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Why manufacturers must rise to the cyber-security challenge

Fri, 2018-03-16 17:51

With manufacturers increasingly reaping the benefits of connectivity the pressure is on for industry to improve its understanding of cyber-security, writes Prof Raj Roy of Cranfield University

The defence secretary’s recent warnings of increased cyber-warfare from nation states and other actors, determined to threaten the UK’s infrastructure, must be a wake-up call to the engineering profession. As we rightly reap the benefits of advanced technological interconnectivity and the rise of Industry 4.0, we must also be vigilant to the dangers that we face now and in the future. Cybersecurity can no longer be an optional extra for engineers; it must be a core competence of the profession.

When you think of warfare, what do you think about? Planes, tanks and ships? While still relevant, this is becoming outdated. An attack on a nation’s infrastructure is increasingly likely to come from a cyber-attack. Imagine the capacity of an aggressor to affect a nation’s manufacturing plants and machines, to compromise the security of products, production lines and supply chains.

We need to grow the next generation of engineers to be cyber-aware and reskill engineers to understand these very real threats

Engineers need to focus on not just developing and maintaining technology, but increasingly need to understand and predict cybersecurity threats. But what do we mean by cybersecurity threats? Too many people think of cybersecurity as a virus on our computer – “it’s ok, my company’s IT department is in charge of the firewall and I have got the latest anti-virus software installed.” It is much more than this.

As engineers we specialise in bringing component parts together, often from across the world, to develop a new product. There are many questions we now have to ask ourselves. Do we understand the security behind those components and how secure they are during their lifecycle? How secure are the materials we are using and can they stand up to threats not just now but in the future?

The Anti-Counterfeiting Forum estimates that counterfeiting could cost the UK economy as much as £30bn and 14,800 jobs. They warn of ever-increasing counterfeit electronic components entering the UK, particularly concerning OEMs. We are becoming more aware of the threats but are perhaps less aware of the solutions.

At Cranfield, we are determined to change this. We need to grow the next generation of engineers to be cyber-aware and reskill engineers to understand these very real threats. Our recently launched MSc in cyber-secure manufacturing aims to train and retrain engineering professionals to understand these issues. The key feature of our work, whether it is teaching or research, is that we develop our offering alongside industry. An example of this is our partnership with Atkins to appoint a new professor of secure engineering.

These challenges will not be solved by people working alone, but by all of us working together. Cyber-threats affect us all whether we are in academia or industry, whether we are an SME or a global corporation. We all need solutions to these common threats.  For me, there are four key areas where we need to work together to establish common solutions as an industry: materials security, engineering systems security, systems-of-systems security and behavioural security.

In order to have the confidence of our customers, engineers will need to have a much greater understanding of the materials that we are using. The creation of digitally secure materials that remain secure throughout a component’s full lifecycle is paramount. For this to happen we will need the functionality to be able to constantly reprogramme in order to meet current threats.

It is not only the materials and components we use, but also the engineering systems that operate them. How can we take advantage of distributed ledger technology, self-learning (AI) and pattern recognition approaches to provide updatable protection and the ability to implement rapid threat-response strategies?

As Industry 4.0 is realised, we must develop engineers that  understand how to counter the threats that are being created

If we are to create these secure engineering systems, then we also need to understand much more about the behaviour of threatened systems and components. We need a systems-of-systems approach that allows us to understand much more about what happens when one part of our technology is threatened and the impact of that threat on all the other components. Using flexible software-defined networks and secure Internet of Things approaches, we need engineers who can design systems that isolate threats, still maintain a working system and try to self-heal and learn.

A lot of what we think about in cybersecurity is the threat from afar, but how do we protect against human error? Something missed at the design stage or, even worse, deliberately compromised at the design stage, could have a devastating effect. Behavioural psychology and systems thinking can allow us to understand individual and corporate behaviour and map weaknesses and generate monitoring and intervention strategies.

As Industry 4.0 is realised, we must develop engineers that not only understand how to unleash the potential that it brings, but also understand how to counter the threats that are being created. ‘Security by default’ must be our watchwords, if we are to not only maintain and improve productivity, but also safeguard the nation’s infrastructure, which has engineering at its heart.

Prof Rajkumar Roy is director of manufacturing at Cranfield University

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MACH 2018 Preview: big data and interconnected technology take centre stage

Fri, 2018-03-16 17:19

The overriding theme running through MACH 2018 is the vital role that interconnected technology will play in the future of manufacturing

The Manufacturing Technologies Association (MTA) and the University of Sheffield Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC), have together created a feature at MACH 2018 demonstrating cost-effective adaption of Industry 4.0 Technologies by SMEs. The project was prompted by perceived implications among SMEs of high cost and complexity.

The feature will demonstrate up to six separate manufacturing cells, replicating familiar manufacturing environments that have been integrated with Industry 4.0 Technologies. “The Integrated Manufacturing Group at [AMRC’s] Factory 2050 and we at the MTA understand that it is vital to cut through some of the jargon and hyperbole around Industry 4.0 and show first-hand the practical advantages Big Data can bring to an SME business,” said James Selka, CEO of the MTA.

Heller’s 5-axis HMC Profitrainer training system fitted with Industry 4.0-compatible operating panel

Machining and turning centres
The influence of this holistic approach is apparent in the presentations of the major machine-tool builders. Productive complete machining, and ‘digital workflow’ are core issues for DMG MORI (Stand H20: 490). Its CELOS interface is a key element: first presented in 2017, digital workflows for data-supported production planning and automated tool management will be available for customers as CELOS early this year.

Alongside this, 5-axis simultaneous machining is increasingly being developed as a key technology, with automation and combined milling and turning prominent. The DMC 80 FD duoBLOCK universal machining centre, with pallet changer, is said to be extremely rigid and capable of heavy-duty machining of rotating parts, for instance in aerospace applications. Grinding technology can be integrated, delivering surface finish of Ra < 0.3 µm.

Efficiency and productivity are key themes underlying a sector-led approach from Yamazaki Mazak (Stands H20: 760, 790), which also presents its suite of Industry 4.0 solutions. The Mazak iSMART Factory works in partnership with SMOOTH Technology – said to be the world’s fastest CNC – to improve overall equipment effectiveness and facilitate data-driven manufacturing via the seamless connection of factory and office networks.

