News

The Race Is On!

Most people know me as the editor of high-tech engineering magazines such as Defense Tech Briefs, Embedded Technology, Photonics Tech Briefs, and Lighting Technology. What they don’t know is that for the past 39 years I’ve maintained an exciting part-time career as an auto racing writer and photographer. In that time I’ve covered every form of the sport from Formula 1 to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, drag racing to monster trucks to the local dirt tracks where Sprint Cars and stock cars called Modifieds do battle every Saturday night. I love them all, but as an engineer, few forms of racing excite me as much as Indy Car racing. Why? Well for starters, picture an upside-down airplane – because in aerodynamic terms, that’s what an Indy Car really is – that weighs 1565 pounds and is powered by a 700 HP engine. The thing travels well in excess of 200 mph and in the hands of a skilled driver it can corner like it’s on rails. Getting the maximum performance out of a machine like that takes more than a good mechanic with a pocketful of wrenches; it takes a team of engineers and technicians who plug their laptop computers into the car between practice sessions to analyze what the car’s various subsystems – engine, suspension, aerodynamics, even the driver – are doing at various points on the track. They then use that data to fine-tune each element to extract every last ounce of performance from the car. And when you measure performance in thousandths of a second, and millions of dollars could be at stake, there is little or no margin for error. By its nature, the sport of Indy Car racing attracts some of the most high-tech companies in the world. This year, in conjunction with mega-distributor Mouser Electronics, Littelfuse, Inc. is co-sponsoring the #11 KV Racing Indy Car driven by 2004 IRL champion Tony Kanaan. Littelfuse manufactures some of the best electronic circuit protection devices in the world, and when you consider the amount of sophisticated electronics used in a modern Indy Car, the role played by circuit protection is invaluable. At the speeds an Indy Car travels, failure of any component can not only cost a driver the race, it could cost him or her their life, so reliability is every bit as important as performance. Littelfuse getting into Indy Car racing came as no surprise, but what really piqued my interest about their involvement is a contest they’re running called the Speed2Design Sweepstakes that is designed to give engineers just like you an insider’s view of what it takes, technologically speaking, to make a modern Indy Car perform at its best. Here’s how it works. Beginning April 30, engineers can visit the Speed2Design Web site and enter to win a trip to one of four Indy Car races where they will get to go behind the scenes and into the garages and pits so they can watch the driver and crew at work, ask them questions, and learn firsthand what it takes to win at one of the highest pinnacles of modern motor racing. It’s a side of the sport most fans never get to see and you can take it from me, regardless of what you may have seen on TV, nothing compares to actually being there when one of these miracles of modern technology rockets into the pits and a well-orchestrated crew changes four tires and adds a full load of fuel in under 15 seconds. Talk about an adrenaline rush! The four races involved are the legendary Indy 500 on May 27 in Indianapolis, IN (entry deadline: May 9); the Firestone 550 night race on June 9 at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth, TX (entry deadline: May 19); the Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma on August 26 at Infineon Raceway in beautiful Sonoma, CA (entry deadline: August 4); and the Auto Club Speedway event on September 15 in Fontana, CA (entry deadline: August 25). For each race, Littelfuse will select 5 lucky winners at random who will each receive a pit pass and reserved grandstand seating for the race, attendance at a special Speed2Design TechTalk private event where they can interact one-on-one with the racing team’s engineers, dinner with the group the night before the race, lunch at the track, hotel accommodations, transportation between the hotel and the racetrack, and a $500 AmEx gift card to pay for other travel expenses. In explaining the concept behind this unique sponsorship promotion, Littelfuse President and CEO, Gordon Hunter, stated, “The demands on a machine traveling 200 MPH, the pressures, and the reliability required of the electronics system – all these factors require very challenging technology that other engineers truly value and understand. Our TechTalks will provide a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for engineers to explore that technology in a very personal, accessible setting.” The entry deadline for the first race – the Indy 500 – is May 9, so if you’ve ever wanted to be part of the 400,000 people who make it the so-called “Greatest Spectacle in Racing,” I’d suggest you act now. Who knows….with a little luck, you could be one of a relatively small group of people who, like me, get to be part of the show instead of just part of the audience. To enter, go to www.Speed2Design.com

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US Army Corps of Engineers Deploys Complex Math

