Thursday, December 12, 2013

Tesla Ponders The Battery Market; Setting Up Shop In US

Despite getting some bad press recently, Tesla Motors is still coming off as a company on the cusp of owning the next era of American manufacturing.  The company has posted a profit for the last few quarters ( and also happened to be one of the few businesses that paid back the money it was given in the bailout), and its latest luxury brand has been posting solid numbers in sales.

And while the company is not known for being particularly risk-averse, what Elon Musk has reportedly been pondering next, may signal either the company's most precipitous move, or its greatest mistake:

"The main constraint on our production is really the cells," Musk told analysts at a Q&A regarding Tesla's Q3 2013 earnings.  "We are not quite ready to make a big announcement on the cell and battery giga factory, but we are exploring a lot of these options right now."

It bears reminding this is after the company recently agreed on a deal with Panasonic for 2 billion batteries over a span of 4 years.  However, Musk predicted the company will produce, or have a capacity to produce over 500,000 vehicles in a year, and he also emphasized Tesla has met all of China's requirements for selling overseas and hasn't even begun to market itself outside "word of mouth".  If you believe Tesla' s side of things, all signs point towards productivity still falling short of demand.

And so, Elon Musk's claim that Tesla is considering its own massive battery plant, ideally in Fremont, is not only music to the ears of those of us who want US manufacturers to keep their supply chain domestic, but it may very well make perfect business sense.  Any innovations in the manufacturing process of lithium ion batteries will probably occur in procedural operations and logistics, and they won't be discovered unless they're tried.  It's also important to remember batteries are a product that can be expensive to ship, due to their individual weight.  Keeping them local to vehicle manufacturing can cut into freight costs as well.  Lastly, although the folding of battery giant A123, scared away many interested in the field, the consensus among industry experts is that demand in battery-powered vehicles was in a vastly different place than it was even two years ago.  All signs point towards a dam bursting in electric cars becoming standardized in the consumer landscape within the near future.

And that could be very good news for all of American manufacturing, as the scale of what Tesla is mulling is unprecedented for lithium ion batteries; larger than any capacity Panasonic currently produces.  The ripple effect could create whole new satellite businesses and infrastructure, not to mention actually create new jobs instead of just move them around from one state to another (as many would posit is our current definition of "job creation").  Only Tesla really knows if the consumers are there to make such a thing work; their moves and signals within the next few months will be very telling of the answer.  

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

Friday, November 22, 2013

Ralph Lauren Keeps "Made In USA" Honest for Sochi

The Ralph Lauren Corporation has been one of the most stable businesses in American fashion and merchandising since its inception as Polo Ralph Lauren in 1967.  And while it's not exactly a trail blazer in the fashion industry, its decision to ensure all of the clothing and apparel worn by Team USA at the Sochi Olympics this Winter is exactly that- made in the USA- is not only reassuring from a place of National pride, it also may lay down a fresh template for similar businesses to follow in the near future.

Yarn to make Team USA uniforms will be supplied 
by an American company.
It wasn't easy to make the transition to a completely domestic supply line, all of which has been a clear response to the flash uproar that went through mainstream media when it became widespread knowledge Team USA's clothing was Chinese-manufactured during the London 2012 games.  Ralph Lauren clearly took the initiative, however, and found companies such as Imperial Stock Brand in Northwestern Oregon.  Imperial Stock, a sheep-shearing business, has been highlighted by Ralph Lauren as providing the yarn for the clothing.  In addition are 40 other American vendors involved in the process of making the line, including a Pennsylvania based yarn spinning company , Nazareth-based Kraemer Textiles.  Ralph Lauren has been very candid, however in observing the limitations of an exclusively American supply chain; the lack of volume in meeting demand resulted in less of a variety of apparel for this winter's events.  And its reasons for trying to work within those constraints may have less to do with patriotism and more to do with shoring up their own PR shakiness.

No one has made any complaints, however.  Indeed the tradeoff is probably much more preferred to
Team USA wearing uniforms made somewhere other than the nation they've literally sweat and bled for in order to represent at Sochi.

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

Thursday, October 31, 2013

NC State Scientists Create Thin Film One Atom Thick

Researchers at North Carolina State University may have permanently wedged open the door leading to manufacturing products, software, and hardware on the atomic level:

Their latest method of thin-filmmaking can consistently create semi-conductor films that have a monolayer as thick as one atom; smaller than any previous endeavor.

Dr. Linyou Cao, assistant professor at NC State and senior author of the publication explaining the technique (which you can read here) translated to Product Design and Development, the implications. "This could be used to scale current semiconductor technologies down to the atomic scale – lasers, light-emitting diodes (LEDs), computer chips, anything.”, Cao says.

Using a new technique they dub "self-limiting growth", the team essentially found a way to manipulate particles' tendencies to form into solids or vapors under extreme temperatures.  By controlling these molecular pressures, the researchers were able to ensure when they would cancel each other out, thereby controlling how thick each monolayer could be, down to the initial atomic layer.

Semiconducting on the atomic level.
While this method has only been proven to creat semiconductor film sheets themselves, Cao has patented the method, and he and his team are now working on creating thin film wafers on the atomic level consisting of different materials.  The hope is this will lead to the next level of building complicated transistors and signal-technology; leading to computerized equipment the size of a particle.