Visitor’s to Mazak’s stand in 2016

Aerospace, one of these key sectors, is the principal market for the UK-built VTC-800/30SR, a vertical travelling column machining centre capable of full 5-axis contouring. The machine was designed for machining extremely long workpieces, or can be converted into two separate work areas, enabling pendulum loading and batch manufacturing. It has an 18,000rpm milling spindle, while a swivelling B-axis spindle head, in conjunction with the NC rotary table, offers full 5-axis simultaneous machining. Machines alongside include the HCR-5000S, developed for high-speed 5-axis aluminium cutting; and the INTEGREX i-400S, popular in the oil and gas industry for its large machining capacity.

Several MACH debutants are presented by XYZ Machine Tools (Stand H18: 640). These include the LR and HD ranges of vertical machining centres; plus the UMC-5X gantry-style simultaneous 5-axis machining centre – the company arguing that it ‘moved the goalposts’ on price/performance ratios with this machine, available with either Siemens 840Dsl Shopmill or Heidenhain iTNC 640 HSCI control systems. Table configuration and machine design allow 500mm of Y-axis travel forward of the table when it is rotated 90° towards the rear, allowing larger workpieces to be machined.

XYZ’s UMC-5X machining centre

Matsuura Machinery (Stand H20: 542) will focus on automation and unmanned machining. The company’s pioneering tower pallet automation goes back over two decades, with the introduction of the MAM72 5-axis series. The latest MAM72-35V is equipped with 32 pallets as standard and up to 520 tools, for long periods of unmanned 5-axis simultaneous production.

Citizen Machinery UK (Stand H20: 570) will reveal the next generation of its CNC system featuring touch screen and qwerty keyboard, as a key feature on the new Cincom D25-VIII and -VII sliding headstock turn-mill centre. Operational flexibility is maximised for complex cycles with two gang vertical toolposts each with X-, Y- and Z- axes and one with a B-axis capable of both front and back machining. The Cincom D25-VIII is configured as a 10-axis sliding headstock 25mm capacity machine which also incorporates the added flexibility of 0° to 135° swivelling B-axis. Moving into Phase 2 of its programme for Low Frequency Vibration (LFV) cutting technology, Citizen is also launching the Miyano BNA-42GTYLFV, a 42mm bar diameter hybrid development, moving headstock turn-milling centre.

NCMT (Stand H19: 640) launches the Mecof UMILL 1500, a portal, 5-axis vertical machining centre with mill-turn and high-speed options. The company also presents the Okuma M460V-5AX vertical machining centre, the latest model, and the first 5-axis machine, in the Genos series. Highly rigid, thermally stable, double column construction is supported by Okuma’s Thermo-Friendly Concept applied to both machine structure and spindle.

Spindles on the Tornos Multi-Swiss 8X26

Other notable machining exhibitors include Heller (Stand H20: 470) where the focus will be the group’s worldwide drive towards integration of its machine tools and controls into the Industry 4.0 environment; Hurco Europe (Stand H6: 180), marking its 50th anniversary with the launch of  two machining centres (cantilever design 5–axis plus 3-axis bridge type) and two new lathes; and Mills CNC (Stand H18: 520) showcasing 16 Doosan lathes and machining centres. Returning to MACH, Geo Kingsbury (Stand H7: 244) will present turning, milling and grinding technology from suppliers including Traub (single- and multi-spindle lathes) and Hermle (3- to 5-axis machining centres). Tornos (Stand H19: 312) will demonstrate its new MultiSwiss 8X26, equipped with eight spindles and eight slides for main operations accommodating up to three tools per slide.

Cutting tools
WNT – part of the Ceratizit Group (Stand H19: 500) will display cutting tool innovations alongside component examples, enabling visitors to relate products to applications. S-Cut UNI milling cutters feature a combination of an S-curve cutting edge and extremely irregular pitch. The geometry of this solid carbide cutting tool creates a variable helix angle, and an extremely smooth cutting action, which enhances tool life and surface quality, as fewer vibrations are produced during milling. Cutting data can also be increased to reduce cycle times. The irregular pitch of the cutting edges counteracts the induced vibrations – from tool to workpiece to machine tool – caused by entry and exit frequencies when making the cut. The irregular pitch also enables higher depths of cut at large angles of engagement.

WNT recognises the growing importance of face-contact spindles with its BT-FC double contact toolholding system. A key benefit is the increased rigidity generated through taper and face contact, with the additional face contact counteracting any lateral forces, greatly reducing axial deviation. The design also enables extended spindle life and reduced vibration.

Other cutting tool exhibitors confirm the value of integrated or targeted cooling. Horn (Stand H6: 890) launches its DA32 milling system with new, high-performance, diamond-tipped inserts. Highly positive insert geometry ensures a smooth cut, minimising stress on the workpiece and tool. Long cutter life and virtually burr-free machining are ensured, particularly on long-chipping materials. Coolant supply ensures targeted cooling of the cutting edges plus safe removal of chips. Also from Horn, its new grooving and parting off blades incorporate internal cooling and are designed for universal use in the production of small batch sizes.

Floyd Automatic Tooling (Stand H20: 620) presents the latest line of Mikron Tool’s CrazyMill Cool products, developed for milling small dimensions.

A new four tooth finish milling cutter with shank integrated cooling is available in 1-8mm diameter for depths of up to 5XD in hard materials. ITC (Stand H20: 650) will present new ‘micro milling’ product extensions; new indexable insert milling solutions from Widia; and product lines from BIG KAISER, the inventor of the BIG PLUS dual contact face and taper spindle system.

Additive manufacturing
Matsuura (Stand H6: 762) presents its hybrid 3D metal printing and CNC milling machine, LUMEX. In association with this, Oxford-based OGM, which purchased a LUMEX Avance-25 in 2017, offers a Hybrid Additive Manufacturing bureau service and has successfully used this technology to manufacture conformal cooling channels and injection moulding inserts with cycle time reduction and improved part quality. XYZ Machine Tools (Stand H18: 640) has been selected as an official reseller of the HP Jet Fusion 3D printing solution, which can print production-quality parts at speeds up to 10 times faster and at half the cost of comparable 3D printing systems. Renishaw (Stand H20: 150) will exhibit software and systems for producing metal parts; the RenAM 500M will be seen alongside demonstrations of QuantAM build preparation software. Renishaw will highlight the benefits of its four-laser system, which offers increased productivity in the most commonly used machine platform size.

