Like many people, if not most, spring is my favorite time of the year. The days are longer, the weather is warmer, foliage is coming back to life, and it’s the season for FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) all over the country. Eligible participants are male and female high school students — grades 9-12; ages 14-18.
For those unfamiliar with the event, every team is given a standard parts list and kit from which to build their robot that consists of mechanical, electrical, electronic, and software components. This, along with rigorous inspection for compliance with the strict rules and specifications before competition ensures that all teams literally compete on a level playing field.
A FIRST team working on their robot, preparing for competition
I was a volunteer at this year’s Colorado Regional FRC event. My official title was Field Repair/Reset, but in actuality I was a scorekeeper. Once the action starts, it’s non-stop and pretty heated until the competition is done for the day. Between the robots, teams, and fans in the stands, the volume level also remains pretty high throughout the day. A lot of excitement and great fun for me.
The game changes every year and this year’s was especially challenging. It involves team-built robots picking up and shooting Frisbees into target goal at varying heights. In addition, there is also a segment of the event that has the robots climb tubular pyramids — the higher, the more points. For safety, if a robot ascends above a certain height, it must be belayed back to the ground with climbing rope and special hardware.
There are also two different timed modes for competition — autonomous and teleops. The first 15 seconds are autonomous where the robot must find the target goals on its own and attempt to fling Frisbees into them. The teleops portion of the competition has the robots “driven” by team operators with computers and joysticks.
I wish my tools were this well organized . . . team from Minnesota’s tool crib
The FIRST events are always well organized, well attended, and well worth the time of everybody involved — participants, volunteers, teachers, parents, mentors, and sponsors. The FIRST event always leaves me with a good feeling about the promise of the future of engineering in the hands, minds, and hearts of those who will create the future.
On a weekly basis I review hundreds of press releases relating to (more or less) CAD, CAM, CAE, and related software and hardware products. With most of them it is immediately apparent whether they merit publication, are overt sales pitches, or new rehashes of old news. Not always, but often, my interest gets sparked by the headline, such as, 3D Printing Inspires New Working Style in CAD/CAM Software Industry. Interesting stuff, right? The headline was pretty catchy, although it didn’t mention a specific company name. In spite of that, I read through the press release once, twice, three times, and still had trouble comprehending what was trying to be said.
Well, the company is Chinese software developer, ZWSOFT, and what they are trying to get across is the new Print3D function in ZW3D 2013 for leveraging 3D printing. The company doesn’t tell you how to do it and the 3D printing capability isn’t specifically mentioned in its 56-page “What’s New in ZW3D 2013” document. In fact, if this press release had not come out, there is no way I (or prospective customers) would even know it’s there. I tend to think it’s buried in some obscure place that will really take some digging to find.
3D printing is mentioned in online product literature under Reverse Engineering in the following context (and accompanying graphic):
Work with STL, point cloud, and scan data to build surfaces and 3D models
Prepare models for CNC machining by refining meshes, building surfaces, and repairing gaps
Support 3D printers
I’m no marketing guy, but if you’re going to push a new capability, wouldn’t you give it little more prominence?
I’ll download a trial version of ZW3D 2013 and see what and where the 3D printing capabilities really are.
Beyond that, the only reference I could find with regard to ZW3D’s 3D printing ability was an event last year when personal manufacturer Ponoko teamed up with ZW3D and 3D model library GrabCAD to 3D print the winners of its Holiday Design Challenge.
So another MCAD company enters the market with this year’s “must have” capability – 3D printing – which is fine. I guess the more, the merrier. What I more interesting is a rumor I’ve heard from more than one source that another Chinese company may soon market a 3D printer in the $300-$500 range and PLA and/or ABS consumables for $10-$20 a spool.
While it is possible, I still maintain that 3D printing isn’t suited for everything or everybody. While there have been some impressive results, many of the parts I have seen produced on the so-called “low end” machines are analogous to dot matrix output when 2D printers came on the market. Like many technologies, just because “everybody’s doin’ it,” doesn’t necessarily mean that everybody should be doing it.