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

Thursday, October 10, 2013


Those of us involved in US manufacturing know the implications of being registered to a quality system like ISO or TS16949. You establish a system, monitor it for effectiveness then prepare to defend it when a third party registrar comes around to conduct a surveillance audit.

Preparation usually involves making sure you are meeting your metric goals, issuing corrective actions when necessary and a number of other housekeeping items the auditor may choose to check.

One of the more mundane items that usually finds its way to the bottom of the preparation list is keeping work instructions current. These tend to get written once, then put aside, rarely looked at again. After all, the employee (machine operator, inspector, shipping clerk, etc.) knows how to perform a task and does not need to refer to an instruction to complete it.

But the day usually comes when that same employee is asked to deviate from the instruction. For example, a new finish may be substituted for a certain product. Or, a process may have to be changed slightly to accommodate a unique customer requirement. The employee can keep it all straight in his or her head. No need to take valuable production time to revise a piece of paper.  

But what happens if that employee is sick, on vacation or away from the plant responding to an emergency? A substitute steps in and follows the outdated instruction.

In the past this might have amounted to a “So what?” The person leaves out a step causing the product to be made slightly different than ordered. It’s a little mistake.

But the fact is these mistakes can mushroom into costly errors. What if it affects thousands of pounds of raw material ordered incorrectly? Or, the production of 100,000 assemblies that now have to be returned and reworked? The costs can be astronomical eating into profits and tarnishing your relationship with a customer.

So do yourself a favor: after reading this, have all of your employees (production and office) read their work instructions. Are they still doing things as written? Or, have subtle changes crept in over time? If so, now is the time to change them to reflect what actually takes place.

It’s time to take work instructions seriously before an error starts burning into your profits.

Joe Cappello is Director of Global Marketing for Rotor Clip Company. 

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Newest Development In Space Tech: The Slingshot?

A "slingatron" prototype proposed by HyperV Technologies
could propel a 100 g object to a speed of one kilometre per second. 

Anyone who's ever witnessed  a space launch has a pretty fair comprehension of just how much power energy, and therefore, money, must go into the effort of getting a multi-ton apparatus of metal, composite, and computer systems off the ground and out of the Earth's gravitational pull.  So far, we've had one way of doing this: launching a shuttle with rockets pointing straight up in the air.  Makes sense, of course, since that's the place we're trying to get said shuttle to, right?  Shortest distance between two points and all that...

But it may not be the most efficient if you believe HyperV Technologies,  a start-up out of Chantilly, VA.  HyperV is re-defining our basic assumptions about the space launch with a prototype called the "Slingatron".  The Slingatron uses the physics behind the slingshot as a mass accelerator, essentially swinging a vehicle round and round until literally hurtling it into the sky, where rockets will kick in and handle the rest of propulsion.  The idea is this process significantly cuts into fuel and raw materials needed in the launching process.

In theory, the whole concept is interesting.  Applying it, however faces lots of challenges.  Firstly, the amount of g-force needed to achieve that kind of acceleration with that much mass would almost certainly kill anything living, so human cargo is out of the question.  Also, the site states a goal of getting objects into a Low Earth Orbit (LEO) of 7.6 km/sec, which in and of itself will take a large amount of energy to achieve, and that doesn't take into account air resistance either.

Perhaps the most exciting aspect of HyperV's campaign, however, is how it is going about its fundraising.  The company has begun a kickstarter campaign with a goal of $250,000 in order to build a slightly bigger prototype than the one they have.

Conceptual image of a large-scale Slingatron
200-300 meters in diameter

Sure it's not exactly the most ambitious goal compared to most private space projects, but it is part of a growing trend of space and aeronautic tech ideas being marketed to the general public not only for awareness but for good ol' hard capital as well.

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

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

ISM Report Shows The Worst May Be Behind Us

Recent articles I've done on the manufacturing trend in the US have always been in the context of the damage done in employment from the Great Recession.  Whether reports  delivered mostly good or bad news, there was always a general sense behind the numbers that, though manufacturing has widely been regarded as the darling of the recovery, the sector was still at the mercy of the larger, dreary, economic outlook along with every other sector in the country.

Yet, the Institute of Supply Management's (ISM) latest Performance of Manufacturing Index (PMI) indicated an August  factory activity index of 55.7, slightly higher than the 55.4 percent in July, and a significant jump from 50.2 percent in the month of June.  This follows recent reports as far back as Spring of 2012 where the ISM report was indicating growth indexes under 50 percent, meaning the sector was shrinking, rather  than expanding.  And it's not just factory activity; to quote all the statistics in the report by Bradley J. Holcomb, ISM CPSM, CPSD, and chairman:

"August's PMI™ reading, the highest of the year, indicates expansion in the manufacturing sector for the third consecutive month. The New Orders Index increased in August by 4.9 percentage points to 63.2 percent, and the Production Index decreased by 2.6 percentage points to 62.4 percent. The Employment Index registered 53.3 percent, a decrease of 1.1 percentage points compared to July's reading of 54.4 percent. The Prices Index registered 54 percent, increasing 5 percentage points from July, indicating that overall raw materials prices increased when compared to last month. Comments from the panel range from slow to improving business conditions depending upon the industry."

