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Updated: 5 min 58 sec ago

3D printed amorphous metal alloys show material promise

52 min 45 sec ago

Researchers created amorphous metal – or metallic glass – alloys using 3D printing, an advance that could lead to better wear-resistant materials, higher strength materials, and lighter weight structures.

Amorphous iron alloy cylinder made with AM (Credit: Zaynab Mahbooba)

“Metallic glasses lack the crystalline structures of most metals – the amorphous structure results in exceptionally desirable properties,” said Zaynab Mahbooba, first author of a paper on the work and a Ph.D. student in North Carolina State University’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering.

The fabrication of metallic glass requires rapid cooling to prevent the crystalline structure from forming, which has restricted researchers to casting metallic glasses in small thicknesses. Amorphous iron alloys could normally be cast no more than a few millimetres thick, a limitation called critical casting thickness.

“The idea of using additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, to produce metallic glass on scales larger than the critical casting thickness has been around for more than a decade,” Mahbooba said. “But this is the first published work demonstrating that we can actually do it. We were able to produce an amorphous iron alloy on a scale 15 times larger than its critical casting thickness.”

The technique works by applying a laser to a layer of metal powder, melting the powder into a solid layer that is 20 microns thick. The build platform then descends 20 microns, more powder is spread onto the surface, and the process repeats itself. Because the alloy is formed a little at a time, it cools quickly – retaining its amorphous qualities. However, the end result is a solid, metallic glass object and not an object made of laminated, discrete layers of the alloy.

“This is a proof-of-concept demonstrating that we can do this,” said Ola Harrysson, corresponding author of the paper and Edward P. Fitts Distinguished Professor of Industrial Systems and Engineering at NC State.

“And there is no reason this technique could not be used to produce any amorphous alloy,” Harrysson said. “One of the limiting factors at this point is going to be producing or obtaining metal powders of whatever alloy composition you are looking for.

“For example, we know that some metallic glasses have demonstrated enormous potential for use in electric motors, reducing waste heat and converting more power from electromagnetic fields into electricity.”

“It will take some trial and error to find the alloy compositions that have the best combination of properties for any given application,” Mahbooba said. “For instance, you want to make sure you not only have the desirable electromagnetic properties, but that the alloy isn’t too brittle for practical use.”

“And because we’re talking about additive manufacturing, we can produce these metallic glasses in a variety of complex geometries – which may also contribute to their usefulness in various applications,” Harrysson said.

The paper, “Additive manufacturing of an iron-based bulk metallic glass larger than the critical casting thickness,” is published in Applied Materials Today.


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March 1957: ‘A new Big Wheel era for fairgrounds’

3 hours 25 min ago

Fairground matters took The Engineer readers on a ride when the UK was introduced to what funfair enthusiast PW Bradley called ‘a new big wheel era for fairgrounds’

Battersea Park’s “Flying Saucer” fairground machine

The world’s tallest big wheel can be found in Las Vegas where the High Roller stands at a height of 168m and has been entertaining the public since March 2014.

This achievement would no doubt have enthralled PW Bradley, a funfair enthusiast who contributed ‘Further notes on the development of fairground machinery’ in the 22 March 1957 edition of The Engineer.


Bradley had already contributed to this journal on fairground matters and reappeared to focus on big wheels, the development of which goes back as far as 1620, a fact brought to readers’ attention by way of historical waypoint and technological baseline.

Alerting readers to Volume 1 of The Travels of Peter Mundy in Europe and Asia, Bradley recalled a journey that took Mundy to a fair in Philippopolis, southern Bulgaria, where three kinds of amusement were observed: two being crude versions of the roundabout and swing, and the third “like a crane wheel at the Custom House Quay and turned in that manner, whereon children sit on little seats hung round about in several parts thereof, and though it turns right up and down, and that the children are sometimes on the upper part of the wheel and sometimes on the lower, yet they always sit upright”.

Bradley discussed the history and design features of big wheels through the ages

For Bradley, the big wheel was a roundabout with a horizontal axis that would gradually become a fixed feature in amusement parks.

“In the middle ’thirties, smaller wheels of American design, with up to sixteen two-seater cars and of all-metal construction, began to appear in our coastal amusement parks. Later, in the immediate post-war period, the smaller of these (the twelve-car version) became popular as a travelling proposition… several operators have eased the moving operation by semi-permanently building the base frame and the lower parts of the standards on a heavy road wagon.”

This portability was an important development and, in August 1956, the UK was introduced to what Bradley called “a new Big Wheel era for fairgrounds”. He reported that the ride was brought from France and erected for the last few weeks of the Battersea Park fun fair season. It consisted of a big wheel mounted on a large roller-bearing turntable and Bradley noted that “the resultant of the two continuous rotations is quite unlike the motion of any known previous amusement machine in being spherical”.

“The device therefore represents a definite advance in fairground engineering design,” wrote Bradley. “In accordance with modern practice, welded tubular construction is extensively employed, and other components are of pressed steel. Timber is utilised only in the circular loading platform and steps. The example seen in Battersea Park has fourteen cars, each seating four persons. The diameter of the wheel is about 50ft and its axis is about 36ft above ground level. The diameter of the base turntable also is about 36ft.”

Bradley further observed that in previous big wheel practice, each bearing of the axle had been mounted on an upright column which withstood the entire vertical load, and was stayed by three comparatively light inclined members, which are constituent pieces of a complex structure, especially in load-bearing structures.

“Such an arrangement, if used in this new machine, would have demanded a second set of rollers running on a circular track,” he said. “These rollers and their track being capable of carrying the weight of the wheel and standards concentrated at two points.”

This arrangement, wrote Bradley, had been avoided by eliminating vertical standards altogether; instead, the axle was supported by four inclined members with their feet pin-jointed to four of the roller plate assemblies.

“The structure is rendered completely rigid by two members (which locate the feet of the main legs and obviate undue stress on the links), and a pair of inclined stays having their feet pinned to the two remaining roller plate assemblies,” he added. “The wheel is turned about its horizontal axis by normal ‘Big Wheel’ driving gear; an endless cable passing round deep-grooved carriers on the spokes, the driving pulley and a tensioning pulley.”

The wheel’s 14 cars were designed to resemble flying saucers, “as a concession to present-day imaginative taste”. Suspended so as to remain upright, Bradley observed that they were fundamentally no different to those seen by Mundy over 300 years previously.


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“Real-life Iron Man” pilots jet suit up Europe’s longest zip wire

3 hours 36 min ago

UK inventor Richard Browning has successfully flown his record-breaking jet-powered suit up Europe’s longest zip wire at speeds of almost 100km/h.

Self-styled “real-life Iron Man” Browning – who is founder and chief test pilot at Gravity industries – said that the mile-long zip wire, at the Zip World theme park in North Wales, offered a great opportunity to further explore the speed, stability and acceleration of the jet suit.

In collaboration with the team at Zip World and local partner ISC, Browning built a safety device to enable him to fly at potential speeds in excess of 100 mph.

Last year (2017) Browning – a former royal marine reservist – set a world record for the fastest speed in a jet engine powered suit when he achieved a speed of 32.02mph (51.53km/h) over a lake at Lagoona Park in Reading.

As previously reported by The Engineer, Browning’s Daedulus suit is made up of four miniaturised arm-mounted gas turbine engines and two hip-mounted versions each providing 22kg of thrust and providing enough lift to enable the wearer to fly.

Browning piloting the jet suit down the Velocity zip wire

Controlled by the pilot’s body movement, the suit is Wi-Fi enabled and includes a Heads-Up Display that can highlight key safety and performance indicators, including fuel levels and engine operation. It also allows live data streaming from the suit for ground monitoring and the HUD system.

