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Updated: 13 min 46 sec ago

Cornerstone project to address mechanical challenges of all-electric flight

1 hour 32 min ago

A major new research partnership between Rolls-Royce and three UK universities is aiming to develop the technologies needed to allow the aerospace industry to switch towards all-electric flight.

Rolls-Royce is already involved in the E-Fan X hybrid propulsion project

The aerospace industry has been investing heavily in the search for alternatives to combustion engines, in a bid to cut carbon dioxide emissions and reduce its dependence on Earth’s decreasing fossil fuel reserves.

But the great distances aircraft must travel between refuelling stops has made this a considerable challenge, with battery technology not yet sufficiently developed to cope with long range journeys, for example.

The new £6.1m EPSRC-funded project, called Cornerstone, which includes researchers from Nottingham University, Imperial College London and Oxford University, will undertake research into areas of mechanical engineering that will help the industry move towards electrification, according to the project’s principal investigator Seamus Garvey of Nottingham University.

“There is an assumption that moving towards electric flight requires electrical engineering only, and that is utterly wrong, some of the biggest challenges are in fact mechanical engineering challenges,” he said.

The project will focus on six areas of mechanical engineering research. These include an attempt to better understand high power-density contacts, or those locations within an engine where there are very high stresses occurring between two surfaces, such as gear teeth.

“The whole area of understanding how long those contacts will last before cracks start to develop, then those cracks propagate and result in fatigue failure, is as yet an incomplete science, and one of the things we will do through Cornerstone is try to complete that science,” said Garvey.

Some of the biggest challenges are in fact mechanical

The researchers will also investigate the effect of impacts, such as a bird strike, on engines, and attempt to better understand the load and vibration dynamics of aero-engine assemblies, as well as the way in which air interacts with structures such as fan blades, turbine blades and compressor blades.

Of particular importance to hybrid-electric and all electric aircraft will be an investigation of new ways to manage heat without increasing the mass or complexity of the system, said Garvey.

“That is particularly relevant for all-electric flight, because all electrical machines are fundamentally limited by the ability to get heat out of them,” he said.

This will build on work the research team at Nottingham have previously undertaken to investigate the use of oil as a coolant in gas turbines, he said. “We want to upgrade our methods for analysing thermal management with oil, but we also want to develop some new methods for removing heat from engines,” said Garvey.

So, for example, the researchers will investigate the use of fine oil mists for thermal management, as well as cooling components using internal heat pipe elements. The team will also consider the use of materials such as graphene and diamond-like carbon within aircraft components. These materials have extremely high thermal conductivity, he said.

“If we can build those into our engine components, the heat can pass through the parts much more easily than it would do otherwise.”

Finally, the researchers will investigate the interactions between the electrical and mechanical machines within the aircraft, which can be a considerable advantage of electrification, said Garvey.

“When we design a rotating machine one of the things we worry about a lot is whether the machine will shake itself to pieces through vibration,” he said.

By putting an electrical machine on the rotor, it can help to take vibration out of the system, preventing damage, he said.


The post Cornerstone project to address mechanical challenges of all-electric flight appeared first on The Engineer.

C2I 2017: Travelling fire methodology behind the design of The Scalpel

1 hour 37 min ago

The travelling fire methodology has been devised to more closely represent the behaviour of fire in open-plan spaces, and enable structural engineers to design accordingly

Collaborate To Innovate 2017
The built environment
Winner: Making the 38-story 52 Lime Street (Scalpel): Structural design of modern open plan buildings using the travelling fire methodology
Partners: Arup UK, Imperial College London

As the proportion of the world’s city dwellers continues to rise, so does the demand for workspace. Most people based in cities work in offices, and the most popular paradigm for office workspace is open-plan, particularly — and increasingly — in tall buildings. The new and growing mega-cities of the Middle East and Asia tend to be full of skyscrapers, their floors essentially constituting a tall stack of spaces that, apart from their supporting columns, are open throughout.

Over the past two decades it has become clear that there is a significant deficiency in the way such open-plan structures have been designed and built — namely, how they react to the most basic enemy of the built environment: fire.

All buildings should be designed to resist fire for long enough to enable firefighters to safely rescue the occupants. This design involves ensuring that the structure will remain intact and escape routes will not be blocked by falling debris. Features include checking that the structural elements themselves are robust enough and made from suitable materials, and employing additional ‘passive protection’ materials in key areas (such as fire-retardant panels in doors and ceilings).

As buildings get taller, potentially holding more people, they take longer to evacuate and therefore must remain structurally sound for longer. But events this century, starting with the fires caused in New York City’s World Trade Center on 9 September 2001, have revealed that the assumptions behind the methodology for structural fire resilience did not keep up with evolving building design.

The methodology was based on traditional workspaces where floors were divided into many small compartments — individual offices, store and utility rooms, meeting areas and so on — or on residential buildings or hotels, where floors were similarly divided. When such spaces catch fire, the inside of each room can be considered to be at a constant temperature; an entire floor is essentially a horizontal array of furnaces. So the job of the structural engineer is to ensure that the spread of the fire from one constant-temperature box to the next is slowed down.

The science is different in open-plan buildings, however, as shown by forensic examination of the remains of the World Trade Center and other fire-hit open-plan skyscrapers, such as Windsor Tower in Madrid that burned down in 2005 and the Plasko Building in Tehran that burned earlier this year.

In response to such findings, a collaborative effort led by civil engineering consultancy Arup — which began in 2007 — has produced a new methodology for designing open-plan buildings.

“We were working on a number of buildings with open-plan spaces and we identified that there was a major gap in knowledge about how fire behaved in these very large spaces,” explained Panos Kotsovinos, a fire engineering specialist at Arup. The firm contacted Dr Guillermo Rein, a mechanical engineer with a specialism in combustion science and expertise in the behaviour of fire in complex compartments, who was based at the University of Edinburgh in 2007.

Arup funded PhDs under Dr Rein’s supervision, as well as regular meetings between him and Arup engineers. From studies of the earlier fires it became clear that, rather than the temperature in the fire-affected compartment being constant, there were two distinct zones: a high-temperature zone corresponding to the flames themselves, and a lower-temperature zone with a temperature gradient falling away with distance from the hottest area, which moved around the floorplate of the open-plan area. Rein invented the term “travelling fires”.

This fire behaviour has a number of differences from fires in more compartmentalised spaces. For example, because the fire covers only a portion of the floor at one time, it can keep burning for a lot longer; in one example in Philadelphia in 1991, the fire lasted for 12 hours. This can have significant effects on the structural integrity of the building, which in some cases can be more severe than in fires that assume constant temperatures, and can trigger different structural mechanisms.

Rein and his collaborators, including the Arup engineers under Kotsovinos, devised a travelling fire methodology (TFM) to more closely represent the behaviour of fire in open-plan spaces and enable structural engineers to design accordingly. TFM features include: considering the two moving regions of temperature distribution; taking account of a spatially varying gas temperature distribution at the ceiling level; considering the effects of mixing air with smoke in the lower-temperature zone; and viewing the fire in an affected space as a family of fires, all behaving differently and with a range of effects on the structure, depending on the burning area of the floorplate. Considering this distribution of temperature “is one of the breakthroughs of this methodology”, Kotsovinos told The Engineer.

The primary concern of TFM is maximising the structural integrity of the burning building, he said, while stressing that this had a direct impact on ensuring that everyone inside got out safely. “It’s that which ensures that the emergency services can do their work, that emergency exits and evacuation routes remain clear and that evacuation proceeds smoothly, and this is particularly the case in taller buildings,” he explained.

The collaboration continued when Dr Rein transferred to Imperial College London in 2012, with Arup still sponsoring PhDs. “We’ve been the leader in structural fire engineering for 20 years,” Kotsovinos said. “Key to that is understanding how fire affects the structural elements of buildings and whether it can result in the failure of the structure. Prof Rein’s expertise in the behaviour of fire itself was the other component of the collaboration, which was managed in regular collaborative meetings where we discussed problems in real-life projects.”

Most recently, TFM has been applied to the design of a building in the City of London: 52 Lime Street, a 38-storey tower known as ‘The Scalpel’, which is scheduled for completion later this year and where each floor has a free open-plan space with an area of 1,500m2.

Meanwhile, experiments to confirm the TFM are still taking place, such as fires staged in an empty office building near Warsaw, Kotsovinos said.

Shortlisted – The built environment

Project name: Nuclear reactor seismic studies
Partners: EDF Energy; Atkins; University of Bristol; Plymouth University; Manchester Metropolitan University; City University London

All engineering projects involving nuclear reactor designs must undergo seismic studies to ensure the reactors will remain safe in the event of an earthquake. This
can be challenging, especially when the reactors in question are old.

One effective way of assessing the seismic safety of a structure is to put a scale model of it onto a specialised shaking table that simulates different strengths of earthquake. The University of Bristol has such a table and led a project to construct a scale model of an advanced gas-cooled reactor (AGR) as part of a wider project to extend the lives of these  reactors – which were built in the UK in the late 1960s – as far as the 2020s.

Believed to be one of the most complex shaking-table experiments ever attempted, the project brought the Bristol team, led by Adam Crewe, reader in earthquake engineering in the civil engineering department, together with EDF Energy, the owner of the AGR reactors, and civil engineering contractor Atkins.  The quarter-scale model measures 2.5 x 2.5 x 2m, weighs 10 tonnes, and contains 40,000 components and 3,200 sensors. It simulates the behaviour of eight layers of hollow octagonal graphite bricks that are linked together by ‘keys’ machined into the graphite and are now beginning to show cracks, often emanating from the edges of the keys, exacerbated by their ageing process within the high-radiation environment inside the reactor core. These cracks are expected to worsen over time.

