Special Coverage


3D Printer Heads to International Space Station

The first 3D printer is soon to fly into Earth orbit, finding a home aboard the International Space Station (ISS). The size of a small microwave, the unit is called Portal. The hardware serves as a ted bed for evaluating how well 3D printing and the microgravity of space combine. The soon-to-fly 3D printer can churn out plastic objects within a span of 15 minutes to an hour.The technology works by extruding heated plastic, and then builds successive layers to make a three-dimensional object. In essence, the test on the ISS might well lead to establishing a “machine shop” in space. The 3D printer experiment is being done under the tech directorate's Game Changing Development Program, a NASA thrust that seeks to identify and rapidly mature innovative/high impact capabilities and technologies for infusion in a broad array of future NASA missions.According to the team, manufacturing assets in space, as opposed to launching them from Earth, will accelerate and broaden space development while providing unprecedented access for people on Earth to use in-space capabilities. SourceAlso: Learn about Ammonia Leak Detection on the ISS.

Posted in: News


Researchers Equip Robot with Novel Tactile Sensor

Researchers at MIT and Northeastern University have equipped a robot with a novel tactile sensor that lets it grasp a USB cable draped freely over a hook and insert it into a USB port.The sensor is an adaptation of a technology called GelSight, which was developed by the lab of Edward Adelson, the John and Dorothy Wilson Professor of Vision Science at MIT, and first described in 2009. The new sensor isn’t as sensitive as the original GelSight sensor, which could resolve details on the micrometer scale. But it’s smaller — small enough to fit on a robot’s gripper — and its processing algorithm is faster, so it can give the robot feedback in real time.A GelSight sensor — both the original and the new, robot-mounted version — consists of a slab of transparent, synthetic rubber coated on one side with a metallic paint. The rubber conforms to any object it’s pressed against, and the metallic paint evens out the light-reflective properties of diverse materials, making it much easier to make precise optical measurements.In the new device, the gel is mounted in a cubic plastic housing, with just the paint-covered face exposed. The four walls of the cube adjacent to the sensor face are translucent, and each conducts a different color of light — red, green, blue, or white — emitted by light-emitting diodes at the opposite end of the cube. When the gel is deformed, light bounces off of the metallic paint and is captured by a camera mounted on the same cube face as the diodes.From the different intensities of the different-colored light, the algorithms developed by Adelson’s team can infer the three-dimensional structure of ridges or depressions of the surfaceagainst which the sensor is pressed. Source Read other Sensors tech briefs.