Commenting on the latest tests Browning said: “Since we achieved the Guinness World Records title we continue to be on an aggressive research and development journey to explore the high-speed stability of the Gravity Jet Suit.” Said Browning. “The team were excited to push the boundaries of speed with the support of Zip World and ISC as we discover even more potential in this exciting exploration into human flight.”

The post “Real-life Iron Man” pilots jet suit up Europe’s longest zip wire appeared first on The Engineer.

Soft robotic fish offers fresh insights into oceanic life

5 hours 18 min ago

A soft robotic fish developed at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, could give biologists a new tool for non-intrusively studying marine life.

SoFi soft robotic fish (MIT CSAIL)

In a new paper, the team at CSAIL has unveiled SoFi, a robotic fish that can swim on its own alongside real fish in the ocean.

During test dives, SoFi swam at depths of over 50 feet for up to 40 minutes whilst taking high-resolution imagery and negotiating currents.

Using its undulating tail and ability to control its own buoyancy, SoFi can swim in a straight line, turn, or dive up or down. The team also used a waterproofed Super Nintendo controller and developed a custom acoustic communications system that enabled them to change SoFi’s speed and command specific moves and turns.

“To our knowledge, this is the first robotic fish that can swim untethered in three dimensions for extended periods of time,” said CSAIL PhD candidate Robert Katzschmann, lead author of the new journal article published in Science Robotics. “We are excited about the possibility of being able to use a system like this to get closer to marine life than humans can get on their own.”

SoFi soft robotic fish & Nintendo controller (MIT CSAIL)

Katzschmann wrote the paper with CSAIL director Daniela Rus, graduate student Joseph DelPreto and former postdoc Robert MacCurdy, who is now an assistant professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

According to CSAIL, existing autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) have traditionally been tethered to boats or powered by propellers but SoFi has a simpler and more lightweight set-up, with on-board sensors for perception, a servo motor and lithium polymer battery.

To swim, the motor pumps water into two balloon-like chambers in the fish’s tail. As one chamber expands, it bends and flexes to one side; when the actuators push water to the other channel, that one bends and flexes in the other direction.

These alternating actions create a side-to-side motion that mimics the movement of a real fish. By changing its flow patterns, the hydraulic system enables different tail manoeuvres that result in a range of swimming speeds that average at around half a body length per second.

“A robot like this can help explore the reef more closely than current robots, both because it can get closer more safely for the reef and because it can be better accepted by the marine species,” said Cecilia Laschi, a professor of biorobotics at the Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies in Pisa, Italy.

The entire back half of the fish is made of silicone rubber and flexible plastic, and several components are 3D-printed, including the head, which contains SoFi’s electronics. To reduce the chance of water leaking the team filled the head with baby oil as it won’t compress from pressure changes during dives.

One of the team’s biggest challenges was to get SoFi to swim at different depths. To resolve this, the robot has two fins on its side called “dive planes” that adjust the pitch of the fish for up and down diving. To adjust its position vertically, the robot has an adjustable weight compartment and a buoyancy control unit that can change its density by compressing and decompressing air.

Katzschmann said that the team developed SoFi with the goal of being as non-disruptive as possible, from the minimal noise of the motor to the low-frequency emissions of the team’s communications system, which sends commands using wavelengths of 30 to 36kHz.

“The robot is capable of close observations and interactions with marine life and appears to not be disturbing to real fish,” said Rus.

Planned improvements to SoFi include increasing the fish’s speed by improving the pump system, and modify the design of its body and tail.


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UCL to lead European ARIEL mission to study exoplanets

Wed, 2018-03-21 16:15

UCL is to lead the €450m ARIEL mission to study newly discovered planets after it was chosen as the next European Space Agency (ESA) science expedition.

Hot exoplanet

Due for launch in mid-2028, ARIEL (Atmospheric Remote-sensing Infrared Exoplanet Large-survey) will set out over four years to answer fundamental questions about how planetary systems form and evolve.

The spacecraft will do this by observing 1000 planets orbiting distant stars and conducting the first large-scale survey of the chemistry of exoplanet atmospheres. ESA’s Science Programme Committee announced the selection of ARIEL from three candidate missions on 20th March 2018.

The ARIEL mission has been developed by a consortium of more than 60 institutes from 15 ESA member state countries, including UK, France, Italy, Poland, Spain, the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria, Denmark, Ireland, Hungary, Sweden, Czech Republic, Germany, Portugal, with an additional contribution from NASA in the USA currently under study.

UK institutions have provided the leadership and planning for ARIEL, including UCL, STFC RAL Space, STFC UK ATC, Cardiff University and Oxford University.

ARIEL’s Principal Investigator, Prof Giovanna Tinetti of UCL said, “Although we’ve now discovered around 3800 planets orbiting other stars, the nature of these exoplanets remains largely mysterious.

“ARIEL will study a statistically large sample of exoplanets to give us a truly representative picture of what these planets are like. This will enable us to answer questions about how the chemistry of a planet links to the environment in which it forms, and how its birth and evolution are affected by its parent star.”

ARIEL will study a number of exoplanets – ranging from Jupiter- and Neptune-size planets down to so-called super-Earths – in a variety of environments, but will focus mainly on warm and hot planets in orbits close to their star.

The high temperatures on these planets, which can be in excess of 2000 degrees Celsius, keep different molecular species circulating throughout the atmosphere, where they can be detected and studied. Similarly, as more molecules from the planet’s interior make their way into the atmosphere, ARIEL will be provided with better information about the planet’s internal composition and the formation of the planetary system.

ARIEL will be equipped with a meter-class telescope primary mirror to collect visible and infrared light from distant star systems. A spectrometer will then extract the chemical fingerprints of gases in the planets’ atmospheres, which become embedded in starlight when a planet passes in front or behind the star. A photometer and guidance system will capture information on the presence on clouds in the atmospheres of the exoplanets and will allow the spacecraft to point to the target star with high stability and precision.

The payload for ARIEL will be amongst the first to be assembled and tested at the STFC RAL Space National Satellite Test Facility, which is due to open in mid-2020 following a £99m investment as part of the UK government’s Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund.

ARIEL in numbers:

  • Elliptical primary mirror: 1.1m x 0.7m
  • Instrumentation: Three photometric channels and three low resolution spectrometers covering from 0.5 to 7.8 microns in wavelength
  • Mission lifetime: Four years in orbit
  • Launch date: Mid 2028
  • Payload mass: ~450kg
  • Total Spacecraft Dry mass: ~1200kg
  • Launch mass: ~1300kg
  • Destination: Sun – Earth Lagrange Point 2 (L2)
  • ESA Mission Cost: ~€450m, plus nationally funded contribution of the payload
  • Launch vehicle: Ariane 6-2 from French Guiana


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Europe’s first 3D printed house heralds “paradigm shift” in construction says Arup

Wed, 2018-03-21 15:46

In a development aimed to demonstrate that 3D printing technology for buildings has come of age, Arup has joined forces with CLS Architects to showcase Europe’s first 3D printed house.

Robotic cement deposition technology is being used to produce Europe’s first 3D printed house

Named 3D Housing 05 the prototype one-storey house – which will be showcased at Milan’s design festival, Salone del Mobile in April 2018 – has a living area, bedroom, kitchen and bathroom and covers an area of 100 square meters.

It has been designed to be disassembled and relocated and is currently being printed on site, in Milan’s central square, Piazza Cesare Beccaria.

The structure is being built using a mobile 3D printing robot supplied by Netherlands firm Cybe Construction. This uses concrete to print the walls; the roof, windows and doors. Italcementi, one of the world’s largest cement suppliers, is providing the base mix for the concrete used during the printing operations.

This latest development is one of a number of efforts worldwide to apply 3D printing to home-building. Earlier this month (March 2018) The Engineer reported that US construction technologies firm Icon had demonstrated a method for 3D printing a single storey house in less than 24 hours.

