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Lightning Strikes With PTC's Creo

There was a bit of a crowd lining up near Boston's Park Plaza this morning, and if it wasn't for all the business-casual attire, you may have thought another Apple Store was opening up down the street. The event was actually PTC's unveiling of its new product suite: Creo. Here's the quick rundown: Creo is a suite of interoperable, role-specific applications based on an open common data model and four technologies: AnyRole Apps, AnyMode Modeling, AnyData Adoption, and AnyBOM Assembly. Jim Hepellmann, PTC's President and CEO, kicked off a presentation in the Park Plaza and handed it over to Brian Shepherd, EVP Product Development, who did a demo of the suite live on screen. AnyRoleApps is an effort to allow "casual users," and the many participants along the design path, to contribute to the development process. The functions are role-based. An analyst may not need surfacing tools, but he or she can have the ability to use direct modeling functions, for example. A service planner may only want a 3D view of a product, so that person can be strictly given the tools to create three-dimensional illustrations. Someone on the marketing team may just want pretty pictures, too! Anyone's modifications go across all deliverables. One attendee and PTC product user that I spoke to seemed particularly interested in this feature, as many players in a product development process are often left out of the loop. AnyMode Modeling refers to data flowing and interoperability between applications. Engineers can sketch in 2D, then gradually add intelligence to a design and move to a 3D environment. There was a round of applause when Shepherd showed a "Track Changes"-like view of the modifications made by a direct modeling user. AnyData Adoption allows the use and reuse of external CAD data, which can then be visualized and edited. This was another important development, according to another engineer at the event, because data can be brought from one CAD to another, and not have to be recreated from scratch -- a common pain point for him. AnyBOM Assembly creates a link betwen PLM and CAD environments, where users can create configurations and drive updates in the CAD model. Creo 1.0, which will feature apps for parametric modeling, structrual simulation, direct modeling, conceptual engineering, schematics, 3D technical illustrations, and visualization, is set to release in the Summer of 2011. Version 2.0, which will add configuration modeling features, is set to launch in Fall 2011. Also, I have to say, PTC gets an A for creativity, as the company turned Park Plaza into a jail cafeteria, complete with searchlight, bread and water, registration "processing" tables, and prisoners named "Value" and "Efficiency."

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NASA Wants You to Help Rock Space

If you're an astronaut, the last thing you need jarring you awake first thing in the morning out in space is a beeping alarm clock. So, since the Apollo days, NASA has chosen to get its astronauts moving with a wakeup song. Now NASA is giving you two chances to help select wakeup songs that will be played during the final missions of the Space Shuttle Program. The NASA's Space Rock Web site gives you the chance to decide if the astronauts wake to Ozzy Osbourne or the theme from "Star Trek". You can listen to and vote on your favorite song from 40 previously played wakeup songs, or you can write your own song. The top two songs chosen from the list of previously played songs will be played during the STS-133 mission, scheduled for launch on November 1. Original songs will be screened by a NASA panel, and the winners will be played during the STS-134 mission, scheduled for launch on February 26, 2011. Original song submissions are due by January 10, 2011, and the top entries will be posted for a public vote beginning February 8. So whether you think the astronauts will prefer classical, pop, rock, or your own mix, cast your vote at NASA's Space Rock.

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Who Says You Can’t Go Home?