Even though we’re not even through the first quarter of 2013, some companies can’t wait for 2014. A case in point is Autodesk, who today announced in general terms its next generation desktop products and Autodesk 360 cloud-based services for 2014. In actuality, the cloud-based offerings augment the desktop application suites. All suite subscribers have access to select cloud services as part of their subscriptions, and can always purchase additional cloud access, if and when needed.
One of the most intriguing of the new cloud-based services is a point cloud engine for processing point clouds called ReCap. With it, you’ll be able to use laser scan and photographic image data to build 3D models. This is one I definitely want to try out for myself.
Autodesk’s Amar Hanspal acted as the MC for the product introductions and kicked things off with a new look logo and branding for the company — kind of origamic — that he said was a new identity that blended art and science.
As it has for the past couple of years, Autodesk prefers to market its products, not so much as discrete products, but multi-tiered suites (Standard, Premium, and Ultimate) with more comprehensive utility, function, and profit. The Autodesk product suites that we’ll pay the most attention to in the coming months will include:
AutoCAD Design Suite
Factory Design Suite
Product Design Suite
Without a lot of specifics to draw upon, several aspects of Autodesk’s 2014 product and service lineups look promising. However, the devil’s in the details of how all these parts work together, and that is exactly what we’ll be evaluating in the coming months.
Not just resting on its cash reserves or other recent acquisitions, Autodesk announced that it has completed the acquisition of Firehole Technologies (DBA Firehole Composites), a privately held company that specializes in design and analysis software for composite materials. Through this acquisition, Autodesk will expand its analysis software portfolio to work with light, strong, and complex composite materials. Firehole Composites is based in Laramie, Wyoming, also the home of the University of Wyoming, and a town with an incredibly low unemployment rate of 3.4%.
“As manufacturers move to more complex material such as light weight composites, new simulation technology is required to predict and optimize the performance of these materials. This acquisition will enable Autodesk to deliver this technology to a broad spectrum of design and engineering industries,” said Buzz Kross, senior vice president for Design, Lifecycle and Simulation products. “The Firehole team will add significant expertise in next generation materials and non-linear analysis, as well as industry-leading technologies that strongly complement our solutions for structural, thermal and plastics analysis.”
Engineered composites are complex materials made from two or more materials with widely different physical and/or chemical properties. When combined, the constituents produce a material with characteristics much different than the individual components. Interestingly, though, (and this adds to the mystique behind composites), the individual components remain separate and distinct within the finished structure. Even though it’s been around a long time, today, still the most common composite material is concrete. Because composites are complex materials, simulating and analyzing them and their behavior is a very computationally demanding proposition.
Check out the video for CompositePro for FEA that demonstrates some of the tools availble to support composite finite element analysis process. Among other things, CompositePro can be used to:
Determine ply-level or laminate-level material properties for 2D shell or 3D solid element analyses
Investigate complex failure modes of stuctures such as tubes or sandwich panels to understand when they will fail
Autodesk says it intends to sell and support the existing Firehole Composites product line, as well as integrating the composites analysis technology more tightly with Autodesk products. No surprise there, especially the latter. As usual, and not unexpectedly, terms of the transaction were not disclosed.
A little over a year ago, HP introduced a workstation-class computer that it said would revolutionize the computer world with its all-in-one Z1. It the Z1 certainly wasn’t the first or only all-in-one computer available, as the iMac G3 was introduced in 1998 and has evolved significantly since then. What really sets the Z1 apart from the desktop workstation crowd are two things — its easy, no-tool access to its internals for swapping out or upgrading components, and its gigantic, brilliant display.
The display measures 27 inches diagonally, so that’s big. Too bad it’s not a touchscreen — maybe the next iteration/generation will be. Also, this big guy is relatively heavy at almost 50 pounds. However, the Z1’s articulating base and mechanism are robust and more than adequate for handling the weight. When you need to access the inside of the Z1, just lock it down with the display in a horizontal position, release a couple of slide latches, and lift the display up, much like lifting the hood of a car, to access internal components, such as hard drives, RAM, etc. Keep in mind, too, that a unit this big requires a good amount of space, so be prepared to offer it adequate real estate on your desktop.