Arup – working with CLS Architects on the design – claims that as well as reducing waste during the building process, 3D printed buildings can be designed to ensure that components can be reused in the future.

“The construction industry is one of the world’s biggest users of resources and emitters of CO2,” said Guglielmo Carra, Europe Materials Consulting Lead at Arup. “We want to bring a paradigm shift in the way the construction industry operates and believe that 3D printing technology is critical to making buildings more sustainable and efficient. It creates less waste during construction and materials can be repurposed and reused at the end of their life.”

We believe 3D printing will contribute to breaking the conventional barriers in engineering and architecture
Luca Stabile, Arup

The company claims that as well as being less expensive than traditional construction techniques, due to the more efficient use of materials, the design flexibility offered by 3D printing means that complex structures – such as double curved walls – can be produced at a lower cost.

Arup added that because 3D printing offers a direct transfer of information from the 3D design model into construction operations, it also drastically reduces building inconsistencies and potential mistakes.

“We believe 3D printing will contribute to breaking the conventional barriers in engineering and architecture,” said Luca Stabile, Italy Building Practice Leader at Arup. “The use of new technologies alongside a new digital approach to the built environment will be instrumental to creating even more complex multi-storey 3D printed buildings.”

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World’s first formic acid based fuel cell shows new way to deliver renewable energy

Wed, 2018-03-21 13:56

Research team in Switzerland deliver HYFORM-PEMFC, the world’s first formic acid based fuel cell

Hydrogen has long been seen as the future of clean energy, but storing and transporting the gas safely and cost effectively remains a considerable challenge.


Now an integrated power supply unit that can convert formic acid into hydrogen fuel and use it to produce electricity has been developed by a European team.

Unlike hydrogen gas, which must be stored at very high pressures and low temperatures, formic acid is liquid at room temperature, and so could be easily transported to vehicle filling stations or remote locations. What’s more, just one litre of formic acid carries 590l of hydrogen.

The technology, developed by GRT Group, based in Swizerland, and researchers at École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), consists of a hydrogen reformer, known as HYFORM, and a proton-exchange membrane fuel cell (PEMFC).

The reformer uses a ruthenium-based catalyst to convert formic acid into hydrogen, carbon dioxide and water. The carbon dioxide can then be absorbed, to prevent it being released into the atmosphere.

The HYFORM-PEMFC technology could allow large quantities of hydrogen to be stored without refrigerating or compressing it, according to Luca Dal Fabbro, chief executive officer of GRT Group.

“This would allow it to be used in places that would be impossible today, for example remote places such as villas in the mountains or hospitals in Africa, places where hydrogen compression is just not possible,” he said.

The HYFORM-PEMFC can produce 7000kWh yearly, and its nominal power is 800W, with an electrical efficiency of 45 per cent.

The unit is also low-maintenance, and the catalyst can be used for long periods. The researchers are also investigating the development of other catalysts based on even cheaper materials.

The technology is scalable, meaning it can be used in both households and industrial settings. It does not require connection to the power grid, making it suitable for remote or inaccessible areas.

GRT Group is also now hoping to develop the process so that it can operate in reverse, to produce formic acid from hydrogen, said Dal Fabbro. In this way it could be used to store excess energy generated from renewable sources, he said.

“Imagine a big wind farm in Scotland that produces energy when it is not required,” he said. “We are going to absorb that energy and transform it into formic acid, which could then be used when you need the energy.”


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Recruitment in oil and gas: New confidence on the shelf

Tue, 2018-03-20 22:18

An upswing in the oil price has brought renewed optimism to the North Sea, along with a wave of fresh recruitment in oil and gas. David Fowler reports. 

Centrica’s Morecambe bay platform

A dramatic drop in the price of oil, from $115/barrel in June 2014 to a low of less than $30/barrel in early 2016, had serious consequences for the UK offshore oil and gas industry. Exploration and development of wells, investment and jobs were all badly hit. With the recovery of the price of Brent Crude last year, on the way to over $70/barrel in January and the current price of around $65/barrel, and following successful efforts to bring production costs down, there are signs of renewed confidence.

In its outlook for the sector last year, trade body Oil & Gas UK said “the upturn in oil price has coincided with signs of confidence returning to the basin” and noted “within two years, the sector has halved its average unit operating costs”.

At the end of January, BP announced two new discoveries: Capercaillie in the central North Sea, and Achmelvich, west of Shetland, and hopes to double its North Sea production. Its Clair Ridge field is due to come into production this year.

Also last month Shell approved plans to develop the Penguins field north of Shetland, authorising the construction of a floating production, storage and offloading vessel, the first new manned installation for Shell in the northern North Sea in almost 30 years. The development is expected to have a break-even price below $40/barrel.

Spirit Energy’s Barrow gas terminal

And Spirit Energy, the exploration and production joint venture formed last year by Centrica and Bayerngas Norge of Germany, announced that it will drill a new well at the Chiswick field in the southern North Sea to bring around a further 50 billion cubic feet of gas on stream in a £75m investment.

What does this mean for skills and recruitment? Though the oil and gas industry’s workforce shrank from 450,000 in 2014 to 330,000 in 2016, Oil & Gas UK said in its annual report that “the largest reductions may be behind us”. Some smaller companies in the supply chain, often driven by technological innovation, were increasing their headcount.

Simon Bartington, a director at recruitment agency CBS Butler 360, with over 20 years’ experience in the offshore industry, says that 2014’s downturn “put the brakes on recruitment and investment overnight. The industry drew in its horns and looked at assets and its return on investment”.


The downturn had one positive effect, however. The industry looked closely at cost-reduction measures. This included “quite a bit of investment in software systems and advanced process control”, said Bartington, and this helped to make small but cumulatively significant increases in yields .“Costs have been reduced quite considerably,” he said. “When the price started to bounce back, companies found they were now making quite a decent profit.”

“Now that the oil price has passed the threshold of $50/barrel,” he added, “exploration is starting again. We’re seeing a lot of pressure now to get production up and running.”

What we all want is stability: when we look at projects which are five, ten or 15 years in maturation, stability is a key aspect
Dean Marks, Spirit Energy

The numbers employed in the North Sea are set to rise, he anticipates. Today’s installations do not require the same level of personnel to operate them as in the past, “but there is going to be an increase in the North Sea sector”.

Spirit Energy HR director Dean Marks said: “I think everyone from the sector will agree that the oil price rising above $60 is a good thing.” But he added: “What we all want is stability: when we look at projects which are five, ten or 15 years in maturation, stability is a key aspect.”

Though UK oil and gas had suffered a few years of low prices and shedding jobs, he said, “I believe the industry can offer exciting opportunities for a whole range of disciplines”, from engineering to geologists and geophysicists, and the technical and business functions that support them.

CBS Butler’s Bartington said that over two decades there had been a change in the balance of skills required by the industry. Skills now being sought are more biased towards control and instrumentation, automation and process control. “Given a lot of the technology now available, fields in the North Sea can be managed remotely from Houston,” he said. Skills in IT and telecommunications are also sought-after: with installations increasingly being networked, cybersecurity to protect operations from disruption is becoming vitally important.

Spirit Energy’s Marks said the company would continue to seek to recruit graduates in mechanical, process/chemical and electrical/control and instrumentation engineering, and apprentices in mechanical, electrical and control and instrumentation. Last year, the company took on four apprentices, two men and two women – numbers are limited to make sure Spirit can provide them with the experience that they require to develop successfully, Marks said. A broadly similar number is expected to be taken on this year.

Spirit is in the process of assessing its graduate needs and developing its own graduate programme, having previously participated in Centrica’s graduate scheme. The company recently sought applicants via the Gradcracker website for summer engineering placements from students about to go into their final year. Many of these go on to join the company’s graduate programme.

