ruthenium and [other] metals currently used in solar energy conversion technologies, with iron—which is inexpensive, non-toxic, and above all part-abundant,” he told Design News. “The latter is especially important since there is simply not enough of insect ruthenium—used in solar energy-conversion technologies. Thus, for a global energy solution based on solar energy, there are not enough of the required metals.”

For example, there are only 5,000 tons of ruthenium available on earth, with 12 new tons being excavated per year for solar and its other various applications, Wärnmark said.

What he and his team have done is not only to achieve an iron-based dye molecule that can capture light, but also emit light of a different color—a feat that is much more difficult, he added.

Researchers published a paper about their work in the journal Nature, describing an iron complex with an unprecedented life span in its light-absorbing and luminescent state: 100 picoseconds, which is less than a billionth of a second.
While this does not seem like a long time, “in the world of chemistry, this is enough time for the molecules to emit light,” explained Villy Sundström, another chemistry professor at Lund.

Researchers achieved their milestone by a well-studied and careful chemical procedure that gradually increased the electron density of the iron, Wärnmark explained.

“We have over some time developed different generation of iron carbene in which we have step by step increased the electron density at the iron center by adding more and more carbene ligands--in this way destabilizing deactivating pathways for the excited state electrons to go to a metal-centered state,” he said. “This has also been done by increasing the electron-donating properties of the carbene itself and also increasing the octahedral geometry of the iron-carbene complexes.”

The resulting light-emitting iron represents a key step forward for using iron as a luminescent material in lighting and displays, as well as for light absorbers in solar cells and photocatalysts for producing solar fuel, researchers said.

The team—which also included researchers from the Ångström Laboratory in Uppsala and from Copenhagen—plans to continue their work to optimize the molecule for its various potential applications, Wärnmark said.

Elizabeth Montalbano is a freelance writer who has written about technology and culture for more than 15 years. She currently resides in a village on the southwest coast of Portugal.