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Meeting Medical Design Demands

It's always interesting to witness the progression of companies between trade shows. Months or year(s) have gone by, and in between, exhibiting companies don't idle — they find new ways to meet the ever-growing demands of the medical industry. One of those demands is customization of orthopedic implants. At this year's Medical Design & Manufacturing (MD&M) East show, I spoke with Micron Products about their work with ConforMIS to develop a patient-specific knee replacement system, which allows a customized implant to be modeled and produced from a patient's scans in a matter of days. When it comes to medical components, everyone is still looking to go smaller and faster, without compromising on performance. A Mini Hybrid Connector from Colder Products Company is an example of a new product that fits this trend by combining air lines and electronics into a compact single connection point. Bayer MaterialScience aims to meet another demand — for smaller, less intrusive medical devices — by launching a new grade of medical polycarbonate designed for molding devices with extremely thin walls (as low as 0.014 inches) and long flow lengths (150 millimeters). Still, even if you're in sync with the needs of the medical device industry, somtimes you just don't have the funds to get your idea off the ground. Proto Labs is hoping to prevent that from happening with the Cool Idea! Award. Simply enter online by sharing a few details and uploading a 3D CAD model of your idea. Then, if you're selected, you can use Proto Labs' parts for prototyping, testing, or even an initial production run. The company plans to select "cool ideas" on an ongoing basis through 2011, until it has awarded $100,000 in services.

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Behind the Mars Science Laboratory Design

I spent part of the week at the 2011 Siemens PLM Connection Americas Users Conference (in Las Vegas!). William Allen, senior engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and mechanical systems design lead on the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), spoke to the crowd about how the JPL, based in Pasadena, CA, designed the NASA rover, which will land in late 2011 . (See the Mars Science Laboratory in action.) Here's more of what Allen had to say: First, to set the stage, can you talk about the latest version of the Mars rover and what its functions are? William Allen, Senior Engineer: The name of it is Mars Science Laboratory (MSL). Just by comparison, the previous rovers, Mars Exploration Rovers, were sort of mobile geologists, and this next one, MSL, is more of a mobile scientist and science laboratory. This'll be the first time that we'll actually do science on the planet itself, so it'll collect samples, process them, and do actual science experiments right there inside the rover. From a product lifecycle and design perspective, what would you say your biggest challenges are compared to previous versions? Allen: We did more of a “concurrent” engineering design on this than ever before, so up to 200 design and engineering staff commonly sharing master design all at the same time. What challenges did the complexity of the MSL present? Allen: Certainly it’s the most instruments we’ve had on one spacecraft or rover. You have things shooting neutrons, you have a power source that’s emitting radiation, and then there are sensitive instruments. All of these have to live in close proximity. So just integrating that complex science was an interesting challenge. Another part of it was the amount of mechanisms. I think we were upwards of close to 50 actuators, and that’s a quite a bit for us. So there are a lot of things moving during different events. It’s quite a problem with the design cycle. I hate to think the operations team is going to have to manage all that, but that’s just the nature of the beast. What were the specific improvements in the lifecycle process? Allen: For starters, it’s being able to do more complex design approaches and procedures. The tools are now more affordable, more capable. It’s kind of a chicken and an egg. I’m not sure what came first: We do more complex designs because the tools can, or the tools are being developed and do more complex things because our missions are more complex. It’s a cycle, and I don’t see that ever ending. You mentioned earlier in your presentation that the future is about visualization. Can you talk a bit about the visualization displays in your own facility and why you consider visualization to be the future? Allen: If you look at the old analogy, “a picture is worth a thousand words,” then a movie’s magnitude is greater than that. Now, you can have information visualized at your fingertips, both figuratively and literally. You take a physical environment where you have a multi-touch monitor for instance. So instead of using a mouse and a keyboard, you’re driving that information with your hands. We develop complex spacecraft as a team. In that process, we need information. The more relevant information we can have at our fingertips, at one time, in front of the same group of people, the more effective our design process, our solution process. So the visual environment is two parts. Siemens is doing their part, developing the HD3D software, the PTS, the product template studio. We’ve built the physical environment to complement that and run that in the physical world: Multi-touch monitors with interactive whiteboard, floor to ceiling, so those two married together produce what we like to think is an out-of-the-box thinking environment. That’s the wave of the future. Visualization is going to increase its value by magnitudes. Exponentially. Because the tools are going to catch up now. You can visualize tons more data at one time than you can through any other means. What technology has been the most exciting development for you and has helped you do your job better? Allen: I’m a big fan of the collaboration tools, so teams have a community. Now you can manage content to a team, so it’s active content. An email is static; you write an email and send it to a team. With collaboration provided by Sharepoint and their community, I can build partitions that do certain things and say “Alert these people when this sort of activity happens.” That’s an active process. That was one of the most beneficial tools for me as the mechanical systems design lead on MSL.

