Friday, September 19, 2014

South Korean Shipbuilders Make Cyber-Suits a Reality

With each passing day, there's more news from the world of cybernetics that continue to defy our imaginations. Ever since Arnold (aka "Ahhnold") stepped out of an explosion stripped down to his T-100 bones, the cinematic portrayal of human anatomy in robotic frames have been rooted in our minds.  And while movies like Edge of Tomorrow usually frame the growing trend of merging man and machine in the context of war and military might, the actual application of this tech could have alternative purposes.

South Korean-based Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Exploration, one of the largest shipbuilding companies in the world, in an effort to find new ways to maximize efficiency, has developed their own exo-skeleton that assists existing workers with heavy multi-purpose lifting.  The prototype can fit a laborer from roughly 5 to 6 feet tall, and help with heavy components weighing up 66 lbs.  While it's far from ideal in the day-to-day tasks- workers have already complained it slows them down and doesn't account for enough weight- the suit's basic concept has proved a resounding success.  Its combination of hydraulics and servomotors actually work to complement the laborer's own strength without hindering natural limb movement. From Daily Tech:

"The exoskeleton is made of a complex mix of carbon fiber, aluminum alloys, and steel alloys.  It weighs 28 kg (61.7 lb.) and is capable of 3 hours of operation via lithium-ion batteries that accompany the control circuitry in the backpack of the suit.  The suit is capable of walking at a "normal" human pace while carrying the 30 kg objects." 

While not the first prototype of its kind (MIT recently unveiled an "Octopus arm" apparatus), Daewoo's in-house exo-suit is the first to be used in an industry setting.  Already, US contractors such as Raytheon are taking notes for their own in-process projects.  There's also a lot more to see before the design is considered a real paradigm shift; it's one thing for an exoskeleton to work, it's another for its application to translate into measurable efficiency.  Still, Daewoo has taken a major step in robotics in the workplace, and the US industrial world should pay close attention to just how heavy this lifting will be.

Donal Thoms-Cappello is a freelance writer for Rotor Clip Company.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Exit Coal/Enter Wind

The accelerating decline of coal has been in the cards for some time, now.  With long-term projections showing the costs in pollution and emissions far outweighing the benefits, the energy sector has clearly shifted to natural gas as its leading resource.

However, the US's distinct advantages in wind resources shouldn't be underestimated.  What wind has been lacking to compete with more traditional resources is infrastructure.  As efficient as an energy source can be, it's useless if it can't be efficiently integrated into the existing grid around it.  While incentives have been set in motion such as the EPA's demand that power plant emissions be cut by 30 percent in the next 15 years, the kind of large-scale system needed to show how powerful an impact wind can have on assuaging the nation's energy grids has been lacking; until now.

Wind Farm off the town of White Deer, TX
The Texas Panhandle, with winds so fast, locals consider them a hindrance more than a help, is now fully connected to the traditional energy landscape of the Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, and Austin residencies with power lines capable of transmitting up to 18,000 Megawatts of power.  The project is daring on many levels, none more so perhaps than the fact that the infrastructure lines weren't exactly being made to meet existing demand.  The project is one giant $7 billion gamble that wind developers will take advantage of the gaping potential of servicing Texas' major cities under Texas' low taxes and regulations.  So far it seems to be working, as two wind farms have already entered operation this summer, producing power equivalent to a traditional coal plant.

While Texas is a unique situation, other regions of the country are following suit.  Detroit's largest supplier, DTE, recently forcasted $8 billion of their own investments will be spent retooling and renewing Michigan's energy grid.  While natural gas will always be on the table, Michigan's local winds are similar in proportional abundance to Texas.  In addition, when taken with DTE's recent plans to close six of the state's coal plants, it's safe to assume utilities are preparing for a major push into wind power.

Donal Thoms-Cappello is a freelance writer for Rotor Clip Company.

Friday, August 29, 2014

California's Biggest Obstacle To Clean Manufacturing--Its Environmental Laws?