Measurement and inspection
Renishaw (Stand H19: 430) believes that measurement data are essential to gather information enabling intelligent decision making, to prevent process variation; and that Industry 4.0 depends on connected systems, which are able to communicate, interpret and respond to information in real time. So, as well as exhibiting new and existing products, the company will demonstrate how measurement technologies can be integrated into a manufacturing process to achieve intelligent machining. A highlight is a high-productivity machining cell concept, with integrated process control; the principle is that by monitoring key process inputs, analysing data and continuous improvement, manufacturers can increase accuracy and productivity.

Also to be shown are the latest multi-probe optical interface system which uses a spindle-mounted OMM-2C receiver to allow up to three machine tool probes to be installed with optical signal transmission; the latest scanning system for CNC machine tools; intelligent process control software for the Equator gauge; and apps to simplify machine tool probing. The company will also present a non-contact tool setter for machining centres; a multi-probe optical interface system; a new surface finish probe for use on the REVO 5-axis measurement system on CMMs; and enhanced software for the XM-60 multi-axis calibration system.

Measurement specialists exhibiting also include Aberlink (Stand H19: 352), Faro (Stand H19: 140) and Hexagon (Stand H18: 430). Aberlink will be giving a MACH debut to the Xtreme 500 CMM. With a measuring range of 500 x 500 x 300mm, it is based on a hexapod design using linear motors and mechanical bearings. It maintains its accuracy at fast measurement rates and does not suffer from the accumulative dynamic inaccuracies that occur in conventionally designed CMMs. FARO will introduce a new portable CMM, the Quantum S Arm, which allows manufacturers to easily verify product quality by performing actions such as 3D inspections, dimensional analysis, CAD comparison, tool certification, and reverse engineering. Now with the FARO FAROBlu Laser Line Probe HD, the Quantum S delivers measurement consistency when performing both contact and non-contact scans; it enables users to capture more in richer detail at an increased speed.

A nimble, large-scale portable laser scanner will be among products launched by Hexagon. The Leica Absolute Scanner LAS-XL offers a scan-line width of up to 600mm, measurement stand-off distance of up to a metre, and accuracy to within 150 microns. Hexagon says the expanded measurement field and point acquisition rate means components and assemblies such as large blade surfaces can be fully digitised faster than ever.

Grinding and EDM
Jones & Shipman (Stand H20: 875) represents all Hardinge grinding brands in the UK and at MACH 2018 introduces the Kellenberger 100 concept. Modular configuration has helped to optimise costs; the machine shown will be the 1000mm between-centres variant equipped with a WeFlex automated load/unload system, which can be fitted to any Kellenberger 100 derivative. Also featured is the latest version of the UK-built Suprema Easy cylindrical grinding machine. This multi-purpose machine can process high-volume production grinding work or fulfil high-precision small batch quantities and one-off work (eg. in tool room or prototyping environments). A real advantage is the speed in the set-up of dressing and grinding cycles via specialist ‘Easy’ graphical grinding software, utilising touch screen technology.

Look for efficient exchange of data right through to the production and despatch of components – and thus embrace advanced manufacturing driven by intelligence

New EDM products from Sodi-Tech (Stand H19: 112) will include Sodick’s ALC400G wire eroder and an automated manufacturing cell combining the die-sink AG60L with an Erowa Robot. The ALC400G, incorporates Sodick’s latest digital innovations, including its Smart Linear and Smart Pulse technologies, in a small footprint machine; and is said to demonstrate significant advances in cutting speed, accuracy and surface finish, made possible through the use of Sodick’s 15 years of linear motor technology expertise. The AG60L is one of Sodick’s most popular die sink machines for precision machining large components. Three-sided automatic rise and fall work-tank makes the machine suitable for automation, hence its appearance at MACH 2018 with the user-friendly, small footprint Erowa Robot Compact 80.

EDM machines on show from GF Machining Solutions, (Stand H20: 460) include two AgieCharmilles wire EDM machines – a CUT P 550 and a CUT 1000); and an AgieCharmilles FORM P 350 EDM die-sink machine integrated with a System 3R WorkPartner 1+ automation system. At the heart of the CUT P 550 machine is a new, intelligent IPG (Intelligent Power Generator) that improves cutting performance by 20 per cent. It also features a number of ‘onboard’ automation solutions that improve machine-tool utilisation and uptime as well as reducing operational costs.

Software and controls
SolidCAM UK (Stand H17: 640) is set to open a new technology centre to enable customers to understand the complete manufacturing process. The company’s iMachining is said to be particularly effective on hard and difficult to machine materials such as Inconel and titanium; claims are made of speed improvements of up to 90 per cent. SolidCAM also incorporates powerful 5-axis machining and mill/turn capabilities, with limitless capability in terms of the number of axes it can control and synchronise. Open Mind (Stand H17: 620) will launch the latest edition of hyperMILL, Version 2018.2, providing demonstrations on how intelligent production can fit into the machine shop via the hyperMILL VIRTUAL Machining Center package. Built with Industry 4.0 in mind, the new simulation solution creates a virtual rendering of reality in the machine based on NC data; it generates a bi-directional communication link between the machine control and the hyperMILL VIRTUAL Machining Center.

Central to its Industry 4.0 presentation, Heidenhain (Stand 18: 545) will demonstrate its Connected Machining system of production, in which all work steps are digitally networked via its TNC milling control. By linking the CNC system into a manufacturer’s network via Ethernet, design, programming, simulation and production planning staff as well as machinists on the shop floor are able to access all order and job-related information.

And this is pretty much where we came in. The emphasis from the software and controls specialists underlines this year’s MACH message: look for efficient exchange of data right through to the production and despatch of components – and thus embrace advanced manufacturing driven by intelligence.

The post MACH 2018 Preview: big data and interconnected technology take centre stage appeared first on The Engineer.