Scale modelling of this type must include not only the geometry of the components but also their material properties. The team settled on an engineering plastic called Acetal to simulate graphite. Each brick in the core can rock with six degrees of freedom with respect to its neighbours, and every instrumented brick has 15 embedded Hall-effect magnetic sensors, supplemented by micro-MEMS-type accelerometers, and contains a bespoke miniaturised 32-channel data acquisition system. A machine-vision system corroborates the data from the instrumented bricks.

The data from the physical model is supplemented by a numerical model of the core developed by Atkins for EDF, which assumes each brick is a rigid mass linked to its neighbours by non-linear springs. These models were used to select the most appropriate configurations to test on the shaking table.

Project name: Sustainable design process for the Midland Mainline upgrade
Partners: Atkins, Carillion Power Lines, Network Rail, DARPA, Invincea Labs, PSI (Physical Sciences Inc)

The Midland Mainline, linking London and Sheffield, is being upgraded to increase its passenger capacity in a programme spread across the next five years. Elements of the project include electrification of the entire 200km line, and smaller capacity increase projects such as one between Kettering and Corby and another between Bedford and Kettering.

Carillion Power Lines appointed engineering contractor Atkins to provide ecological, environmental and sustainability services to support the programme’s design team. Believed to be a first for the UK rail industry, this collaboration integrated sustainability into the core design process, rather than treating it as a separate process.

Working through a series of face-to-face meetings and workshops, the project helped Carillion meet its sustainability key performance indicators and created a set of criteria to assess the impact on the environment of the materials and components used in the programme across their whole lifetime. These criteria include: embodied carbon; recycled content; distance of supplier from site; waste generation potential; maintenance requirements; durability; and potential for recycling or reuse after end of life.

Collaborate To Innovate (C2I) is an annual campaign run by The Engineer, including an awards competition and conference, established to uncover and celebrate innovative examples of engineering collaboration

The headline sponsors for C2I 2017 were Frazer-Nash Consultancy and Yamazaki Mazak

For information on sponsoring or supporting C2I2018 contact The Engineer’s commercial director Sonal Dalgliesh

The post C2I 2017: Travelling fire methodology behind the design of The Scalpel appeared first on The Engineer.

Radar sensing and AI to cut healthcare costs by monitoring vulnerable people

Thu, 2017-12-14 20:03

Falls and fractures amongst people over the age of 65 account for over four million hospital bed days each year in England alone, costing the healthcare system around £2bn.

As well as the strain on accident and emergency departments and hospital wards however, such falls also lead to anxiety and loss of independence in the elderly.

Now a team of UK researchers, funded by EPSRC, is investigating the use of radar sensing and artificial intelligence to monitor vulnerable people, including the elderly and those with cognitive or physical impairments.

The system will be designed to monitor activity levels over long periods of time, to pick up on early signs of cognitive or functional decline, and to detect falls or strokes.

In this way it will provide family members or carers with information on the person’s health and wellbeing, and allow people to remain in their own homes for longer, preserving their quality of life, said Dr Francesco Fioranelli, the project leader at Glasgow University.

The radar system – a small box like that of a Wi-Fi router – will transmit and receive radio waves across rooms within the home, and then use machine learning to analyse the received echoes to understand how and where the person moves.

“The system would build up a map of the individual’s usual routine, and then try to spot any anomalies,” said Fioranelli. “The classic example is if someone crosses the corridor to go to the toilet once per night, and then all of a sudden they do that three or four times, it could be a sign that they are unwell, and they could be referred to a nurse or GP for a visit,” he said.

Unlike wearable sensors and video cameras, radar is contactless and non-intrusive, meaning individuals do not need to carry or interact with the device, which can be particularly difficult if the person has some form of cognitive impairment or dementia, said Fioranelli.

“Another advantage is that unlike cameras you don’t get a plain image of the person, so in terms of privacy it is easier to accept,” he said.

The researchers will take into account the needs and views of older people, carers, healthcare professionals and community members in developing the system.

The project also includes Glasgow-based CENSIS (Centre for Sensors and Imaging Systems), and the Health and Social Care Alliance Scotland.

The post Radar sensing and AI to cut healthcare costs by monitoring vulnerable people appeared first on The Engineer.

MAGMA jet-powered UAV sets course for flapless flight

Thu, 2017-12-14 18:07

Efforts toward flapless flight have taken off with BAE Systems and Manchester University successfully completing initial flight trials of MAGMA, a jet powered UAV aiming to manoeuvre with an integrated blown-air system.

MAGMA jet-powered UAV

Seen as informing the design of future stealth aircraft, the new concept for aircraft control seeks to eliminate complex, mechanical moving parts that move flaps to control aircraft during flight.

According to BAE Systems, this could give greater control as well as reduce weight and maintenance costs, allowing for lighter, faster and more efficient military and civil aircraft in the future.

Wing circulation control and fluidic thrust vectoring are the key technologies to be trialled first using the jet-powered UAV. The former takes air from the aircraft engine and blows it supersonically through the trailing edge of the wing to provide control for the aircraft, whilst the latter uses blown air to deflect the exhaust, allowing for the direction of the aircraft to be changed.

Previous attempts at flight without elevators or ailerons have seen the defence giant and UK universities develop Flaviir and DEMON, the latter being a 90kg vehicle with a wingspan of 2.5m that undertook the first ‘flapless’ flight sanctioned by the CAA in September 2010.

According to Brian Oldfield, lead technologist, Advanced Structures,  BAE Systems Military Air & Information, MAGMA is a 4m wingspan vehicle weighing 40kg in its conventional control state and is a low speed vehicle for demonstrating novel technology. It will weigh 45kg when modified to have novel flow control devices integrated into it.

The first phase of flight trials took place at Snowdonia Aerospace Centre in September, 2017. According to Oldfield, MAGMA has flown twice with conventional controls only with a cruise speed of 30m/s.

He added that the next steps for MAGMA are to fly and understand the effectiveness of the trailing edge and fluidic thrust vectoring devices, and understand whether control surfaces, such as the fin, could be reduced in size or removed.

“The vehicle is then available to demonstrate further technologies as required, giving us a small test vehicle to trial new ideas,” he said.

The post MAGMA jet-powered UAV sets course for flapless flight appeared first on The Engineer.

C2I 2017: Breaking the sound barrier with a rocket-powered model car

Thu, 2017-12-14 18:06

Not content with setting a new land speed record a group of a school students in Mansfield are now gearing up for an assault on the sound barrier. 

Collaborate To Innovate 2017
Young innovator
Winner: Breaking the sound barrier with a model rocket car
Partners: The Joseph Whitaker School; Rolls-Royce; Swansea University; Easy Composites; GS Products; iMechE; Santa Pod Raceway; GaaTech
Category Sponsor: Renishaw Plc

Much has been made of the so-called ‘Bloodhound effect’: the way in which the UK effort to develop a 1,000mph car has been used to engage and inspire the next generation of engineers. And there can be few more striking examples of this phenomenon in action than the achievements of a group of pupils from The Joseph Whitaker secondary school in Mansfield which, after setting a world record speed for a rocket-powered model car of 533mph, is now gearing up for an assault on the sound barrier.

Established by technology teacher Phil Worsley, the school’s Young Engineers group started life in 2006 after a meeting with Richard Noble inspired Worsley to kick-start his own rocket-car project. Since then, successive generations of pupils, ranging from ages 11 to 17, have worked on a series of progressively faster rocket cars, graduating from cardboard to carbon fibre, progressing from tennis courts to runways, learning invaluable practical lessons on aerodynamics and thrust, and generally finding out what it means to work on a serious engineering team. Indeed, pupils wanting to take part have to apply as if they’re applying for a real job, and complete a three-month probation period before becoming a full-time member of the team.

The group’s record-breaking run, made in October 2014 at Rolls-Royce’s test runway in Hucknall, was set by Insanity: a 45cm-long carbon-fibre vehicle, running on titanium wheels and powered by tried-and-tested space launch propellant ammonium perchlorate. Reflecting on the team’s route to record-breaking success, Worsley explained that one of the first lessons learned by the pupils during the development of the car was the importance of the chassis design. And, in order to understand the force of the rocket motor on different parts of the car, the team built a series of models in a variety of materials and tested them by applying loads at different points.

In addition, the group has used its own purpose-built wind and water tunnels to analyse the aerodynamic performance of these models, and has also used software – specifically Autodesk Inventor and its Flow design add-on – to develop and assess a series of virtual models. Another key bit of bespoke equipment developed by the group is the timing system used to record the rocket car runs. This was developed in collaboration with the National Physical Laboratory (NPL).

A number of other key industrials collaborators have helped the team along the way, including Rolls-Royce (which as well as providing access to its runway has also met with the pupils every month); Stoke-on-Trent firm Easy Composites, which has helped the group understand how to make and machine carbon-fibre structures; and SWR group, which has manufactured the guide cable: the high-tension steel cable that the cars run along in order to prevent them from spinning off the track.

In parallel with this engineering effort, and in an unusual development for a school project, Worsley’s group has even become a STEM ambassador in its own right. It has run a number of public rocket-car events, a community day for primary schools, and has designed a 2.5 Newton rocket-car launch and timing system that can be bought by other organisations to run their own rocket-car programmes. “Because we’ve had all this fun, we wanted to share it in some way,” said Worsley.

The group now has its sights set on an effort to use a larger model rocket car to break the sound barrier (768mph) in either June or July 2018 at the Santa Pod Raceway in Bedfordshire. In pursuit of this goal the team has already carried out a series of unadjudicated tests at Santa Pod, hitting an unofficial speed of 730mph at the last main run in September 2016. Indeed, during this most recent test, an audible crack suggested that parts of the vehicle actually broke the sound barrier. “When our cars reach about 700mph, the air flow over the nose, wheels, fuselage and tail can be accelerated beyond 768mph,” explained Worsley. “We think the angle of the nose is accelerating the air upwards, so reaching speeds that exceed the sound barrier and causing a mini-boom as it collapses behind the car. Or… we had the entire car going supersonic and didn’t have the timing system in the correct place – measuring a lower value than the car actually did!”

