Jeff's MCAD Blogging
Jeff Rowe
Jeff Rowe
Jeffrey Rowe has almost 40 years of experience in all aspects of industrial design, mechanical engineering, and manufacturing. On the publishing side, he has written well over 1,000 articles for CAD, CAM, CAE, and other technical publications, as well as consulting in many capacities in the design … More »

Additive Manufacturing’s Next Frontiers – 4D Printing and Self-Assembly

August 6th, 2015 by Jeff Rowe

Today, 3D printing is relatively well established, with an ever-increasing selection of printers available, ranging from low-cost personal/desktop 3D units for home to the larger and much more capable industrial-strength printers.

The technology itself has also evolved and is now being implemented in a wide range of industries from automotive to aerospace, construction, health, food, and many others.

By now most of us are familiar with 3D, but for the past couple of years there has been increasing chatter about 4D printing. So what is 4D printing?

A couple of years ago 4D-printing was introduced at a TED Conference in 2013 by Skylar Tibbits, director of MIT’s Self-Assembly Lab.


The Emergence of 4D Printing


He described 4D printed objects as 3D-printed objects that reshape themselves or self-assemble over time, depending on the environment they’re in. In other words, the 4th dimension is time and/or environmental conditions.

Tibbits is said to be working with GEOSyntec to design 4D printed water pipes. As the scale and reach of the technology increases, applications in the military (no surprise here) and construction industries are likely to materialize.

4D Printing


Shapeshifting: 3D printed materials that change shape over time.

Dr Dan Raviv, postdoctoral fellow at MIT, believes that 4D printing may be used in a wide range of applications such as home appliances, childcare products, or even clothes and footwear that optimize their form and function by reacting to changes in the environment.

New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) recently acquired a 4D-printed dress which designers were able to print using a powder-based nylon material, and made the dress out of thousands of interlocking pieces.

The pace at which 3D printing has evolved in various industries is impressive, but the technology is still too slow for mass manufacturing, and precision and repeatability must still improve for fabrication of structural components.

The power to offer customized products that are manufactured closer to their point of consumption certainly makes the technology appealing to both providers and consumers. It’s a growing market, but there’s still a lot work to be done – particularly around process speed, product size, and the variety of materials that can be used with the technology.

In the near future, 4D printing could be used in space. For example, an improved 3D printing process using materials that could self-assemble (the next topic below) was used to fabricate components on-site and on-demand for astronauts during a space mission.


Self-Assembling 3D Printing

A recent study reported in The Conversation has shown that high frequency vibrations can cause bricks to self-assemble into a larger 3D object, a finding that may one day help reduce the need for factory assembly lines.

The findings, published recently in the journal, Scientific Reports, signal a key advancement in programmable self-assembly, which was previously thought to only be possible using one-dimensional or two-dimensional objects.

Self Assembling 3D print

Self-Assembly Demonstration

The research team, led by Dr Ido Bachelet from the Institute for Nanotechnology and Advanced Materials at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, used an algorithm from the Computational Geometry Algorithm Library (CGAL) as part of a design that allowed 18 tetrahedral bricks to self-assemble into a larger 3D cylinder.

The following video shows blocks in the self-assembly process. Two sets of the object (36 bricks) were inserted in the chamber and after 2.5 hours in a constant speed of 320 rpm one set was assembled. The video doesn’t contain the whole, but portions of it.

The Basic Self-Assembly Process

“Assembly rules are encoded by topographic cues imprinted on brick faces while attraction between bricks is provided by embedded magnets,” the researchers said in their paper. “The bricks can then be mixed in a container and agitated, leading to properly assembled objects at high yields and zero errors.

“Improved designs inspired by our system could lead to successful implementation of self-assembly at the macro-scale, allowing rapid, on-demand fabrication of objects without the need for assembly lines.”