Modelling supersonic combustion could advance design of scramjets

Fri, 2018-03-16 16:47

Chinese engineers devise method for numerical analysis of the gas flows and turbulence inside a hypersonic scramjet engine

The processes involved in airflow connected with supersonic flight have been a problem for aerospace engineers for decades. It was working out how to cope with the shockwave of exceeding the speed of sound that was the sticking point for designing the first supersonic aircraft. Today, the difficulty comes more with modelling what happens inside an engine that propels aircraft at supersonic speeds.

Shockwaves inside supersonic engines create vortices that affect combusion and thrust

In a jet engine, air flow is slowed down to increase the temperature and pressure for combustion to ensure that the correct ratio of fuel to air is maintained to optimise thrust and acceleration. In supersonic engines, the situation is even more complicated, with supersonic shockwaves creating turbulent flow inside the engine with vortices that change the way fuel combusts and multiplies the number of possibilities for the way the particles can behave.

Modelling supersonic flow in an engine is extremely difficult because of the complexity of the situation. “Currently, no commercial software can simulate the supersonic combustion problem because it requires high-order numerical schemes to compute supersonic flows with complicated evolved shocks, as well as corrected models to describe the droplet dynamics, both of which we carefully consider in our in-house simulation codes,” said Bing Wang of the School of Aerospace engineering at Tsinghua University in Beijing, a co-author of a study on simulating supersonic air flows in the journal Physics of Fluids. “Direct numerical simulation can capture the full scales of flows involved in the shock-vortex interaction.”

In the study, Wang and colleagues from the school of power and energy at Northwestern Polytechnic University in Xi’an describe how they used customised simulation codes and the mathematical technique called the Eulerian-Lagrangian method to characterise the influence of a shockwave striking the engine at an oblique angle, tracing out large-scale shearing vortices and exothermic reactions, mathematically mapping the influence of variables and the resulting types of waves in a shocked gas.

A particular result of the analysis was that there are two induced combustion modes, due to the formation of a reflected wave coupled with the chemical reaction inside the engine. This allowed them to see how changing variables such as the fuel load and intensity of shockwaves changes the characteristics of combustion and, they believe, will help in the design of future scramjet engines.

“The scramjet engine is the most favorable option for high-speed flight at Mach six or more,” Wang said. “Understanding the complicated physical mechanism of supersonic combustion and the impact of incident shock waves could help engineers choose the best combination of mixing and combustion through installing movable components in the combustor.”

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UK Spaceports set for lift-off with passing of Space Industry Bill

Fri, 2018-03-16 16:36

British businesses will soon be able to compete in the commercial space race using UK spaceports following the passing of the Space Industry Bill.

Artists impression of a UK Spaceport

Receiving Royal Assent on 15 March 2018, the bill is hoped to build on Britain’s existing expertise in the space sector by unlocking a new era of space innovation, exploration and investment.

It is envisaged that British businesses and institutions will be able to launch small satellites and scientific experiments from UK spaceports, which are also expected to facilitate future developments including hypersonic flight and high-speed point-to-point transport.

Science minister Sam Gyimah said: “The Space Industry Bill offers an exciting opportunity for the UK to…be at the forefront of the commercial space age. Through the government’s ambitious Industrial Strategy, we are working with the sector to pursue pioneering commercial space opportunities, including developing new technologies, infrastructure and services. This will open up the UK to new frontiers, transforming the way we live, and establishing us as a space flight leader.”

A quarter of all telecoms satellites are substantially built in Britain and satellite services already support more than £250bn of GDP in the wider UK economy. UK spaceports would give Britain access to a launch market worth an estimated £10bn over the next decade.

Eight new projects have also been announced by Gyimah as part of the UK Space Agency’s Space for Smarter Government Programme, which hopes to demonstrate the potential of using satellite technology to solve challenges faced by the public sector.

These projects range from using satellite data and machine learning technology to support the roll out of charging points for electric vehicles, to deploying drones and satellites to help combat marine waste.

Dr Graham Turnock, chief executive of the UK Space Agency, said: “The Space Industry Bill guarantees the sky is not the limit for future generations of engineers, entrepreneurs and scientists. We will set out how we plan to accelerate the development of the first commercial launch services from the UK, and realise the full potential of this enabling legislation over the coming months.”


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Swarming insects inspire collision avoidance technology for driverless cars

Fri, 2018-03-16 16:26

A global research project led by a team at the University of Lincoln is taking its inspiration from swarming insects to develop collision avoidance technology for driverless cars.

The vision systems of swarming insects are inspiring next-generation anti-collision technologies

Funded by a €1.8m grant from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 programme, the so-called ULTRACEPT project (Ultra-layered perception with brain-inspired information processing for vehicle collision avoidance) is developing a miniature, trustworthy collision detection sensor system that could drastically improve the safety of autonomous vehicles.

According to the team behind the project, current approaches to vehicle collision detection have a number of limitations: radar is too sensitive to metallic materials; GPS-based methods face difficulties in cities with high buildings; vehicle-to-vehicle communication cannot detect pedestrians or any unconnected objects, and normal vision sensors cannot cope with fog, rain or dim light conditions at night.

The ULTRACEPT team claims that by drawing on lessons from the insect world they will be able to develop a system with enhanced collision detection capabilities that could enable autonomous vehicles to better adapt to unexpected hazards and different conditions such as sudden weather changes or driving in and out of tunnels.

Biology provides a rich source of inspiration for artificial visual systems for collision detection and avoidance

Project leader, University of Lincoln Computer scientist Professor Shigang Yue said: “Autonomous vehicles….have demonstrated huge potential for shaping our future lifestyles …but to be functional on a daily basis there is one critical issue to solve; trustworthy collision detection. Collision detection and avoidance is so important for vehicles now and in the future, yet there is no acceptable product currently available on the market to specifically meet this need – that is exactly what we hope to develop.”

Yue, who has previously been involved in the developments of autonomous navigation systems for mobile robots based on the locust’s visual system, said that naturally evolved biological systems could provide the solution to this problem.

