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MIL/Aero Backplanes - SFF vs. OpenVPX

Today we are pleased to have a guest blog on military backplane technology from Justin Moll, vice president of U.S. market development for Pixus Technologies. 3U OpenVPX is the 800 lb gorilla in all types of heavy signal processing Mil/Aero applications for SIGINT, C4ISR applications, etc. that are deployed in mobile (air, land vehicle, sea) systems. Some benign environment ground-based systems in a communications station or command center will also use OpenVPX (often 6U), but increasingly they will use less ruggedized open architectures such as AdvancedTCA. Many other applications utilize CompactPCI, VME64x, or MicroTCA. As a supplier of these advanced backplane systems, we are always thinking about what technology might displace these highly successful technologies (and what new concepts are going to confuse an already fragmented market niche even more?). But, let’s focus on the smaller size technologies. 3U OpenVPX is such an ideal technology for compact applications for RADAR, SONAR, signal intelligence (SIGINT), weapons tracking, measurement, etc., that it will be hard to displace. Its open architecture, proven technology, VME compatibility, Eurocard rugged form factor and connectors, compact size, wealth of products and options, (phew! deep breath....), high IO, and high speed design are unmatched. However, there are some applications where there is very limited space and even 3U OpenVPX doesn't fit well. Enter Small Form Factor (SFF). We reviewed participating in any of the 3 leading SFF initiatives in VITA (VMEbus International Trade Association): VITA 73, 74, and 75. The small size is attractive for mobile robotics (such as mobile IED robots), very small mobile surveillance systems, etc. The concepts are very interesting, but frankly it was frustrating that individual companies were taking their stakes in different specifications instead of working together on one common standard. There is already enough confusion about VME vs. VXS vs. VPX. Then VPX became OpenVPX. Huh?? Now with SFF, you have three VITA-based open specifications that are significantly different. Talk about a niche of a niche of a niche. No thanks! At DesignCon a few weeks ago, I reviewed the connectors proposed in the VITA 74 specification. The connector offers some features similar in scope to OpenVPX (using the Multi-Gig RT series connectors) including the speed, pin count, differential or signal ended signaling options. Plus, the compact size and light-weight they allow for modules are great advantages. But when I inquired about test data, particularly to MIL-STD-810F for shock and vibration, I was referred to other (non MIL-spec) test reports that had different parameters. In general the SFF architectures are a mixed bag. Some are proven in the field and some are not. None of the SFF initiatives have the wealth of products and options, compatibility, and are as proven and trusted as OpenVPX. If only one or a couple of companies are truly leading the SFF initiative, then where is the "openness" of the specification? Overall, we'll stick with OpenVPX. I can see SFF being used in smaller, mobile applications, but as for taking over VPX's realm of the process-heavy applications, I see for the near future SFF being selected mainly in cases where the size and space requirements absolutely demand it. Justin Moll is vice president of Pixus Technologies, a company that specializes in the design and manufacture of electronic packaging solutions for the global embedded computer market. Contact Justin at justin.moll@pixustechnologies.com

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U.S. Manufacturing Needs A Brand Makeover