“It doesn’t matter where you are, it doesn’t matter where you go, If it’s a million miles away, or just a mile up the road. Take it in. Take it with you when you go. Who says you can’t go home?” So says New Jersey-born rocker Jon Bon Jovi in a hit song he penned several years ago. I don’t know if astronaut Garrett Reisman, another New Jersey native, is a Bon Jovi fan, but he can probably relate to the sentiments expressed in that song. As I write this he either feels like he’s a million miles away from home, or like he’s back home. It’s all a matter of perspective. Reisman, you see, is part of the STS-132 team that flew to the International Space Station (ISS) late last week aboard the Space Shuttle Atlantis. You could say it was a homecoming of sorts for him. In March 2008 he traveled to the ISS aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour and lived there for 95 days while he helped install a Canadian-built robotic manipulator called Dextre. I had the pleasure of interviewing Garrett Reisman shortly after he returned to Earth from that mission, and aside from missing his wife, it sounded like he really enjoyed living in space for three months. The most fun, he said, was learning how to live – and work – in a zero-gravity environment. At times it made him feel, in his words, “like a superhero,” because he could fly; at other times it could be terribly frustrating because if you put down a tool or drop a part, it could float away before you had a chance to react. And unlike here on Earth, you can’t just trot down to the local hardware store and pick up a new one. Remaining cool and calm under pressure is pretty much part of an astronaut’s job description because, just like here on Earth, nothing ever seems to go as smoothly as it should out in space. On his first trip to the space station, Reisman had to deal with some significant problems while installing Dextre, including stuck bolts and a power feed problem that could have prevented the robot’s heaters from working properly, damaging the apparatus. During one of his spacewalks this week, a partial power outage caused the space station’s main command and control computer to malfunction, leaving Reisman temporarily stranded at the end of a 58-foot long robotic arm 250 miles above the Earth. It took a half-hour to solve that problem. According to NASA, Reisman was never in any real danger, but I’ve got a hunch he didn’t know that at the time. Can you imagine how long a half-hour must seem when you’re sitting out in the middle of nowhere…literally? That’s why he’s up there doing it, and I’m down here just writing about it. No doubt about it – our astronauts are a special breed. Over the last half-century, they’ve amazed us, impressed us, and done much to make us proud. Well, with the possible exception of Buzz Aldrin’s recent stint on Dancing with the Stars that is, but I digress. With the retirement of the space shuttle and NASA’s new direction going forward, it will be interesting to see what role they will play in the future of America’s space program. But for now, Garrett Reisman and the crew of the Atlantis probably aren’t worried about any of that. As the song goes: “I’ve been there, done that, now I ain’t lookin’ back. It’s been a long, long road, feels like I’ve never left. That’s how the story goes. Who says you can’t go home?” Certainly not us. Have a safe trip back guys. And thank you for all you’ve done.

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Taxi...Take Me to The Moon

In the words of the late, great gonzo journalist, Hunter S. Thompson, “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.” That’s comforting to know because the future of America’s space exploration program has suddenly gotten weird, and the last thing you need when that happens is amateurs calling the shots. It all started getting weird back in 2004 when President Bush announced that, after nearly 30 years of service, NASA’s space shuttles would be retired in 2010 following completion of the International Space Station (ISS). The plan was to replace the aging shuttles with a new Crew Exploration Vehicle, a.k.a. Orion, which would make its maiden voyage in 2014 as part of the ambitious Constellation program. Those with an aptitude for math quickly realized that left a four-year gap where U.S. astronauts would either have to remain earthbound, or rely on hitching rides back and forth to the space station aboard Russian owned and operated spacecraft. To those of us who grew up during the cold war – which is what drove America into the space race to begin with – that didn’t seem like such a good idea. Granted, the cold war has been over for decades, and if anyone knows how to run a space taxi service, the Russians do. Since 2001, anybody with a taste for adventure and $20-30 million to burn could buy a seat on one of their Soyuz spacecraft and vacation aboard the ISS. But given the fragile relationship between the U.S. and Russia, the slightest amount of friction could put our entire space program in jeopardy, or at the very least make it hostage to the whims of a foreign government. Kind of a weird approach for the world’s leader in space exploration to take, wouldn’t you say? But wait, it gets even weirder. When the White House released its proposed 2011 budget last month, one of the items they cut was the Constellation program. It’s not that they don’t want American astronauts to explore space anymore; they do, and they proved it by adding $6 billion to NASA’s budget over the next five years so they can develop the necessary technology to do so. They just don’t want that technology to include new spacecraft for such mundane tasks as commuting back and forth to the ISS or traveling to the moon. So, just how are our astronauts supposed to get there, aside from hailing a Russian space taxi? With good, old-fashioned American ingenuity and profit-driven, private, commercial enterprise. I kid you not. According to information distributed by NASA, the agency has been directed “…to partner with the aerospace industry in a fundamentally new way, making commercially provided services the primary mode of astronaut transportation to the International Space Station. This new policy harnesses our nation’s entrepreneurial energies, and will create thousands of new jobs and catalyze the development of other new businesses that capitalize on affordable human access to space.”  “Entrepreneurial energies”? Those wouldn’t, by any chance, be the same entrepreneurial energies that recently led to the near total collapse of two of our three major automakers and many of our biggest financial institutions, would they? The same entrepreneurial energies that exported most of our manufacturing capabilities overseas to capitalize on cheaper production costs, sometimes at the expense of better quality? And if you want to see how well entrepreneurial energies work for fare-paying passengers in a transportation setting, one need only look at what the commercial airline industry has degenerated into these days. Does anyone believe air travel is better today than it was, say, ten years ago? I assume our astronauts would receive much better treatment from whatever commercial entity is selected to ferry them into space, but the point I am trying to make is this. With NASA designed, built and operated spacecraft, no expense was spared and no stone was left unturned to ensure the safety of the crew and the success of the mission. Yes, accidents happened – space travel is a dangerous pursuit – but it was never because corners were cut. Would a profit-driven, commercial entity go to equivalent lengths to ensure such a high degree of safety and success? Or would they look at the bottom line, weigh it against the risks, and then roll the dice, figuring our legal system gives commercial entities escape options that NASA doesn’t have should something go horribly wrong? I certainly hope not. But looking back at what our “entrepreneurial energies” have done for us over the last 2 - 3 years, I have my doubts. What do you think?