This marks the sixth month in a row of general economic growth, the third consecutive month of growth in production, and perhaps more telling, the highest level of growth in production since May of 2004, with 13 of the 18 overall American manufacturing industries reporting expansion of some kind (although it's a little worrisome that one of the industries reporting contraction in July is machinery).

Is it safe to say the economy, on the back of the steady expansion of American manufacturing, is out of the woods?  Probably not.  However, past think-tanks and index reports had been careful to view all numbers in the context of phrases like "double-dip recession", "stagnation", and "holy hell's bells, the sky is falling".  The general stability and consistency this portion of the calendar year is contributing to an overall optimistic outlook moving forward for the US economy.  And it's nice to know that through it all was the steady hand of the manufacturing sector.  Let's hope it continues.

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

Monday, August 26, 2013

New Idea Generates Electricity From Sewage

I've posted blogs before on the new ways inventors and developers are thinking about making the world's waste management systems cheaper and more efficient in energy usage.  It makes sense that, since this is an aspect of society that is incredibly arcane in design, manufacturing could play a huge role in its upgrade.  Unfortunately, the kinds of ideas out there involve so much reform of current infrastructure, it's impossible imagining the kind of political and financial gumption required to make any of them happen in this particular reality.  That being said, there's no reason we can't improve on existing infrastructure:

This new form of harvesting electricity from wastewater actually relies on a decade-old technology called microbial fuel cells.  The name says it all: microbes and their consumption process are isolated and the energy given off is harvested.  In this case, a simple electrode twin-chamber apparatus does most of the work.  As articulated by Bruce E. Logan PhD, who heads a research group in Penn State University, the trick is merely to separate bacterial microbes in an air-tight chamber so the electrons given off can be funneled through a circuit before bonding with oxygen atoms.


While the idea is simple in concept, as Logan explains in the video, so much has to go right to implement it on the large scale, that more has to go into the R&D side of the project first.  However, with each American using 70 gallons a day in water, electricity demand is only going to rise (rise is too nice of a term to describe it: it will skyrocket).  If we're not going to address it on the larger scale, small tweaks like this one may add up to address it on the smaller one.

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

Monday, August 12, 2013

New Method Uses Solar Energy To Augment Natural Gas Energy

Contrary to what the prevailing notion is, there are some of us in the manufacturing community that view the US shale gas boom as welcome, but temporary.  A quick look at history shows us that we've been here before.  In post-WWII America, we discovered that established rates of domestic oil production would result in exhaustion within the century, thus beginning a long and arduous foreign policy of investment in resources located in some of the most inconvenient and politically dangerous areas of the world.

And while new techniques in harvesting natural gas have enabled the US to be master of its own destiny for a time, it's important to keep in mind we're still dealing with a finite resource that, just like all other previous finite resources we've used, will eventually run short.  With that in perspective, even more innovations, techniques, and designs will be required if we want to continue on the road of true energy independence.

One such innovation that may have a huge impact in the immediate future is a new method developed by the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest Labs.  Using a mirrored parabolic dish, the sun's solar rays are concentrated like a magnifying glass into a central point.  This concentrated solar power is then directed to a device made of a chemical reactor and heat exchangers, which use the solar energy to heat flowing natural gas, converting both into syngas; hydrogen and carbon monoxide.  The result is a whopping 20 percent less natural gas used to run the power plant.  Scientists at the lab also believe they can eventually create a model where the electricity produced by a hybrid syngas power plant would be just 6 cents per kilowatt/hr by 2020, a very competitive rate.

 The process still has a long way to go, but with all the hits the solar investment landscape has been taking these days, this is a promising development.  Solar energy standing on its own as a longstanding, stable energy alternative has been a hard sell; solar being used as an augmentation for existing energy models, on the other hand, could be a very intriguing aspect.

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

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

SpaceX's "Grasshopper" Rocket Literally Hops Over Grass

Speaking of that fellow, Elon Musk, SpaceX has blown our collective minds yet again with one of the most impressively successful experiments I've seen in awhile.  The "Grasshopper" rocket prototype is true to its name, literally "hopping" straight up in the air - with its most recent launch coming in at a whopping distance of 1,066 feet!

While the distance is impressive, it's not nearly as impressive as the Grasshopper's landing.  SpaceX is being cryptic about its navigation sensors built into the prototype, but they're clearly working.  As this jaw-dropping footage shows, Grasshopper can sense when it's nearing ground level and modifies its rockets for a smooth vertical landing:

The implications of this innovation simply cannot be overstated.  SpaceX's goal for these rockets involves atmospheric re-entry, but my first thought upon watching this is how much easier it will be landing equipment, rovers, and eventual people on the surface of Mars.  Entire, terrible, Hollywood movies have been pitched and produced around the arduous issue of "how do we land on Mars".  SpaceX just made it very possible that issue will be the least harrowing problem in an exploration launch.

And none of this is even touching daily transportation vehicles here on Earth.  Does this mean the helicopter propeller's days are numbered?  Will thruster technology finally have its day in mass production?  Will my eyeballs ever go back into my head after seeing this?  The future, regardless, looks inevitably fun.