“Biology provides a rich source of inspiration for artificial visual systems for collision detection and avoidance. For example, locusts, with a compact visual brain, can fly for hundreds of miles in dense swarms free of collision; praying mantis can monitor tiny moving prey with the help of specialised visual neurons; and nocturnal insects successfully forage in the forest at night without collision.”

He added that these natural vision systems provide ideal models to develop an artificial system for collision detection and avoidance. The project, which includes researchers from Germany, China, Japan, Malaysia and South America, brings together experts in hardware and software systems and robotics, invertebrate vision, chip design and robotics.

The team claims that as well as being used within autonomous vehicles, the ULTRACEPT vision system will be applicable to a number of other industries, including robotics, video game developments and healthcare.


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We need to recognise the value of plastic

Fri, 2018-03-16 14:30

Design-led, science-based approaches will ultimately mean we can eradicate harmful waste, recognise the value of plastic and benefit fully from this remarkable material, writes Philip Law

Plastic is not designed to end up in the marine environment – yet around the world plastic waste is leaking into our oceans. Tackling this issue requires a widespread response at international, governmental and local levels. As more than 80 per cent of marine litter comes from a small number of Asian countries, these areas are highly significant. However, every country – and arguably every citizen – has a role to play as we rethink our relationship with this remarkable material.

The modern world is made possible by plastic. It saves lives in hospitals in medical devices, helps supply our drinking water via durable pipes, is essential for digital devices to function and helps preserve our food. Plastic packaging, often in the spotlight for negative reasons, is lightweight and cheap to produce. It can be solid or flexible, transparent or opaque, chemical-resistant, heat-tolerant, and safe for food contact. According to a 2016 Trucost report, environmental costs increase four times without plastic packaging – with production, shipping and end-use environmental impacts all rising.

Biodegradable plastics have often been mooted as a potential solution. However, what isn’t generally recognised is that special conditions are often needed for the material to decompose, such as those provided by industrial composting. Additionally, biodegradable materials have been shown not to fully break down within the marine environment. Biodegradable plastics that end up in landfill also have the potential to release methane, a more potent greenhouse gas than CO2. Very importantly, biodegradable plastics can also undermine existing recycling for conventional plastics and preclude their use in numerous long-term applications. Even the very suggestion that they may be present in these recycling streams can cause specifiers to be concerned about the integrity of their products.

It is technically possible to recycle all plastics. However, economics largely determine those that are recycled at scale, showing a truly circular economy should begin with design. Designers should create packaging that can easily be recycled. But designers ultimately are steered by clients’ demands, so brands and retailers also have an essential role to play. The principles of the current UK recycling infrastructure are, however, solid. Kerbside collection works. Some 99 per cent of local authorities collect plastic bottles, with the number of local authorities collecting pots, tubs and trays increasing and currently at 76 per cent. The UK is ranked second for commercial and industrial packaging recycling in the EU, and seventh for plastic packaging. Currently 22 per cent of plastic packaging reaches landfill, but the UK plastic supply chain’s current aim is to reach zero by 2030.

Currently 22% of plastic used in the UK reaches landfill, but the aim is zero

Improvements to the system are needed but each proposal should be carefully considered. Deposit return schemes (DRS), for example, are a prima facie ‘green’ solution where consumers return their own bottles. Some DRS systems, such as Germany’s, work well. Others, like South Australia’s, do not. One complicating factor is the unknown impact on the well-established kerbside collection system in the UK, with a DRS potentially siphoning off valuable items.

The British Plastics Federation Recycling Group’s strategy document of 2017 proposed introducing incentives for companies to use recycled content and for products to be designed to maximise recyclability. Extended producer responsibility (EPR) can help achieve this, with companies offsetting their producer responsibility costs through resource-efficient product design, such as specifying a certain percentage of recycled content. Critically, a reformed Packaging Waste Recovery Note system – which certifies plastic has been properly recovered or recycled – is needed that encourages the growth of UK recycling infrastructure. Littering needs to be addressed too.

There are limits to conventional recycling – multi-laminate, composite and thermoset materials, as well as contamination, all pose challenges. Chemical and pyrolysis recycling methods provide a potential answer – technologies that break down long polymeric carbon chains into medium-length chains, producing waxes and synthetic crude oil to make new plastics. Scaling these technologies up will require investment.

In developing nations without waste infrastructure, local solutions are needed. NGOs such as Waste Aid work with communities to turn plastic waste into economic opportunities.

A theme runs through this – recognising the value of plastic. The future should be one in which the consumer recognises plastic as a recyclable and valuable resource and seeks to keep it working within the economy. Society needs plastic – and it can’t afford to keep throwing it away.

Philip Law is director-general of the British Plastics Federation and of the Council of International Plastics Industry Association Directors (CIPAD)

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Blue Pilot project promises to push down cost of offshore wind farm installation

Fri, 2018-03-16 13:13

The cost of electricity generated by offshore wind farms could be reduced thanks to Blue Pilot, a European project testing new installation technology.

BLUE Hammer

The Blue Pilot project will test a new type of pile driver, designed to reduce the cost and underwater noise associated with the construction of offshore wind farms.

Conventional hammers used for installing offshore foundations use a steel ram that hits the pile to drive it down into the soil. This steel-on-steel impact results in high stresses in the pile, and also creates underwater noise that can impact marine life.

The new Blue Hammer pile driver was developed by Dutch technology company Fistuca, a spin-off from Eindhoven University of Technology.

The project partners, which also include the UK’s Carbon Trust Offshore Wind Accelerator (OWA), E.ON, Statoil and Shell, among others, claim it could lead to savings of up to euro €33-40m over the lifetime of a 720MW offshore wind farm, or a levelised cost of energy reduction of €0.9-1.2 per MW/h.

The Blue Hammer consists of a large water tank containing an open combustion chamber, according to Jasper Winkes, founder and managing director of Fistuca.

BLUE Hammer

“Instead of using a steel ram the Blue Hammer uses a large water column that is thrown up in the air using the combustion of a gas mixture,” he said. “The water then falls back, creating a long lasting blow that pushes the pile into the soil.”

This cycle is repeated until the pile is driven into the soil.

The hammer produces a blow that lasts between 100 and 200ms (milliseconds), compared to 4-8ms for conventional pile drivers, while the force builds up and reduces gradually.