Posted in: News


September Executive Outlook - Funding the Medtech Pipeline

This edition is sponsored by Renishaw and KMC Systems. SPONSOR MESSAGE New miniature encoder is the building block of motion systems Renishaw launches ATOM™ — an innovative non-contact optical linear and rotary incremental encoder system that combines miniaturization with leading-edge dirt immunity, signal stability, and reliability. ATOM is the world's first miniature encoder to use filtering optics. The same advanced technology is found in Renishaw's proven TONiC(TM) incremental encoder. Learn more >> Funding the Medtech Pipeline Recent reports offer scant hope of improved funding support for medtech entrepreneurs Steve Halasey, Contributing Editor Among medical device and diagnostics companies, deals and dollars are rarely so plentiful that they can support more than a single strong market trend. As a result, investment flows in one area have a tendency to overpower alternatives, making it hard for investors to learn about or get interested in approaches that buck the trend. There's little room for a minority report. That seems to be at least part of the story told by the recent PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) Pharmaceutical and Life Sciences Deals Insights Quarterly for the second quarter of 2014. In this view of the investment universe, medtech start-ups and emerging growth companies barely rate a blip on the radar. It's all about the big boys. And what are those large companies doing? According to the authors, who are leaders in PwC's deals practice, medtech companies across all sectors are consolidating to gain market power, divesting non-core businesses and product lines to focus their portfolios, and exploring the market potential of new geographic regions. One outcome of such activities may be increased competition among acquiring companies. "The volume and pace of M&A activity seen in the first quarter is also likely to create heightened competition among buyers and may lead to an increased number of hostile takeover attempts due to the relative scarcity of acquisition targets," write the authors.   Figure 1. Total acquisition deal value by industry segment (Q2 2013–Q2 2014). Credit: PricewaterhouseCoopers/Thomson Reuters. According to the Deals report, there were 11 medical device M&A transactions during the second quarter, representing a total value of $5.6 billion—an increase of five deals and $3.5 billion over the second quarter of 2013. (See Figure 1) Activity in the device realm promises to continue at a high level for some time, as announced deals totaling $60 billion are already in the works—including Medtronic's acquisition of Covidien ($42.9 billon) and Zimmer's acquisition of Biomet ($13.4 billion). Meanwhile, for the diagnostics industry, the Deals report lists just one transaction during the second quarter, but it was a biggy—the $4.0 billion private equity takeover of Johnson & Johnson's Ortho-Clinical Diagnostics by the Carlyle Group. By comparison, the two diagnostics transactions recorded for the second quarter of 2013 had a total value of just $400 million. For diagnostics, the authors write, "the seven deals closed so far in 2014 equal the volume of all deals closed in 2013." "The trend of consolidation will likely have a number of impacts on how companies deploy capital going forward," says Dimitri Drone, report coauthor and PwC pharmaceutical and life sciences deals leader. "For those that have recently acquired or merged, there may be a reduced level of M&A activity (in terms of volume) on a combined basis, leaving additional resources to commit to internal R&D efforts. However, companies that have struggled with internal product development and innovation in the past will likely continue to look outside for growth." SPONSOR MESSAGE "When you want it done right the first time — take it to KMC." Partner with KMC Systems to leverage 30+ years of engineering and manufacturing excellence. Tap into proven expertise in medical systems development, design, and manufacturing. Learn more »   VCs to the Rescue? While medtech's top dogs are engaged in pursuing strategic mergers and acquisitions, it may be some time before they once again turn their attention to expanding their product development pipelines. "Companies are likely to continue to reevaluate their business portfolios and asset mix, particularly in light of recent acquisitions," says Drone. "This may lead to a wave of divestitures as companies seek to unlock value, creating potential acquisition opportunities. The technological and economic risks associated with developing new products will likely drive large medtech players to continue to look externally for innovation, and acquisitions will be a key source of growth." In the meantime, medtech entrepreneurs might have better luck capturing the attention of venture capitalists with specialized understanding of the medtech space. But unfortunately, so far as medtech start-ups and emerging growth companies are concerned, PwC's Life Sciences MoneyTree report of venture capital activity for the second quarter of 2014 tells a story not unlike that of the Deals report. Produced in conjunction with the National Venture Capital Association using data provided by Thomson Reuters, the report celebrates VC investments of $2.5 billion in 195 life sciences deals during the quarter, compared with $2.0 billion in 197 deals during the second quarter of 2013. Medical device firms completed 73 deals during the quarter (compared with 77 in the second quarter of 2013), representing 26% of the life sciences financings. Year over year, the total value of the medical device deals increased by 23% to a total of $649 million. But in the second quarter, medtech investors overwhelmingly placed their bets on late-stage medical device fundings. According to the MoneyTree report, compared with the second quarter of 2013, investment in early-stage device companies decreased by 10% to $169 million for 24 deals, while investment in late-stage companies increased 41% to $479 million for 49 deals. (See Figure 2) In line with those findings, the report also notes that first-time life sciences fundings decreased year-over-year by 20%, to $267 million and 32 deals; while the number of follow-on life sciences deals increased year-over-year by 34%, to $2,221 million for 163 deals. For the biotechnology industry in particular, writes coauthor Greg Vlahos, life sciences partner at PwC, the "high growth potential of the industry has increased the confidence of VCs in their current investments, resulting in the high level of follow-on investments and portends well for the industry." The same may also be true for medtech investors—and especially those with somewhat short-term horizons. It's certainly easier to place a bet on a late-stage company that has already achieved key milestones such as regulatory approval and reimbursement coverage. Firms that are generating revenue and have profitability looming on the horizon are natural acquisition targets for established medtech investors, enabling confident VCs to exit gracefully—and profitably. "While there are a number of interesting, early-stage technologies in the marketplace, acquirers continue to look for acquisition targets that have been 'derisked,'" says Drone. "Uncertainty related to commercialization or reimbursement may give potential buyers pause. Figure 2. Medical device venture capital funding by stages (Q2 2012–Q2 2014). Credit: PricewaterhouseCoopers/NVCA/Thomson Reuters MoneyTree Report. "Acquirers continue to utilize innovative deal structures such as earnouts and step-acquisitions to bridge these types of gaps in the negotiation process," he adds, "and these may be the key to increased deal activity for earlier stage companies." Angel investors have also stepped up to meet some of industry's need for early-stage funding. According to the Halo Report issued by the Angel Resource Institute, Silicon Valley Bank, and CB Insights, angels invested a total of $228 million for 170 deals during the first quarter of 2014. But not all of these deals were for medtech companies—or even in the life sciences. According to the first-quarter report, angel investments in Internet-related companies increased during the quarter, while investments in mobile and healthcare companies dropped. Medtech entrepreneurs may have some options for funding left in their playbook, but the dominant trends guiding industry investors are not clearly favorable. Supporting industry's long-term need for a strong pipeline filled with innovative devices will require a great deal more investor activity than is currently taking place. To ensure that medtech's product pipeline remains healthy, stronger investment trends favoring start-ups and early-stage medtech companies will be essential. Steve Halasey is a contributing editor of Medical Design Briefs, and a specialist in executive and business development issues for the medical device and diagnostics industry. Currently chief editor of Clinical Lab Products, and a long-time correspondent and editor on health technology and policy issues, he has more than 20 years of experience as a leader of publications and educational programs for medtech executives, researchers, and investors.