It has an active policy of engaging young people, with employees visiting schools to promote and raise awareness of the opportunities of a career in science and technology. “Spirit is very keen on starting at the school leaver and apprentice level to encourage women and men to consider coming into the oil and gas industry,” Marks said.

The government’s apprenticeship levy introduced last year “is proving to be a deterrent to employers

He added that the organisation, led by chief executive Chris Cox, “is driving the fact that opportunities in Spirit are open to all regardless of gender, race and religion”. Diversity is also supported by an employee-led organisation, the Network, which is open to all Spirit Energy employees and focuses on tackling inclusion issues. He said the company is seeking to increase the awareness in other industries of what the oil and gas industry can offer. “A lot of the skills that exist in different industries are fully transferable to the oil and gas industry – [we want them to] have a look at what we can offer, see what you can be involved in.”

John McDonald, chief executive of industry training body OPITO, admitted that the perception of the sector and whether it still offered career longevity had “taken a serious knock over the past few years, especially in energy hub areas such as Aberdeen and Norfolk”.

However, he stressed that the Oil & Gas Technical Apprentice Programme (OGTAP), co-managed by OPITO and the Engineering Construction Industry Training Board, “remains one of the UK’s most successful apprenticeship initiatives”, with over 1,500 young people coming through its ranks since its inception 20 years ago. He said: “There are many other types of modern apprenticeships that could also benefit our industry, particularly as we experience further diversification.” However, the government’s apprenticeship levy introduced last year “is proving to be a deterrent to employers”.

Attracting women into the sector remains a difficulty. OPITO recently held two successful Girls in OGTAP evenings to encourage more young women to consider the sector and to try to dispel some of the myths that may be holding them back, where they were able to meet current female OGTAP technicians and other female industry professionals to hear first-hand about working offshore.

McDonald said: “The industry has undergone significant changes over the past few years, including the increased use of new technologies and data-driven processes.” This would affect the skills required by the next generation. A future challenge to job security could emerge depending on how new areas of automation and artificial intelligence developed and potentially changed roles in the industry as the so-called fourth industrial revolution took hold. “This digitisation movement has already begun,” he said.

As part of the industry’s response, OPITO launched a UK Continental Shelf skills study at the end of last year, with research being undertaken by Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen. “This in-depth labour-market intelligence analysis will determine the conditions of the sector and support a new skills strategy for the continued success of the UKCS over the next 20 years,” said McDonald. The report is due to be published in May.

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From part to system: the next generation of Additive Manufacturing

Tue, 2018-03-20 20:13

Additive Manufacturing (AM)  is moving beyond creating ‘dumb bits’ and evolving into a tool that can produce ‘smart technology’Professors Richard Hague (above left) and Christopher Tuck (below left) examine what we might expect from the next generation of AM technology

Additive Manufacturing (AM) has come a long way since its early years in rapid prototyping and, later, as a means for creating end-use parts. The learnings gained over decades of the technology’s evolution, coupled with ongoing efforts by an increasing number of scientific researchers have driven AM to become a manufacturing platform fit for the 21st century.

AM is beginning to transition beyond simply creating metal, ceramic or polymer ‘bits’ for industry and we are now looking at the bigger picture beyond these single-material components. Co-deposition of both structural and functional materials is now being investigated with a view to creating ‘smart’, multifunctional technology. This will be applied to improve, for example, delivery and dosing in industries including agrochemical and pharmaceuticals, as well as to generate functional 3D printed electronics.

And we’ve learned some important lessons along the way, namely that science needs to be part of AM from the beginning – we can’t just launch machines without an understanding of how they work and expect success. AM also needs to advance beyond engineering and fixed processes. It requires a comprehensive approach that encompasses:

  • repeatable processes
  • useful materials
  • appropriate designs

By joining up these three key developments we are adding function to AM’s historical roots in creating structures, which will result in the true ‘next generation’ of AM: a movement from parts to a multifunctional system, as the article’s headline suggests.

More than machines and speed

Although we’re still seeing improvements and changes to AM machines – the shift from single point energy sources (lasers and electron beams) to multipoint sources like those in Renishaw’s quad laser system comes to mind – speeding up parts production is only a small part of AM’s new generation. This is not to say that traditional manufacturing markets have no place for AM as it evolves, in fact, it’s quite the opposite. It is these industries where AM has become truly embedded.

Pharmaceuticals, medical, chemical, food production and semiconductors are industries where AM is, comparably, still very much in its infancy and therefore fuelling research projects.

Whether we’re looking at nutraceuticals, poly-pills or printed electronics, precision is required in the deposition of materials using AM and jetting-based technologies are currently viewed as the best approach for printing these smart systems. This is primarily because they allow the selective deposition of individual materials. High throughput is also essential for these processes to work to ensure each dosage is delivered accurately and efficiently – hence the current research being conducted around the ‘jetability’ of a range of materials.

The goals of more precise drug delivery and dosing, nutrition and conductivity are all the remit of these markets. This integrated approach to AM combines the structural together with the functional with a view to improving our health and everyday lives. Most definitely not technology for technology’s sake.

Not just for engineers

The diverse range of industries AM’s expanding capabilities serve tends to attract people from a wider range of backgrounds, interests and disciplines than many of the other manufacturing sciences. And candidates are entering academic, training and apprenticeship programmes with more prior knowledge and experience of AM than ever before. Our undergraduate, and indeed post-graduate, AM courses at the University of Nottingham are all over-subscribed and students are coming in with their own ideas to test and research around processes, materials, design – you name it. Many of them now have their own 3DP machines or have been exposed to them at school.

And industry is catching on as well – we’re starting to see more people enter workplaces with a better understanding of what can be achieved with AM. Companies are beginning to hire graduates as AM decision makers and investing in in-house training and apprenticeship programmes to cultivate AM skills, recognising that from the machine floor to the leadership team AM is no longer the reserve of mechanical engineers.

Alongside the investment in the workforce, funding and grant support from organisations such as EPSRC, Innovate UK and other industry players will ensure that AM continues to evolve from this generation to the next.

Richard Hague – Professor of Innovative Manufacturing, Director, Centre for Additive Manufacturing (CfAM), Faculty of Engineering, University of Nottingham

Christopher Tuck – Professor of Materials Engineering, Faculty of Engineering, University of Nottingham

Are you interested learning more about the next generation of AM and its latest research and applications? Join Professors Hague and Tuck from 10-12th July to engage with those working at the coalface at this year’s Additive International (formerly the International Conference on Additive Manufacturing & 3D Printing):

The post From part to system: the next generation of Additive Manufacturing appeared first on The Engineer.

UK consortium to develop comms and control system for V2G charging points

Tue, 2018-03-20 19:33

A communication and control system for vehicle-to-grid (V2G) charging points is being developed by a UK consortium.

EV charging

Vehicle-to-grid technology allows electric cars to supply energy back to the grid or to buildings such as office blocks or shopping centres when parked. This could help to stabilise electricity networks and support greater use of intermittent renewable energy sources.

The two-year project, which is part of a £30m initiative funded by the Office for Low Emission Vehicles (OLEV) and the Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), will develop a system designed to control how, when and the rate at which electric batteries are charged and discharged.

The VIGIL (Vehicle to Grid Intelligent control) system will take account of local substation constraints and the energy requirements of both the building and the electric vehicle itself.

The project is being led by Nortech Management, and also includes Birmingham-based ByteSnap Design, Aston University and Grid Edge.

As part of the project, ByteSnap is developing a communications adaptor to allow the system to operate with a range of different manufacturer’s V2G charging points, according to Dunstan Power, the company’s director.