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

Monday, July 8, 2013

Ford's New Manufacturing Tech Mirrors Digital Printing

I'm honestly shocked 3D Printing isn't the first thing mentioned in the news every evening as a top story (of course there's a lot of things I wish were mentioned more in the news, but I digress).  The gains made by the new technology- the consequences because of it- are so many, it's like a perpetual Christmas Day for the futures market.  Literally every aspect of industry as we know it will change within the next decade.

Maybe sooner, in light of the recent method Ford Motor Company has developed over the past year and a half.  Dubbed the Ford Freeform Fabrication Technology (F3T), the model borrows heavily from the 3D printing process to create a whole new process of cutting sheet metal into prototype parts.  Two stylus-type tools cut a clamped piece of sheet metal in a synchronized movement to create a 3D version of the dimensions provided by the CAD data fed to them (you can see a promo video showing off the process here:)

The F3T process is a consequence of a three-year, 7.04 million grant by the Department of Energy, developed specifically for advances in the manufacturing process. While this system cuts the delivery time of a prototype part from several weeks to several days, as well as eliminates the need for and energy expenditure of die engineering, it's not one nearly practical enough for use in bulk manufacturing.  This is mostly because having to customize the dimension of each contour machine and tool path takes way longer than the fraction of a second it takes for a stamping machine to turn a flat sheet into a 3D shape.  That significantly limits its value for now, but it's fast production of prototype parts makes it a technology we'll be seeing more of in the future.

A quick P.S.--Rotor Clip has been using 3D printing to make prototype tooling before producing the same parts from steel saving tool room and fabrication costs, and delivering prototype samples to customers faster than conventional methods.

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

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Forget The Moon, NASA Wants To Lasso Asteroids

The Obama Administration's 2014 budget includes $104 million set aside to jumpstart a curious NASA program.  At first glance, the press release claiming NASA plans to put together an effort to lasso an asteroid seems a little trite in its claim.  I, for one, can't get out of my head the image of a giant Yosemite Sam-cyborg hollering and yahoo-ing (silently, as we're in space) while corralling a hurtling asteroid.  And I suspect this is some cartoonish association NASA is trying to accomplish with the announcement, as if the hope is the bizarre phrasing of the goal somehow disarms the lack of a precedent for it.

But that is, indeed what the mission is: by 2021, NASA plans to have harnessed an asteroid for not only exploration, but also as a way of planting them in the moon's gravitational orbit, thereby giving future space missions (to Mars, finger crossed) a natural satellite base.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, left to right, Firouz Naderi,
 Director for the Solar System Exploration, and John Brophy, Electric Propulsion Engineer,
are shown during Bolden's visit to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena,
Calif., Thursday, May 23, 2013.  (AP Photo/Nick Ut)
It's an incredibly extensive, yet resourceful, idea.  Working within the constraints of a criminally small budget, NASA figured out a way to create a station stop on the way to Mars that's cheap to maintain and also may contain resources and raw material in itself that would serve a myriad of purposes, from gold and rare metals to ice water.  Oh yeah, and if it proves successful, it will serve as a blueprint for capturing an asteroid that could threaten to extinguish all life on Earth.  What is that, three birds with one stone, right?

To me, though (or should I say to my employers, because this is a blog about manufacturing) the real interesting benefit to the mission has nothing to do with the end results of Mars or the Moon, but with how the technology will be used.  And that involves xenon-fueled ion thrusters.  Yep.  Ion rockets.  Why is this a big deal and what does it have to do with manufacturing?  Here's why:

It's no secret the future of space and any industry having to do with it will include private investment and capability.  NASA has all but given the Moon to private firms who want to land there, and they're more than likely going to need private funding for steps in the engineering process.  This includes the ion-powered thrusters that will be crucial to the feat of getting a spacecraft mobile enough to catch a floating rock.

Xenon is a colorless, odorless gas that, when charged with electrons, will produce ions that are then accelerated to produce thrust.  The force isn't enough to propel a rocket out of the Earth's gravity, but it's way more effective for short bursts- meaning steering in space becomes a whole lot easier.  Factor in its cost-efficiency (ion power not only produces more kinetic energy per electrical output in space than standard rockets, but they're solar-powered) and the technology is a perfect choice for future space travel of all kinds, government-sponsored, science-driven, and commercial, as well.

This specific innovation, in my opinion, could revolutionize 21st century space travel by permanently removing its dependence on gravitational orbit for transit.  Think about the possibilities of exploration that open up when shuttles can travel away from Earth for short periods of time.  Moreover, while it is true that ion energy works best in an environment like space, without other ionized particles, that doesn't leave out room to discover other applications for it here on the ground.  The concept of using ionized energy itself is barely a century old, who knows what else we can learn from it?

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

Thursday, June 13, 2013

General Motors Begins Student Internship Program In Detroit

GM North America President, Mark Reuss,  announces
student internship program
Detroit's dismal employment outlook received a sliver of hope recently, as GM North America announced its intention to begin a program that directly hires high school-level students from the industrial city for internship projects that range across  the service and manufacturing spectrum.