Tesla's steady surge into the fabric of American manufacturing is poised for a milestone in its plan to build a giant lithium battery plant-a "gigafactory" that they claim would guarantee homegrown creation of at least 6500 new jobs.  Naturally numbers like that will have states bidding like crazy for the project, and Musk's group has narrowed their choices for the site down to five states: Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and California.

While taxes are always going to be a factor, that doesn't seem to be the primary hurdle Tesla is looking at for which state is suitable for the project.  Musk seems to have time on his mind:

"Timing for the gigafactory is very important,” Tesla spokesman Simon Sproule said Monday. “So all five states in the running for the gigafactory need to demonstrate, among other factors, that they can help us deliver the factory on time.” (Los Angeles Times, August 12, 2014)

Lithium ion batteries similar to the one above will be
manufactured at Tesla's proposed factory.
This may have very well been a direct message to California, which among the states, has the greatest California Environmental Quality Act- signed into law by Ronald Reagan- that state and municipal boards review any project sites for environmental impact before construction is allowed to begin.  While CEQA's intention was to preserve California's unique and fragile environment, its critics point out it may be hindering environmental efforts more than helping.  Because it vastly empowers local government, many neighborhoods have used it to turn down projects that could help the state ween itself off fossil fuels, such as wind farms and solar fields.  CEQA has become a tool of NIMBY (Not In My BackYard) sentiments, instead of green business expansion.

The Governor's administration is considering waiving the requirements of the regulation hurdles to clear.

However, there's an understandable concern in relaxing regulations around what is essentially, despite Tesla's green reputation, a battery plant.  While it's true there is precedent for CEQA being waived for large-scale projects (it was suspended when the NFL had proposed a football stadium in Los Angeles), lithium batteries and the risks their manufacturing could have in damaging the local environment with excess hazardous material is precisely the kind of project it was designed to regulate in the first place.  

With Tesla's determination to meet the deadline of 2017, the rush to cut through bureaucracy has created in California an all too common conflict between public and private incentive. Yet seeing how it will play out in the alternative fuel market may test everyone's assumptions of clean vs. dirty and what will really help this industry grow into the 21st century.

Donal Thoms-Cappello is a freelance writer for Rotor Clip Company.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Finding What Works

The Big M Conference in Detroit drew multiple manufacturing companies, big and small, this past month, and served as a prime venue to exchange new ideas on how to continue refining the industry to adjust to a 21st century world that is rapidly changing.

Two major companies, GE and sealing giant Freudenberg-NOK,  delivered messages targeted for the Conference that directly addresses those changes.  Comparing their platforms can be very useful in finding patterns of what the community as a whole is trending towards as an overall philosophy.Starting with GE, which recently published an article in GEreports boiling their approach down to "four pillars": Virtual Manufacturing, Intelligent Machines, Flexible Factories, and  Reconfiguerable Supply Chains.  All four provide the ground for "brilliant factories"; plants more organic in operation and valuing smart data as a needed element, not just a supplemental advantage:

"To build what we call a Brilliant Factory—or a 21st century digital model—each of the four pillars will need a strong IT infrastructure that ties the manufacturing supply chain together and creates data highways for information to be transmitted wherever it needs to go. It also will require a common software platform that can integrate all of the data systems of a company’s manufacturing operations. These are both pieces GE is building to provide that IT support network"

Compare this to Fredenberg-NOK CEO Dr. Theodore G. Duclos's talk at the Big M, emphasizing  the company's Six Guiding Principles to steer it towards an evolution from the days of "lean manufacturing" to a more sophisticated, data-driven model of sustainability:

"Ultimately the six Principles – value for customer, responsibility, innovation, leadership, people and a long-term orientation – will provide the framework needed for Freudenberg-NOK to embrace the industrial evolution taking place in manufacturing, and the company will continue to meet and exceed customer demands and prosper", Duclos said.

"Whether we realize it or not, our journey to lean processes has been leading us to sustainability all along," Duclos concluded. "The principles of lean systems will inevitably lead us to create manufacturing processes that can close the carbon cycle that has been unsustainably open for many years."