Worsley’s pupils describe him as an “amazing teacher” and there’s no doubt that his infectious enthusiasm has been a key factor in propelling the team. For him though the students are the real stars: “It has been an honour to work with my students, watching them grow, and become supreme ambassadors for STEM. Watching them represent our school on regional and national platforms fills me with pride… They are a force to be reckoned with!”

Shortlisted – Young innovator

Project name: Pollutech
Partners: The Ursuline Academy, Ilford; IBM; NESTA

Poor air quality is a growing concern across the UK, and there’s now strong evidence that pollutants such as nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and particulates are responsible for tens of thousands of premature deaths in the UK every year. The situation is at its worst in London, which regularly exceeds international limits, and where poor air quality is thought to be responsible for 6,000 to 7,000 premature deaths per year.

In response to this, a group of students at Ilford’s Ursuline Academy, an all-girl comprehensive in east London, joined forces with IBM to develop a detailed design for a wearable device that measures pollution levels and works alongside an app to help pedestrians calculate the least-polluted route to their destination.

The project was initiated through the Longitude Explorer Prize, a competition organised by the funding body Nesta that challenges 11 to 16-year-olds to devise practical health and wellbeing technologies that use the Internet of Things

Throughout the project, collaboration was key and the group used video conferencing technology to maintain regular contact with a group of IBM experts that helped it refine its concept. The project also involved a ‘design-thinking’ workshop, led by two IBM experts, where pupils gained insight into how to manage the design process. This encouraged the students to think in detail about different users and different scenarios in which their device might be used.

While the device is still at concept stage, feedback from IBM on its commercial potential has been positive. What’s more, beyond the core technology, the relationship with IBM has helped advance the students’ understanding of the Internet of Things and of coding, and has established links with a network of engineers and resources.

Project name: Oxidation Characteristics of Titanium 6/4 Alloy
Partners: James Hamilton Academy; Edinburgh Napier University; Strathclyde University (AFRC); Rolls-Royce

STEM outreach projects are usually considered a success if they manage to inspire the students involved. A project involving Rolls-Royce, Edinburgh Napier University, the Advanced Forming Research Centre and Janice To, a fifth-year pupil at James Hamilton Academy in Kilmarnock, Scotland, went a step further by significantly enhancing the understanding of an alloy used widely in the aerospace sector.

The manufacturing process for Titanium 6/4 components involves several thermo-mechanical processing operations that are performed at temperatures in excess of 900˚C. As a result of the thermo-mechanical processing operations, an oxide layer is formed on the surface of the alloy. The research aspect of this project focuses on obtaining a better understanding of the oxidation characteristics of Titanium 6/4 alloy.

The primary reason for undertaking this research project was to reaffirm the existing manufacturing controls associated with the removal of oxide layers and to supplement the training of current and future laboratory staff and operators at Rolls-Royce.

To’s technical report furthering the knowledge and understanding of the oxidation characteristics of the alloy formed the starting point for further research at both Edinburgh Napier University and Strathclyde University’s Advanced Forming Research Centre.

To was awarded the Gold Crest Award by the British Science Association in recognition of her research activities at Rolls-Royce. She was also a finalist at the Big Bang UK Young Scientists and Engineers Fair during March 2017.

Collaborate To Innovate (C2I) is an annual campaign run by The Engineer, including an awards competition and conference, established to uncover and celebrate innovative examples of engineering collaboration

The headline sponsors for C2I 2017 were Frazer-Nash Consultancy and Yamazaki Mazak

For information on sponsoring or supporting C2I2018 contact The Engineer’s commercial director Sonal Dalgliesh

The post C2I 2017: Breaking the sound barrier with a rocket-powered model car appeared first on The Engineer.

AME grads head for engineering careers after industry-focused course

Thu, 2017-12-14 16:45

The Institute for Advanced Manufacturing and Engineering (AME) has seen its first cohort of students graduate in Coventry.

(l-r) Joe Howe, Nick Hugill, Daryl Obe, Wendy Garner (Coventry University), Carl Perrin (Director of AME), Ian Wilson (Course Director), Alicia Prior, Daniel Davey and Daryl Eastgate

AME is a joint collaboration between Coventry University and Unipart Manufacturing that was set up three years ago to develop ‘industry-ready’ engineers.

Seven graduates picked up their BEng degrees, including Alicia Prior, Daniel Davey, Daryl Eastgate, Daryl Obe, David Mordi, Joe Howe and Nick Hugill.

They have all secured employment, with five of them directly involved in industry for firms in the automotive, motorsport and metals sector. Other students on the first cohort are continuing on to complete their Masters.

Carl Perrin, director of AME said: “This is a fantastic milestone for us and highlights how a new approach to developing future manufacturing talent can work.

“We set out the vision in 2014 to create the UK’s first ‘Faculty on the Factory Floor’, an ambitious vision that linked up industry and academia and changed the focus of learning to real life experience of shopfloor projects and giving them access to the latest technology.

“It’s an approach that has worked as we have produced much more rounded engineers that are comfortable operating in a high pressured working environment and understand the dynamics of being part of a team.”

The Institute for Advanced Manufacturing and Engineering is located on the Unipart Manufacturing site in Coventry and is housed in a 1700 sq metre purpose-built hub.

“I’m delighted for our first cohort, especially with the fact that five of them have gone into industry-related positions,” added Perrin. “Three of them have started work at Unipart Powertrain Applications (UPA), one is working with SAPA Hydro and another is starting his career in the motorsport arena.”

Alicia Prior has celebrated achieving her degree by securing a position at Unipart Powertrain Applications in Coventry. Prior’s time at AME included a two-month placement with a major US manufacturer in Indiana.

“It has been a fantastic experience, especially spending so much of it working on real-time manufacturing projects…it reinforced the theory and allowed me to quickly apply it to situations I will find myself in the future,” she said. “I’m now part of a small team at UPA, supporting an advanced manufacturing engineer in their work. This is just the start; the longer-term aim is to become a project manager in industry.”

Discover the 6 key steps to getting a graduate job in engineering

The post AME grads head for engineering careers after industry-focused course appeared first on The Engineer.

Electric eel inspires biocompatible hydrogel battery

Thu, 2017-12-14 16:33

Researchers in Switzerland and the US have been inspired by the electric eel to create a biocompatible hydrogel battery that could power devices inside the body.

(Credit: Steven G Johnson via CC)

Electric eels combine potassium and sodium ions in cell membranes to deliver their trademark jolt. Mimicking that system, the researchers used the sodium and chloride constituents of salt, dissolved in a hydrogel. Thousands of tiny droplets of the salty gel were printed on a plastic sheet, alternating them with hydrogel droplets of pure water. The team then created a second sheet of alternating droplets made of charge-selective hydrogel.  Each droplet allows either positively charged sodium or negatively charged chloride to pass, while at the same time excluding the other.

When the sheets are pressed together, the salty and fresh solutions mix, the charge-selective droplets move the sodium and chloride ions in opposing directions, and an electric current is produced. The work, published in Nature, featured input from scientists and engineers from the University of Michigan, the Adolphe Merkle Institute at Switzerland’s University of Fribourg, and the University of California-San Diego.

“The eel polarises and depolarises thousands of cells instantaneously to put out these high voltages,” said study co-author Max Shtein, associate professor of materials science and engineering at Michigan. “It’s a fascinating system to look at from an engineering perspective – its performance metrics, its fundamental building blocks and how to use them.”

One particular challenge was aligning the alternating cells in the correct order so that they created a current when brought together simultaneously. The team solved this problem with an origami technique called a Miura fold, often used to fold solar panels into satellites for launch. The different droplet types were alternated in a precise pattern on a flat sheet that had been laser-scored in a Miura pattern. When pressure was applied, the sheet quickly folded together, stacking the cells in exactly the right positions.

According to the researchers, the goal is now to improve the device’s efficiency, with a view to one day using it to power implantable or wearable electronics. There is also a belief that the hydrogel battery could potentially be powered up using the body’s own bioelectric processes, much like the eels that inspired the original concept. But while an electric eel can deliver up to 600 volts, the hydrogel system is a lot less powerful.

“The electric organs in eels are incredibly sophisticated; they’re far better at generating power than we are,” said Michael Mayer, a professor of biophysics at Fribourg’s Adolphe Merkle Institute. “But the important thing for us was to replicate the basics of what’s happening.”


The post Electric eel inspires biocompatible hydrogel battery appeared first on The Engineer.

Collaborative research is the lifeblood of technological advancement. So why is it coming under threat?

Thu, 2017-12-14 16:12

Collaboration is key to engineering. In an increasingly globalised world, distributed teams working seamlessly and efficiently together towards a common end can be an extremely powerful means of getting a job done, writes Lee Hibbert. 

That’s particularly true within universities, where multi-disciplinary groups from all over the world pool their collective knowledge to advance understanding in key areas of science and technology. These alliances aren’t restricted to the academic seats of learning: collaborative research often pulls in companies and other commercially-focussed institutions, all of whom bring their own specific knowledge and expertise.

The true value of collaborative working was brought into sharp focus at an event in the UK last week, where scientists and engineers from all over the world came together to reveal details of their combined efforts.

Panellists discuss engineering collaboration at C2I 2017

The presentations at the Collaborate to Innovate conference, organised by The Engineer, highlighted the deep links between the business and the academic research base, demonstrating the way in which specialists from different disciplines and sectors are working together to solve some of society’s biggest challenges. The conference provided a timely reminder that when it comes to pushing forward the boundaries of technological-knowhow, we are stronger together.

