Friday, June 1, 2018

Plastic For The Roads of America's Future?

15832_ext 02The "Great Pacific Garbage Patch" is really more a steady, circulated, mass stream of garbage in the Pacific Ocean. Despite more and more awareness of its existence, there doesn't seem to be much action planned to address the environmental catastrophe. That said, some companies bringing sustainability into their models are viewing plastic, not as a moral imperative, but a valuable resource to rebuild one of the most important aspects of infrastructure: roads.

In 2015, Dutch construction company, VolkerWessel  began plans with Rotterdam city officials to replace current paved roads with attachable, Lego-like plastic modules, all made from recycled materials. The project, in its final testing stages before being introduced to public use, is impressive, but only the latest in many similar efforts to incorporate reusable plastic into road materials all around the world. Tami Nadu, in Southern India, is a region light years ahead of VolkerWessel, having already paved hundreds of miles worth of roads with plastic. And in Ghana, the company Nelplast has received assistance from the Ghana Environmental Ministry to develop and distribute asphalt mixed with plastic and sand to local districts.

Image result for texas hossein plastic pins roads
Texas DOT plans to test Hossein's use of
plastic pins for slope stabilization.
In the United States, while this innovation isn't near being brought to life as these worldwide efforts, plastic roads has its proponents, as well as the companies who could make such an undertaking happen. Dr. Sahadat Hossein, a civil engineer at the University of Texas, Arlington, received a million dollar grant a few years ago from the Texas Department of Transportation for developing plastic road pins out of recycled beverage bottles. Dr. Hossein successfully showed that pins consisting of about 500 plastic bottles in material, could be inserted into Texas roads, delaying them from cracking and falling apart as weather erodes the underlying soil. The project is already in controlled-site testing, and there are already Texas-based companies like Dykes Paving, which have a long history of paving roads with sustainable, environmental-friendly methods and resources.

While the construction process for plastic roads is far from ideal, the opportunity to create a sustainable and profitable supply chain is clearly there. Entrepreneurial interest in cleaning up the oceans abound, and the maintenance benefits of plastic as raw material for roads far outweigh the current costs of asphalt. For a look at VolkerWessel's PlasticRoads video pitch, click below:

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Giving Sense of Movement To Bionics

Jon SensingerOne of the most promising and dynamic areas of current manufacturing in America is the medical field, where experts estimate the industry is on course to generate over $150 billion in worth by the end of this year. Much of the success of the recent upsurge in the American medical industry is due to technological breakthroughs in surgical appliances and devices. Demand for the next generation of medical equipment is driving investments such as IntriCon's latest 30,000 acre expansion of its existing Arden Hills facilities. Specifically, bionics show much potential, and the field is exploding with over $36 million in worth. Biotech enhancements and replacements span multiple patient needs, from the maimed veteran to the elderly person who just wants to walk to the corner store without knee pain.

At the Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio, specialists bring many of the most cutting-edge designs of current bionic research out of the lab and into patient use. While there always exists barriers in upgrading the mechanics of current biotechnology, some of the most important work being done seeks to unlock mysteries surrounding the human body. Together with fellow colleagues in Canada, researchers at Cleveland Clinic may have solved one of the most elusive problems in advancing bionic prosthetics for patients. 

Led by Paul Marasco, researchers at the Laboratory for Bionic Integration, a part of Cleveland Cinic's Lerner Research Institute, worked with a team led by John Sensinger of University of New Brunswick's Institute of Biomedical Engineering (as well as supporting experts in Alberta and Virgina), to crack the code of restoring kinesthesia- the innate sense of movement- to patients relying on bionic limbs. Although bionic limbs have made vast improvements in maneuverability and ease of use, they have always been limited to one sense: sight. In order to fulfill mundane tasks like picking up objects, patients must be able to see their prosthetic limbs in action so that they are accurately used.

Image result for cleveland clinic bionics breakthrough kinesthesia
Cleveland Clinic illustrates the idea behind granting greater kinesthesia
to patients with prosthetics. 
The process is fascinating and a lesson in utilizing the body to accept prosthetic enhancements using innovative thinking.  With the knowledge that the brain can sense movement in a set of muscles through tiny vibrations, the team used tiny robots to create micro-vibrations within the afflicted muscles (or sometimes even just a rerouted nerve activating that muscle). The result was an illusion of sensation for the patients, whereby they could stay aware of how their bionic limb was moving through space without needing to look at it.