Today, we're pleased to have a guest blog from Lindsey Christensen, Marketing Project Manager at PTC, which delivers Product Lifecycle Management and design software solutions. Most people don’t think about the complexity behind the electricity that’s supplied to their home or work. We flick a switch. The lights go on or off. Simple, right? Well, not quite. As covered in the November 7th Forbes article “The High-Stakes Math Behind the West’s Greatest River”, there’s an enormous amount of data and complex calculations that go into meeting that demand for power. Harold Opitz, hydrologist in charge of the National Weather Service’s Northwest River Forecast Center, told Forbes, “I can never have too much data.” That’s because if Opitz doesn’t have enough data, and his calculations aren’t accurate, it could mean lights-out for millions of American households. The Northwest River Forecast Center is one organization in a larger group, headed by the US Army Corps of Engineers, helping to manage over 100 large dams and hundreds of smaller installations along the mighty Columbia River. Together these structures provide a number of functions, but the chief one is hydropower generation to feed our electricity demand. In fact, the Grand Coulee Dam is North America’s largest power plant, not only providing 600,000 acres of irrigation to the Pacific Northwest, but generating nearly 7,000 megawatts of electricity at full capacity. To put this in perspective, just one megawatt can power 5,000 computers. Effective operation of these giant dams depends on precise forecasting of weather, river and dam behaviors. It has to be incredibly accurate. As reported by Forbes: “As large as the dams are, their margins of error are miniscule and operating them takes unerring foresight and subtle management: let too much water fill reservoirs and a rainstorm might flood Portland; keep the reservoirs too empty and you’ll parch farmers. Send too much water over a dam’s spillway and you’ll suffocate fish with dissolved gases; send too much through its turbines and you’ll overload the electrical grid.” Calculating the impact of natural and man-made factors on the Columbia River’s 27 major dams has become its own science, as engineers measure the pulse and elevation of the water in various locations along the river, the amount of fish that migrate through, how much electricity that will be demanded, snow melt from the Rocky Mountains, wind, and more. It has been an evolutionary process for the organizations involved. It all begins with a daily report from the River Forecast Center to the Army Corps of Engineers which includes both short-term and long-term outlooks. The Corps then takes this information and applies a refined statistical model based in large part on historical data. The results from these models are fed back to the River Forecast Center and an operation plan is defined. Forbes notes that in yesteryear the Corps relied on more of an oral tradition for decision-making around dam operation. Think lab notebooks or engineering journals. Today, from the Hydrological Engineering Center, it is able to use sophisticated mathematical analysis and calculation software for more accuracy, better analysis, and more collaboration. The software is called HEC-ResSim, a system developed in-house. Engineers are able to apply 70 years worth of stored historical data like rainfall, temperature and water levels to projected scenarios and evaluate the outcomes in ways they have never been able to do before. All organizations seek accurate forecasting and secure management of IP and knowledge. The right engineering calculation software enables engineers to easily solve, document, share and re-use calculations and design work. It’s used when knowledge capture, data reuse, and design verification are too important for an Excel spreadsheet. The result can be faster time-to-market, higher product quality, easier compliance, and much more. Do you have complex engineering projects that span across organizations? What calculation framework do you use? How is this analysis documented, exchanged, and stored?

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Meet Our Readers: Keeping the Noise Down

Noise barriers are often used to shield sensitive community areas from roadway, railway, and industrial racket. These structures are built based on the careful measurement of noise levels and environmental conditions. Did you know that there are over 100 miles of barrier in the state of Maryland? In our latest "Meet Our Readers" Q&A, Ken Polcak, Noise Abatement Design & Analysis Team Leader for the Maryland State Highway Administration, explains his work with transportation noise analysis and mitigation. Polcak's experience centers on the acoustical design of noise barriers, computer prediction and modeling, field testing and research, and impact assessment. Read the Q&A now. If you work in the design and engineering field, we want to hear from you. Email me, and be a part of our Meet Our Readers series.