This limits the acceleration and vibration of the pile, reducing noise.

“On top of that the energy level is very high, more than six times higher than the largest hydraulic hammer in the industry, meaning fewer blows are needed,” said Winkes.

Consequently, it could reduce underwater noise levels by up to 20dB, and reduce fatigue damage during installation on the pile by up to 90 per cent.

A full-size monopile will be installed off the coast of the Netherlands this summer, for tests to validate the predicted noise levels and fatigue damage.


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If we allow our children to be unimaginative and dull they will rarely be anything else

Thu, 2018-03-15 23:14

Just as today’s lego kits deprive children of the opportunity to use their imaginations, 3D printing is failing to deliver on its promised ability to inspire the next generation, writes our anonymous blogger 

Recently, for a brief moment, I thought I was going to get one of these pieces quoted back at me. Sadly that little hoped for vanity remains as yet unrealised but I can let you know that it was during a chat with a colleague about creativity.

Today’s Lego sets are sold as being to produce a single finished item

We were both expressing our disappointment in how the play of “youngsters today” tends to be prescribed. One particular avenue we explored was the way that Lego sets are sold as being to produce a single finished item and, once the child has completed the task, this being how it generally stays.

Readers with long memories may recall that I once suggested how those of you with offspring should “torch” all instructions supplied with the sets owned by your own progeny. What became apparent as we discussed this further was that the problem does not simply relate to the world of brightly coloured building blocks.

The age of “3D Printing” was heralded with the same sort of predictions for a bright new future that also accompanied the ideas of the flying car and the domestic robot. Everything would change, every home would have one and nothing would be beyond your grasp.

However rather than us having moved to a world of infinite possibilities, again it would seem that the prescribed route is usually the chosen one. Rather than, for instance, inventing cartoon characters to model and print out, the kids find readymade models of their existing favourites then pay to download the programming. This is then fed into the 3D Printer which produces the desired statuette.

Of course there is more involvement and interaction when compared to purchasing a boxed figure from a shop but is there really that much more? You gain some intrinsic understanding of additive manufacture and the concept of the 3D model but nothing relevant to the normal range of manufacturing processes or design. With the availability of different coloured filaments there may even be no need for finishing.

Rather than encouraging kids to design their own characters 3D printing has created a market for downloadable models. Image: Gambody.com

Certainly when compared with more traditional means to similar ends, i.e. the “plastic kit”, you are actually removing the acquisition of skill sets and understanding. So rather than moving into a state where the child is encouraged to explore their own imagination and render it complete in the physical world we are instead merely providing a more direct path to the acquisition of merchandise for existing items – be they figurines, cars or whatever.

We would perhaps expect this to a degree anyway because we live in a consumerist society and there would always be a market for the pay and download items, but I wonder why (admittedly from a small sample) this seems the norm almost to the point of exclusivity? Surely it cannot be mere laziness?

Is it too much to suggest that a child who is allowed to be dull and unimaginative now will rarely be anything else?

Is the human condition really such that the rollercoaster route to satisfaction found in creating something yourself will always be sacrificed for the low level but consistent anodyne payback of instant gratification?

Looking back at my formative self for reference I realise I can only try to be detached and realistic. In assessing if things have changed it may well be impossible to entirely jettison the attitudes of what we have become, to avoid imprinting our mature selves over our half recalled earlier self.

Taking this on board, although my finished model kits generally looked like crashed versions of the subject matter and I wasn’t one for hand carving emergency bicycle chains from bits of hedgerow – there was always the drive to create. Writing stories, drawing, inventing; wild imaginings of a future that I would like to inhabit. Then there was that battered biscuit tin full of Lego, ours being adorned with famous pub signs and even now instantly visualised with evocative clarity – the go to resource for building the inspiration de jour. Assessing available materials and planning the best approximation to the chosen subject matter, be it steam loco or X-Wing Fighter. Through such things are methods for exploring the imagination established and basic techniques for manifesting those ideas born.

By contrast, is it too much to suggest that a child who is allowed to be dull and unimaginative now will rarely be anything else?


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Subcon partners with Automechanika to give visitors access to both shows with one badge

Thu, 2018-03-15 22:56

Centaur Media today announced a unique partnership between Subcon, the defining event in the manufacturing supply chain calendar, and Automechanika Birmingham, the UK’s leading exhibition for the automotive aftermarket and vehicle production sector.

The partnership will enable all visitors to benefit from attending both events by registering just once for their visitor badge. The two leading events make for a comprehensive day out for all engineers and are set to take place from 5-7 June 2018 at the NEC in Birmingham.

More than 4,500 visitors from aerospace, automotive, defence, electronics, energy, materials, oil and gas and rail sectors will attend Subcon this year to do business with over 400 exhibitors. The best of British manufacturing will be on display alongside a six-stream, 36-session conference programme, all designed to help UK manufacturers increase their competitive advantage in 2018 and beyond.

Over 500 exhibitors will connect with more than 12,000 visitors at the 2018 Automechanika Birmingham trade exhibition including the likes of Robert Bosch Ltd, Magal & Arlington, TR Fastenings, Schmidt Light Metals, COBA Plastics, Pritex, Keyence, Autocraft Drivetrain Solutions, DIT, Igus, DJJ Engineering and many others. The event will bring a raft of new initiatives, including a facilitated meetings programme to match the needs of visitors with exhibitors, a Motorsport Valley Innovation feature presented by the MIA, a MIA pavilion and the established SMMT events; Open Forum and Meet the Buyer. The event will also host expert speakers and Tomorrow’s Mobility a feature showcasing connected and autonomous technologies.

Gordon Kirk, Event Director, Subcon said: “This partnership will add tremendous value to Subcon and Automechanika Birmingham visitors alike. Frictionless entrance to both events will enable visitors to get access to a wider range of best practice ideas, industry-leading content and powerful networking.”

Simon Albert, Event Director, Automechanika Birmingham added: “Both Subcon and Automechanika Birmingham have established reputations in industry as trusted events that deliver huge value for engineers. As organisers, we understand that by making it easier for visitors to access both events by registering only for one will only increase the return on the investment of time that visitors make.”