The ability for life to self-assemble is something that continues to puzzle scientists. For example, proteins, viruses, living cells and multi-cellular organisms are all examples of systems in which parts are bonded to each other through attraction to form a structure or pattern.

Hamza Bendemra, a Research Engineer at the Australian National University, who was not involved in the study, said the research of 3D printed assemblies is remarkable.

“The algorithm was inspired by the molecular assembly of the DNA,” he said. But he added that more research was needed to address challenges of time, space and safety for the model to be more efficient at forming and remaining together.

“In the study, a two-brick assembly took less than a minute to self-assemble. However, an 18-piece assembly required over two hours to perform the same feat.”

“The components are subject to high vibrations and collide over and over again until they fit in the right combination. It would be a challenge to implement such a method with materials with low strength and poor impact tolerance without causing damage.”

The next step in developing this concept for construction and manufacturing industries is to use both magnetic forces and adhesives to ensure the assembly stays in place.

Bendemra agreed, saying that “the researchers did a great job at adding topographic cues to ensure a unique combination only would lead to the pieces locking in. Their footage clearly shows that pieces that collide in a non-desired formation detach until they lock-in as planned.”

“The number of pieces involved in the assembly and the nature of the materials being used (including the magnet) in more complex assemblies could limit the use of such a method.”

This self-assembly effort is not entirely unique, as the Self-Assembly Lab is collaborating with Autodesk and Stratasys for 4D printing.

So, there you have it: 4D printing and self-assembly. There is certainly a long way to go to commercial viability, but these demonstrations point the way to some fascinating possibilities.

Boeing Patenting Controversial Aircraft Engine Powered By Fusion Explosions

August 4th, 2015 by Jeff Rowe

Boeing has had a patent approved for an aircraft engine that employs laser-generated nuclear fusion as a power source, according to a recent story in Business Insider. The controversial idea is generating some attention from organizations, such as Counter Punch.

So, why the controversy?

The patent has generated fears (founded and unfounded) of what could happen if an aircraft containing radioactive fuel were to crash, spreading the fuel across the crash site. All in all, though, an understandable concern.

New Patent From Boeing Reveals That Tiny Nuclear Explosions Will Power Aircraft

The engine works by laser beams focused on a series of deuterium or tritium (radioactive isotopes of hydrogen). The result is a miniature nuclear explosion that “sprays” hydrogen and/or helium through a nozzle, thus creating massive amounts of thrust.

The explosions also create neutrons that bombard an inner wall of the combustion chamber coated with Uranium 238, creating heat that is harnessed by coolant on the other side of the inner wall that runs a turbine and a generator that powers the lasers. This bombardment of the Uranium 238 has an unfortunate side effect of transforming part of it into Uranium 239, a fissile material.

This idea is really nothing new, and is actually derived from an old idea to create a laser-generated fusion rocket for providing relatively quick flights to destinations throughout our solar system, and possibly interstellar voyages. That concept is based on an even older idea called Orion (not to be confused with the NASA spaceship being developed), that would have used the force generated by “small” nuclear bomb explosions to propel spacecraft.

Again, the concept is currently still in the patent stage, and is a long way from becoming a real design, much less a prototype.

Realistically, considering the real danger of using fissile material as fuel, it is highly doubtful that it will ever be used as an aircraft engine.

However, the idea has real merit for propelling spacecraft. These possibilities are especially interesting, given the recently renewed interest in deep space exploration.

Windows 10: Are You In? The Jury’s Out.

July 30th, 2015 by Jeff Rowe

If there is anything I detest more than upgrading software, it’s upgrading an operating system. OK, now I’ve said it . . .

Yesterday was a day just like any other, except a new operating system, Windows 10, was officially launched. Was it the dawn of a new day for Microsoft, or a yawn like any other day? More importantly, are you going to jump on the bandwagon or get in the back of the bus to see if it’s worth the effort?