The program, titled the GM Student Corps, will begin with 110 students overall, divided into teams of ten.  They'll be given projects around the city involving community development and outreach, and will also learn career and budgeting skills designed to prepare them for a global economic environment.  GM North America President Mark Ruess pitched the concept to GM CEO Dan Akerman, who approved the concept as long as the students were paid for their work; continuing GM's tradition of paid internships:

“We said hey, what’s the opportunity in the city in the summer? And there’s not a lot, as we all know...This will be the first job that a lot of these students have ever had that pays money.” 
-Mark Ruess to Nathan Bomey Detroit Free Press, May 21, 2013

While the students vetted were provided through the United Way Network, mentors consist of sixty GM retirees, as well as student interns from the University of Detroit Mercy. GM will also provide the program with Chevrolet vehicles to transport students and mentors to project sites.

This is an idea that's long overdue.  Long, long, long overdue.  I could get political about it and rant that if we're going to be a society that distrusts government to the point of inhibiting its ability to invest in  the youth for employment opportunities, then these are the types of programs that should be taking its place all over the country.  But really, it goes beyond politics.  The best kind of education is hands-on; students who take on various leadership roles throughout their communities always have a better chance at furthering employment prospects, because they are more adaptable and pliable than if the entirety of their learning experiences took place in the highly self-emphasizing vacuum of the academic bubble.  GM is smartly making the best kind of investment-people- in their backyard.  Sure, there's no guarantee these prospected students choose to keep their allegiance to the automobile giant (and Ruess emphasized they're free to list GM on their resumes, regardless).  Nevertheless, if half of this group decides to stay in Detroit and apply what they learn from this program in other fields, it can only help the city's overall infrastructure, which will help GM as well.  A win-win situation for everyone involved.

And this is only one company.  If the model becomes successful, there's no better way for Detroit to repair itself economically than to incentivize its manufacturing community to invest in its student community.  Or as Ruess himself says, "Imagine if we had five companies full-force....That's what happens with some of the seed ideas when you plant them."

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

Thursday, May 30, 2013

GE Announces Partnership With Online Start-Up To Develop Patents

One of the more recent and inventive ways of getting around the old and insanely slow-moving bureaucracy that is the US Patent System has been Quirky.  An online startup created in 2009, Quirky is an ingenious form of crowdsourcing.  Anyone can submit an idea for a product, and their team creates an actual prototype.  In return, Quirky retains rights to the invention, as well as exclusivity with the inventor.

It's a model that's fledgling, but clearly one that major players have been paying attention to, specifically one of the oldest and most profitable major players, General Electric.

GE has announced that come May, it will be sending some of its "most promising" patents to Quirky for development, creating a partnership between an internet start-up and a manufacturing giant that, if it works, could certainly become the R&D-to-product model of the 21st century.

Although  these are going to be, literally, thousands of patents GE will be releasing to Quirky, this initial collaboration will mainly focus on three specific areas: optics, barrier coatings, and telematics.  GE hopes Quirky can develop its holographic storage technology for solutions in fingerprint scanning and medical optics.  With barrier coatings, GE is specifically focused on electronics, where its Ultra-High Barrier technology could one day lead to thinner laptop, tablet, and other electronic devices that are protected and cooled by thin-film encapsulation designs.  Finally, in the realm of telematics, further developments in existing technology could speed up tracking fleet software as well as improve vehicle navigation systems- the latter being very closely examined by automobile giants like Ford and Nissan for their recent pledge to incorporate automation into future vehicles.

Quirky’s Ben Kaufman (center) announces the partnership, with Mark Little (left) and Beth Comstock of GE.
This is not going to be the first time GE has partnered with Quirky, as they already have a track record of individual projects coming to fruition; one of the most successful was a "smart" milk container called the MilkMaid, which can detect when the milk it holds spoils.  GE also recently collaborated with Kaggle, an online service that provides data analytics to any research or project info a company wants scrutinized, in several medical and aviation projects.

This most recent announcement, however, signals a shift for GE, where individual "toe-dips" into opportunities with internet startups have now become full-fledged, long-term strategies.  Perhaps the best direct effect of all this?  Less patents sitting around collecting dust means less of a chance they're used only as bait in lawsuits and litigations against inventors trying to move them from idea to reality.  As founder and CEO of Quirky Ben Kaufman put it, "For years, patents have become widely misunderstood and misused. We are going to return patents to their original purpose to act as a blueprint for technological and societal progress while protecting inventors and becoming the source of inspiration for future creators.."

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

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

US Gas Boom Lures Overseas Investment

Lost in the economic benefits shale gas drilling has been providing for the American economy
domestically are the issues it's caused for businesses overseas, especially Europe, where natural gas costs three-quarters more than here.  Consequently, the US natural gas landscape has very quickly become a magnet for foreign investment.   Many businesses are rather loudly musing about the possibility of expanding to the US, and a few have already moved to outright action:

BASF, the massive chemical corporation based in Ludwigshafen, Germany, has announced its intention to further expand investments in North America, citing cost advantages in keeping production near cheap, natural gas as a factor.  The company has already shifted $5.9 billion in investment to the US, as well as construction of a formic acid plant in Louisiana.  In addition, the Canadian Methanex announced back in January of plans to begin moving their Chilean facilities to Louisiana as well after coming to a partnership agreement with Chesapeke Energy Corporation to supply them with natural gas.  Austrian Voestalpine has also announced plans to build an iron-ore plant in Texas to take advantage of low prices as well.  It's estimated the plant will create 150 permanent jobs.