Today we're pleased to have a guest blog from Eileen Markowitz, president of Thomas Industrial Network. To engage this new generation of manufacturers, we must restore — and elevate — the perception of manufacturing in America. When I was growing up, it seemed like everyone believed that United States manufacturers made the greatest products in the world. From our home appliances to our cars, we all chose Made in America products for their quality and their value. No other country put as much pride, innovation, and workmanship into their design. U.S. manufacturing was a flagship of our economy, and nothing could knock it from its pedestal — or so we thought. Of course, the sentiment has changed since then as the economy has grown more global, and countries like China compete on price. But the pendulum is swinging back — or should I say forward — as Made in America quality once again becomes a status symbol for consumers and a competitive advantage for manufacturers here at home. My company recently conducted its annual Industry Market Barometer® survey of U.S. manufacturers on the growth and outlook of the industrial sector, as well as strategies companies are employing to get there. The findings confirm this transformation. We heard from more than 1,600 manufacturers, and nearly 8 out of 10 indicated they expect growth next year. By standing behind their Made in America quality, these manufacturers are even taking back business from the Chinese. Our research shows that U.S. manufacturers are entering new markets, expanding into new regions, and increasing their exports. With their gears fully in motion, American companies are looking to hire more workers to meet new market demand. And that’s where this engine of economic growth suddenly starts to sputter. Our research supports what we are all seeing every day: Despite an unemployment rate of close to 8 percent, manufacturing jobs are going unfilled. Nearly half of our respondents want to bring in line workers, skilled trade workers, and engineers. But the people who are qualified for these jobs are either untrained or uninterested. This is a symptom of a larger problem. Despite the resurging interest in U.S. products, American manufacturing is in need of a brand makeover. While Americans are proud of the quality of our products, many have a far different perception of manufacturing jobs. They’re blind to the reality that today’s manufacturing jobs blend design with technology and robotics, and many pay extremely well. Respondents to our survey stress the importance of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) curricula, along with support for technical and vocational schools. One of them notes that we must “get the message out that manufacturing isn’t dead in the U.S.; it has just gone high-tech.” U.S. manufacturers have a passion for their industry. Eight out of 10 of those we surveyed would choose their industries all over again, and they want to share their enthusiasm with the next generation. Great things are possible when bright, ambitious young people have the opportunity to apply skills and knowledge to real-world applications. To engage this new generation, we must restore — and elevate — the U.S. manufacturing brand. Eileen Markowitz is president of Thomas Industrial Network, an information and technology company that connects manufacturing and industrial buyers and sellers. Contact Eileen at emarkowitz@thomasnet.com.

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Lazed and Confused

Back in 1975 I was in my final year of engineering school, preparing for what I assumed would be a long and fruitful career solving problems and designing new ones. Meanwhile I was spending most of my free time honing my skills as an aspiring journalist with the college’s weekly newspaper. Truth be told, I spent a lot more time in the newspaper’s office than I did in the physics or chemistry labs, which should have given me a clue about my future, but what did I know at that age? Led Zeppelin was arguably the biggest rock band in the world back then and when they announced their U.S. tour, every venue sold out in a matter of minutes. So, figuring I had nothing to lose, I called up their record company and somehow managed to talk my way into a pair of free press tickets to their show at New York’s Nassau Coliseum. Never having covered a concert before, I knew nothing about backstage passes or the photographer’s pit at the foot of the stage, so row 18 on the floor in front of the stage sounded okay to me. Considering how little I really knew about photography at that point – I’d only been using a 35mm camera for a couple of years – I didn’t do too badly. In fact, I got downright lucky with one shot. It was midway through the song “Dazed and Confused,” and I know that because you can see Jimmy Page using a cello bow on his Gibson Les Paul guitar. It was a trick he used to great effect in concert. John Bonham’s drum kit is glowing as if it’s on fire, and Robert Plant is striking one of his patented rock god poses. But what makes the shot so unique is that off to the left, behind the drum kit, you can see three laser beams piercing the clouds of colored smoke. Today lasers are a common theatrical tool, but back then they were a rare phenomenon. So much so that I recently wondered, was Led Zeppelin the first rock group to incorporate a laser in their stage shows? Apparently that’s been a matter of debate for years. Some people think The Who were first when they spectacularly introduced a Spectra-Physics 164 argon laser into their show at Granby Halls in Leicestershire, England on October 18, 1975, but the Led Zeppelin photo was taken on February 13, 1975, so it’s quite possible they were the first group to use one on tour. With my curiosity piqued, the question then became, whose laser was it? Given what I’d learned about The Who’s set-up, Spectra-Physics were the obvious suspects, so I contacted my friends Marlene Moore and Patti Smith of Smith Miller Moore, the ad agency that does PR work for Spectra-Physics, and asked if they could do some digging for me. Unfortunately a lot of water has passed under the bridge in 37 years, and although the folks at Spectra-Physics thought it was highly likely that it was one of their units, they couldn’t be certain. The mystery deepened when Moore showed the picture to another laser expert, Dr. Austin Richards of FLIR, who thought it looked like an early krypton laser. My search for the truth finally paid off when I tracked down a gentleman named Jack Calmes, who heads up an architectural and theatrical lighting company called Syncrolite in Dallas, TX. In the 70s Calmes was one of the founders of a company called Showco that did sound and lighting for most of the major rock acts of that era, including Led Zeppelin and The Who. I figured if anybody would know, he would, so I e-mailed him a copy of the picture and asked if he remembered whose laser Led Zeppelin used on that tour. A few hours later I had my answer. “Our first laser with Led Zeppelin was a 500mW Coherent radiation krypton laser,” said Calmes. “Not sure exactly when that was – perhaps in 1974/75. It is very possible that your picture was our early krypton. It was one unit behind the drum riser. Thereafter we bought only Spectra-Physics lasers, and I also sold some to The Who as well. By the end of the 70s we had the fiber optic bow and pyramid scan over Jimmy Page for Dazed and Confused.” So there you have it. Thank you, Mr. Calmes, for solving a mystery that was 37 years in the making.