There were details of a tremendous project combining nuclear physics and cardiology that had resulted in a new type of artificial implant for the heart that induced a helical flow of blood which improves the success of cardiovascular surgery. Researchers from the UK and Spain, along with others, studied how fluid dynamics within the helical ribs on the outer surface of nuclear fuel pins in advanced gas cooled reactors could provide lessons in how to manipulate blood flow. And so, after hundreds of hours of collaborative working, the Spiral-Inducing Bypass Graft was produced. Patent applications for the device are currently under review and, ultimately, it has the potential to save many lives.

There was also an insightful presentation from a team of researchers, led by University College London, which outlined studies into the mechanisms that cause rapid and catastrophic failure in lithium-ion batteries. The phenomenon – known as thermal runaway – occurs when the rate of heat generated inside a battery exceeds the rate of heat dissipation. Researchers at UCL, with input from colleagues at Nasa and the European Synchrotron, among others, provided crucial insight into the process of thermal runaway, enabling engineers to identify the safest commercial battery designs for aerospace and automotive applications.


The conference provided many other examples of powerful collaborations that had delivered valuable advances. The only note of pessimism on what overall had proved to be an inspiring day was mention of the dreaded B word – Brexit. The UK’s continued involvement in European research programmes such as Horizon 2020 and Erasmus+ after 2019 was the source of much concerned debate among delegates, with some fearing that UK universities would be inevitably side-lined as new consortia were formed.

There were also calls for greater clarity on the rights of EU researchers currently working in the UK. Around 16% of teaching and research employees at the UK’s 132 universities are EU nationals, it was said, and their Brexit-induced departure would create enormous damage across all areas of multi-disciplinary research.

In summary, collaboration is the lifeblood of technological advancement. It provides a means of creating networks, bringing together new talent and unlocking new streams of revenue. As Brexit discussions move forward, the power of collaboration must be kept at the forefront of politicians’ minds.

Lee Hibbert is content director at Technical Associates Group

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US team etches bacteria killing nano spikes on stainless steel

Thu, 2017-12-14 15:55

Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology in the US have used an electrochemical etching process to create a bacteria killing nanotextured surface on a stainless steel alloy.  

The nanotextured surface appears to kill bacteria

The initial goal of the research – which is reported in the journal ACS Biomaterials Science & Engineering – was to create a super-hydrophobic surface on stainless steel, but it soon became clear that creating such a surface would require the use of a chemical coating, which the researchers didn’t want to do. The group decided to explore the use of a nanotextured surface on stainless steel to control bacterial adhesion.

The team experimented with varying levels of voltage and current flow in a standard electrochemical process which they used to roughen the surface of the steel at the nanometre scale.

During laboratory tests the group found that the surface modification killed Gram negative and Gram positive bacteria, testing it on Escherichia coli and Staphylococcus aureus. Closer examination of the material showed protrusions 20 to 25 nanometres above the surface, and while the specific mechanism by which the material kills bacteria requires further study, the researchers believe tiny spikes and other nano-protrusions created on the surface puncture bacterial membranes to kill the bugs. Because the process appears to rely on a biophysical rather than chemical process, it’s thought that bacteria won’t be able to develop a resistance to it.

Intriguingly, the surface structures don’t appear to have a similar effect on mammalian cells, which are an order of magnitude larger than the bacteria. This suggests that the process could offer a solution to microbial contamination on implantable medical devices and on food processing equipment.

As well as its the anti-bacterial effects, the nano-texturing also appears to improve corrosion resistance.

“This surface treatment has potentially broad-ranging implications because stainless steel is so widely used and so many of the applications could benefit,” said Julie Champion, an associate professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. “A lot of the antimicrobial approaches currently being used add some sort of surface film, which can wear off. Because we are actually modifying the steel itself, that should be a permanent change to the material.”


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C2I 2017: Nuclear industry innovation inspires life-saving heart implant

Thu, 2017-12-14 14:00

The Spiral-Inducing Bypass Graft was produced by an unusual multi-disciplinary, cross-border venture. The laws that govern blood flow apply also to the dynamics of coolant in nuclear reactors, which prompted the development of this unique biomedical device

Collaborate To Innovate 2017
Health and wellbeing
Winner: Spiral-Inducing Bypass Graft
Partners: University of Manchester; University of Michigan; Manchester Metropolitan University; National University of Singapore; Cardiovascular Research Institute at Sant Pau Hospital, Barcelona

Nuclear physics and cardiology may not seem like natural bedfellows but the winner in the Health & Wellbeing category has cleverly combined the two. The Spiral-Inducing Bypass Graft is an artificial implant for the heart that induces a helical flow of blood, which improves the success of cardiovascular surgery and ultimately saves lives. It’s the result of a multi-faceted, international collaboration that spans the globe, led by Dr Amir Keshmiri.

Almost 35,000 coronary artery bypass graft (CABG) procedures take place in the UK each year. However, according to the British Heart Foundation, more than half of CABGs fail within 10 years. Haemodynamic factors are widely acknowledged as playing a key role in the thickening of blood vessels that can cause graft failure. Finding a way to manipulate blood flow would have the potential to dramatically improve the procedure’s success rate.

“My PhD was in nuclear engineering but, towards the end of 2013, I started working on a number of biomedical projects,” said Keshmiri, assistant professor of fluid dynamics at Manchester University.

Fundamentally, the principles of fluid dynamics are the same across all mediums, with the laws governing the flow of blood also applying to the dynamics of coolant in nuclear reactors. Keshmiri had studied how helical ribs on the outer surface of nuclear fuel pins in the UK’s advanced gas-cooled reactors (AGRs) led to better mixing of coolant, resulting in the enhancement of heat transfer. After developing an interest in biomed, he began to look for applications of his expertise in CFD (computational fluid dynamics) simulation.

“I was intrigued by how we could potentially apply our simulation techniques to aneurysms and try to predict ruptures, for example,” he said.

In 2014, Keshmiri met Mark Slevin, a professor in cardiovascular biology at Manchester Metropolitan University. Their relationship would form the basis of this collaboration. Discussing bypass grafts, Keshmiri noted that all the implants he had encountered had been straight. He suggested that the helical shape used in reactors could have the potential to manipulate blood flow in heart implants. After discussing the idea with Slevin, Keshmiri took to the road, attending conferences and speaking to academics and surgeons.

“Some people were really interested; some people were a bit sceptical,” Keshmiri explained. “I got various feedback and I decided to include some of those people that I had met in the project, and that’s actually how it started.”

The EPSRC provided funding for the first stage of the project, which not only supported the UK-based research but enabled Keshmiri to visit international partners and collaborators that had joined the activity.

“When the project was funded, we brought in one or two more partners because we realised some more expertise was required to achieve the objectives,” he said.

These new partners included the University of Michigan, renowned for its strong biomedical engineering unit. Here, Keshmiri worked alongside Dr Foad Kabinejadian, an expert in cardiovascular biomechanics. Together they set about optimising the graft’s structure, conducting numerous simulations to achieve the best configuration.

In 2015, Keshmiri spent three months at the Cardiovascular Research Institute at Sant Pau Hospital, Barcelona. His experience in the clinical setting helped deepen his understanding of the surgical issues at play, and the institute became a prominent partner in the project.

“That placement was fantastic because I was immersed in that medical environment, dealing with biologists and surgeons every day,” said Keshmiri. “It was a real eye-opener.”

With collaborative partners in the US and Europe already on board, Keshmiri found himself looking to Asia for the final piece of the puzzle. His extensive research led him to a journal featuring the work of biomedical engineers from Singapore.

“One of the key publications when I was doing my research was written by a group at the National University of Singapore,” Keshmiri said. “I sent an email to the main author asking about some of their results. Then I asked for some data. They were very helpful, and that led to a very successful collaboration.”

The result of the multi-disciplinary, cross-border venture is a unique biomedical device that makes use of both non-planar helicity and an optimised internal ridge within the graft. The implant promotes improved blood flow within the anastomosis – the surgical connection between the prosthetic graft and the blood vessels of the human body.

Media reports have previously referred to the graft as ‘gun barrel’, because the helical shape has a similar effect to the rifling that imparts spin on bullets. However, the reality is not as straightforward.

“The gun-barrel analogy is so catchy – and it does make sense – but in reality it’s a lot more complicated than that,” said Keshmiri.  “[The graft] has a non-planar helicity, and a gun barrel doesn’t have that.”

With so many partners working across different time zones, project co-ordination was a major challenge. Communication between the teams generally took place over Skype, with Doodle Polls used to ascertain the most convenient times. For the workload itself, a Google Drive folder was used to share documents, and the team employed a software tool called Trello to assign tasks and give everyone visibility over the project and its progress.

“Whenever you have a number of people working on different aspects of a project, Trello is a nice platform that allows everyone to access and see what everyone else is up to,” Keshmiri said. “You can signpost messages, you can upload stuff, you can do so much with it and it’s fantastic for group projects.”

Patent applications for the design of the graft are currently in review, and the team is continuing to work on the device’s optimisation while seeking development partners.

“Before you go into clinical trials or even animal trials, you’re talking about huge amounts of money required for such projects. You’re talking about millions of pounds,” said Keshmiri. “We’re looking at potential industrial partners to see if any of them might be interested in helping or contributing, or developing the design. That’s the stage we’re at now.”

Shortlisted – Health and wellbeing

Project name: Transforming healthcare through x-ray phase contrast imaging
Partners: UCL, Nikon, Metrology UK, QMUL, UCLH

X-ray imaging is a powerful tool but it has not evolved much in the 120 years since it was discovered. And, while it is useful for distinguishing between materials with different attenuation properties – such as muscle and bone – it is less successful for imaging things such as tumours in soft tissue, where the contrast is weaker.