Visitors can register at www.subconshow.co.uk.

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Fusing old with new: Autodesk is modernising traditional processes

Thu, 2018-03-15 21:36

Since acquiring Delcam in 2014, the American software company Autodesk has invested heavily in the machine shop and is now bridging the gap between additive and subtractive

Small Heath has seen some changes over the decades. Its location on the main road linking Coventry and Birmingham made it a key site for industry; and until the early 1970s it was the home of BSA, churning out at various times rifles, handguns, bicycles, motorbikes, cars and taxis. Television viewers will know it as the home base of the fearsome Peaky Blinders gang, whose non-illegal interests include car building and the metals trade, and a place where foundries belch smoke and flames. With changing times come changing fortunes, and much of the old BSA factory has been demolished. But part of the industrial heritage of Small Heath is now seeing a new phase for the manufacturing industry; a phase whose effects are still largely unknown.

Steve Hobbs (left) and Andrew Anagnost (with scissors) open the technology centre

The industrial CADCAM company Delcam began in Small Heath, and was established with a machine shop at its heart. Delcam was acquired by the American software company Autodesk in 2014, with many of its staff – and its machine shop – transferring to the new owners. Autodesk has invested heavily in the machine shop in recent years, and its official opening in mid-February revealed how the changing face of manufacturing technology is having a huge effect on companies whose direct involvement in production has traditionally been tangential.

The biggest change is, of course, the development of additive manufacturing as an additional route to producing finished products and components in place of, or in addition to, traditional subtractive processes like drilling, milling and grinding. Although the machinery to carry out these traditional processes has evolved considerably, they are still doing essentially the same thing as the very first machine tools developed during the Industrial Revolution, and these processes have contributed considerably to the form and function of many of the most fundamental machines we use today. “If you think of the gearbox, it looks the way it does because of how it’s made,” said Rob Sharman, head of additive manufacturing for GKN, one of Autodesk’s biggest customers. “One of the big advantages of additive is that it allows you to think of the job that a component like a gearbox does, and to design from first principles a mechanism to do that job. It might not look like a gearbox anymore, but the freedom of being able to build components from scratch allows you to think in that completely novel way.”

This isn’t just relevant to end-users like GKN. Manufacturing machines, whether additive or subtractive, are driven by software and the increasing trend is for that software to be the same (or at least to be closely interfaced with) the software used to design the product or component being made. In what used to be the Delcam machine shop – and is now the Autodesk advanced technology centre – the extent of that convergence between design and manufacturing is becoming plain. In the technology centre, one machine is using traditional subtractive techniques to make uprights designed for the suspension of a Briggs Automotive sports car. Traditionally rather blocky and geometric components, the uprights emerging from the machine are more curved and organic-looking: generally, a tell-tale sign that they have been made by an additive process. Indeed, these were designed using a generative software tool often utilised in additive manufacture, that optimises material quantities in the areas of the component that have to endure the highest stresses; but along with these constraints, the system is also now taking into account the capabilities of the subtractive machine tool, coming up with a form that is a compromise between a “bird-bone”-like fully additive structure and a chunky traditionally machined component.

“The extreme of the highly organic-looking generative shapes is highly optimised but also, even when we constrain over subtractive machining, it takes a little bit longer to machine, said Andrew Anagnost, Autodesk’s CEO, a typically informal Californian. “If we can start finding a middle ground between the old highly geometric way of doing things that use a lot of material and these highly organic shapes and move the two closer together, using the generative algorithm to kind of average between those two, we’re going to get even more practical solutions that can be deployed more broadly in more places.”

“We’re looking at ways of making technology more accessible to people who are, perhaps for good reasons, wanting to work with more conventional manufacturing technologies,” added Steve Hobbs, a 30+ year Delcam veteran who is now Autodesk’s vice-president for CAM and hybrid manufacturing. “Not everybody is ready to switch to powder bed additive as their main production technology, and for good reasons – there is still some process development to go on there before it’s suitable for making production-quality components in some cases.”

Elsewhere in the technology centre, the bronze ship’s propeller produced by wire arc additive manufacturing and recently certified for use in the Dutch port of Rotterdam on a tug (covered in January’s edition of The Engineer) was on display, along with demonstrations of automated grinding and polishing, using augmented reality to make plain to machine operators which areas of the component had been polished to the specified finish and which areas still have some way to go. Polishing is traditionally a hand process, and is a prime candidate for automation. Another demonstration machine was devising processes for milling automotive models from clay, and scanning any changes to models that have been made by hand to incorporate them into the design of the vehicle. One of the newest machines combines additive, subtractive and automated metrology to make repairs to a turbine blisk and ensure the repaired part is within tolerance.

Anagnost commented that Autodesk should not be thought of as a software company as much as a manufacturing process development and automation company. “What used to be done with multiple disciplines and multiple deliverables being handed down back-and-forth is simply being taken over by interpretation by the computer; and that is inevitably going to evolve us into a design-make process company. That doesn’t mean that we are a machine tool-making company at all – we are not – but we are going to  be provider of streams of bits that feed highly automated factories in the future.”

Autodesk’s customers are organisations that manufacture, and buyers of machine tools. It may seem surprising that the research being carried out in the machine shop is not being done by the machine tool manufacturers themselves, but Autodesk’s role is to help their customers get the best from their machine tools by using control software to modify the way they work. For example, it might be visibly obvious that the tool holder can move further, but some aspect of its operating system may be stopping it from exploiting the full range of its mechanism. In such a case, a machine manufacturer can allow Autodesk to “open the black box” and allow customised parameters to be set. One example of this could be seen in the machine shop where a large three-axis tool had been reprogrammed to act partially like a five-axis tool.

For Anagnost, this is all part of the trend of design moving closer to manufacturing. “We are in our hearts an automation company. The company was founded on automating doing drawings, and then ultimately, we automated the process of creating drawings from models. Now we’re in the process of automating making something from a model,” he said. This extends to products like Fusion Production, a system that helps manufacturers feed data back into their processes to improve performance; and to use information from environmental sensors to automate how workers can be warned of dangerous conditions such as dust levels, the presence of toxic gases or proximity of heavy moving objects. These might not be the same aspects of automation that other suppliers might consider, but they are no less important in operating a production environment, he argued.

