Tech Watch - June 2017

3D Production Parts on Track

The plastic housing cover for the “coupler,” or the link between a pair of tram carriages in a rail system, isn’t an easily replaceable part. In fact, if it isn’t in stock, rail suppliers like Siemens’ Mobility Div. would often need to purchase the tooling or machinery to manufacture it. This consumes not only time, but also money, particularly because Siemens traditionally could only fill orders in volumes of 10 or more parts to justify the production cost. 

But the one-off customization of a part is no longer simply the cost of doing business, it’s becoming a value-add. Siemens has leaned on 3D printer maker Stratasys (stratasys.com) to provide customized parts for German rail transportation firm SWU Verkehr GmbH, which offers transport services across 10 rail networks in the city of Ulm. 

Siemens began using a Stratasys Fortus 900mc Production 3D Printer to produce 3D printed final parts for those trams in a few days compared to weeks. This means customers can order customized 3D printed parts on-line, such as driver seat armrests, whenever they need them. This dynamic is creating a nearly on-demand production business model. Siemens is using a thermoplastic for the parts that meets flame, smoke and toxicity standards mandated by the German rail industry. 

“Through customized additive manufacturing we are achieving maximum customer satisfaction, as the client is actively participating in the creation and optimization of its parts. This would simply not be possible with mass production,” said Andreas Düvel, with Siemens Mobility.


Healing Membranes with Microcapsules 

Fuel cells are just that: cells with membranes. And membranes can and do tear and rupture over time. The polymer that makes up a large number of fuel cell membranes, the Dupont-made Nafion, is in a 

hothouse of electrical exchanges as it serves to separate the anode and cathode compartments of the cell. Defects in membranes are nearly impossible to repair, and as pinholes add up, the life of a cell goes down.

In a paper published in the Journal of The Electrochemical Society, researchers at the University of Delaware's Department of Mechanical Engineering say they’ve developed a self-healing membrane, which uses microcapsules prefilled with a Nafion as a salve of sorts. 

"The microcapsules are designed to rupture when they encounter defects in the membrane and then release the pre-filled Nafion solution to heal the defects in place," says U-D Engineer Liang Wang.
Durability testing confirms the self-healing nature of the electrolyte membrane could extend the life of fuel cells, and help advance the technology behind hydrogen fuel-cell powered vehicles.

The scientists have filed for a patent on the technology. 


Watson Punching In

Watson, the amiable persona of IBM’s artificial intelligence technology, is emerging just about everywhere IBM does business, including the factory floor. 

ABB (abb.com), which specializes in robotics and industrial automation tools, teamed with IBM to develop a suite of solutions to reduce downtime, up quality and increase production in plants. The companies say these applications do much more than measure, but instead performing “cognitive” tasks to improve productivity. 

“This powerful combination marks truly the next level of industrial technology, moving beyond current connected systems that simply gather data, to industrial operations and machines that use data to sense, analyze, optimize and take actions that drive greater uptime, speed and yield for industrial customers,” says ABB CEO Ulrich Spiesshofer.

ABB and IBM will deploy Watson to spot defects by sorting through real-time production images, which are recorded by ABB systems and analyzed using IBM Watson’s Internet of Things for Manufacturing. ABB’s industrial automation technology with Watson on board is designed to alert manufacturers to critical parts’ flaws, which would theoretically help pre-empt recalls.


Advancing Autonomy with LiDAR

Although many feel as if the era of fully autonomous cars is approaching at near light speed, in reality, the velocity may be something akin to the speed of sound. Fast, but not nearly as fast. A few technology bridges will need to be constructed before autonomous vehicles move from niche to mainstream. 
Velodyne (velodynelidar.com) recently uncased a new fixed-laser sensor, the Velarray, which is positioned as one such bridge. Velodyne makes the case that the new LiDAR (light detection and ranging) device can be embedded in both autonomous vehicles and more contemporary advanced driver-assist safety (ADAS) systems. 

By harnessing a laser array, LiDAR technology has the advantage of plotting a real-time 3D map, but costs can run into the thousands of dollars, making for a more pricey option compared to radar- and camera-based systems. But in announcing the Velarray, Velodyne says its new unit could cost in the hundreds of dollars—if it’s produced in significant volumes. 

Measuring 125 x 50 x 55 mm, or the size of a husky smartphone, Velodyne says the Velarray can be embedded into places like grills, bumpers and body panels. Once there, the sensor can provide up to a 120 degree horizontal and 35 degree vertical field-of-view, with a 200-meter range. It also can pick up objects with poor reflective qualities.

“The Velarray enables not only fully autonomous vehicles, but also ADAS systems such as adaptive cruise control, while at the same time providing a miniature form factor and mass production target prices,” says Mike Jellen, Velodyne LiDAR’s president and chief commercial officer.

The company has scheduled customer demonstration of the core technology this summer, with engineering sample units available by the end of 2017 ahead of production in 2018.

Velodyne LiDAR first patented 3D LiDAR sensors in 2005. Last year, Ford announced a $75-million investment in Velodyne as part of the carmaker’s expanding footprint in Silicon Valley.