To solve this problem, a team led by Alessandro Olivo at University College London (UCL) has been incorporating x-ray phase contrast imaging (XPCI) into medical applications. XPCI exploits variations in the phase of x-rays as they pass through different materials or tissues, leading to greatly enhanced image contrast. The technique until recently has been restricted to specialised facilities such as synchotrons. However, working with research partner Nikon, the UCL team has been able to develop commercial prototypes.

Two projects funded by the Wellcome Trust and EPSRC are applying the technology in breast conservation surgery and oesophageal cancer intervention, at Queen Mary University London and University College London Hospital respectively. The multi-disciplinary collaboration has the potential to bring unprecedented detail to x-ray images, saving millions of pounds across the NHS and improving survival rates for countless patients.

Project name: Transforming pre-operation planning for the NHS
Partners: Virtual Engineering Centre, Alder Hey Children’s Hospital

In a UK first, the Virtual Engineering Centre (VEC) worked in close collaboration
with Liverpool’s Alder Hey Children’s Hospital to develop virtual reality (VR) tools
to improve surgery planning. Using technology developed for the automotive sector, the VEC created a virtual heart of a child from MRI and CT scan data.

The VR heart can be projected into an 8ft model, highlighting details in the tiny organ, which in reality can be as small as a strawberry. Surgeons and doctors can explore the heart at will, walking through and around it to help plan surgical procedures and improve patient outcomes. The collaboration marked the first time Alder Hey had engaged with VR tools, as well as the first time the VEC had ventured into the healthcare space.

“We are amazed by the possibilities that working with the VEC has enabled,” said Iain Hennessey, head of innovations at Alder Hey. “Standing inside a virtual heart 8ft high, operating a virtual torch to examine for defects, has been one of the highlights of my innovation career so far. The ability to accurately assess the miniature detail of a sick child’s heart, using advanced 3D visuals, is a technology that we will continue to pursue in partnership with the VEC.”

Project name: StarStream
Partners: University of Southampton, Ultrawave Ltd

StarStream is a portable ultrasonic device that uses cold water infused with bubbles to clean skin, tools and surfaces without chemicals. Developed by Southampton university and Cardiff-based Ultrawave, the technology is particularly effective against microbes and could be a vital tool in the fight against antimicrobial resistance (AMR), which has been building across society in recent years.

The device can be incorporated into sink taps or operate with bottles of drinking water as a portable battery-powered unit, for use by search-and-rescue teams or humanitarian missions. Thousands of ‘microscopic scrubbing bubbles’ clean by mechanical action, reaching cracks and crevices that other methods may fail to reach. As well as being suitable for cleaning medical instruments, the low pressure makes it safe for use on delicate materials such as salad leaves, or for cleaning sensitive wounds.

Having gained patents in the EU, Russia and China, StarStream is currently undergoing trials in three hospitals, where it will be used to clean everything from wards and equipment to the hands of medical staff. The collaboration has not only advanced the StarStream technology but has formed the basis for NAMRIP (Network for Antimicrobial Medicine and Industry), an entirely new research project with 160 members to date.

Collaborate To Innovate (C2I) is an annual campaign run by The Engineer, including an awards competition and conference, established to uncover and celebrate innovative examples of engineering collaboration

The headline sponsors for C2I 2017 were Frazer-Nash Consultancy and Yamazaki Mazak

For information on sponsoring or supporting C2I2018 contact The Engineer’s commercial director Sonal Dalgliesh

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Highways England outlines vision for high-tech motorways

Thu, 2017-12-14 12:30

Highways England believes technology will play an increasingly major role in keeping people moving and the country connected.

In its newly unveiled vision for the strategic road network, Highways England said an intelligent network coupled with connected vehicles would improve how efficiently roads are maintained and simultaneously improve safety. In another development drones could also be used to fly overhead and report back on incidents, and cars could be programmed to spot potholes on motorways and automatically transmit the information to Highways England to schedule repairs.

In its Strategic Road Network Initial Report, published on December 13, 2017, the government company also stressed the importance of keeping existing roads properly maintained in a way which minimises disruption to road users and local communities.

“We are delivering…£15bn of government investment to give people safe, efficient and reliable journeys, and provide businesses with the links they need to prosper and grow,” said Highways England chief executive, Jim O’Sullivan. “Because people’s journeys are important to us we are setting out our high level aspirations which will help ensure the network continues to drive economic growth, jobs and prosperity, and keeps traffic moving.”

The report will help inform the government’s next road investment strategy, which begins in 2020.

Commenting on the report, Russell Goodenough, client managing director, transport sector, at Fujitsu UK & Ireland said: “These proposals to transform England’s motorways highlights that the transport industry is at the crossroads between the old and the new. We’re expecting continuous transformation in the sector, and seeing Highways England design new roads with connected vehicles in mind is confirming the speed at which the industry is innovating.

“Making smart motorways the new norm will help us determine how autonomous vehicles fit into our existing transport infrastructure. This, of course, will also help shape the public’s understanding of connected and driverless cars, which is paramount if we want to see these hit our roads.”

“Highways England rightly identifies that we need to invest in our roads against a backdrop of increasing demand, but fails to consider how to harness technology to avoid unnecessary travel and, in particular, avoid travelling during the morning and evening peaks,” said Philippa Oldham, head of Transport and Manufacturing at IMechE. “A transport network that is over-burdened at peak hours and relatively quiet for much of the rest of the day is an inherently inefficient system. In a time of mass digitisation, our transport network has an opportunity to use these tools to improve the efficiency, robustness and design of our roads. Such information could then be used to prioritise investment schemes in a logical, evidence-based way.”


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January 1880: Edison’s electric light

Wed, 2017-12-13 22:47

A certain formality is often the hallmark of articles in the Victorian editions of The Engineer; but in the case of the now-celebrated American inventor Thomas Alva Edison, that formality gives way to a finely-honed scorn.

Edison, along with many others, had for some years been trying to develop a practical electric light, and our predecessors were reacting to a report in the New York Herald that he had finally succeeded. It’s fair to say that they were not persuaded.

The article is headed “Mr Edison’s latest electric light” and you can almost hear the weariness in the word “latest”. It starts by recalling a Charles Dickens character, who when asked their opinion of another replies that “I don’t believe there is such a person”. The Engineer notes that when it comes to the description of Edison by the New York Herald, it does not believe that such a person exists, and adds that it is surprised that Edison allows the claims attributed to him to be published. “We refuse to believe the latter gentleman [Edison] can hold himself responsible for the sayings and doings of his prototype”, it says.


The difficulty that Edison and all the other electric light pioneers had been experiencing was to find a suitable material to form the filament of an electric lamp that would glow reliably when heated by electric current but would not disintegrate. The electric lamp described in the Herald article, it seems, used a filament of carbon inside an evacuated glass bulb, something which had already been tried unsuccessfully.

In fact, the engineer quotes JW (Joseph) Swan, in later years co-credited with Edison as the inventor of incandescent electric light, who stated in nature in January 1880 that he had tried a horseshoe-shaped carbon filament 15 years previously, and had failed. The Herald claimed that Edison had told it he had made a filament from compressed lampblack mixed with tar, which he had been rolling between his fingers while contemplating the problem (lampblack was a sticky soot produced by the incomplete combustion of oil in oil lamps). He tried this in his prototype lamp apparatus, and the result, though not completely successful, was better than he expected. This led him to try other textures of carbon that he had not previously tested, and he found that a filament made from the charred carbon remnant of a short length of cotton thread proved to be successful.

The Engineer was sceptical. “It is neither more nor less than an incandescent lamp,” it says. “Such lamps have been invented and made already by the hundred, and they have failed.” The length would not be able to burn continuously for at least four or five hours a night for half a year, it predicted. “It is a pretty toy and nothing more.”

Some of the claims made for the lamp were “glaringly absurd,” it adds. Particular scorn is poured on the claim the land could be made for 25 cents, or one shilling as it was at the time in Britain. “Is it credible,” it asks, “that glass globes can be exhausted of air to the millionth of an atmosphere for one shilling?” Moreover, it notes, the filament was held in place with clamps made of platinum, and no other metal would do. “How much platinum wire do the readers of the New York Herald imagine can be got for one shilling? And what kind of skilled labour will be required to make such a thing? The notion that such a refined mathematical instrument could be made for one shilling is simply preposterous.”

With hindsight we can see that the journal was quite right to be sceptical. The version of the electric lamp described by the Herald was not the final article; Edison eventually settled on carbon derived from bamboo, which again he claimed to have stumbled upon, this time while examining fibres from a bamboo fishing-rod. He patented this bulb, and claiming to be its sole inventor (though Joseph Swan had in fact got there first), marketed it throughout the US, while Swan retained the UK rights and it was 1200 of his bulbs that this lit world’s first public building equipped with electric light, London’s Savoy Theatre.

Swan, meanwhile, had also tried many different substances, including carbonised hairs from his luxuriant beard. Later, he made an important innovation in discovering a process for squeezing nitro-cellulose through holes to form a conducting cellulose filament. When Edison and Swan formed a joint-venture in 1883 to manufacture and market lightbulbs, it was this cellulose filament that was used. In later years, the “Ediswan” factory at Ponders End, North London, became an important centre for the manufacture of thermionic valves and cathode-ray tubes, and was important to the early years of the electronics industry.

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RAEng announces new intelligence and security fellowships

Wed, 2017-12-13 21:31

The Royal Academy of Engineering (RAEng) has revealed details of four new fellowships that will look to advance UK intelligence & security research.