I haven’t heard of many users clamoring for this release, and Microsoft hasn’t exactly had the trumpets blaring and proclaiming the birth of its new baby. Why is this happening (or not)?

Below is a brief overview of the new Windows 10 operating system that became available as a free upgrade (to some, but not all users) starting July 29th.


As the new Windows 10 was prepared for public launch yesterday, Microsoft oddly, wasn’t really talking about it much before, during, or after the launch. However, there sure have been a flurry of patches available from Microsoft the past few days and weeks.

It will be free to certain users (more about that later); has elements of Windows 7 and 8.1; and will affect desktop, mobile, and Xbox platforms.

Unclear is exactly what existing technology Windows 10 will and will not work with. This uncertainty is certainly bound to put a lot of people off upgrading, at least right away. Even Microsoft’s “official” forums don’t agree on this vital issue. No one really knows whether your PC will be ready, and you won’t either until after you upgrade. If too many problems occur, you have an out (also discussed later).

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Hardware Review: GoBOXX G1980 Mobile Workstation

July 23rd, 2015 by Jeff Rowe

For a number of reasons, I have been a fan of mobile workstations, so I was very interested in taking a quick look at a new machine from BOXX that is truly mobile .

The GoBOXX 15 G1980 is relatively thin. It’s the thinnest and lightest laptop BOXX has ever offered, weighing in at 4.36 pounds and 0.78 inches thick.

The backlit keyboard is nicely laid out with large wrist rest and trackpad areas. However, the letters on the keys takes a little getting used to, as the font on them looks a little like something from the movie, The Matrix.

As with all BOXX mobile workstations we have reviewed in the past, screen resolution and color were very good with the GoBOXX 15 G1980.


GoBOXX 15 G1980

Its fan runs when the system gets taxed, but does not run all of the time, and is fairly quiet with no obnoxious whining sound frequency.

With programs running and WiFi on and operating, I averaged about 4.25 hours of battery life. Not bad, but also not great compared to some other mobile workstations I’ve used lately.

While smaller (thinner profile) than previous BOXX mobile workstations we have evaluated, the AC adapter is still quite large. I know to a great extent this can’t be helped, but it just gets a bit annoying to have to lug something this big around to work as part of a “mobile” package.

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Transforming CAE With MSC Apex Cheetah Release: Modeler and Structures

July 16th, 2015 by Jeff Rowe

MSC Software Corp. recently announced a new release of MSC Apex, the company’s newest CAE platform. The MSC Apex Cheetah release introduces:

  • The third release of MSC Apex Modeler – A CAE Specific direct modeling and meshing solution that streamlines CAD clean-up, simplification, and meshing workflow.
  • The first release of MSC Apex Structures – An add-on to MSC Apex Modeler which now expands MSC Apex to a fully integrated and generative structural analysis solution.

Both MSC Apex products, Modeler and Structures are complementary to Patran and MSC Nastran, if you feel the need to go a step further in CAE. If you need this additional capability, the Apex products do not expose you intellectual property (IP) to those who have no business being exposed to it.

According to the company, the new release enhances workflow and daily productivity with several modeling and analysis capabilities, and gives you the ability to perform design analysis more comprehensively and easily.

To get a better feel for these claims, we spoke with said Hugues Jeancolas, MSC Apex Product Manager who said, “Cheetah is a milestone release for MSC Apex, now delivering its first solver integrated solution for interactive and incremental structural analysis. Modeling, validating, solving, and exploring designs has never been this efficient and easy. MSC Apex helps users to crush the amount of time that it normally takes to build and validate models, a task that does not add any value to the design process. This frees our users to focus on delivering not just acceptable designs but ones that are optimal – in an environment that is fun to use.”

CAE, fun to use? That may be a bit of a stretch, but the demos we have seen make the claim a bit easier to swallow.