Both long-term outlooks tend to hit on a few notions:

-Flexibility is key to sustainability.  Both companies value the notion of being able to customize, whether it be for clients or for employees.  GE essentially goes so far as to acknowledge this level of flexibility will most likely change the assembly line model for good ("The assembly line represented a huge leap in productivity for factories, but try to make data-driven system-optimal real-time adjustments and changes to the production process and you will find it difficult to do.")

-Automation over traditional labor.  Yep, the robots are here.  With the kind of affordability goals GE desires (20 percent increase in manufacturing and supply productivity), and its pillar devoted to factory-floor machines that operate within a real-time data network, the emphasis of automated labor over human is pretty much in black-and-white.

Freudenberg-NOK is very intriguing in its desire to see production cycles parallel those of the biological world, but again, this is also reflective of a general aversion to relying on human hands on the 21st century factory floor. While this may sound like bad news in the short run for employment numbers, one can hope local governments wise up to where the labor demand will obviously show itself: design, development, and thought-based skills to keep global-sized digital networks not just surviving, but thriving.

Donal Thoms-Cappello is a freelance writer for Rotor Clip Company.

Friday, July 25, 2014

The New Switcharoo--Burst of Growth Continues for US Manufacturers

The Commerce Department's Report states that US manufacturing is growing at its most consistent pace. Major job growth in heartland states like Wisconsin, Indiana, and Michigan are coupled with a fledgling apparel and food manufacturing boom in Brooklyn, of all places.  This news and a contribution of 12.5 percent to GDP through 2013 adds to the widespread feeling that American manufacturing has not only recovered from the effects of the Great Recession, but has evolved into a dependent industry that differs from its pre-Recession identity since 1998 is of course very good news.  The numbers are healthy, no matter which way you look at it; 646,000 jobs created since 2010, with over 200,000 more needed to be filled.

In examining why, it's always crucial to look toward China's parallel trends, and it reveals just how joined at the hip (a hip the size of the Pacific Ocean) the two countries are.  Though most recent reports are showing an expansion in manufacturing on the continent, it's telling to see the average worker's wage rose exponentially by 187 percent in the past decade.  The trade-off of creating a middle class consumer society- higher wages- has finally rubbed out the labor advantage Chinese manufacturers enjoyed, to the point that the country is seeing its own outsourcing trend in nearby regions of  Cambodia, Myanmar, and Vietnam.  The shrinking wage discrepancy as well as the effect of automation and sustainability cycles adopted by American manufacturers all make that long supply chain across the Pacific not so cost-efficient anymore.  Not to be forgotten is the contradictory paths the nations' energy scenarios have taken.  China's electricity has risen in costs by 66 percent the past year, while US shale-gas innovation has kept costs contained well below that rate.

It all adds up to one massive role-swap.  US goods become cheaper to buy in China, especially as the yuan rises in value (30 percent since 2004) as the American manufacturing system becomes more efficient and cheaper to remain competitive.  The next decade may see China's middle class mimicking 20th century America's, buying goods produced by a steadily rising American manufacturing industry.  If this seems disheartening to the American worrying that a China with more capital to spend must mean a US with slave labor wages on the supply end, keep in mind China's true expansionist efforts are reflected in the over $14 billion it invested last year in the US.  There are still an abundance of Chinese manufacturers targeting American consumers and setting up factories and production centers all over the US.  The "who leads" argument may sound entertaining on CSNBC or Fox Business, but reality shows a growing interdependence in trade between both nations, which can translate very soon to substantial global growth.

Donal Thoms-Cappello is a freelance writer for Rotor Clip Company.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Paralyzed Man Moves His Hand With the Help of Bionics

Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center/Ohio State University Wexner Med
Read more: Bionic Breakthrough
Ian Burkhart last felt his hand move in 2010, before he accidentally dived into a sandbar and was paralyzed from the elbows down.  Severed spinal cords are one of the great mysteries of the medical world; without an electric current flowing through the body, the nervous system is useless, and the spinal cord is so specialized and unique, the body can't regenerate cells that can reactivate it.