“We’re designing a communications platform that can convert different vendor’s charging posts into a single protocol, called the Open Charge Point Protocol (OCPP), an industry standard,” said Power. “V2G is still at an embryonic stage in the UK, and VIGIL is going to help move the smart energy market forward.”

The company will also be developing a mobile app, to allow drivers to communicate with the system, he said.

Grid Edge, meanwhile, will develop the systems needed to manage the flow of electricity between the vehicle charge points and the building, while Nortech will manage the monitoring of local substations and communication with network operators.

Finally, researchers at Aston University will be investigating the development of a model to predict battery-life performance.


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Students tackle hackers at Inter-ACE 2018 cyber security challenge

Tue, 2018-03-20 17:52

Challenges including the prevention of a hack on a UK city’s infrastructure have been tackled by over 130 students who took part in this year’s Inter-ACE 2018 cyber security challenge.

Inter-ACE 2018 cyber security challenge

Hosted by Cambridge University, the event saw 34 teams from 18 of the UK’s top cyber security universities converge to battle it out for a cash prize and the chance to compete at a parallel event in the US.

The competition, supported by GCHQ’s National Cyber Security Centre and designed to attract the next generation of cyber security talent, took place over two days on the 16th and 17th of March 2018. The victorious team from Edinburgh University won the top prize of £6,000, with second place going to Southampton University and Imperial College London taking bronze.

The winners will now compete with the best of the USA at C2C –‘Cambridge2Cambridge’, a transatlantic contest jointly organised by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Cambridge University to be held between the 29th of June and 1st of July 2018 at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.

Inter-ACE was established to help resolve the cyber security skills gap, where an estimated shortfall of 1.8m workers is predicted worldwide by 2022. Inter-ACE aims to inspire young tech enthusiasts into the cyber security sector, while also honing the skills of those who already have a strong aptitude for ethical hacking and helping them meet like-minded individuals and potential employers.

Inter-ACE 2018 cyber security challenge

Prof Frank Stajano, founder of Inter-ACE and Professor of Security and Privacy at Cambridge University, said: “It’s no secret that the cyber security industry is suffering from a large and growing skills gap. We must do more to attract a more diverse pool of talent into the field. This is about demonstrating that careers in cyber security not only help to keep your country, your friends and your family safe, but are varied, valued and most of all fun.

“There is still much more to be achieved, but I have been delighted over the last three years to be welcoming a growing number of female participants and contestants from increasingly diverse backgrounds to the two-day competition. We had 18 women competing this year, as opposed to just two when we started! It’s working. There is no set profile for a cyber security professional and Inter-ACE contributes to reaching more people with that important message.”

Nick L, a student from the winning team at Edinburgh University said “For people out there thinking about getting into cyber security and sitting on the fence, get yourself into a cyber security competition. Chances are the first one might not go so great, but you’ll get there and learn a lot. That’s exactly how we started out”.

Inter-ACE 2018 involved a number of different scenarios, including preventing a hack on a UK city’s infrastructure and a tap on an undersea communications cable. Connected devices such as a children’s toy were also used to demonstrate the impact of hacking techniques. The two-day event featured over 20 challenges in total, set by experts from Cambridge University and sponsors including Context IS and Palo Alto Networks.

Established through the UK’s National Cyber Security Strategy and supported by GCHQ’s National Cyber Security Centre, Inter-ACE is sponsored by Microsoft, BT, Palo Alto and Context IS.


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This week’s poll: responses to Uber crash

Tue, 2018-03-20 17:45

How do Engineer readers think the automotive industry should respond to yesterday’s fatal Uber crash between a pedestrian and a driverless cab?

Uber was testing autonomous XC90s in the Phoenix, Arizona area. Take Our Poll (function(d,c,j){if(!d.getElementById(j)){var pd=d.createElement(c),s;;pd.src='';s=d.getElementsByTagName(c)[0];s.parentNode.insertBefore(pd,s);} else if(typeof jQuery !=='undefined')jQuery(d.body).trigger('pd-script-load');}(document,'script','pd-polldaddy-loader'));

The day that many observers of the development of autonomous vehicles have been dreading arrived yesterday, when a pedestrian was struck by a driverless vehicle being tested by taxi hailing app company Uber in Tempe, Arizona and later died. The US Consumer Watchdog organisation has called for a national moratorium on autonomous vehicle testing, saying that “there should be a national moratorium on all robot car testing on public roads until the complete details of this tragedy are made public and are analysed by outside experts.”

Details of the accident are still unclear, but it appears that Elaine Hertzberg was struck by the car, which was in autonomous mode with a human observer behind the wheel, at around 10 PM when she crossed the road away from a designated and illuminated pedestrian crossing. According to Tempe’s chief of police, Sylvia Moir, the first that the observer knew of Mrs Hertzberg’s presence was the sound of the collision, and in the San Francisco Chronicle she states that the car was travelling at 38mph in a 35mph zone and did not attempt to brake, but the driver states he did not have time to react.

The car in the incident was a Volvo XC90 SUV equipped with cameras. Uber chief executive Dara Khosrowshahi said on Twitter that the company was working with local law enforcement to understand what happened, while the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and National Transportation Safety Board are both sending teams to Tempe. Uber is suspending the autonomous vehicle trials in all North American cities while investigation takes place; it has been testing in Pittsburgh since 2016 and is also carrying out trials in San Francisco, Toronto and the Phoenix area, which includes Tempe. Last year, Uber took its autonomous vehicles off the roads after an accident that overturned a Volvo SUV, also in Arizona, but the programme was later reinstated.

Consumer Watchdog’s privacy and technology project director, John Simpson, blamed lax regulation for the accident. “Arizona has been the wild West of robot car testing with virtually no regulations in place,” he said. “When there’s no sheriff in town, people get killed.”

In a statement, the Institution of Mechanical Engineers said that Uber was right to suspend autonomous vehicle trials while the accident is being investigated. “In 2016 the IMechE in our case study on autonomous and driverless cars raised the needs to address societal questions before highly and fully automated cars are both accepted and legally able to be positioned on our roads,” said head of engineering Jenifer Baxter. “Engineers will need to create an environment where connected autonomous vehicles can operate safely with or without an operator during the transition period to a fully autonomous vehicle system. This transition period could last for several decades.”

Volvo has issued the following brief statement. “We are aware of this incident and our thoughts are with the family of the woman involved. We are aware that Uber is cooperating with local authorities in their investigation.”

Although the investigation is in its early stages, we’d like to know how Engineer readers think the industry should respond. Should it follow Consumer Watchdog’s call, and cease all testing of autonomous vehicles until the investigation is complete? Should there be a focus more on the technology involved, by which we mean the operating system of the car’s autonomy and the sensors that provide it with information? Or should such tragedies, which are common on the roads in any case, not discourage the development of autonomous vehicles and testing should continue? In the comments, you might discuss whether this response should be worldwide or confined to the US.

We welcome discussion, although as always it will be moderated to ensure that it remains on track and constructive. We will publish the results of this poll on 27th March.

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Burns & McDonnell pick MBA students for EV infrastructure project

Tue, 2018-03-20 17:06

Burns & McDonnell has chosen a group of international MBA students to conduct a research project on electric vehicle (EV) infrastructure.

MBA expertise

The five students will undertake detailed research into the UK EV infrastructure market to determine its scale, impact and long-term potential. The full-time project will run until June when the students will produce a report outlining their findings and recommendations for Burns & McDonnell.

The infrastructure company will then use the report to inform its long-term investment strategy in the UK.

The students are said to be drawn from a diverse cohort of specialisms and were chosen following a bidding process at Manchester University involving 25 companies across a range of projects, culminating in a formal pitch and Q&A session on their proposal.