Construction has already begun on BASF's formic acid plant in Geismar, La.

These developments are not just limited to the energy markets.  Natural gas is involved in the production power of pretty much every major industry worldwide, from plastics to steel to, of course, oil.  And while current prices may not continue, the natural gas boom is projected to be on course in
its current trajectory for quite awhile; music to the ears of corporations looking for staying power.  Investment potential is also in the interests of Asian-based businesses that are at the mercy of even higher gas prices than their European counterparts; this could very well be a migration trend that goes on well into the decade.

Voestalpine's reduction plant in Texas will be a $715 million investment.
Conversely, it's important to keep in mind through all this that the gas boom is in a sweet spot where the gap between supply and demand is so vast, with resources so un-allocated, that it's only a matter of time before demand catches up.  More businesses, domestic and international, will mean more production, driving up prices.  In addition, the Obama Administration is also contemplating raising natural gas exports, which would lower rates overseas.  So far, however, none of this has been enough to discourage the companies that have already taken the plunge, clearly signaling widespread confidence across the global manufacturing landscape in the future of North American natural gas production.

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

Monday, April 29, 2013

New Composite Can Strengthen Seawalls

Our seawalls are not in good shape.

This normally wouldn't be the most newsworthy bombshell if the US hasn't had five straight years of climate shift, including rising sea levels affecting previously unaffected regions (see: "Sandy, Hurricane").

Your average seawall is mostly concrete, vulnerable
to erosion and weathering.
So, in considering the changing weather-scape, and just how ill-prepared the highly populous areas of this country are to even understand just how vulnerable they are right now, yyyeah our seawalls are not good.  Outdated and more importantly, too expensive to make with materials that are too porous to be considered adequate for inevitable flooding.

Back in the 20th century, we used concrete and wood.  Nowadays we use polyester resins, glass-based that need a gel coating to block water effectively.  Even then, the average life for polyester seawalls is a mere 25 years.  More recently, manufacturers have been turning to polyurethene resins, a much stronger ingredient for composite sheet piles, but they've so far been too expensive to use on a large scale.

This pure polyurethane resin seawall is laced with Bayer's
new PURloc composite. 
Enter Bayer MaterialScience, who, in collaboration with Gulf Synthetics, crafted PURloc; a synthetic resin made with Bayer's polyurethane system designed to be the strongest seawall material yet.  Using a process called pultrusion, Bayer experts were able to inject pure polyurethane resin into every dense layer of the sheet pile.  The result is seawall material stronger and more elastic than Gulf's newest brand, as well as cheaper because of the pultrusion process.

Gulf Synthetics is currently putting the PURloc composite sheet piles to work in areas of New York and the Cayman Islands.  If it proves its worth, this could be an exciting new development, as well as an opportunity to re-manufacture a much-needed product for the immediate future.

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

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

GM Announces 4G WiFi In Vehicles Starting 2014:

The 2013 Mobile World Congress in Barcelona was chock full of announcements and events.  Cloud technology proved to be more integral to the standard mobile product.  WiFi moved in industry discussions from alternative platform to legitimate profit-potential.  And some dude recapped the past year where he worked exclusively from his mobile.

To me, though, one announcement stood out from these:

General Motors revealed it plans to install 4G wireless modems in vehicles of all its brands, beginning in 2014 with Chevrolet, Buick, GMC, and its Opex/Vauxhill brand in Europe.  This means that starting next year, American consumers will be able to buys cars that double as internet hotspots, ones GM pledges will apply to any brand of smartphone, tablet, or other mobile device.

"You'll be able to get in the back seat with your iPad, go to your hotspot, and do anything that you could do on any other hotspot," Greg Ross of GM's Connected Consumer Group says in an interview with Design News. "You could do voice calls or you could surf the Internet and watch Netflix in the backseat.", (to which a nation of parents trying to keep their kids quiet in the back seat rejoices, I guess....?)

Now there are bound to be a couple hitches; one of which is potentially pretty costly.  As any of us who voraciously replace our internet devices every year know, software improves rather quickly (we have Moore's Law to thank for that, although some would dispute its endurance). Automobiles, however, are designed for over a decade of use.  It follows that by the time you're a long-term owner of one of GM's vehicles, you may find its technology a little outdated with what is offered on the new generation of brands.

Personally, I don't think that's going to be too much of an issue in the long run.  The breakthrough here is your car being a wi-fi hotspot:  that basic feature is enough to keep an owner happy for a very very long time, regardless of future innovations.  Yet, it remains to be seen how sweet a deal this move makes for potential customers.  GM repeats the specific mention of streaming Netflix in their press release, and I'm not so sure entertainment is the biggest draw here.  Passengers already have quite a lot to entertain them in a car; it's not as if I can't watch a movie on a DVD or hook up my iPod to my vehicle's stereo system because I've been able to do that for almost a decade now.  This move is about fulfilling the wish of the customer who wants to use instant internet access to be productive in transit.  How much do we as a society prioritize that?  GM- and the rest of the industry- will soon find out.