Offered by the Government Office for Science and administered by the RAEng, the UK Intelligence Community (IC) Postdoctoral Research Fellowships will investigate online behaviour patterns, rechargeable batteries for wearables, quantum & optical sensors, and advanced x-ray scanning.

According to the RAEng, the programme is based on a similar scheme that has been running successfully in the US since 2000. Each of the researchers will receive at least two years of funding, supported by mentoring from an RAEng Fellow as well as an advisor from the intelligence community. The aim is to provide a platform for young talent to grow, while simultaneously developing links between academia and the intelligence sector.

“Engineering innovation is vital to the development and success of many sectors in the UK, including the intelligence, security and defence communities,” said Professor Dame Ann Dowling, president of the Royal Academy of Engineering. “These four awardees reflect the very best of what the UK’s excellent researchers have to offer and recognise the crucial role engineering plays in shaping the UK’s security future.”

“Research is an essential part of innovation and the new IC Postdoctoral Research Fellowships strengthen the necessary relationship between universities and the intelligence community, ensuring that the UK stays at the forefront of development and can address the new security challenges of our modern world.”


The post-doctoral researchers and their projects are:

Calculus of privacy – Dr David Haynes, City, University of London
Through the analysis of real-life user behaviour, Dr David Haynes will investigate the way individuals reveal personal information when using the internet. Examining the interactions and risks people take when online, the proposed project will provide information on how to predict behaviour online and how this can be used to improve public safety.

Environmentally stable rechargeable batteries for flexible wearable electronics – Dr James Robinson, UCL
There is currently a major push in the consumer, medical and military sectors for the development of flexible and rechargeable batteries for wearable electronics. Addressing issues of durability, longevity and safety, James will work on the development of novel flexible battery cells that are powered using non-toxic zinc metal and oxygen from the air.

Quantum and Optical Sensors – Dr Jonathan Silver, National Physical Laboratory (NPL) & City, University of London
Optical microresonators are tiny glass rings in which light is stored by travelling around up to a million times or more. These long storage times, combined with the small volumes in which the light is confined, allow optical intensities in the billions of watts per square centimetre to build up inside the material with just a few milliwatts of input power. This project will utilise the phenomena that occur with such large intensities to develop a new generation of hyper-accurate chip-size sensors that can be used for trace gas sensing, particularly in airport security.

Stored energy detection in complex environments – Dr Fabio Alessio Vittoria, UCL
Non-destructive scanning techniques are a valuable tool for security screening but current x-ray images do not give enough information to fully reveal if an object is dangerous. The method proposed by Dr Vittoria will bring together two types of x-ray collection, XPCI and EDXRD, with machine learning algorithms for the first time to provide more detailed information on the physical, chemical and structural properties of a sample.

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Project looks at gecko grip for handling in high-precision industrial settings

Wed, 2017-12-13 17:53

Humans have long admired the ability of the gecko to climb walls and numerous attempts have been made at replicating the adhesive qualities of the lizard’s feet.

Now, a Georgia Institute of Technology (GATECH) researcher is looking into how gecko-grip could be applied in a high-precision industrial setting, such as in robot arms used in manufacturing computer chips.

“There are numerous ways that gecko adhesion could be used in an industrial setting, especially in handling delicate materials like the silicon wafers used in manufacturing computer processors,” said Michael Varenberg, an assistant professor in Georgia Tech’s George W Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering.

Before robot arms and other devices can implement gecko adhesion technology, researchers need more information about the mechanical and physical characteristics of the human-made adhesive surfaces.

In a study published in Journal of the Royal Society Interface, Varenberg looked at a particular type of gecko-inspired adhesive surface and narrowed down a range of angles at which the material will attach stronger and release its grip easier.

The gecko gets its ability through the use of tiny hairs that interact with surfaces at an intermolecular level, a process during which the tiny film-like hairs are pressed onto the surface and engaged with a shearing action. They then either hold to the surface or release when pulled away in different directions.

According to GATECH, for that process to be replicated in a factory using man-made adhesive technology, researchers must determine the precise angles at which to apply a load to get or release the grip between the robotic arm and the silicon wafer.

Walls formed to mimic the adhesion characteristics of gecko feet

Varenberg’s team tested a wall-shaped microstructure surface moulded out of polyvinylsiloxane and designed to mimic the gecko’s attachment ability. Their tests are said to have shown that the optimum attachment angle varies between 60 and 90 degrees, while the microstructures detach at zero force when the pull-off angle reaches 140-160 degrees.

“That relatively wide range to control the attachment and pulling away for these wall-shaped microstructures will make it easier to build a mechanical process around that tolerance,” Varenberg said.

That could hold promise for replacing a current method used during the processing and inspection of silicon wafers in computer processor production.

A study at GATECH looked at characteristics of gecko adhesion technology

Robot arms employ ceramic chucks that use vacuum or electrostatic grippers to pick up and handle the wafers. The ceramic contact posts eventually wear down due to cyclic loading and release particles that can potentially contaminate the backside of the wafer leading to lithography defects on its front side.

“This reality is inconsistent with the cleanliness standards required in the semiconductor industry,” Varenberg said. “Using gecko adhesion microstructures instead would be better because they do not generate any damage to wafers and do not wear over time.”

Next steps in the research include simplifying the manufacturing technique, working with industrial-grade materials as well as studying the effects of environment and surface geometry parameters, Varenberg said.


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Speed up approvals and embrace new technology to ensure UK’s nuclear future, says IMechE

Wed, 2017-12-13 17:00

The UK urgently needs to address the implications of Brexit on the nuclear sector and ensure the future pipeline of nuclear technologies, the IMechE says in a new report.

Hinkley Point C

The report, Nuclear Power: A Future Pathway for the UK, assesses the state of nuclear policy in the wake of the announcement last week of more support for the development of small modular reactor (SMR) technologies. It identifies three immediate and urgent roadblocks to the progression of nuclear projects in Britain, and also calls for the government to embrace a much wider range of nuclear technologies than are currently deployed.

The pathway set out in the IMechE report rests upon three main objectives: replacement of all old nuclear capacity with new plants by 2030; building and deploying a fleet of SMR-based power stations by 2040; and developing Generation IV technologies (generally based on reactors that operate at much higher temperatures than current AGR and PWR plants) and fusion plants to come on-stream after 2050.

“The key challenge is to reduce costs and delays,” commented Dr Jenifer Baxter, IMechE’s head of energy and environment.

The three roadblocks that the institution sees in the path of immediate progress are the issue of “Brexatom” – the UK’s still-unresolved exit from the Euratom treaty as a consequence of leaving the European Union – which, the report says, would prevent the entire UK nuclear industry from functioning; the absence of a firm timetable and plan for the delivery of the long-mooted Deep Geological Disposal facility for high-level nuclear waste; and the fate of Britain’s stockpile of plutonium, amounting to 112 tonnes.

Currently legally classified as waste, this is the world’s largest stock of civil plutonium and is housed in a secure facility at Sellafield. However, plutonium contains huge amounts of energy and many believe that it should be regarded as potential fuel rather than waste to be stored and discarded.

PRISM power-block

The IMechE recommends that the UK study the potential of PRISM reactors, a modified form of a liquid sodium-cooled breeder reactor developed by Hitachi but not yet deployed anywhere, for burning the stored plutonium, which would  also be converted into a less radioactive form that would be safer and easier to store.

The report also calls on the government to implement an independent review of the Generic Design Assessment (GDA) process – the administrative procedure through which new designs of nuclear reactor are approved for deployment in the UK.

Administered by the Office of Nuclear Regulation (ONR), the GDA currently takes around five years to complete; until now, only two designs have been approved under this regime, the EPR design which is to be built at Hinkley Point C, and the AP1000, which is to be built at Moorside in Cumbria. Another design, the Chinese HPR1000 (also known as Hualong One), is now halfway through the procedure, ahead of planned deployment at Bradwell in Essex.

The review of GDA would ensure that unnecessary costs are not added to new reactors and will ensure that SMRs, when they are developed, can be approved faster, Baxter explained.

“SMRs present a lower cost option, with comparatively straightforward construction and, potentially, a more attractive investment proposition than conventional larger scale nuclear plants,” she said.

Among the other recommendations in the report are those to consider alternative funding options for developments at Wylfa on Anglesey and at Moorside; support for the development of a Modular Construction Plant on the Mersey estuary, to further support SMR projects; to make sure that the ONR has the required skills and capacity to assess SMR technologies; and to undertake a new Strategic Siting Assessment to identify potential locations for future nuclear plants.


“The delays and escalating costs of the Hinkley Point C project has provoked a public backlash in recent years against nuclear power.  Yet as a reliable and relatively low carbon source of electricity, it makes sense for nuclear to form a greater part of the UK’s future energy mix, reducing our reliance on coal and gas,” Baxter said. “It is also vital that as the UK prepares to leave the European Union that nuclear construction skills are added to the shortage occupation list ― which would allow experienced workers from oversees to enter the UK.”

Meanwhile, the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) has issued a report on the implications of Brexit on the civil nuclear sector, which calls for a close relationship to be maintained between the UK and the Euratom treaty nations.

Baxter said that this would be an ideal scenario for the industry, as Euratom governs all movement of nuclear materials, as well as regulatory standards for nuclear installations and skills. The government’s stated position is that, as Euratom comes under the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, the UK must leave the treaty when it leaves the EU.

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Pan-European drone project detects toxic gases in disaster zones

Wed, 2017-12-13 16:44

A multimillion-dollar, multi-partner European drone project is using photonics to detect toxic gases in the atmosphere following events such as wildfires, chemical explosions and volcanic eruptions.