Jonathan Chapman, Burns & McDonnell’s UK Managing Director, said: “Electric vehicles have enormous potential to be a transformative force in the UK, but we need the right infrastructure to make it as easy and efficient as possible for people to take full advantage. It is our aim at Burns & McDonnell to help shape the future of EVs, starting with rigorous, applied research.

“The benefits of becoming involved in this project were clear from the start.  It offers us the opportunity to base our future decision making on a sound evidence base and draw on the varying experience of the students themselves.  It is our hope that through supporting and engaging with the academic community our work will have a meaningful and lasting impact, and that projects like this will inspire the next generation of engineers, entrepreneurs and researchers.”

Abdullah Aljwirah, a member of the winning team who has a background in industrial engineering, said: “As a team we always knew this project would be a challenge, but that’s part of what drew us to it. We can’t wait to delve deeper into the world of EVs, an exciting burgeoning market. We all believe that the best way to learn is by doing things first hand, and think that Burns & McDonnell’s open and hands-on approach will make for a great partnership.

“As challenging as it will be, we all believe that we can produce impactful work at the end of the project. We can’t wait to get started.”


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RadPiper robots to join hunt for uranium deposits in former enrichment plant

Tue, 2018-03-20 15:22

RadPiper robots are set to cut costs in decommissioning project

Preparing the RadPiper robot for tests in a mock-up pipe

Autonomous robots equipped with disc-collimated radiation sensors are set to carry out inspections for uranium deposits at a former uranium enrichment plant in the US.

Developed by Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute, the pair of robots will manoeuvre through miles of pipes at the US Department of Energy’s former plant in Piketon, Ohio, to identify uranium on pipe walls.

According to CMU, the robot has demonstrated it can measure radiation levels more accurately from inside the pipe than is possible with external techniques, a factor that can reduce labour costs and reduce hazards to workers who otherwise take external measurements by hand.

“This will transform the way measurements of uranium deposits are made from now on,” said William “Red” Whittaker, robotics professor and director of the Field Robotics Center.

Heather Jones, senior project scientist will present two technical papers about the robot on March 21, 2018 at the Waste Management Conference in Phoenix, Arizona. CMU also will be demonstrating a prototype of the robot during the conference.

CMU is building two so-called RadPiper robots and will deliver the production prototype units to DOE’s 3,778-acre Portsmouth site in May. RadPiper employs a new disc-collimated radiation sensor invented at CMU. The CMU team, led by Whittaker, began the project last year and worked with DOE and Fluor-BWXT Portsmouth, the decommissioning contractor, to build and test a prototype.

Closed since 2000, the Portsmouth plant began operations in 1954 and produced enriched uranium, including weapons-grade uranium. With 10.6 million square feet of floor space, it is DOE’s largest facility under roof, with three large buildings containing enrichment process equipment. The process buildings contain over 75 miles of process pipe.


Finding the uranium deposits, necessary before DOE decontaminates, decommissions and demolishes the facility, is a significant task. In the first process building, human crews over the past three years have performed more than 1.4 million measurements of process piping and components manually.

“With more than 15 miles of piping to be characterised in the next process building, there is a need to seek a smarter method,” said Rodrigo V. Rimando, Jr, director of technology development for DOE’s Office of Environmental Management. “We anticipate a labour savings on the order of an eight-to-one ratio for the piping accomplished by RadPiper.”

RadPiper will operate initially in pipes measuring 30 inches and 42 inches in diameter and will characterise radiation levels in each foot-long segment of pipe. Those segments with potentially hazardous amounts of uranium-235 will be removed and decontaminated. The vast majority of the plant’s piping will remain in place and will be demolished along with the rest of the facility.

The tetherless robot is said to move through the pipe at a steady pace using its flexible tracks. Though the pipe is in straight sections, the autonomous robot is equipped with a lidar and a fisheye camera to detect obstructions ahead, such as closed valves, Jones said. After completing a run of pipe, the robot automatically returns to its launch point. Integrated data analysis and report generation frees nuclear analysts from time-consuming calculations and makes reports available the same day.

The robot’s disc-collimated sensing instrument uses a standard sodium iodide sensor to count gamma rays. The sensor is positioned between two large lead discs. The lead discs block gamma rays from uranium deposits that lie beyond the one-foot section of pipe that is being characterised at any given time. Whittaker said CMU is seeking a patent on the instrument.


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Aluminium Federation warns of adverse impact of Trump’s trade tariffs

Mon, 2018-03-19 21:07

The Aluminium Federation has warned of the adverse impact of the proposed US import tariffs on aluminium and steel.

Rolling aluminium sheet

“The proposed 10 per cent import tariff would clearly make UK-produced aluminium products more expensive in the US,” said Aluminium Federation President Giles Ashmead, “but these comprise mainly specialist items that US manufacturers would find difficult to source domestically. The net result would be higher costs for US industry.

“Of greater concern is the unintended consequences of such unilateral tariffs. Even if the EU were exempted from this particular measure, the overall imposition of tariffs is likely to result in shipments of aluminium, especially from China and Russia, being diverted to Europe, creating market instability.”

Trade body European Aluminium estimates that a further 20 per cent of primary aluminium exports and 35 per cent of semi-fabricated aluminium products could end up in Europe, due to a redirection of metal flows from third countries following the imposition of US tariffs.

“Indiscriminate tariffs are a hindrance to free trade, and do little to secure a ‘level playing field’ for global commerce,” said Ashmead.

“The root cause of the problem is overcapacity in primary aluminium production, especially in China, which last year produced 11 million tonnes of surplus aluminium, and the unfair trade practices that follow.

“This issue can only be managed effectively through a global and long-term solution, based on multilateral rules and common enforcement. The creation of a global forum of G20 nations on excess capacity in the aluminium industry would be the correct mechanism to achieve a negotiated solution.

“The Aluminium Federation is working on this issue with European Aluminium and, in the UK, we are collaborating closely with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to achieve a good outcome for UK industry. I am hopeful that the proposed US import tariffs will not be applied to the EU, and will, ideally, be dropped entirely.”


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Artificial assistant: the rise of the retail robot

Mon, 2018-03-19 18:17

From swarming devices that get your online food order ready for delivery to the autonomous vehicles that will bring it to your front door, robots are poised to revolutionise the retail sector.  Helen Knight reports.  

The Ocado Smart Platform uses swarms of robots to pick customers’ orders

A warehouse technician takes out a component for a maintenance check. Without a word, his eager assistant immediately slides over to offer another pair of hands with the task. Unlike most assistants, this one never gets tired or has to nip off for a comfort break, because ARMAR-6 is a robot.

The prototype robot was recently delivered to Ocado Technology’s robotics research lab, where the online grocer’s team of engineers will experiment with the use of the technology in maintaining and repairing automation equipment.

The robot is the first prototype developed as part of the EU-funded SecondHands project, which is aiming to develop collaborative bots that can assist technicians working in Ocado’s automated warehouses, known as customer fulfilment centres (CFCs).

More widely, ARMAR-6 is part of a growing robot workforce that is changing the way the retail industry operates, whether it is in the warehouse, on the road, or in the store.

At Ocado, for example, as well as designing a second pair of hands for the company’s maintenance crew, roboticists are developing robots to pick and pack the 50,000 different items the grocer stocks.

The company has recently developed an articulated robot arm equipped with a suction cup and a 3D vision system that allows it to pick up thousands of different objects without damaging them, according to Graham Deacon, the robotics research team leader at Ocado Technology.

Rather than creating a model of each item to be picked, which would be extremely time-consuming, the engineers have developed a vision system that can identify the best grasp point on any object it sees. The system then lowers the articulated arm down into the crate where the suction cup, which is connected via a pipe to an air compressor, creates an airtight seal with the item’s surface.

Sensors ensure the arm does not damage the item during picking, and the vision system then determines the right orientation to rotate it to, before placing it in the bag. “We are still in the process of quantifying how many different items the robot can pick up, but we expect it to be able to handle thousands of items,” said Deacon.