About the only deficiency I experienced with the design of the HP Z1 was the port placement. Although there are some ports on the right side of the unit, several ports are located on the back side of the unit, with the unit’s base interfering with access to the ports.
The HP Z1 received had the following specifications as supplied:
CPU: Intel Xeon E31280 V2 (Sandy Bridge)
Memory: 16 GB RAM
Graphics: NVIDIA Quadro K3000M
OS: Microsoft Windows 7 Professional
Connectivity: 2 USB 3.0, 7 USB 2.0, 1 4-in-1 media card reader, 1 headphone, 1 microphone, 1 IEEE 1394a, 1 DisplayPort, 1 RJ-45, 1 optical S/PDIF, 1 subwoofer out, 1 audio line in, 1 audio line out
Display: 27″ diagonal IPS LED Backlit HP Widescreen Monitor (2560 x 1440) with up to 1.07 billion colors supported.
Dimensions: 26 x 16.5 x 23 in (66.04 x 41.91 x 58.42 cm)
Weight: ~50 pounds
Warranty: Protected by HP Services, including a limited 3 years parts, 3 years labor, and 3 years onsite service (3/3/3) standard warranty.
I ran both objective (formal documented generic benchmarks) and subjective (actual design and engineering software applications) tests for measuring performance.
However, as I always do, the tests were performed with the HP Z1 “out of the box,” as received – nothing was tweaked or optimized to distort the performance numbers (such as enabling multi-threading) in a positive or negative direction. As usual, I actually get more out of the subjective testing because (more…)
3D printing. Do you love it, hate it, skeptical, convinced, or still deciding? We are, too. There’s no doubt that 3D printing is diverse technology with a lot of potential, but has that potential been realized, or is it still a lot of hype and wishful thinking? Yes, to all of the above.
One of the more interesting, “real” examples of 3D printing we’ve come across is a simple multi-material keyboard.
Designer Arnon Gratch of Stratasys recently created a mechanically sound, fully functioning keyboard using rigid and flexible materials on the Objet Connex500. Typically, the keys and supporting structures need to be assembled into the board, however, the multi-material Connex technology allowed Grach to print the complete keyboard in one print run.
Using Objet’s simultaneous multi-material jetting technology, the Objet Connex500 can print models made of up to 14 different materials, in a single print job. This capability is effective for highlighting varying material components in complex or assembled products for physical modeling.
The range of materials that can be used with the Connex500 numbers over 100.
While this is an impressive demonstration of the 3D printing technology, especially using multi-materials, the produced part doesn’t exactly have a finish I would call commercial, and the keys seem a little slow to return to their original position. That said, though, it does have definite possibilities.
Spring is typically when a lot new 3D printing technology is showcased, and this year is no exception with two exhibitions coming soon — Inside 3D Printing and SME’s RAPID 2013. Periodically, over the next several weeks, we’ll report on the hype, reality, and general state of 3D printing. Admittedly, it’s come a long way, but just as importantly, still has a long way to go for fulfilling its promise of custom, unbridled manufacturing for the masses.
It wasn’t all that long ago that an exotic new material, carbon nanotubes, caught a lot of imaginations with endless possibilities, including supporting and conveying an elevator from earth to space. Those dreamy beginnings for carbon nanotubes never quite seemed to materialize. However, things are changing and carbon nanotubes again seem to be gathering some momentum as a reality in our lives.
A huge leap forward in nanotechnology was recently announced by Rice University. Scientists from Rice, the Dutch firm Teijin Aramid, the U.S. Air Force, and Israel’s Technion Institute recently unveiled a new carbon nanotube (CNT) fiber that looks and acts like textile thread and conducts electricity and heat like a metal wire. The researchers say they have come up with an industrially scalable process for making the threadlike fibers, which outperform commercially available high-performance materials.
“We finally have a nanotube fiber with properties that don’t exist in any other material,” said lead researcher Matteo Pasquali, professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering and chemistry at Rice. “It looks like black cotton thread but behaves like both metal wires and strong carbon fibers.”