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

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Wraptillion Retail Company Uses Rotor Clip Rings In Jewelry Products

We here at Rotor Clip don't normally view our product as anything "retail-related".  Not that it would be a bad thing; as a matter of fact, the world would be a much easier place for us if buyers could simply pick up our products at their local Target.  Alas, the marketing mastermind for that trick hasn't come along yet.

Thankfully, Kelly Jones, owner of Wraptillion, has done even better than that.  Jones' company crafts handmade jewelry out of industrial parts made in America and titanium material from aerospace manufacturers.  What sort of industrial parts?  Well we don't like to brag but:

Wraptillion's Wisteria Earring line was a finalist in
NICHE Magazine's annual awards for "Fashion Jewelry"
Yup, those are Rotor Clip-made retaining rings as the centerpiece of various lines of earrings, pendants, and necklaces borne from the imaginative ingenuity of Ms. Jones and her team.  Her Wisteria earrings line (right) was recently chosen as a finalist in NICHE Magazine's 2013 "NICHE Awards", which recognize artists who provide creative products in the fine craft and retail industries.  Clearly those in her field recognize how important Ms Jones blending of aesthetics and engineering is for both the American retail and manufacturing sectors in relevance and cooperation.

Wraptillion products can be found in stores all over regions of the US like Seattle, Minneapolis, and Portland, Oregon.  A full list of retail locations can be found here.

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

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Jobs Flow Back: Now What?

Linamar Corporation is a Canadian company that manufactures engine parts out of what used to be a Volvo plant in Asheville, North Carolina.  Recently, President Obama visited the plant to tout as an example of America's current trend in luring global manufacturing jobs, reversing patterns of the past twenty-five years.

Indeed, outsourcing bridges the current and past centuries as the biggest challenge of the American workforce, but recent months have confirmed that this may be on the decline.  Part of this is due to changing demands in the market, but it shouldn't be underestimated how integral businesses' rising awareness of total costs have been.  That is because of groups like Harry Moser's "Reshoring Initiative" working to inform all levels of industry as well as government of the real, hidden, and unforeseen consequences of stretching the supply chain across an ocean.  The Reshoring Initiative has been recently hailed in the American manufacturing community as a force behind the political and business effort to fight for relocation of jobs lost overseas years ago.

Moser with other experts in the manufacturing field
meeting the President, January, 2012
Moser's most important audience might have been his visit to the White House last year as part of an Inshore Forum the Executive office held to address job loss.  There, Moser personally explained to Obama that unintended costs like emergency airfreight can eat into a bottom line enough that labor savings are offset.  He also pointed out that separating manufacturing from engineering creates a gap in the kind of department communication that produces innovation and product adjustment, crucial and overlooked advantages that outsourcing can turn into a liability.

While Moser has done much to bring this issue to light, it's also important to remember an economic strategy that centers around reversing outsourcing isn't really that comprehensive a strategy at all.  "Reshoring" is most certainly a welcome sign that the manufacturing community recognizes the value in keeping its supply chain close.  However, the global economy is not going to change;  there's always going to be a location or situation overseas that will offer cheap labor, and businesses are always going to look at that as some kind of an advantage.  Is it that we bug Congress and the business community to enact laws and efforts to get jobs back, or should we be more focused on growing new ones?  And if so, how?

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

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Methane's Real Potential: Plastics

Methane has been getting a good run these days due to it being the energy ingredient in a little-known resource we call "natural gas".....

Yet, while the gas boom has been a silver lining in the cloud of the US economic recovery, it comes with a price: methane is not going to help the effort to curb greenhouse gases.  In fact, it has 21 times the heat retention properties as carbon, so hurting it seems more likely.

This chart shows the many sources of methane by-product
Unfortunately, in every case, the gas is too contaminated
for energy use.
Scientists have been trying for, really, centuries, to harness energy from biogas produced in landfills and waste management plants.  After all, what better resource to use for human energy consumption than what humans inevitably "emit" anyway?  So why haven't we done so already?  Biogas produced out of plants and landfills are mixed with too many "dirty" compounds that render it useless.  Since it costs too much to clean up, most facilities burn it off instead.

That's where Craig Criddle, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University, comes in.  Criddle has a different idea for methane; while its energy seems near impossible to draw on a cost-efficient scale, turning it into plastic is very doable.

Groundwater bacteria munching on methane.
Why?  Because microbial organisms called methanotrophs do it for us.  Criddle and his staff cultivated these specific types of bacteria and developed a technique whereby feeding them lots and lots of methane enables them to produce a large amount of polymer compound called polyhydroxybutyrate (PHB for short).  Not only do the methanotrophs produce up to 60 times their body mass in PHB, but their metabolism completely rids the PHB of any kind of contamination.