Going by the slightly laboured acronym FLAIR (FLying ultrA-broadband single-shot Infra-Red Sensor), the fixed-wing drone will be able to reach speeds of 120km/h, an altitude of 4,000m, and cover a radius of 80km. Onboard will be a super-continuum laser capable of detecting tiny concentrations of a range of gases, including carbon dioxide, methane, sulphur oxides, and nitrogen dioxide.

The drone project, which is expected to deliver a prototype in 2018, has already received over €3m from the EU’s Horizon 2020 fund via the Photonics Public Private Partnership. It features partners from across the continent, led by Portugal’s Tekever Autonomous Systems. The other members of the collaboration are Senseair AB (Sweden); NKT Photonics A/S, Danmarks Tekniske Universiteit (Denmark); New Infrared Technologies SL (Spain); Stichting Katholieke Universiteit (Netherlands); Eidgenossische Materialprufungs-Und Forschungsanstalt, CSEM Centre Suisse D’Electronique et de Microtechnique SA – Recherche et Developpement (Switzerland).

“For the first time, a drone reaching altitudes of up to 4000 metres will be able to detect fine traces of air molecules that are dangerous to our health with a state-of-the-art laser sensor,” said Tekever Autonomous Systems’ André Oliveira.

“The drone can map out areas that are too dangerous for humans to go and can transmit data in real time to a ground processing unit.”

The gas concentrations are measured by reading the unique frequencies or ‘signatures’ of the air sample that become absorbed and ‘dimmed’ in the laser light. To improve detection, the frequencies of the various gases are separated. The light then passes through a series of gratings and lenses, illuminating the surface of a multi-pixel detector which is able to distinguish particles at the photon level.

“For the first time a gas sensing device has been created from the hybrid of an optical spectrometer and a high-resolution spectroscopy gas sensor,” said Oliveira. “By employing infrared absorption spectroscopy in either the 2-5 microns and 8-12 microns wavelength windows where most of the harmful gases have absorption signatures, the optical sensors can detect many molecules, simultaneously in real time.”

“Immediate detection with such accuracy and precision, without putting lives at risk, allows us to visualise vast areas of danger much more effectively. A tailored response can therefore be deployed to disaster situations, reducing damage or even saving lives.”


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C2I 2017: The Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon project

Wed, 2017-12-13 14:00

The Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon project, which uses a breakwater wall to harness the power of the tides, is the first of its kind and could provide a scalable blueprint for adoption worldwide

Collaborate To Innovate 2017
Energy, efficiency and sustainability
Winner: Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon
Partners: Tidal Lagoon Power; Atkins; LDA Design

The winner in the Energy, Efficiency and Sustainability category is a ground-breaking project that promises to be a world first and could help pave the way to a greener future in the UK and beyond. Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon will use a 9.5km breakwater wall to harness the power of the tides, with which the west coast of the UK is particularly well endowed. The 4-5m height difference in water between high and low tides will be used to drive 16 hydro turbines, providing clean, reliable electricity for more than 120 years.

Project partners Tidal Lagoon Power (TLP), Atkins and LDA Design have worked together to develop new technologies to maximise energy efficiency and value for money. Prior to working with TLP, Atkins had collaborated on a research project for the concept design of a novel low-head tidal turbine specifically designed to work on both ebb and flood flows. Whereas existing tidal-power schemes such as La Rance Barrage in France and the Sihwa barrage in South Korea utilise around 20 per cent of the available potential tidal energy, Swansea is expected to achieve efficiency in excess of 50 per cent.

The 7.2m-diameter bidirectional turbines will sit in 70m-long draft tubes, housed within
the banks of the breakwall. With an installed capacity of 320MW, the lagoon will provide 530GWh of net power output annually, enough to provide clean energy for over 155,000 homes. According to the developers, the project will result in 236,000 tonnes of carbon savings during each year of operation.

“The collaboration with Tidal Lagoon Power, LDA Design and others has resulted in a truly innovative project. Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon will be the first project of its kind in the world,” said Atkins practice director Richard Schunter.

“This project will make a positive difference to people’s lives in the UK in a clean, sustainable and responsible way. As designers and engineers, these are things that excite us, and everyone involved in this project should be rightfully very pleased and proud of being part of the team.”

Construction of the facility is predicted to directly sustain over 2,200 jobs, and two new manufacturing sites are set to be located in Wales for the build. One of these will focus on machining and pre-assembly of turbines, while the second will deal with heavy fabrication of steel components. It’s estimated that 100,000 tonnes of steel will be used during construction, the bulk of which will come from the UK.

Central to the overall design of the lagoon is the breakwater, which Atkins worked on as part of an integrated and collaborative technical team. One of the fundamental challenges was to produce a commercially workable design that was sufficiently watertight. Innovation came in the form of a sand core rather than the rockfill used in traditional breakwater construction. However, the consistency of the sand is crucial: too fine and it gets washed out by the difference in water pressure; too coarse and the flow of water would reduce the head difference, leading to the loss of available power.

As luck would have it, a site investigation of the bay revealed that suitable sand deposits were available and could be dredged from within the circumference of the lagoon itself to create the breakwater’s core. Compared to using imported rockfill, local material reduces the capital cost, as well as providing the lower permeability that will enhance the overall efficiency of the lagoon.

As well as enabling the power of the tides to be harnessed, the lagoon is intended to be used as a community amenity. The seawall itself will be open to the public for exercise and will feature open space that includes a beach and rock pools. Meanwhile, the lagoon will be available for leisure activities and watersports such as rowing, sailing and canoeing.

According to TLP, there are already preliminary plans to stage a triathlon event in and around the lagoon, and 100,000 tourists are projected to visit the site each year.

“What’s brilliant about this project is that it’s not only about sustainable, next-generation energy, which is of course vital. It’s also about creating a lasting legacy for Swansea and Wales,” said Alister Kratt, board director at LDA Design.

“By putting people first, we can deliver infrastructure that works for everyone and that makes the most of opportunities to create great places where people belong.”

Conservation is also a key pillar of the proposal. There are plans for new salt marshes, as well as a lobster and oyster hatchery that will support the reintroduction of the region’s native oyster. The developers claim that the project will also protect against coastal erosion and flooding, and the design has been carried out to make allowances for future changes in sea levels.

Perhaps most importantly, Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon can be a pathfinder project to demonstrate that the technology is ready for widespread adoption. If successful, it will provide a scalable blueprint that can be applied at various other sites across the UK, and at sites around the world where suitable tidal ranges exist. Larger lagoons would not only benefit from economies of scale; they would also have the potential to generate exponentially more power.

Just up the road in Cardiff, for example, plans are already under way for a lagoon with a breakwall roughly twice the length of the one that will be built in Swansea. However, the Cardiff lagoon would produce around 10 times the amount of electricity. Other lagoons are planned in the Severn Estuary, North Wales and Cumbria, and in total could amount to 8 per cent of the UK’s electricity needs. What’s more, the dispersion of the sites provides a geographical solution to the natural intermittency of tidal ebb and flow.

Further afield, opportunities for the technology have been identified in France, Mexico, Canada and India, and academic studies have identified over 300GW of potential tidal range capacity globally. It’s a project with the capacity to have a major impact on energy provision around the globe for decades to come.

Shortlisted – Energy, efficiency and sustainability

Project name: Self-Optimising Clean-in-Place (SOCIP)
Partners: Martec of Whitwell; University of Nottingham; Loughborough University; Greencore; Synatel

Virtually every food-processing site in the UK uses automated clean-in-place (CIP) technology, where cleaning fluids are circulated around plant equipment such as vats and pumps. However, existing systems are unable to detect when the cleaning process is complete, leading to wastage of water and chemicals, as well as excessive operational downtime.

Martec of Whitwell, in collaboration with the universities of Nottingham and Loughborough, has developed an autonomous system that incorporates sensors and AI to streamline the task. Self-Optimising Clean-in-Place (SOCIP) can detect the level of fouling on equipment using optical and ultrasound sensors, delivering data in real time. Meanwhile, AI enables predictions to be made on remaining cleaning time, with the potential to improve production scheduling. It’s estimated the technology could create savings of around 30-40 per cent depending on the application.

Having initially gained research funding from Innovate UK, additional partners joined the collaboration in the shape of sensor specialist Synatel and food manufacturer Greencore. According to Martec, the project’s success has been fuelled by all parties introducing one another to their respective worlds of specialist knowledge, explaining and justifying current practice in a process of two-way dialogue. The team is currently in talks with a number of major retailers and manufacturers about the commercial adoption of the technology.

Project name: ASLEE
Partners: Xanthella Ltd; ALIenergy; Woodlands Renewables Ltd (Ardnamurchan Estate); VCharge UK Ltd; FAI Aquaculture Ltd (Ardtoe Marine Research Facility); University of Stirling (Marine Environment Research Laboratory); University of the West of Scotland (UWS); SgurrEnergy Ltd

Based in Scotland, the ASLEE project is exploring the technical and economic feasibility of using algal bioproduction as a transactive energy load. While the region has some of the best renewable energy potential in Europe, local capacity issues in the National Grid are a barrier to commercial development and adoption. The multi-disciplinary collaboration is aiming to use intermittent renewable energy as the basis for a new bio-manufacturing industry based around microalgae.

The single-celled plants have simple growth requirements, needing just light, water, CO2 and some nutrients to flourish. As part of the project the team, led by Xanthella, designed and manufactured a new photobioreactor (PBR) to conduct the research.

The Pandora 1000 L contains a number of submersible and bespoke LED light sheets, which can be ‘over-driven’ during times of excessive load with no adverse effects on the algae. Modular arrays of the Pandora PBRs can be scaled up to meet local requirements, acting as a grid frequency balancing tool.

The collaborating partners believe the project, which is still at the industrial research phase, has the potential to create a new industry for Scotland’s rural areas while also providing jobs in regions that are economically fragile.