Posted in: News, MDB


Researchers Control Surface Tension of Liquid Metals

Researchers from North Carolina State University have developed a technique for controlling the surface tension of liquid metals by applying very low voltages, opening the door to a new generation of reconfigurable electronic circuits, antennas and other technologies. The technique hinges on the fact that the oxide “skin” of the metal – which can be deposited or removed – acts as a surfactant, lowering the surface tension between the metal and the surrounding fluid.The researchers used a liquid metal alloy of gallium and indium. In base, the bare alloy has a remarkably high surface tension of about 500 millinewtons (mN)/meter, which causes the metal to bead up into a spherical blob. “But we discovered that applying a small, positive charge – less than 1 volt – causes an electrochemical reaction that creates an oxide layer on the surface of the metal, dramatically lowering the surface tension from 500 mN/meter to around 2 mN/meter,” says Dr. Michael Dickey, an associate professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at NC State and senior author of a paper describing the work. “This change allows the liquid metal to spread out like a pancake, due to gravity.”The researchers also showed that the change in surface tension is reversible. If researchers flip the polarity of the charge from positive to negative, the oxide is eliminated and high surface tension is restored.  The surface tension can be tuned between these two extremes by varying the voltage in small steps.SourceAlso: Learn about Gradient Metal Alloys Fabricated Using Additive Manufacturing.

Posted in: Electronics & Computers, Electronics, Power Management, Materials, Metals, RF & Microwave Electronics, Antennas, News


Engineers Prepare Battery Module Swapping Approach for Electric Cars

Imagine being able to switch out the batteries in electric cars just like you switch out batteries in a photo camera or flashlight. A team of engineers at the University of California, San Diego, are trying to accomplish just that, in partnership with a local San Diego engineering company.Rather than swapping out the whole battery, which is cumbersome and requires large, heavy equipment, engineers plan to swap out and recharge smaller units within the battery, known as modules.Swapping battery modules could also have far-reaching implications for mobile and decentralized electrical energy storage systems such as solar backup and portable generators. The technology can make energy storage more configurable, promote safety, simplify maintenance and eventually eliminate the use of fossil fuels for these applications.Engineers not only believe that their approach is viable, but also plan to prove it. They will embark on a cross-country trip with a car powered by the removable, rechargeable M-BEAM, or Modular Battery Exchange and Active Management, battery modules.  They plan to drive from coast to coast only taking breaks that are a few minutes long to swap out the modules that will be recharged in a chase vehicle. They believe they can drive from San Diego to the coast of South Carolina less than 60 hours — without going over the speed limit.SourceAlso: Learn about a Full-Cell Evaluation/Screening Technique for New Battery Chemistries.

Posted in: Batteries, Electronics & Computers, Power Management, Solar Power, Renewable Energy, Energy, News, Automotive


'Squid Skin' Metamaterial Yields Vivid Color Display

The quest to create artificial "squid skin" — camouflaging metamaterials that can "see" colors and automatically blend into the background — is one step closer to reality, thanks to a color-display technology by Rice University's Laboratory for Nanophotonics (LANP).The new full-color display technology uses aluminum nanoparticles to create the vivid red, blue, and green hues found in today's top-of-the-line LCD televisions and monitors.The breakthrough is the latest in a string of recent discoveries by a Rice-led team that set out in 2010 to create metamaterials capable of mimicking the camouflage abilities of cephalopods — the family of marine creatures that includes squid, octopus, and cuttlefish.LANP's new color display technology delivers bright red, blue, and green hues from five-micron-square pixels that each contains several hundred aluminum nanorods. By varying the length of the nanorods and the spacing between them, LANP researchers Stephan Link and Jana Olson showed they could create pixels that produced dozens of colors, including rich tones of red, green, and blue that are comparable to those found in high-definition LCD displays.

Posted in: Imaging, Displays/Monitors/HMIs, Materials, Nanotechnology, News


New Algorithm Lets Cheetah Robot Run

Speed and agility are hallmarks of the cheetah: The big predator is the fastest land animal on Earth, able to accelerate to 60 mph in just a few seconds. As it ramps up to top speed, a cheetah pumps its legs in tandem, bounding until it reaches a full gallop.Now MIT researchers have developed an algorithm for bounding that they’ve successfully implemented in a robotic cheetah — a sleek, four-legged assemblage of gears, batteries, and electric motors that weighs about as much as its feline counterpart. The team recently took the robot for a test run on MIT’s Killian Court, where it bounded across the grass at a steady clip. In experiments on an indoor track, the robot sprinted up to 10 mph, even continuing to run after clearing a hurdle. The MIT researchers estimate that the current version of the robot may eventually reach speeds of up to 30 mph.The key to the bounding algorithm is in programming each of the robot’s legs to exert a certain amount of force in the split second during which it hits the ground, in order to maintain a given speed: In general, the faster the desired speed, the more force must be applied to propel the robot forward. In experiments, the team ran the robot at progressively smaller duty cycles, finding that, following the algorithm’s force prescriptions, the robot was able to run at higher speeds without falling. Sangbae Kim, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at MIT, says the team’s algorithm enables precise control over the forces a robot can exert while running. SourceAlso: Learn about Hall Thrusters for Robotic Solar System Exploration.

Posted in: Motion Control, Motors & Drives, Software, Machinery & Automation, Robotics, News