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Etched In Stone

We live in a digital world. Precious family photos that once would’ve been recorded on film now exist as digital files. Important documents can now be disseminated and stored with the push of a button, and mp3 technology has forever altered the way we listen to and share our music. What once took up many square feet of storage space in closets and on bookshelves can now be easily stored on computer hard drives, CDs, and DVDs. But just how secure is that data? Hard drives have been known to crash, taking their data with them. Recovering it can be a costly and frustrating experience. And if you think burning your data onto CDs or DVDs will protect it forever, you’re sadly mistaken. Most experts seem to agree that the lifespan of your run-of-the-mill recordable CD or DVD could be less than 10 years, even if they’re properly stored and protected from the harmful effects of things like UV rays and high temperature and humidity. The main problem with conventional CD-Rs and DVD-Rs is the layer of organic dye upon which the data is written. This dye degrades normally over time, and exposure to UV rays and high temperature/humidity will accelerate the process, eventually making the data unreadable. Another problem that can affect conventional CD-Rs and DVD-Rs is the material used for the reflective surface, which can be aluminum, silver, silver alloy, or gold. Of these, only gold does not corrode and lose some of its reflectivity, affecting data retrieval. For that reason, it is currently considered the standard for archival CDs and DVDs. But gold is expensive, less reflective than silver, and there is still the problem of dye degeneration. So how can you make sure your data is safe? A new company called Millenniata has developed technology that may solve that problem. The new technology is called M-READY™ and unlike CD and DVD technology, it etches, rather than burns, data onto the write layer of a DVD-like disc called an M-DISC™. Although the company won’t reveal exactly what materials are used in their M-DISCs, they claim they’re more chemically stable and heat resistant than the materials used in conventional CDs and DVDs. The real key to their longevity, however, is the recording technology, which uses higher temperatures and a laser that’s up to 5-times more powerful than those used in conventional DVD writers to physically engrave data onto an M-DISC’s inorganic layer. It does this by creating tiny voids or holes, called “pits,” rather than simply burning it onto a layer of dye. The folks at Millenniata liken the process to etching the data in stone. Physically altering the inorganic material means the data layer cannot fade or degrade over time, so theoretically that data should be accessible for as long as the disc survives, barring any physical damage. The question then becomes, how long can a disc survive? According to data compiled by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the substrate materials used in most CDs and DVDs should last for 1,000 years. To test their technology, Millenniata recently had the U.S. Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division at China Lake, CA conduct a series of accelerated life tests on their M-DISC, as well as five other brands of conventional archival-quality DVDs, for data longevity and reliability. The M-DISC was the only test specimen that showed no data loss or degradation. Since writing data to an M-DISC requires higher temperatures and a more powerful laser than conventional CDs or DVDs, using the technology will require new hardware. Millennniata has addressed this issue by partnering with Hitachi-LG Data Storage to manufacture M-READY compatible DVD drives. The demo unit they sent us for evaluation was little more than a modified Blu-Ray disc writer, which is kind of ironic because they don’t have a Blu-Ray version of the M-DISC ready for release yet (it’s coming), but that’s not important. What is important is that any conventional DVD player can read the data on an M-DISC. Equally important is the projected cost of an M-DISC, which should be comparable to a conventional archival-quality DVD. M-DISC technology is scheduled to hit retail store shelves this year, just in time for the Christmas shopping season no doubt. Will it be a game changer or significantly alter the way we think about data storage? As with most technology, only time will tell. In this case, we have about a thousand years to find out.

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Computers that Mimic the Brain

INSIDER reader Kenneth Polcak submitted a "Question of the Week" to his fellow design engineer pros: IBM has recently developed prototypes of energy-efficient computer chips that emulate the synapses, neurons, and learning functions of the human brain. IBM's Systems of Neuromorphic Adaptive Plastic Scalable Electronics (SyNAPSE) project uses advanced algorithms and silicon circuitry to create computers that could function without set programming and could "learn through experiences, find correlations, create hypotheses, and remember - and learn from - the outcomes." Such a system could, for example, monitor the world's waters via a network of sensors analyzing temperature, water pressure, or wave heights, and use that information to predict or detect tsunamis. Many believe this development is the next logical step in the technological progression of computer evolution, while others view this as a dangerous step with unknown or unintended consequences. What do you think? Are "thinking" or "learning" computers simply a next logical step in computer evolution? Send us your thoughts, and vote in our weekly poll. What other technology questions do you want to debate with your peers? Email me your suggestions, and we can share opinions in our weekly INSIDER newsletters.

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Meet Our Readers

Last month, in an effort to learn more about the everyday challenges of design engineers, we began a series of Q&As with TechBriefs.com readers. Our most recent interviews showcase a wide range of careers, including furniture makers, filtration system engineers, aircraft navigation specialists, and medical device designers. Despite the variation in job titles, however, many of the engineers share the same skills, interests, and demands. Here are some of the highlights from last month's "Meet Our Readers" Q&As: "The choices of 3D software have changed the way engineering operates. The ability to create a product and never have to cut a single piece of wood or metal to show the customer what they are getting, and how it operates, is very cost efficient...I thought when I started with AutoCAD that I would keep my drafting table at home available to do hand drawings. Now, I have a computer with a CAD program installed sitting on my drafting table." Ben Hager, custom engineer of library furniture "When I write a specification, I try to get what the cutting-edge requirements would be and then make those with existing technology. Sometimes the vendor, who would potentially use this, doesn’t even know that that technology even exists. Pulling those things together is an art form in a way. They don’t teach you that in engineering college." Sid Wood, senior scientist enginer of Navy aircraft navigation systems "Rapid prototyping has got to be the most exciting technology to come out of the twentieth century...It allows you to, in the same amount of time, create vastly different models of the same device. You can try different things and actually have it in your hand. When I first got into this, that was something that took weeks, and you had to have a model shop that would produce a prototype...With rapid prototyping you can send it off and say, 'Hey I want three of these,' and you can get it back in a matter of days, and it’s a lot cheaper to do." Michael Hudspeth, CAD Designer of medical devices "Progress is usually pretty slow, just because of the nature of what we do. You can’t rush what we do. Everything has to be validated and tested, approved internally, then approved with the customer." Chander Saini, product engineer of filtration systems Join the "Meet Our Readers" series. If you have a job in the design engineering field, we want to hear from you. Email me at feedback@abpi.net.