Implications of this innovation are huge. "By restoring the intuitive feeling of limb movement — the sensation of opening and closing your hand — we are able to blur the lines between what the patients’ brains perceived as self versus machine,” says Marasco. This feat may allow similar breakthroughs that will further integrate machinery into a human being's biological system. Prosthetic limbs, as well as exoskeletons such as the Ekso which, since its 2012 introduction to the market, has been making strides in improvement, will more and more be greeted by a user's mind and body as one and the same.   

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

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Robots and the US Worker: A Potential Alliance?

A worker operates a robotic arm at Safran. Photo: Cyril Abad
Watching the news or reading online, it could be easy to conclude the average American is fighting tooth and nail against an emerging trend of automation in the workplace. It is true that American employment has been effected in some way by automation. Many Americans have seen evidence of job losses as a result of robot replacements. That said, most of the country do not believe they will be replaced by one, themselves. This could be good, old-fashioned cognitive dissonance, but it could also signal  the question of whether the future of labor belongs to the worker or the robot is not nearly as binary as it is framed in the clumsy narrative of mainstream media. In fact, more and more, it could very well be argued that automation could save American employment.

To be sure, the world of robotics is currently integrating itself into the US industry at skyrocketing rates. 2017 was a banner year, as over $1.47 billion worth of robotics were ordered throughout North America in the first nine months, alone. Traditional industries from automobiles to food and service saw an increase in robotic parts, as well as non-automated parts. This upsurge represents the greatest number yet of automated integration. By some rationale, it would then follow job numbers would have an inverse trend. On the contrary, employment for manufacturing has been steadily increasing from 2010 to at least 2016. Could this be in spite of robotics? It is true that correlation does not equal causation, but experts within the industry see ample evidence to support the idea that automation is creating opportunities for niche hires, or even new job titles, altogether.

One such example is the field of Application Specific Machine Vision (ASMV).  While Machine Vision is defined as pliable in application, ASMV are turnkey systems that find ways to implement specific roles across multiple industries: experience-heavy in the small picture, interchangeable in the big one. ASMV as a market is expected to increase this year, and it represents an intersection of old-industry expertise and new standardization. Because it is a technology that uses specifications for tools such as sensors and lasers, it will demand new skills for maintenance and development. Especially in the context of development, companies would do well to cultivate an innovative working force. ASMV is intended to be constantly added to in hard and software, and workers who inherently understand a company's unique installation from the time it is implemented on will be of high value.  Therefore, whole new wings of IT departments could certainly result in a company's large-scale adoption of ASMV. Additionally, managing ASMV on a daily basis will require applicable skills for even the basic floor worker.

None of this is to say the transition into the new model of workforce will be easy, nor to diminish the pain of mass amounts of jobs designed for a 20th century world suddenly finding itself redundant or unnecessary for new demands. Automated factories may very well be a difficult realm for the working class to navigate. The signs are there, however, that new workers will be needed to train and learn to operate within them. While technology is more and more impressive and encompassing, it still yields to the same patterns of the Industrial Age; when invention solves a demand, it can open up several more.

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

Monday, March 26, 2018

GM's Next Bolt EV WIll Have No Steering Wheel

Last week saw what may turn out to be a giant event in the world of automation, as General Motors unveiled their prototype for their fourth-generation Bolt EV model. The big reveal? No steering wheel, nor pedal.

While this is not unprecedented in design, GM claims theirs is the first fully automated electric vehicle to be made with a traditional mass production process. Although this may not be technically true (Chrystler and Waymo could also claim the title), it does seem that GM has a way to ensure the Bolt EV, complete with multiple redundant sensory, navigational, and computer systems, will be ready for a proclaimed massive rollout by 2019. It is an ambitious target, but one that seems well within reality.
GM's Bolt EV-S is being planned for a 2019 debut

Automated driving vehicles have taken a bit of a bloody nose in PR lately, with a Tesla AV model crashing in 2016 and the recent embarrassment of an automated shuttle for Las Vegas tourism having a fender bender on its first day of launch. Nevertheless, there is now a body of boring evidence, consisting of AV's being used on campuses and closed roads, that point to integration being possible.  The optics of the announcement amount to this stunning picture that immediately dares the everyday driver to imagine their commute in a whole new way. As GM President Dan Amman said,
"When you see this image for the first time it's quite striking...That's why we believe this is a notable moment on the journey to full AV deployment."