However Battelle, a non-profit technology research organization, has come closer than anyone to bypassing this problem.  Nick Annetta, an electrical engineer for the group has worked with Ian to reach a breakthrough in medical as well as manufacturing science: creating a bionic apparatus that sends brain signals to a paralyzed limb, successfully moving it.  From the Washington Post:

"...doctors opened Burkhart’s skull. They crowned his head with a small metal cylinder, attached to bone by screws, and ran a wire between it and the chip they stuck like Velcro to his brain.

....The doctors knew the chip was in the right place to pick up the brain signals. The engineers knew their algorithm was translating his thoughts to movements. They believed the film strips strapped around his forearm, which they called a sleeve, would stimulate his muscles to make those movements a physical reality."

Three times a week, Burkhart would practice online with Battelle experts, concentrating on digital "drills" that were essential visualization exercises.  When it became time to try the tech out, Burkhart was able to visualize his hand opening and closing and with the help of the chip in his brain and the sleeve around his forearm, was able to turn his thoughts into motion.
Technology to send electrical impulses to limbs immobilized by spinal cord injuries is rapidly expanding
This is an astounding breakthrough for so many industries.  The medical world may have found a device that can help victims of spinal cord damage become self-autonomous, decreasing the need for expensive round-the-clock care.  The world of neuroscience has inched even closer to harnessing the miraculous possibilities of the brain, and the digital software world has blurred the lines further between computerized and biological thought.  Firms and investors most certainly should take the results of Mr. Annetta and Mr Burkhart's seriously enough to look at how fast the tech can be refined enough for efficiency and cost-effectiveness.  Although the medical aspects are clearly expensive (brain surgery is not getting fit for a dental retainer), the basic concept for the software is quite simple to reproduce, and the training aspects for the patient can only get better as more is learned.  The doctors involved in the experiment speculate as to the future of bionics, bringing up ideas such as portable smart phone apps that would decode and recode the brain signals, instead of a stationary computer system, or wireless chips that would obviously be less cumbersome in practice.

These are all developments that may be down the road, but take this into account: soon after the initial experiment, Burkhart demonstrated the ability to grab a spoon and release it, without any prompt or drills required.  His brain, and the computer, learned faster than anyone anticipated.

Donal Thoms-Cappello is a freelance writer for Rotor Clip Company.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Researcher Finds Cheaper Way To Make Nanostructures: Diamonds

All innovations generally center around three principles: making things simpler, making them better in quality, and making the process easy to repeat.

In the ongoing world of nanotechnology, innovation is highly valued.  Moreover, because it's an industry that relies on materials that have to be artificially created on a microscopic scale, there is ample room for innovation in cost-efficient techniques.  Enter Hongyou Fan, a researcher at Sandia National Laboratories, who has received accolades from industry experts for his recently published paper in Nature Communications.  In it, he details a distinct method for creating nanostructures that shun the accepted but complex use of chemicals and embraces basic physics. As elaborates:

"The pressure, delivered by two diamond plates tightened by four screws to any controlled setting, shepherds silver nanospheres into any desired volume. Propinquity creates conditions that produce nanorods, nanowires and nanosheets at chosen thicknesses and lengths rather than the one-size-fits-all output of a chemical process, with no environmentally harmful residues." 

If those principles are to be followed, Fan's research has hit all three checkmarks.  Instead of complex chemicals, which not only require time and skill to use, but maintenance and storing as well, Fan has simplified the process to using old fashioned embossing techniques.  Yes, it's never cheap when one of the components are diamonds, but that beats hazardous, chemical by-products any day.  Using this method also provides the opportunity to customize the type of structure, an automatic upgrade in quality over chemical methods.  Finally, though the novelty means it's unrefined, the long-term cost-efficiency of safer ingredients and a template that can be easily made in a generic factory setting is sure to draw interest.

The next step in products will be semi-conducters, and Fan's team is working to develop them as well.  If his work catches on, it could translate into a less expensive way for more investors to jump into a technology only beginning to show its true potential.

Donal Thoms-Cappello is a freelance writer for Rotor Clip Company.