Similarly, the team has been working on a soft-handed picking robot, capable of handling even delicate items such as fruit and vegetables without damaging them, as part of the EU-funded SoMA project. The project is investigating the use of a compliant gripper such as the RBO Hand 2, developed by the Technische Universität Berlin, which uses flexible rubber materials and pressurised air to passively adapt its grasp.

“If the robot is going to pick up a bunch of bananas, it will shape itself to the particular bunch it is picking up,” said Deacon.

The robot’s vision system is being designed to analyse the environment in which the object is placed, to determine if there is anything the gripper can use to help it pick up the item, such as the surface on which it is sitting, he said.

Ocado has invested heavily in robotics in recent years. Its fulfilment centres are highly automated, in particular its Andover and soon-to-be-opened Erith facilities, which are equipped with technology known as the Ocado Smart Platform (OSP). In the OSP, a swarm of robots pick items from a 3D grid, or hive, said Greg Hutton, head of construction and engineering.

“Our bots sit on rails and move left and right,” said Hutton. “They can lower a gripper down to the box, which lifts it up into the belly of the bot, and then moves it into another position, or to a pick station or outlay point,” he said.

The EU SecondHand project – which involves Ocado – hopes to develop collaborative warehouse robots

Similarly, robots are now used to move shelves to the human pickers in a handful of Amazon’s 16 UK fulfilment centres. The robots, called drives, slide under the shelves and move them around the facility as needed.

Outside its fulfilment centres, the online retailer is also developing the Prime Air service, which it hopes will ultimately see packages weighing up to 2.3kg delivered to customers by autonomous, GPS-guided drones, within 30 minutes or less.

The drones have been carrying out test deliveries to a small group of customers in Cambridgeshire in the UK, as part of a private trial, and the company hopes to widen their use soon.

Starship Technologies, meanwhile, is running trials of autonomous delivery robots on the streets of the UK, Germany and Switzerland. Working with German retailer Metro Group, as well as takeaway delivery company Just Eat and parcel service Hermes, Starship has deployed dozens of robots in five cities to run test deliveries.

Starship Technologies is running trials of autonomous delivery robots on the streets of the UK

The robots are designed to deliver groceries, food and packages to consumers within a two-three mile radius. The robots can drive autonomously, while being monitored by human operators in a control centre.

Starship recently announced a partnership with Mercedes-Benz Vans to develop ‘Robovan’, a specially adapted van designed to carry eight autonomous delivery robots. The van will drive to a city or town and stop in a designated location, said Noel Sharkey, emeritus professor of artificial intelligence and robotics at the University of Sheffield.

“The idea is they will drive to the outskirts of a town or city, and then release all of the robots to deliver the goods,” he said.

Last summer, Ocado also ran an autonomous delivery trial in south-east London, using a self-driving truck developed by Oxford’s Oxbotica.

Robots are even finding their way on to the shopfloor itself. In the US, robotics firm Bossa Nova is testing autonomous service robots in 50 Walmart stores throughout the country. The robots travel up and down the aisles, taking images of the shelves and using AI to calculate the status of different products, including their location, price and any that are out of stock.

Bossa Nova is testing its autonomous service robots in 50 Walmart stores throughout the US

In Japan, SoftBank Robotics’ Pepper robot is already being used by more than 2,000 companies, for tasks such as communicating with customers about services and products offered by the retailer, and guiding them around the store. Oliver Lemon, leader of the Interaction Lab research group at Heriot-Watt University, is experimenting with Pepper as part of the four-year, EU-funded MuMMER (MultiModal Mall Entertainment Robot) project involving SoftBank Robotics Europe.

The project, which also includes researchers from Glasgow University, VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland, LAAS-CNRS in France, and the Idiap Research Institute in Switzerland, is aiming to develop a humanoid robot, based on the Pepper platform, which can interact autonomously and naturally with shoppers within the unpredictable environment of a public mall.

“We’re hoping to build robots that can help people find their way around a big shopping mall, or find products in the supermarket, while being entertaining and fun to use,” said Lemon.

The researchers have been carrying out experiments, including a recent week-long stint in an Edinburgh supermarket, where they have been gathering data on how robots should best interact with people.

“These are things that as humans we don’t even think about. You simply walk up towards someone and start talking, but there are lots of signals going on, such as eye gaze, body orientation and distance,” said Lemon. “They seem mundane, but they’re incredibly important to get right, because otherwise people might find it frightening if a robot drives towards them at high speed.”

But if the move towards the greater use of robotics in retail continues at its current pace, we may all have to start getting used to robots driving up to us to deliver our groceries, or to point us in the direction of the chilled food aisle.


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Promoted content: Explore cutting-edge tech and discover how you can secure funding for the future

Mon, 2018-03-19 17:54

Future Tech Now, 5th – 7th April

This April, Future Tech Now Show London will feature a cutting-edge Enterprise Zone that will uncover how industry is using immersive technologies, AI and robotics to revolutionise training, manufacturing and design.

The show hosts a specialised area that focuses on future tech products and training experiences for enterprise. One of the most exciting areas in the show is the Automotive Garage, where the DETC will be demoing multiple vehicle and engineering immersive experiences.

Exhibitor HP: Exclusive opportunity to try the HP Z VR backpack

Although we’re not yet able to announce the exclusive content they’ll be revealing at the show, the DETC team have told us it will be a ‘world-first fully immerse vehicle driving experience’ –

Starting from the time the user puts on the headset, the idea is to give a glimpse of the quality of the vehicle and once the user is fully engaged in the vehicle, the experience becomes more immersive and more realistic”
Kevin Rampersad, The Digital Engineering & Testing Centre


As Britain enters The Fourth Industrial Revolution, if you’re interested in learning how your business can boost productivity, reduce skill shortages, increase sales and reduce costs with immersive technology, the conference on Thursday 05 April is for you.

With speakers from The Institute of Directors, Department of Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and show sponsors Innovate UK, KTN & Immerse UK, you’ll be given future-proofing tools to unlock the true potential of your business.

As part of the government’s Industrial Strategy plans, a £33m challenge fund has been launched for the UK’s creative industries. Innovate UK & Immerse UK will be on-hand at the show, both to offer private 1-2-1 funding sessions and to host a top line panel that will give companies an insight into how they can secure funding for the future. 


Immersive technology is impacting multiple sectors – many of which are already leveraging its immense power to speed up design processes, reduce errors, enhance recruitment, become more competitive, improve training, plug skills gaps and reduce risk.

Future Tech Now provides an incredible opportunity to get hands-on with some of the world’s most cutting-edge tech and connect with industry leaders all in one space.

However, the show isn’t focused solely on enterprise – our content crosses multiple industries and business sectors. You can explore our incredible showfloor, and connect with a range of brands and businesses that are at the very forefront of tech development.

Teslasuit – UK Premier at Future Tech Now

Discover the latest in HP’s powerful Z Workstations range and Z VR Backpack, request a private 1-2-1 with their team and understand the full potential of VR.

Visit Teslasuit as they make their UK premier at the show – The Teslasuit is a futuristic hi-tech bodysuit that is set to revolutionise multiple industries. This incredible haptic suit will have a number of demo spaces at the event where attendees can experience it for themselves and understand what it feels like to be fully immersive in a virtual world.

Don’t forget to have some fun while you’re at the show – grab a seat at the Vocktail Bar and try a drink of the future. The Vocktail uses a combination of electrical currents on the tongue and colour to stimulate taste sensations, tricking the mind and creating a completely personalised drink.

You can also watch a fully immersive film in at the 360° Movie House, ride the Happy Finish Shard Slide, visit the 21st Century Hospital or check out our Immersive Art & Fashion galleries.