“The new CNT fibers have a thermal conductivity approaching that of the best graphite fibers but with 10 times greater electrical conductivity,” said study co-author Marcin Otto, business development manager at Teijin Aramid. “Graphite fibers are also brittle, while the new CNT fibers are as flexible and tough as a textile thread. We expect this combination of properties will lead to new products with unique capabilities for the aerospace, automotive, medical, and ‘smart-clothing’ markets.”
The phenomenal properties of carbon nanotubes have fascinated scientists since their discovery in 1991. The hollow tubes of pure carbon, which are aboutas wide as a strand of DNA, are about 100 times stronger than steel at one-sixth the weight. Nanotubes’ conductive properties — for both electricity and heat — rival the best metal conductors. They also can serve as light-activated semiconductors, drug-delivery devices, and even sponges to soak up liquids.
Carbon nanotubes, despite their huge potential, are difficult to work with. For starters, finding a method for producing bulk quantities of nanotubes took a decade. Scientists also learned early on that there were several dozen types of nanotubes — each with unique material and electrical properties; and engineers have yet to find a way to produce just one type. Instead, all production methods yield a hodgepodge of types, often in hairball-like clumps.
Shortly after arriving at Rice in 2000, Pasquali began studying CNT wet-spinning methods with the late Richard Smalley, a nanotechnology pioneer and the namesake of Rice’s Smalley Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology. In 2003, Smalley worked with Pasquali and colleagues to create the first pure nanotube fibers. The work established an industrially relevant wet-spinning process for nanotubes that was analogous to the methods used to create high-performance aramid fibers, which are used in products such as bulletproof vests. The process, however, needed to be refined. The fibers weren’t very strong or conductive, due partly to gaps and misalignment of the millions of nanotubes inside them.
Through a refined process, today, the fibers have about 10 times the tensile strength and electrical and thermal conductivity of the best previously reported wet-spun CNT fibers, Pasquali said. The specific electrical conductivity of the new fibers is on par with copper, gold and aluminum wires, but the new material has advantages over metal wires.
For example, one application where high strength and electrical conductivity could prove useful would be in data and low-power applications, Pasquali said.
“Metal wires will break in rollers and other production machinery if they are too thin,” he said. “In many cases, people use metal wires that are thicker than required for the electrical needs, simply because it’s not feasible to produce a thinner wire. Data cables are a particularly good example of this.”
So, while products using this new carbon nanotechnology won’t be hitting the market next week, the new production method looks very promising and the potential is huge.
During the most recent SolidWorks World we saw some presentations and live demos of some amazing flying robots, and we discussed them last month. Thanks to the Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME), we came across another stunning example of flying robots. This time, though, at a much smaller scale as printed circuit micro-electro-mechanical systems (PC-MEMS).
Dubbed the Monolithic Bee (Mobee), and created by engineers at Harvard, a unique layering and folding process enables the rapid fabrication of not just these flying microrobots, but potentially a broad range of other electromechanical devices.
The new fabrication technique was inspired by pop-up books and origami, allowing clones of robotic insects to be mass-produced by the sheet.
In prototypes, 18 layers of carbon fiber, Kapton (a plastic film), titanium, brass, ceramic, and adhesive sheets have been laminated together in a complex, laser-cut design. The structure incorporates flexible hinges that allow the three-dimensional product—2.4 millimeters tall—to assemble in one movement, like a pop-up book.
The entire product is approximately the size of a U.S. quarter, and dozens of these microrobots can be fabricated in parallel on a single sheet.
“This takes what is a craft, an artisanal process, and transforms it for automated mass production,” said Pratheev Sreetharan, who co-developed the technique with J. Peter Whitney at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS).
Sreetharan, Whitney, and their colleagues in the Harvard Microrobotics Laboratory at SEAS have been working to build bio-inspired, bee-sized robots that can fly and behave autonomously as a colony. Appropriate materials, hardware, control systems, and fabrication techniques did not exist prior to the RoboBees project, so each must be invented, developed, and integrated by a diverse team of researchers.