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Shock Challenge

If you’re a racing fan who has always thought that, given the opportunity, you could match your technical skills wheel-to-wheel with some of the best engineers in the sport, you’ve got one last chance to make your dream come true. Mega-distributor Mouser Electronics has been conducting a unique competition this year called the Mouser 500 Engineering Challenge. What they did was take three very real technical problems faced by the IndyCar racing team they sponsor – the KV Racing Technology #11 driven by Tony Kanaan – and asked engineers just like you to help solve them. A panel of experts reviews the proposed ideas and selects what they think are the ten best solutions, which they give to the racing team – the ultimate experts – to decide the winner. Each of the ten finalists receives an official 2012 Mouser Racing tee-shirt, not to mention bragging rights they can use to impress all their gearhead friends. But the ultimate bragging rights – and a shiny new iPad3 HD 32GB Wi-Fi – goes to each of the three winners, who are also entered into a special drawing to win a racing helmet personally autographed by Tony Kanaan. The first challenge, which ran from May 1 to June 15, involved coming up with a way to fully automate the various cycles of the racing team’s shock absorber (a.k.a. damper) vacuum machine. The second challenge, which ran from June 16 to July 31, asked contestants to come up with a better way to accurately determine the fuel level in the team’s pit road refueling tank. The final challenge, which runs through September 15, asks contestants to design a set of insulation pads that can heat or cool the car’s shock absorbers in order to maintain their optimum operating temperature of 80°C ± 5°C. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Well you can take it from me – nothing in IndyCar racing is as simple as it seems. When driven at the limits of adhesion, an IndyCar’s shock absorbers take a real pounding, dissipating energy in the form of heat. Adding to the problem is the fact that the rear shock absorbers are mounted in close proximity to the engine and exhaust system, exposing them to even higher temperatures. So, do you think you can design a set of insulation pads that could be wrapped around the bodies of the shock absorbers and either cool or heat them to maintain a constant temperature of 80°C ± 5°C, all from a single control unit? If so, go to the Mouser 500 Engineering Challenge Web site and show the folks at Mouser and the KV Racing Technology team what you can do. Just imagine what it would be like watching Tony Kanaan take the checkered flag knowing that your engineering expertise helped get him there.

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Another Chance To Shine

Racing fans who read NASA Tech Briefs already know about a unique contest being run by circuit protection manufacturer Littelfuse called Speed2Design that gives five lucky engineers the chance to win an all-expenses paid trip to one of four IndyCar races this year. Well, it turns out one of their partners on Tony Kanaan’s KV Racing Technology IndyCar, primary sponsor Mouser Electronics, is running a pretty interesting competition of their own. Called the Mouser 500 Engineering Challenge, this intriguing competition gives engineers the opportunity to solve real-world racing technology problems. The first challenge, which ended on June 15, involved redesigning the team’s damper vacuum machine so that it can more efficiently drain damper oil from the car’s shock absorbers and refill them to the correct pressure under vacuum so that no air can get inside. Ensuring accurate performance of the shock absorbers (a.k.a. dampers) is critical for the car’s performance. The current challenge, which runs through July 31, is to come up with a more accurate way of determining the level of fuel in the team’s refueling tank. Why is that important? Because an IndyCar typically averages about 1.92 miles per gallon, but that can vary slightly depending on race conditions. By knowing precisely how much fuel has been used after every pit stop, a team can more accurately predict its usage and plan its pit stops accordingly. That’s important because knowing you can go just one extra lap on a load of fuel instead of having to pit could be the difference between winning and losing a race. According to Mouser, the system currently in use to determine fuel levels is a Gill level sensor that is mounted in the tank. The sensor, which runs off a bulky 12V DC power supply with 0-5V DC output and an RS422 serial feed, is only used during practice and test sessions, not under racing conditions. What the team would like is some type of system that “…includes a local and rugged digital readout for fuel volume to be used during actual IndyCar races that can also wirelessly transmit real-time fuel levels to a laptop in the pit. All electronics will be external to the tank in an environmentally sealed enclosure. General racing parameters include the practice of using sealed connectors, externally braided wire, and environmentally sealed boxes that conform to IP67/68.” What’s great about this competition is that you don’t actually have to design, build and test a prototype of your solution in order to qualify for consideration. You simply have to write up a detailed description of your idea and submit it online by July 31 at the Mouser 500 Engineering Challenge website. The 10 ideas judged to be the best potential solutions to the problem will then be evaluated by the Mouser/KV Racing Technology team and the one they determine to be the best will win its entrant an Apple iPad 3. But that’s not all. The three challenge winners will then be entered for a chance to win the grand prize of an autographed Tony Kanaan racing helmet. To get complete contest rules and learn how you can participate, visit the official Mouser 500 Engineering Challenge website, but better do it soon. The checkered flag falls on Challenge #2 on July 31. The third and final challenge will begin August 1 and close on September 15.