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Parlez-Vous Francais? No, But My Phone Does.

As you can probably tell by what I do for a living, I have a good command of the English language. Unfortunately I do not have similar skills when it comes to mastering other languages. I took two years of high school Spanish and still have trouble ordering lunch in a Mexican restaurant. My wife was born in Italy. You’d think after 36 years of marriage, I would’ve picked up enough Italian to at least converse with her family. Nope. When my wife wasn’t around I had to depend on my kids to translate. Occasionally they would tell me something and then promptly snicker, leading me to believe that something might have gotten lost in the translation. I could never be sure, though. During a business trip to Germany some years ago, however, there was no doubt things were getting lost in the translation. One evening, bored with watching John Wayne speak to the bad guys in fluent German on TV, I recalled seeing a bar down by the train station and decided to go there for a beer. The place looked more like an old, slightly run-down hotel, but it said “BAR” in big white letters on the building and the place always looked busy at night. Surprisingly busy for such a small town. That was when I found out that “bar” means something different in colloquial German than it does in English. Let’s just say the waitresses were serving more than suds there. A week later I was in the city of Cologne one evening when two men on bicycles approached and identified themselves as police officers. Since I was working for a German company, I’d been taking classes to learn the language and for some reason I thought that would be an opportune time to demonstrate how much I’d learned. Bad idea! I have no clue what they heard that night, but when they reached for their firearms I was pretty sure it was not what I had wanted to say. Fortunately, the rest of their questioning was conducted in English. Broken English perhaps, but left to my own devices it could’ve been bullet-riddled German! Hopefully you haven’t had similar experiences, but if you’ve ever traveled abroad you may know how frustrating it can be trying to communicate in a foreign language. Thanks to new technology developed by a company called SpeechTrans, however, that frustration may now be a thing of the past. SpeechTrans partnered with Nuance Communications, a company that specializes in speech recognition and conversion, to develop a mobile translation app for the iPhone, iPad, and fourth-generation iPod Touch. You can either purchase individual language translators, such as English to German, or English to Spanish, or something called the Ultimate package, which puts 14 different languages – English, German, French, Italian, Polish, Portuguese, Spanish, Russian, Mandarin Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Arabic, Dutch, and Swedish – right at your fingertips, with no limit on how you combine them. Want to translate English into French? Spanish into Polish? Chinese into Japanese? No problem. Just select the two languages involved, type in the sentence, and in a matter of seconds the translation appears on the screen. The software also gives you an audible translation, spoken with the correct accent and pronunciation! Not a good thumb typist? Hard to believe in today’s texting-mad world, but if so you can simply push the software’s “record” button, speak into your device (or microphone headset in the case of the iPod Touch) for up to 55 seconds, and the software will translate whatever you say. How cool is that? Each time you hit the “record” button, it counts as one “transcription,” and the number of free transcriptions is limited, but you can always buy more as needed. And the good news is that each transcription is saved in memory so you can reuse them. What the voice feature means, in practical terms, is that you’re essentially carrying an interpreter around in your pocket. Say, for example, you’re in Europe and you need detailed directions on how to go somewhere, including what buses or trains to take, where to get them, where to get off, etc. Under normal circumstances that could be a significant challenge. With this app you merely have to find a policeman or friendly local, whip out your iPhone, explain what you need in English, and have it automatically translated into something they can understand. They then respond in their own language, the information gets translated into English and stored on your iPhone so you can refer to it again as needed to reach your destination. It sounds almost too good to be true, doesn’t it? I thought so too, but after testing it for several days I have to admit, I’m impressed. So was the Pentagon apparently. They’re reportedly evaluating the technology for possible use by U.S. troops overseas. The company claims the program’s translations are more than 90 percent accurate. What they don’t say is how it deals with things like regional dialects, which are quite common in many foreign countries. Misspelled words can also be a challenge, which is where the audible part of the program comes into play – if you can’t spell it correctly, hopefully you can pronounce it correctly. And if something should get lost in the translation, at least your iPhone won’t laugh at you like my kids used to do.

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