While it's not going to solve energy issues, this method makes a solid argument that methane, not petroleum, should be looked at as the chief source of our plastic products.  Criddle himself gives an economic reason:

“From a business standpoint, it makes far more sense to use methane as a polymer feedstock than to burn it for power production...PHB sells for $3 to $4 a kilogram on today’s market, while methane burned for electricity production would return from 40 to 80 cents a kilo.”  - Craig Criddle to Glen Martin, Stanford Engineering

In addition, converting methane to a polymer sequesters all the carbon that would usually and eventually make its way into the atmosphere under our current petroleum-based process.  Thus using methane-based polymers are not only cheaper, but have a direct effect on greenhouse gas emittance, as well.

Seems like a pipe-dream?  Not at all.  Stanford alum Molly Morse, PhD, is the CEO of Mango Materials, which has just recently been permitted to operate a PHB production facility at a wastewater plant in the Redwood City area of San Francisco County.  If all goes well, methane-based polymers could be a commercial product- and a welcomed innovation- within a few years.

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

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Ford, Daimler, Nissan Agree To Push Hydrogen Fuel

Rare is the moment when companies put competing tactics aside to focus on the greater good of their industry.  Thankfully, Daimler AG, the Renault-Nissan Alliance, and Ford Motor Co. have done just that.  The three automotive monoliths have pledged a joint investment in commercialized hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles.

(L-R) Raj Nair, Group Vice President, Global Product Development, Ford Motor Company, Prof. Thomas Weber, Member of the Board of Management of Daimler AG, Group Research & Mercedes-Benz Cars Development and Mitsuhiko Yamashita, Member of the Board of Directors and Executive Vice President of Nissan Motor Co., Ltd., supervising Research and Development.
Fuel-cell Electric Vehicle (FCEV) technology is especially promising because one of the chief components- oxygen- is pulled into the engine literally out of thin air to react with stored hydrogen.  The by-products are heat and water vapor; zero negative effect on the environment to add to the ridiculous cost-efficiency of the combustion/ process.

An FCEV blueprint for Nissan's TERRA 
Nissan's Executive Vice President agrees:  "Fuel cell electric vehicles are the obvious next step", says Mitsuhiko Yamashita,  "to complement today's battery electric vehicles as our industry embraces more sustainable transportation."

Now, it's important to stress these are automotive companies.  They specialize in the vehicles; the existing infrastructure for hydrogen fuel cells is sorely lacking in the United States.  Stations that can supply and "refuel" fuel cell vehicles are pretty scant....ten, total, according to the US Department of Energy.

Make no mistake about it, however:  this is a watershed moment for the auto landscape of the future.  Roads, Interstates, Rest Stops, fueling stations around not just the US but the entire globe will change.  Major companies who own the tech want to supply it, and the green-minded consumer community demand it.  This may be a first step, but it is a giant one.

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

Monday, February 4, 2013

NASA Hires Vegas Company For Inflatable Space Module

Artist's rendition of Bigelow's expandable space habitat.
In 2000, NASA's budget was gutted by Congress and it decided to scrap many brainstorm projects, one of which for an "expandable module" that would be made of flexible material and supplement the International Space Station (ISS).  NASA sold the patents for the module to one Robert Bigelow, a real estate mogul who wanted to use his fortune to finance space endeavors.

Fast forward thirteen years and hundreds of millions of dollars later; Bigelow Aerospace has put not one, but TWO prototypes in orbit, the Genesis 1 and 2.  Even better, NASA has contracted the Las Vegas-based company to develop an inflatable space habitat that will be able to attach to the ISS.  Robert Bigelow's investment will pay off.

And it should, because the technology is fascinating both in its simplicity of design, and in the multiple problems with space travel it addresses.  Bigelow claims the floppy cloth walls that blow up like a balloon are nevertheless just as protective from impact and radiation as standard designs.  Being lightweight and able to inflate after launch makes the module cost-effective in fuel and saves time in the launching process itself.   Matt Gurney of Canada's National Post makes additional  interesting points as well:

"...Rockets are skinny. Objects headed into space must not only be light enough to be lifted by the rocket, but capable of squeezing into narrow cargo holds. The now-retired space shuttles, for instance, could carry payloads up to 59 feet long, but only 15 feet wide.

This is problematic. If the total width of your vessel is limited to 15 feet, a strong hull, insulation, radiation shielding and all the equipment necessary to run the ship leaves little room left inside for anything else. The result: Extremely cramped living conditions have been an unavoidable fact of manned space exploration.

People can tolerate enclosed environments. But to really explore the solar system, a ship will require so much gear, and the crew so much storage space for supplies, that we need to build bigger than we ever have before. Not to mention the psychological benefit of being able to stretch one’s legs on a mission that could last years or months."

 - Matt Gurney, "Full Comment", National Post, 1/24/13.

More available space not only makes it easier for the crew,
but provides opportunity for wider cargo.
It's not the sexiest issue of space exploration but it is crucial: making the area of a space vehicle or module larger in circumference opens up so many more possibilities.

And no matter what NASA decides about the model, Bigelow's long-term goal is  to move forward with a privately-funded expandable space station and habitat.  Imagine laboratories and cargo stations big enough for dozens of people to roam around.  With a variety of private shuttles already designed and in the prototype phases, this may be a lot closer to happening than conventional wisdom believes.

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