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Innovation: A Game for All Ages

FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) recently wrapped up its BODY FORWARD Challenge. Teams were asked to explore bio-engineering possibilities and discover innovative ways to improve and maximize the body's potential. The winning team, known as the "Flying Monkeys," will receive up to $20,000 from the X PRIZE Foundation to patent their invention, the BOB-1 — a prosthetic device that allowed a 3-year-old, born without fingers on her dominant hand, to use a pencil. If the name strikes you as eccentric, things might make a little more sense after you learn that the team was made up of Girl Scouts, ages 11 to 13. Not only that, take a look at these other young inventors' submissions. Feeling inspired? There's still time to enter the 2011 Create the Future design contest — and you won't even have to compete with the likes of the Flying Monkeys: Entrants must be 18 years of age or older.

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There’s An App For That

Want to learn how to fire a Patriot missile at something? There’s an app for that. No, seriously…there’s an app for that. According to a press release I received last week, a company called C2 Technologies has just developed the first of what will be 7 mobile iPhone applications designed to train the U.S Army’s Patriot missile crews. The new app, which was created using the Unity 3D game development platform combines video footage of actual Patriot missile crews operating the real thing with the type of 3D animation and illustrations commonly used in video games. The release goes on to say that when completed, the seven apps will cover all aspects of the Patriot missile system’s operation including march order and emplacement requirements for the launch station, radar, engagement control station, antenna mast group, and the electrical power plant, as well as training in the areas of missile reload and radar maintenance. In essence, everything a soldier will need to know to position and operate the missile system, all on their iPhone or laptop computer. C2 Technologies is also producing a full set of Interactive Multimedia Instructions (IMI) materials for use in a classroom environment to supplement the iPhone apps. These new apps are being developed as part of the US Army’s Connecting Soldiers to Digital Applications (CSDA) initiative, a program designed to make greater use of smartphone technology not just for administrative and training applications, but possibly for battlefield operations as well. At first glance that might seem like a good idea, but let’s think about this for a minute. What happens if these apps should fall into the wrong hands? I asked Kelly Schneider, a spokesperson for C2 Technologies, if there is a way to prevent that from happening, and this is what she said. “I cannot fully answer this question because of the security of the application, but I can tell you that several steps have been taken to be sure the device does not fall into the wrong hands. For instance, the app is not available for public distribution, it will not be available via the iTunes store, and it will be a limited distribution to particular device id’s [sic].” Well that’s reassuring. But as we all know cell phones are easy devices to lose or steal, and the iPhone is far from hacker-proof. And not to sound cynical, but if the security-sensitive US government couldn’t prevent thousands of its most secret documents from being stolen and uploaded to WikiLeaks, losing control of a few iPhone apps should be a piece of cake. Whether you agree with their current strategy or not, I suppose there’s something to be said for the military’s progressive attitude about using things like smartphone technology and social media to advance their cause in the war on terror. Let’s face it, they haven’t had much success tracking Osama Bin Laden on the ground; maybe they’ll have better luck following him on Facebook.

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Cell Division: The Movie (In 3D!)

There may be some new movies coming out in 3-D, and no, I'm not talking about a Yogi Bear sequel. A new live-cell microscope invented by scientists at Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Farm Research Campus lets researchers use a thin sheet of light to reveal three-dimensional shapes of cellular landmarks. It then images them at high speed, so users can create movies that demonstrate biological processes like cell division. Janelia Farm group leader Eric Betzig said there's only so much one can learn from studying dead cells, fixed in position. I agree. Sure, the advancement of the three-dimensional movies raises obvious questions: Will microscopists charge more for us to watch them, and will the 3D movies about biological processes be so focused on the technology that they’ll ignore thoughtful storyline and character development? But who wants to look at a lifeless 2-D cell image, when you can check out some live-action cells in 3-D? Read more about the Howard Hughes Medical Institute's work.

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Susie Prototyper

Ideally, the concept of "on demand" shouldn't limit itself to pay-per-view movies. If 3D printers were widely available in every household, consumers could quickly "demand" and fabricate specialized food and other objects at the touch of a button. Scientists in the emerging field of "bioprinting" are even attempting to make it possible to "print" custom-made biological tissue from a patient's own cells. According to Cornell University Professor Hod Lipson, 3D printers are reaching a "tipping point" where they will become affordable, accessible, and versatile enough to reach the average consumer. This idea is certainly appealing — widespread availability of such technology (and an understanding of how to use it) would spark the rise of personal manufacturing and encourage innovation. But will it happen anytime soon?

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Fungi Fuel

Will tomorrow's cars run on fungi fuel? As gas prices are set to rise, I thought it'd be interesting to point to recent biomass fuel efforts by researchers at Sandia National Laboratories. The Sandia team is modifying an endophytic fungus so that it will produce hydrocarbons, which work well as fuels for internal combustion engines. According to Sandia biochemist Masood Hadi, the fungi digest crystalline cellulosic material and produce fuel-type hydrocarbons as a by-product of their metabolic processes -- an event that requires no mechanical breakdown. Through genetic manipulation, the scientists hope to improve the yield and tailor the molecular structure of the hydrocarbons it produces. Researcher John Dec said, "“The new fuels will have to work well with both existing engines and advanced engines, like HCCI or low-temperature diesel combustion. Only then will you be able to sell the fuel at the pump and get your new high-efficiency, low-emissions engine into the marketplace.” Take a look at the Sandia National Laboratories work, and send me your comments. What do you think about these types of potential biofuels and their future in the marketplace?

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