MSC Apex Cheetah Release Overview
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July 9th, 2015 by Jeff Rowe

For many years all of the major CAD vendors have been touting the importance of managing the mountains of design, engineering, and manufacturing data created using their software. Conversely, most manufacturing organizations, large and small, have made the transition from 2D to 3D and are finally investigating how to best manage these mountains of CAD and associated product development data beyond files, folders, Excel spreadsheets, Window Explorer, and FTP servers.

It is estimated that approximately 70% of commercial CAD seats today still are not connected to any product data management (PDM) system, and the CAD/PDM/PLM companies are very aware of this situation and are doing everything possible to change it. It has come down to an aggressive SMB-marketing of existing “scaled down” or “right-sized” PLM solutions, as well as introducing of new opportunities by leveraging cloud and open source solutions.

The biggest challenge in the SMB space is promoting an answer to the question, “Why change?” At the end of the day, if a company can get things done by using Excel, Office and email, a very compelling alternative solution to change is needed. Small doesn’t necessarily mean simple. Small- and medium-sized business is complicated and competitive. Cost and implementation challenges are still two key elements that every vendor struggles with when trying to provide a viable PDM solution for SMBs.

Various sources claim the following benefits of PDM, including:

  • 30 percent to 70 percent shorter development time
  • 65 percent to 90 percent fewer engineering changes
  • 20 percent to 90 percent faster time to market
  • 200 percent to 600 percent higher quality
  • 20 percent to 110 percent higher productivity for engineers

While these are impressive figures, many SMBs are still not convinced of the benefits of PDM and remain on the fence as to whether to implement it or not. This indecision presents both a challenge and an opportunity for making believers of SMBs in PDM.

Generic Product Data Management Overview (From Wikipedia)

Organizations implement PDM for many different reasons, but virtually all implement with common goals, including:

  • Securely controlling product-related information
  • Sharing product knowledge for collaboration
  • Searching for and reusing product information.

The two biggest words and phrases that resonate with SMBs regarding PDM are “preconfigured process workflow” and “design reuse.”

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Desktop 3D Printers Grow Beyond Trinkets, Tchotchkes, and Toys

July 2nd, 2015 by Jeff Rowe

Without a doubt, one of the biggest developments in the MCAD world in the past few years has been 3D printing (also known as additive manufacturing). Until relatively recently, though, the cost of the 3D printing machines was cost prohibitive for all but large companies. To a large extent, costs have been plummeting, but there are machines that cost more than a million dollars. However, that is changing with the advent of relatively low-cost desktop 3D printers.

3D printers sound cool, and to a large extent they are. But, before running out to buy one, there are a few things to keep in mind. Currently, a machine will set you back $500 to $5,000, plus $40 to $100 for a roll of plastic filament (think Weed Wacker) for producing parts. Also keep in mind that producing one small object could take hours, and end up costing much more than buying it. Don’t forget, too, that you need some technical know-how to make it all work, including how to create a solid model with a CAD tool. As I have maintained for some time, with all the online 3D printing services that are available, why buy when you can rent. Check out my blog post on this sentiment from last year entitled, “3D Printing Goes Retail: Why Buy When You Can Rent?”

Being the smiling skeptic that I am, I also wrote a blog entitled “Is 3D Printing Really A Miracle?” My short answers are “Yes” and “No.”

That’s why I have said that the first low-cost devices were more fun than functional, and appealed to DIYers, hobbyists, and early adopters. All that is changing as the technology matures, prices come down, more materials become available, and part quality vastly improves.

Desktop 3D Printers

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Getting Started With IoT In A Box

June 25th, 2015 by Jeff Rowe

With all of the buzz that the Internet of Things (IoT) has generated, a number of our readers have asked if there was anything available for experimenters who may have interest, but not a lot of money to spend on exploring the technology. Until recently, the answer would have been, “No.” However, that all changed this month with the availability of the ARM® mbed™ IoT Starter Kit-Ethernet Edition from ARM Ltd.