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Fantasy Camp for Engineers

You’ve no doubt heard about fantasy camps that give ordinary, everyday people the opportunity to step out of their routine 9-to-5 lives and live out their dreams for a few days in the company of those who have done it – and in some cases are still doing it – at the professional level. There are baseball fantasy camps for those who grew up dreaming of someday playing in the majors. There are rock and roll fantasy camps for frustrated musicians who always wondered what it would feel like to rock out at Madison Square Garden. But what about engineers? Just because we spend most of our time grounded in reality, figuring out how everything in the world works, doesn’t mean we don’t have fantasies like everybody else. Unfortunately, until recently nobody paid much attention to that. Then along came Littelfuse, a company that specializes in producing some of the best circuit protection devices in the world. Their products are used in all types of electronics, from the simplest to the most complex applications including the highly sophisticated electronic control and data acquisition systems designed into IndyCar race cars. IndyCars are arguably one of the most technologically advanced types of race car in the world today. The sleek, aerodynamic single-seaters can easily exceed 225 mph and they generate so much negative lift – a.k.a. “downforce” – that at 200 mph they could theoretically run upside-down on the ceiling without falling off. Unlike NASCAR, where it’s all about the driver, in IndyCar racing it’s all about the technology. So, this year the folks at Littelfuse came up with a cool idea called Speed2Design that is basically a fantasy camp for engineers. Here’s how it works. In conjunction with their distributor, Mouser Electronics, Littelfuse sponsors the KV Racing Technology #11 IndyCar driven by Tony Kanaan. To capitalize on their investment, they invited engineers from all over the country to visit the Speed2Design Web site and enter for a chance to win an all-expenses paid trip to one of four IndyCar races. But this is no ordinary trip. The five winners at each race get full pit and garage credentials, which gives them the opportunity to mingle with the team, watch them build and rebuild the cars, ask them questions, get a detailed tech talk from team members explaining everything from car set-up to data acquisition, stand in the pit box as they practice, and then watch the race. Unless you get hired by a team, there is no way to get any closer to the action, and I know because I’ve been a motor racing journalist for 40 years now. [nggallery id=1 template=galleryview images=43] That’s one of the reasons I had mixed feelings when I first heard about the idea. As an engineer, I saw the immediate value of it. What engineer wouldn’t jump at a chance like this? But having been around the sport as long as I have, I’ve seen what can happen when the pressure is on. I’ve seen A.J. Foyt throw wrenches and tear into people when things weren’t going his way. I’ve been snapped at by Darrell Waltrip when he didn’t feel like answering questions. I’ve had my foot run over by a stock car because the crew members pushing it thought I was in their way. I’ve seen the worst some drivers and team members could dish out to people they considered “outsiders,” and it wasn’t pretty. So I admit I had some reservations about bringing 5 inquisitive engineers into a team’s garage and giving them free-run of the place. But I couldn’t have been more wrong. At the Indy 500, the biggest race in the world, the team could not have been more accommodating, despite the amount of pressure they were under. The five lucky winners got to spend countless hours in the garage watching the mechanics adjust and readjust every component on the car. They got to meet the driver, Tony Kanaan; the team’s chief technologist, Eric Cowdin; and Mario Illien, one of the brains behind the Chevy IndyCar engines. They got to ask the team’s engineers and mechanics as many questions as they wished, and take pictures of things most racing fans never see. Two weeks later, 5 more engineers got a similar experience at Texas Motor Speedway (TMS), and again the KV Racing Technology engineers and mechanics could not have been more accommodating. In speaking with the winners at both Indy and TMS, one thing became clear. Most admitted that if they were younger and not so settled in their careers, they would’ve jumped at the chance to work for an IndyCar team. One young lady had no such reservations however. Freshly graduated from the Milwaukee School of Engineering with a degree in mechanical engineering, she postponed her graduation party to make the trip to Texas. For her senior design project, she’d captained her school’s Formula Hybrid International team, which designed and built a small race car to compete against other colleges in events held at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. For her, winning the Speed2Design contest was a way to get her foot in the door and hopefully make contacts that might lead to a dream job in the sport she loves so much. And it might have worked. When we left Texas, the word was that the team was going to give her a try-out at the Milwaukee race. How cool would that be if she makes it? How about you? There are still two races left in the contest. To enter, go to Speed2Design.com.