Shared VR Training Platform: Immerse

Future Tech Now brings together the key players from the immersive technology, robotics and AI ecosystems, and with high-level conferences running alongside the show, it’s set to be the UK‘s most influential Future Tech event of 2018.

Find out more and get tickets at

Use the discount code ENGINEER to receive 10% off your ticket price.

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Eel inspired artificial nerve tissue heralds soft robotics breakthrough

Mon, 2018-03-19 17:11

Researchers in the US have taken their inspiration from the sinuous swimming motion of an eel to develop soft materials with embedded chemical networks that mimic the behaviour of nerve tissue.

The material could lead to future autonomous soft robotics devices

Working with funding from the US Army Research Office, the group, from Brandeis University in Massachusetts, claims that the breakthrough could lead to the development of autonomous soft robots with highly distributed and tightly integrated sensing, actuation, computation and control. The research is published in the UK journal Lab on a Chip

Led by Professor of Physics Dr Seth Fraden, the team drew their inspiration from the sinuous swimming motion of a swimming blue eel and studied how a type of neural network present in the eel, named the Central Pattern Generator (CPG), produces waves of chemical pulses that propagate down the eel’s spine to rhythmically drive swimming muscles.

Fraden’s lab set about engineering a material that could mimic this generator by first constructing a control device that produces the same neural activation patterns biologists have observed. There, they created a control system that runs on chemical power, as is done in biology, without resorting to any computer or electromechanical devices.

The team realised that the same CPG dynamics could be captured on a non-biological platform if they used an oscillating chemical process known as the Belousov-Zhabotinsky reaction. The chemical networks they produced exhibited dynamic patterns identical to the eel’s CGP.

The team is now looking at transferring the information coded in the dynamic patterns from the chemical networks to create a targeted mechanical response within a novel chemo-mechanical gel. This could transition the research from artificial material mimicking neural tissue to artificial tissue now mimicking neuromuscular tissue.


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Nanofibre manufacturing method helps to heal wounds quicker

Mon, 2018-03-19 16:25

A manufacturing system for nanofibres is helping to make new wound dressings that accelerate healing and improve tissue regeneration.

Hair follicles regenerating at the center of the woundCredit: Disease Biophysics Group/Harvard University

Developed by researchers from the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, the two nanofibre dressings use naturally-occurring proteins in plants and animals to promote healing and regrow tissue. The breakthroughs are described in separate papers.

“Our fibre manufacturing system was developed specifically for the purpose of developing therapeutics for the wounds of war,” said Kit Parker, the Tarr Family Professor of Bioengineering and Applied Physics at SEAS and senior author of the research. “As a soldier in Afghanistan, I witnessed horrible wounds and, at times, the healing process for those wounds was a horror unto itself. This research is a years-long effort by many people on my team to help with these problems.”

The most recent paper, published in Biomaterials, describes a wound dressing inspired by foetal tissue.

In the late 1970s, when scientists first started studying the wound healing process early in development, they discovered that wounds incurred before the third trimester left no scars. This opened a range of possibilities for regenerative medicine but researchers have struggled to replicate those properties of foetal skin.

Foetal skin has high levels of fibronectin, a protein that assembles into the extracellular matrix and promotes cell binding and adhesion. Fibronectin has two structures: globular, which is found in blood, and fibrous, which is found in tissue. Even though fibrous fibronectin holds the most promise for wound healing, previous research focused on the globular structure, in part because manufacturing fibrous fibronectin was a major engineering challenge.

The researchers made fibrous fibronectin using Rotary Jet-Spinning (RJS), developed by Parker’s Disease Biophysics Group. With RJS a liquid polymer solution – globular fibronectin dissolved in a solvent – is loaded into a reservoir and pushed out through an opening by centrifugal force as the device spins. As the solution leaves the reservoir, the solvent evaporates and the polymers solidify. The centrifugal force unfolds the globular protein into small, thin fibres. These fibres – less than one micrometre in diameter – can be collected to form a large-scale wound dressing or bandage.

“The dressing integrates into the wound and acts like an instructive scaffold, recruiting different stem cells that are relevant for regeneration and assisting in the healing process before being absorbed into the body,” said Christophe Chantre, a graduate student in the Disease Biophysics Group and first author of the paper.

In in vivo testing, the researchers found that wounds treated with the fibronectin dressing showed 84 per cent tissue restoration within 20 days, compared to 55.6 per cent restoration in wounds treated with a standard dressing.

The researchers also demonstrated that wounds treated with the fibronectin dressing have close to normal epidermal thickness and dermal architecture, and even regrew hair follicles.

“Most work done on skin regeneration to date involves complex treatments combining scaffolds, cells and even growth factors,” said Chantre. “Here we were able to demonstrate tissue repair and hair follicle regeneration using an entirely material approach. This has clear advantages for clinical translation.”

In another paper published in Advanced Healthcare Materials, the Disease Biophysics Group demonstrated soy-based nanofibres that enhance and promote wound healing.

Soy protein contains oestrogen-like molecules – which have been shown to accelerate wound healing – and bioactive molecules similar to those that build and support human cells.

“Both the soy and fibronectin fibre technologies owe their success to keen observations in reproductive medicine,” said Parker. “During a woman’s cycle, when her oestrogen levels go high, a cut will heal faster. If you do a surgery on a baby still in the womb, they have scar-less wound healing.”

In a similar way to fibronectin fibres, the research team used RJS to spin ultra-thin soy fibres into wound dressings. In experiments, the soy and cellulose-based dressing demonstrated a 72 per cent increase in healing over wounds with no dressing and a 21 per cent increase in healing over wounds dressed without soy protein.

According to the researchers, both kind dressings have advantages in the wound-healing space. The soy-based nanofibres – consisting of cellulose acetate and soy protein hydrolysate – are inexpensive, making them a good option for large-scale usage, such as on burns. The fibronectin dressings could be used for smaller wounds where the prevention of scarring is important.


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Rolls-Royce and Superdielectrics enter high energy storage agreement

Mon, 2018-03-19 15:13

Rolls-Royce and Superdielectrics are to explore the potential of using polymers to create next generation high energy storage technology.

The agreement will see Rolls-Royce combine its material science and technical expertise with Superdielectrics’ novel hydrophilic polymers that have been shown, in partnership with researchers from the Universities of Bristol and Surrey, to have potentially outstanding energy storage properties.

Dr Dave Smith, director of Central Technology, Rolls-Royce, said: “We believe that electrification will play an increasingly important role in many of our markets over the coming years and by working with partners on potential new technologies for energy storage we can ensure that Rolls-Royce is well positioned to take advantage of new developments.”

Jim Heathcote CEO of Superdielectrics, said: “We are delighted to be working with Rolls-Royce in the global race to develop advanced energy storage systems. This agreement gives us access to their unparalleled scientific and technical expertise. I hope this agreement will ultimately create new jobs and business opportunities in the UK.”

Working with researchers from the Universities of Bristol and Surrey, Superdielectrics has been developing hydrophilic materials, similar to those originally designed for soft contact lenses, to increase the electricity storage capabilities of capacitors, which store electricity by creating electrostatic fields.

These dielectric polymers may provide an opportunity to create capacitors that are able to rival – and even exceed – the storage capacity of traditional rechargeable batteries. The resulting supercapacitors may also be able to charge much faster than existing lithium-ion batteries.

Superdielectrics has filed patents on these materials, which Bristol University estimates to have dielectric property values which are 1,000-10,000 times greater than conventional electrolyte solutions. The company’s technology is not limited by rare or expensive elements and potentially has a higher energy density than lead acid and Lithium-ion batteries. Supercapacitors also offer very rapid charge and discharge capabilities.

The terms of the agreement between Rolls-Royce and Superdielectrics remain confidential.


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