Collaborate To Innovate (C2I) is an annual campaign run by The Engineer, including an awards competition and conference, established to uncover and celebrate innovative examples of engineering collaboration

The headline sponsors for C2I 2017 were Frazer-Nash Consultancy and Yamazaki Mazak

For information on sponsoring or supporting C2I2018 contact The Engineer’s commercial director Sonal Dalgliesh

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A very haphazard Christmas

Tue, 2017-12-12 21:36

Project management is second nature to our anonymous blogger, apart from when it comes to Christmas. The secret engineer wonders why we rarely apply workplace-honed management skills to our daily lives. 

Well it’s that time of year again and, as I write this, most of the country appears to have been brought to a traditionally festive standstill by snow. There are still a couple of weeks to go to the gala of conspicuous consumption that is Christmas Day itself but here at Chez S-E we remain notably decoration free.

No doubt we will be getting the varied assortment of old boxes and carrier bags out of the loft next week before shot-gunning baubles, trinkets and tat around the old place with gay abandon. Truth be told though, the schedule’s all a bit haphazard. Then there’s putting the damned stuff away again afterwards. One day to put it all away followed by the familiar cycle of randomly finding decorations secreted in dark corners all the way up to Easter.

I know there are those out there who take this sort of stuff very seriously, festooning their house with enough lights to stretch from here to Lapland and back, but even so I’m not aware of anyone who sits down and plans it all properly. Or at least not for their own homes.

I suspect that the spontaneity of getting everything out and deciding, there and then, where to put it is seen as part of the fun, but I wonder if that is really anything other than self delusion? “Where shall I put this illuminated reindeer, you know, the one that looks like it’s been involved in some bizarre Frankenstein-esque experiment? Next to the garage? No…. we don’t want a repeat of the ashen faced children and angry parents from when we first got it, so how about on the roof where the children can’t get too close……like last year? Yes, exactly the same place….that will do.”

We go on all these courses and refine skills for work that many of us don’t also use in the wider world.

The closest I personally got to applying my project management skills at home was with regard to the proposed redecoration of our library. After a number of animated discussions I finally got Mrs Secret-Engineer to agree to our creating a Gantt Chart before starting, but that’s as far as it ever got.

Believe me, with a library the logistics are a tad more complicated than “move everything into the middle of the room and try not to splash paint on it” so this was an entirely valid step. We also included the all important challenging of paradigms such as “well it makes sense to paint the ceiling first” – come to think of it, that’s probably where it all started to fall apart.

Anyway, the point is that we go on all these courses and refine skills for work that many of us don’t also use in the wider world. I know it’s not just me as one of my team leaders once confided that none of his drinking chums believe he’s even capable of organising the metaphorical party in a brewery, let alone complex design projects such as those we carried out together at work.

Perhaps it’s that we need a break from deploying such mental acuity when we are not compelled to? Perhaps when we are surrounded by non-technical folk, who do not naturally look to us for leadership, its impossible to organise things to this degree? Possibly it’s all down to that need for at least the veneer of making it up as you go along? Whatever the reason, we mustn’t get so hung up about it all that we forget what’s important; the spirit of Christmas.

Speaking personally, I cannot wait to see the look on Mrs Secret-Engineer’s face when she unwraps her presents, consisting of a bag of Barbeque Briquettes and a can of WD40…bought mere hours before from the all night garage…… again.

Merry Christmas everyone!


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Auto suppliers – don’t get left out in the cold with Industry 4.0

Tue, 2017-12-12 20:59

Most major vehicle manufacturers have started on their journeys toward Industry 4.0 with great enthusiasm. Their suppliers need to act now to ensure they are not left out in the cold when it comes to digital manufacturing, says Harry Chana of Daifuku.

While most automotive manufacturers and their key suppliers are actively evangelising the benefits of Industry 4.0, many businesses further down the supply chain are in danger of being left behind. Understandably, a lot of automotive production engineers are sceptical about the fundamental change in manufacturing culture heralded by digital manufacturing. Having spent their 30-year careers focusing on tangibles such as measurable outputs, microns and oil pressures, switching to a digital future, where data is king, is big ask for many analogue engineers.

Honda’s Swindon plant – one of a number of UK facilities to embrace I4R technology

The prospect of moving to a ‘digital factory’ scenario is too often kicked into the long grass at planning meetings. While the investment required to replace existing systems with their 4IR alternatives is significant, many engineers find it hard to visualise such a fundamental transformation of their systems taking place for many years.

However, there is another way to think about 4IR that is much more appealing to automotive engineers. This focuses on short-term gains, as opposed to root and branch change. It involves using digital control systems to improve the performance of a specific stage within a larger manufacturing process, as opposed to the total production line.

Typically, this approach might involve the monitoring of engine handler robots towards the end of the vehicle assembly process. Using an affordable, discrete digital controller – in this case our Conprosys DAQ device – we can detect signs of potential breakdown, through waveform analysis, before any reduction in robot performance occurs. Having identified a potential performance issue, engineers can choose to either run a diagnostic check during operation or make a more fundamental assessment one production has halted.  This light touch adoption of 4IR is already proving to be an effective, low cost efficiency improvement solution for several OEMs in both Japan and Asia.

The capture and creation of actionable data can also be used by engineering managers to monitor the performance of production plants remotely. We have experience of introducing a simple M2M gateway, which provides the link that enables engineers to monitor facility operations via smartphone or tablet remotely. Without the need for large-scale systems, this lowers the cost of investment required to maintain world-class plant operation.

While we hear a lot about Industry 4.0 adoption among large OEMs and top tier suppliers, there is strong evidence to suggest that many smaller suppliers are lagging behind headline rates of 4IR adoption. Figures from the EEF show that just 11 percent of manufacturers think that UK industry is ready to take advantage of 4IR. Data from PwC, the consultancy, shows that UK manufacturers are planning to invest on average seven times less than their German counterparts in 4IR over the next five years.

The automotive industry is among the leaders in 4IR, but there is a big gap between the major players and the tier twos and tier threes. There, we have a huge difference in maturity, but we need to take into account that most companies have undertaken efforts, only 16 per cent have a true strategy at scale. Normally, companies should have 30 per cent of profit coming from digitalisation and that’s not the case today.

While more efficient production, system monitoring and higher quality all come from Industry 4.0, mass customisation is another great benefit. Let’s take the example of an automotive seating manufacturer. Here, digitalisation is allowing vehicle seating and interiors suppliers to achieve material savings and control production costs, while improving both operational performance and manufacturing processes. With growing demand for increasingly personalised interiors, coping with the complexity of production processes is a key benefit of technologically enabled manufacturing processes.

This fundamental change in the way suppliers are working drives efficiency programmes within the OEMs. If you look at the traditional industry today, each vehicle programme requires its own set of investments, in terms of presses, moulds and dies. Once the industry starts to embrace digitalisation, we will see a much more software-oriented kind of focus where the investments are no longer in presses and in moulds, but rather in software, where you can have customisation for a wider, more diverse array of projects for OEMs.

We’re working increasingly with OEMs and their suppliers on projects that involve partial use of Industry 4.0. And this seems to be a sensible strategy when it comes to digitising production processes. Granted, it’s ideal to start with a clean sheet of paper when establishing a state of the art production facility – as we’re seeing in many Asian economies and among the new breed of OEMs such as Tesla – but with long established facilities, this is simply not viable.

Major vehicle manufacturers are already some way down the Industry 4.0 road. It’s clearly time for tier 1 and tier 2 suppliers to get on board the digital express, unless they want to find themselves at significant competitive disadvantage. My advice to those who have not yet developed a digital strategy is to take a ‘think small’ approach. While a total digital revolution of your existing processes might be impractical in the short-term, identifying quick, simple wins will get you on the road to success.

Harry Chana is business manager at Japanese automation specialist Daifuku.


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Nanoscale device could create new chemicals and speed up electronics

Tue, 2017-12-12 20:30

A nanoscale device developed in the UK could be used to help synthesise new chemicals and improve the speed of electronics equipment.

The device, developed by researchers at King’s College London and published in Nature Nanotechnology, uses quantum effects to convert electrons flowing around a circuit into a controlled stream of “hot electrons” and light.

Hot electrons are highly energetic, making them very useful in chemical research, according to Dr Pan Wang, the paper’s lead author.

“Hot electrons can allow chemical reactions to occur between two molecules which would not normally react,” he said.

The device consists of two materials, eutectic gallium indium and gold nanorods, which are separated by an air gap of less than 1nm.

When a voltage is applied across the device, it causes a flow of electrons from the eutectic gallium indium electrode to the gold nanorods.

Although an air gap would usually prevent the electrons from flowing between the two materials, at distances of less than 1nm quantum mechanical rules apply, meaning the electrons are able to “tunnel” through.

This tunnelling means that the electrons arrive at the nanorod tips in the form of hot electrons.

What’s more, a small number of the tunnelling electrons also excite particles known as plasmons in the material, emitting light.

This process is typically very inefficient, said Wang. “But by using a gold nanorod array for one of the electrodes, we can provide billions of tunnel junctions, improving the electron-to-plasmon conversion efficiency,” he said. “This makes the emitted light visible to the naked eye.”

The device could be used in electronics to optically transmit information in the form of 1s and 0s by rapidly switching the light on and off. In this way it could be used to replace semiconductor lasers, which are becoming too bulky as the size of electronics equipment shrinks.

As well as chemical research, the hot electrons produced by the device could also be used in sensing. Since the tunnel junctions in the material are very sensitive to change, any new substance produced by a chemical reaction will alter their properties, changing the flow of electrons through the device. In this way it could be used to monitor chemical reactions, or to detect the presence of hydrogen leaks in fuel cell production, for example.


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