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Speed Sells

In my last blog entry, I told you about a unique promotional campaign Littelfuse initiated this year called “Speed2Design” that gives working engineers like you the chance to win the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to not just attend one of four IndyCar races, but to go behind the scenes into the pits and garage area, meet the driver and team engineers of the KV Racing Technology IndyCar team, and learn firsthand what it takes to make an automobile travel in excess of 220 mph. The first race in the campaign – the legendary Indy 500 – took place this weekend and I got to spend a few hours with the lucky winners, watching final practice on Carb Day and chatting with the team’s engineers. Having been a motor racing journalist for the past 40 years, I kind of take that stuff for granted. It’s easy to forget what a rarified world the pits and garages can be to people who may only see the sport from the grandstands or on their big-screen TV. It only took a few minutes with the contest winners to feel their excitement and realize what a truly unique experience Littelfuse had given these people. So while they were getting a tutorial on IndyCar steering wheel technology from one of the team’s engineers, I decided to ask Rhonda Stratton, Marketing Communications Manager for Littelfuse and the woman behind the Speed2Design concept, how she came up with the idea, and how it’s been working out so far for the company. NTB: What prompted Littelfuse to get involved in IndyCar racing? Rhonda Stratton: When Mouser, our distributor, presented us with the opportunity to join their sponsorship program, we saw it as a perfect opportunity to connect our audience with motorsports. Our audience are engineers of all forms – design engineers – and engineers are fascinated by technology. Well, there’s no better place to see technology performing at its very best than in motorsports. NTB: How did the whole Speed2Design idea come about? Stratton: Well, one night I was coming up with a business plan for the sponsorship idea, and it needed a name. And like any engineer knows, there are timelines, especially now with staffing and cutbacks. There is always a race to finish, to complete designs. Engineers need the information that they need for their projects fast. They need to know where to go. So we tied in the whole speed element of motorsports with the sense of urgency that engineers feel every day with their designs. NTB: Approximately how many entries did you receive for this contest? Stratton: Well, I was nervous a few days before the launch wondering if I would have enough engineers – 5 engineers – to take to the first race. But I’m pleased to say that we have increased our end-customer database – our engineering database – by almost 50-percent since we started the promotion. The first day – April 30 – that we went live with Speed2Design, it was like sitting and watching the power meter on your house. The entries were just coming in by the millisecond! So we knew that we had created the right program. Engineers are interested in technology and engineering no matter where it is. They are interested in motorsports; we proved that. So we are very pleased. The promotion is in its fourth week and we still have 3 months to go! NTB: What impact do you think the Speed2Design campaign will have on the Littelfuse brand overall? Stratton: We think…no, we know that it will have a huge impact. Circuit protection in motorsports is the same as circuit protection in a pacemaker that’s implanted in someone’s body. We know that keeping people alive is important, the same as protecting a race car driver. We know that with our program, by showing the value of circuit protection and how it correlates to motorsports with our products, we know that it’s a huge success. It’s already been a huge success. I can think of at least 5 people who would agree wholeheartedly with that assessment. If you would like to win an opportunity to go behind the scenes at an upcoming IndyCar race and learn firsthand what it takes to design, build and maintain some of the fastest closed-course racing machines on the planet, there’s still time. To enter, go to http://www.techbriefs.com/speed2design.

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