GM's Bolt EV line has a recent history of moderate success. While it did not yield strong sales in established European markets for electric vehicles, over 23,000 were sold in the US in 2017, and an introductory delivery of 600 to Korea tested so well, GM will be sending up to 5,000 more. Though current regulations and the vehicle's affordability (it is still expected to be more than the average cost of a fossil-fuel engine car) are still going to be significant obstacles, the slow but accelerating rise in EV charging infrastructure all over major cities in the country may signal to curious customers that the up-front cost is worth the long-term savings in fuel. The pieces are all there for an automated driving world. Now all that's left is to find out if Americans want it.

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

Friday, March 2, 2018

In Medical 3D Printing, The Ears Have It.

A before-and-after of how a 3D printed prosthetic accurately "snaps" into place.
As 3D printing makes its way out of the prototype labs and into countless real-world scenarios, it seems to be accelerating fastest among the advances in the medical industry. While this includes uses such as designing and building cutting edge technology and instruments, 3D printing has now extended beyond the tools, and is now showing multiple ways it can assist in the actual material of the medical world itself: the human body.

In the US, researchers at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore worked to combine CT scanning with 3D printing to create custom-designed prosthetic replacements for parts of the middle ear. Led by Jeffrey Hirsch MD, assistant professor of radiology at the university, the team finally created a breakthrough in a procedure that had been attempted unsuccessfully before. Hearing loss can often be a result of damage to the three tiny bones in the middle ear called the ossicles. Because their job is to conduct sound from the ear drum to the cochlea, ossicles are extremely unique to the shape of an individual's ear. Whereas surgery has been an option in the past to repair or reconstruct those bones, the ossicles are so tiny that the procedure has a high failure rate. Integrating 3D printing into the process of prosthetic manufacture, however, greatly improves the accuracy of a replacement doing the job of the original bones. As Dr. Hirsch explained in a press release to Radiological Society of North America, "This study highlights the core strength of 3-D printing — the ability to very accurately reproduce anatomic relationships in space to a sub-millimeter level...With these models, it's almost a snap fit."

 reconstruct the degenerating ears of five children. The patients, each suffering from a form of microtia, had their healthy ears mapped out, and new ears cultivated from their own cells in a lab. Thus, a major regenerated body part grown on a mold, was able to remain compatible and reattach itself. This has incredible ramifications. In addition to revolutionizing how facial and body reconstruction is done, it proves the current limits of surgery when it comes to cartilage growth, organ donation, and prosthetics themselves may soon prove obsolete.
While this is one demonstration of the successful role 3D printing can have to bridge gaps existing between traditional technology and biological progress, it is not the only one. Using the similar method of complimenting 3D printing with CT scanning, tissue engineers in China were recently able to

How CT scanning works with 3D printing for reconstruction
Is it possible both these advances can co-exist? Or do they demonstrate a fork in the road for the medical industry. Beyond the ear, it seems the added bonus of creating organic composition with 3D printers makes using any foreign materials unnecessary for any part of the human body, in the long run. Perhaps this could one day be the case, but as engineering advancements on the genetic level with CRISPR are currently proving, to give the green light to our anatomy as a part of the supply chain may open up very dicey ethical questions.  3D printing is obliterating walls between the industrial and biological revolutions; we may find out sooner than later whether we are prepared for what that could mean.

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

Friday, February 2, 2018

Three Models to Bring the Mobile Home Into the Future

Mobile home owners in America generally deal with an unfair stigma of being low income, underinvested, or impermanent. Out of the 20million mobile home owners in America, however, there is so much variety, it would be unfair to apply these characteristics to them all. Mobile communities in the U.S. are not only numerous; they are growing and diversifying in so many forms. In fact, the space-conscious models of the typical mobile home make it ideal to create new generations of homeowners that must co-exist in ever-increasing populations across cities of the new century. 