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Big Ideas for Small Innovations

Another day at MD&M West has come and gone, and I'm continuing to see a lot of focus on miniaturization -- which makes sense, considering the multitude of medical applications that could benefit from compact yet efficient devices. The SQUIGGLE motor from New Scale Technologies measures 2.8 x 2.8 x 6 mm. Product manager Ralph Weber explained that whereas piezo materials usually require a larger voltage charge, this particular motor can be driven from battery power as low as 2.3 VDC. The motor basically consists of a nut and a screw. Piezoelectric actuators then vibrate the nut at a fixed resonant frequency; the nut vibrates in a hula-hoop-like fashion (that's where the "squiggle" comes in), causing the screw to rotate. The motor can be combined with a tiny linear position sensor to form a complete closed-loop system. The motor has the potential to enable the design of smaller products in a number of fields. For instance, it is currently being used in endoscopes, but Weber said that they are also developing a number of other medical applications that will be released in the next few years -- but in the meantime, mum's the word. He did hint, however, that we're likely to see this motor improve the picture quality in camera phones that currently lack the precise autofocus capability of larger digital cameras. Sounds like exciting things are on the horizon -- though we may have to squint to see them.

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Engineering Design at its Coolest

Day one at the Medical Design & Manufacturing (MD&M) West show in Anaheim, CA was bustling with energy. Nearly everyone I spoke with said that they had found themselves happily busy throughout the day. One nice part about meeting people at trade shows is that you might come across information you would never have gleaned from a simple press release (or information that never made it into the press release in the first place). For instance, although I was aware that NASA and GM had developed the highly advanced "Robonaut 2" robot for space and automotive applications, I had no idea that Quickparts was involved in the process as well -- until I spoke with their representatives at today's show. Roughly speaking, Quickparts supplied custom parts for the Robonaut 2's head and body, while GM was involved mainly with the development of the robot's dexterous arms. In other news, one innovation that caught my eye was the Noble UltraLight from Norman Noble. The brochure features a man in swimming gear making a snow angel, underneath the words, "Our New Laser Technology is Cool." This athermal laser machining process was developed for applications that require intricate cutting without thermal damage to the material - such as the manufacturing of stents or a number of other medical devices. Hopefully I'll find something just as "cool" tomorrow.

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Movies and Manufacturing

Day two at SolidWorks World, the worldwide event for SolidWorks users, drew a record crowd. And this time it wasn’t because of the sunny Southern California weather. It was because the special guest speaker happened to be James Cameron, who just this morning was nominated for Best Director and Best Picture Academy Awards for “Avatar.” You may be thinking, “What could a movie director have to say that would be valuable to design engineers?” Cameron answered that question immediately. A former machinist, NASA Advisory Council member, and technology expert, Cameron knows a lot about designing products, including helping NASA design a camera system for an upcoming Mars exploration mission. He has also engineered a number of deep-ocean expeditions that involved state-of-the-art camera technologies. With these projects, Cameron said he has tried to evolve himself outside the “platform of Hollywood and that closed-loop and self-referential reality bubble of Hollywood, and immerse myself in the NASA culture, the institutional scientific culture, and the oceanographic community.” Among Cameron’s pieces of advice to design engineers was to be environmentally conscious. “The overall trend of the design business is to make whatever device you’re making operate more efficiently,” he said. “Inefficiency has held us in generating a continuously sustainable civilization. People need to be inspired to go into the alternative energy sector and other areas where we can make a difference by making products or vehicles that are going to make our civilization better. “

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