In the 1980s British computer manufacturer Acorn Computers first developed the Acorn RISC Machine (ARM) architecture for its personal computers.

A reduced instruction set computing (RISC)-based computer design approach with ARM processors require significantly fewer transistors than typical complex instruction set computing (CISC) x86 processors in most personal computers. This approach reduces costs, heat and power use. Such reductions are desirable traits for light, portable, battery-powered devices and other embedded systems. A simpler design facilitates more efficient multi-core CPUs and higher core counts at lower cost, providing improved energy efficiency for servers.

ARM Holdings develops the instruction set and architecture for ARM-based products, but does not actually manufacture products itself.

ARM core processors are used in a wide range of products including the Microsoft Surface tablet, Apple’s iPad, iPhone, and iPod, ASUS tablets, Canon PowerShot digital cameras, and Nintendo DS handheld game consoles. In a word, ARM cores are everywhere.

ARM Processor – Sowing the Seeds of Success

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Hexagon and HxGN Measure Up and Beyond

June 18th, 2015 by Jeff Rowe

A couple of weeks ago I attended the Hexagon Global Network (HxGN) 2015 Live conference. Although not held in my favorite destination, Las Vegas, this was an opportunity for my first direct exposure to Hexagon. In a word, I was not disappointed. In fact, the experience went far beyond my modest expectations that I had before attending the event.

I went to HxGN specifically for the metrology (science of measurement) portion of the conference with regard to sensing, inspection, QA, and reverse engineering applications – in other words what Hexagon Metrology is all about. However, metrology was not the only area represented, as the company known as Hexagon AB also has a huge presence with its hardware, software, and services in other industry segments, such as geospatial (GPS and surveying); process, power, and marine (PP&M); and security, government, and infrastructure (SG&I). It was a lot to take in and I focused on industrial metrology and related technologies – sensors and software used for optimizing manufacturing processes and throughput.

Founded in 1992 and headquartered in Stockholm, Sweden, Hexagon AB has offices in 46 countries, 15,000+ total employees, and is R&D focused with 11% of net sales and more than 3,400 employees invested in R&D. The industrial side of Hexagon AB, known as Industrial Enterprise Solutions (IES), that includes manufacturing and industrial plant facilities accounts for about half of the company’s sales. Roughly one third of Hexagon’s business is derived from metrology.

HxGN LIVE 2015 Conference

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The Invisible Labor Shortage of Technicians Who Keep Things Running

June 11th, 2015 by Jeff Rowe

The pressing need for engineers of virtually all disciplines has become increasingly urgent as relatively few students view and pursue engineering as a career.  Business seems more attractive to many, and yeah, there’s always psychology (the “new” liberal arts degree) that has a lot of sellers, but relatively few buyers, at least at the BA/BS level.

Yes, engineering education and engineers are vital for keeping our technological world moving ahead, but who keeps the underlying machinery, tools, and software moving at all? Technicians.

Whether you recognize them, or not, there are technicians in just about every field and industry. For example, automotive mechanics, machinists, cosmetologists, electricians, emergency medical technicians (EMTs) — the list is about endless. If it’s “technical,” the odds are extremely good that there is a technician involved somewhere in the chain, and that may include many links in the chain.

So, what exactly is a technician?

Technicians can be classified as either highly skilled or semi-skilled workers, and are usually an integral part of a larger process. They work in a variety of fields, and they usually have a job title with the designation “technician” following the particular category of work. For example, an engineering technician is a highly skilled, highly educated occupation requiring several years of post high school training in a formal apprenticeship and probably college (usually two year) for further education.

Experienced technicians in a specific domain typically have at least an intermediate understanding of theory and expert proficiency in technique. Because of this practical knowledge, technicians are generally better versed in technique compared to average laymen and even general professionals in that field of technology, namely engineers, for whom theory often trumps practice.

What is the Future of (Automotive) Technicians?

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Autodesk Go Beyond Parametrics

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