Although tiny robots can now be built by slightly bigger robots, designing how all of the layers will fit together and fold is still a very labor-intensive human task. Standard computer-aided design (CAD) tools, typically intended for either flat, layered circuit boards or 3D objects, do not yet support devices that combine both, but that is changing.
However, once a design is complete, fabrication can be fully automated to highly accurate and precise standards.
The Harvard Office of Technology Development is now developing a strategy to commercialize this technology. The work was supported by the U.S. Army Research Laboratory, the National Science Foundation (through the Expeditions in Computing program), and the Wyss Institute.
Admittedly, the video is more about fabricating the Mobee than it is about it actually flying, but it’s still some interesting stuff. If we come across video that shows the Mobee flying maneuvers, we’ll post it.
When it comes to machining, Swiss-style is quite a different animal because of the degree of precision and pace the process it is expected to maintain. Swiss-style lathes and turning centers provide extreme accuracy, capable of holding tolerances as small as ten thousandths of an inch.
A Swiss-style lathe holds the workpiece with both a collet and a guide bushing and is almost always used under CNC control. The collet sits behind the guide bushing, and the cutting tools are located in front of the guide bushing, holding stationary on the Z axis. To cut lengthwise along a part, the tools move in and the material itself moves back and forth along the Z axis. This allows all the work to be done on the material near the guide bushing where it is more rigid with little chance of deflection or vibration.
Swiss-style lathes and turning center are very efficient, as these machines are capable of fast cycle times, producing simple parts in one cycle with no need for a second machine to finish the part with secondary operations. This makes the Swiss style ideal for large production runs of small-diameter parts.
Additionally, as many Swiss lathes incorporate a secondary spindle, or sub-spindle, they also incorporate “live” tooling. Live tools are rotary cutting tools that are powered by a small motor independent of the spindle motor(s). Live tools increase the intricacy of components that can be manufactured by a Swiss lathe.
Spatial Corp. recently joined CNC Software Inc. in announcing that the 3D ACIS Modeler and 3D InterOp power the latest release of Mastercam Swiss Expert 2012. Designed to control a variety of Swiss-style NC machines, Mastercam Swiss Expert is used in a range of applications such as watch-making, medical device, dental, automotive, and electronics companies — all known for requiring extremely small, but very precise parts.
OK, it’s almost spring and our minds turn to robots, as in the FIRST competition for middle and high school students and started by Dean Kamen several years ago. However, another branch of cool robotics for young people, as well as older guys like me, is LEGO MINDSTORMS.
We learned that Autodesk has partnered with The LEGO Group to provide 3D interactive building instructions for LEGO MINDSTORMS EV3, a new platform designed to introduce a younger generation to building and programming robots.
Accessible through a mobile app for iOS and Android devices, or over the web at MINDSTORMS.COM, the interactive building instructions—based on Autodesk Inventor Publisher technology—will provide an alternative to traditional 2D paper or online instructions. The 3D building instruction will let LEGO MINDSTORMS builders digitally view how the LEGO MINDSTORMS EV3 components fit together, making it easier to build some pretty sophisticated robots.
When building a LEGO MINDSTORMS robot you’ll be able to stop the animation, zoom in on a part or rotate it to see exactly how parts need to be fitted together. Additional features geared toward providing a positive experience for LEGO builders include double-tapping a part for component information, and a Map feature that will let you see exactly which part of the model is being worked on.
In case you’re not familiar, in addition to LEGO’s famous bricks, the LEGO MINDSTORMS EV3 set contains a multitude of parts—including motors, infrared sensors and a programmable microcomputer— for creating robots that walk, move or take whatever action they’re programmed to do. LEGO MINDSTORMS EV3 will include the 3D interactive building instructions for five different robots.
The LEGO MINDSTORMS EV3 set, as well as the 3D building instruction mobile apps and web instructions, will be available in the second half of 2013.
All in all, pretty cool stuff, and something I personally am looking forward to playing working with when it comes available because robots are a big part of the future of engineering and engineers.