Ironically, thousands of mobile home communities dotting across the country consist of residents who never leave their lot. Yet, as population and weather pattern shifts around the country, picking up and leaving can be more and more considered a necessity for many citizens.  
Considering this, it makes sense for companies in construction and manufacturing - both residential and commercial- to explore this rising demand. Trends such as “tiny houses” and redesigned prefabricated homes may be pointing towards a “new norm” of home ownership. While there have already been numerous ideas that emphasize space-conscious minimalism and repurposing or relocating, they tend to be aimed at small luxury markets. The potential for the average American small business or resident, however, to be part of a rethinking of movable homes, is still there, and largely untapped.

MADI’s Sustainable Pre-Fab Home: There are many companies already exploring with ways to build flexible and mobile residences. One such  is the Italian-based prefab home company, MADI. Designed by world-renowned architect, Renato Vidal, the company’s newest model is a singular A-frame that can be delivered and installed on a property in just under seven hours with minimal labor. Available in three sizes, MADI’s house is solar-powered, so it can function off-grid, and its smallest version comes in at only $33,000; a few thousand cheaper than the average single-wide mobile home.

Ten Fold Engineering: This UK company has come up with a one-of-a-kind lever-folding system to produce homes that can literally "build themselves" within 10 minutes. All that is needed is an electric drill to begin the process, and a fail-safe designed around the floors being folded ensure the building will never fold on its own while residents are inside.What’s more, Ten Fold’s construction is designed around ready-made spaces, making it possible to even transport desired furniture and utilities. 

Their protoypes can apply to homes, but also events or businesses where comfort and style is prioritized over permanence. As the company’s founder, David Martyn, has said, the mobility aspect of the home was intentionally explored to address economic realities of shifting workforces that value the choice to relocate for opportunity: “It changes the dynamics of the market, which does need to change because it is a transportable property asset. This is a real solid building that doesn’t have to stay in the same place. This is about speed, size and ease, and there’s nothing else that does it.”

Jet Capsule: Mobile lots don’t need to be limited to the ground, either. In2016, we profiled Jet Capsule, an Italian yachting company that was exploring a line of floating “UFO” homes. Since then, the solar and wind-powered mini-homes have progressed past the prototype phase and are due to debut this year with an initial price of around $200,000: pricier, but still a reasonable price for homeowners seeking something flexible, if unconventional.

These examples are just one of many, and have all moved beyond the prototype phase and are one step closer to mass production. Any one of them could be invested in and applied to communities across America right now. If such an undertaking were to happen, the term "mobile home" could one day have a whole new meaning.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Sea Urchin Spines Inspire Tougher Cement

Sea Urchins usually call to mind horrid hours of pulling their dreaded spines out of one's feet after a careless step in the ocean. The long sharp tendrils are a natural defense mechanism for the invertebrate, and notorious for the pain their venom causes (though not fatal). While a nuisance during a day at the beach, however, the animal may have proved invaluable in a seemingly unrelated way.

Researchers at the University of Konstanz may have found a method to create a fracture-resistant type of cement. The team's evidence boils down to replicating the nanostructure of the sea urchin spine, reinforcing durability.

Enhanced view of sea urchin spine calcite
Publishing their work in the December 1st edition of Science Advances, the Physical Chemistry team, led by Professor Helmut Colfen, were able to engineer, on the nanoscale, a layer system mirroring a natural process. Dubbed the "brick and mortar" method, the sea urchin spine especially demonstrates this by alternating layers of hard crystalline with soft calcium carbonate. In this design, impact may indeed crack an outer layer, but the force is redistributed and nullified through a softer layer working in tandem with its counterpart. Applied to the make-up of cement, Colfen and his research team were able to produce samples showing "a value of 200 megapascals." The report continues:
"By comparison: Mussel shells, which are the gold standard in fracture-resistance, reach a value of 210 megapascals, which is only slightly higher. The concrete commonly used today has a value of two to five megapascals." 
Sea Urchin spines have served as inspiration before in the science community. In fact, a Chinese university published their findings in March in how the spines can be used to advance bone repair in humans. In the world of raw materials, cement being restructured to exponentially withstand impact like this opens vast potential for construction and architecture possibilities. Traditional limits in structural integrity may be rendered obsolete, and reorganizing materials on the microscopic level before they even reach the stage of sale could demand a completely new type of technological infrastructure in the industry. It is all just another reminder that while Mother Nature gets overlooked, she rarely is improved upon.

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