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Pulsed power machine aims to trigger fusion reaction for Oxford spin-out

Thu, 2018-03-15 20:07

A UK company is hoping to take a step towards generating low-cost, sustainable energy from fusion, with the installation of a pulsed power machine designed to trigger the reaction.

Fusion, the process that powers the Sun, involves fusing two lighter atomic nuclei to form a single heavier one, releasing huge amounts of energy in the process. It is seen as a potentially limitless source of cheap, carbon-free energy, since its main fuel is a heavy isotope of hydrogen called deuterium, contained in sea water.

However, despite decades of experiments around the world, no organisation has yet been able to produce a self-sustaining fusion reaction capable of generating more energy than it consumes.

Now Oxford-based First Light Fusion, which is investigating energy generation from a process known as inertial confinement fusion, is investing £3.6m in a machine designed to trigger a reaction at a much lower cost than existing technology.

Their approach is inspired by the pistol shrimp, which clicks its claw to produce a shockwave that stuns its prey – the only known example of inertial confinement found on Earth.

The device, known as Machine 3, is a pulsed power machine, designed to discharge the energy needed to fire a high velocity projectile at a target, generating a process known as shock-driven cavity collapse.

As the projectile hits the target, it generates very high pressure, creating a shock wave that is transmitted through the target, according to Dr Nicholas Hawker, founder and chief executive officer of First Light Fusion.

“The shock wave hits a cavity, a circular void within the target filled with fusion fuel, and causes it to collapse extremely quickly,” said Hawker.

Their approach is inspired by the pistol shrimp, which clicks its claw to produce a shockwave that stuns its prey

This should create the intense temperatures and densities needed for a fusion reaction.

Machine 3, which is already under construction and is due to be completed by the end of the year, will be capable of discharging up to 200,000 volts and in excess of 14 million ampere – the equivalent of nearly 500 simultaneous lightning strikes – within two microseconds.

The high voltage machine consists of a bank of capacitors, all of which are charged to 100kV and discharged in parallel. Like all pulsed power machines, it is capable of storing energy over a long period of time and then discharging it very quickly.

If successful, the process should be far cheaper than laser-driven inertial fusion, the approach being pursued at the National Ignition Facility (NIF) in California.

“The cost per joule of energy is one of the most critical elements for fusion, and using Machine 3 to launch the projectile is 1000 times cheaper, per joule of energy, than using a laser,” said Hawker.

That is because the laser used for inertial confinement fusion requires extremely expensive optics and other components. The process is also very inefficient, he said.

Unlike more expensive pulsed power machines, Machine 3 will also be insulated in air, rather than by immersing the equipment in oil, to further keep costs down.

First Light Fusion, a spin-out from Oxford University, plans to begin experimenting with the machine in January 2019, and hopes to demonstrate fusion within the year. The next step in the technology’s development will be to achieve ‘gain’, whereby the amount of energy created by fusion outstrips that used to spark the reaction.

The company was founded by Hawker and Prof Yiannis Ventikos, head of the mechanical engineering department at University College London. Its advisory board includes Nobel Prize-winning scientist Prof Steven Chu and Prof Arun Majumdar, who both served in the US Department of Energy under President Barack Obama.


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Cambridge Design Partnership and ECCO step into customised footwear

Thu, 2018-03-15 17:43

Cambridge Design Partnership has worked with shoe brand ECCO to help the company realise the potential of data-driven customised footwear.

Measuring foot geometry

ECCO’s QUANT-U project takes individual data to produce customised silicone midsoles via an in-store additive manufacturing process.

In the space of a few minutes, consumers receive a full digital analysis of their foot structure and the way they move. Shoes are then tailored to their specific requirements in a few hours.

A wearable sensor embedded in the soles of the test shoes collect data using gyroscopes, pressure sensors and accelerometers – as well as recording the temperature and humidity inside each shoe – to create a unique digital footprint.

This data is autonomously translated into geometries for in-store 3D printing of shoes based on each individual’s biomechanical and orthotic parameters.

Real-time analysis is based on 3D scans and motion analysis of feet

“The biggest challenge was the fact that the sensors are very close to the ground, hidden inside shoes and covered by a human body – yet they need to send data from both shoes simultaneously to a connected device such as a mobile phone,” said Roberto Basile, a software engineer at CDP. “We needed to maintain reliable communication – using Bluetooth Low Energy – despite the human body acting as an obstacle to the wireless signals. The mechanical system inside the sensor had to be robust enough for people to walk on it, while the battery had to be small and last at least three days without being recharged.”

The first prototype of the wearable sensor was created by CDP and ECCO in under four months. The inbuilt algorithm filters the raw biomechanical data from the sensor into functional information. This data creates the input parameters for a 3D-printed customised midsole for individual customers in approximately two hours.

Silicone midsole

“Additive manufacturing offers the chance to create bespoke parts in series but this is rarely translated in a consumer product; most likely due to the complexity of the 3D models and a lack of measuring data to begin with,” said Patrizio Carlucci, head of ILE (Innovation Lab ECCO). “To solve this, we focused heavily on the digital capture and interpretation of motion and orthotic data, then made sure this experience would be no more complicated than trying on a shoe in the store and walking for a few minutes. We truly translated more than 50 years of shoe making experience into an algorithm.”

ECCO footwear

The QUANT-U (‘quantified you’) project will have an initial public release at W-21 Amsterdam –  ECCO’s concept shoe store – in April.


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Rendering brain tissue transparent can help explain degenerative disease

Thu, 2018-03-15 17:21

Mapping dense tangles of nerve cells can provide insights into Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and depression

Distribution of nerve cells

Researchers from Imperial College London and Hong Kong University have developed the method for “clearing” brain tissue as a way of making the task of tracing the complex circuitries of nerve cells within the brain much less arduous.

Traditionally, neurons are mapped by slicing the brain into multiple thin slices and tracking the cells as they pass in and out of many sections, a process that can take weeks. Scanning techniques such as MRI are useful for visualising larger structures, but cannot achieve the three-dimensional resolutions needed to map neurons.

Clearing is a technique that uses chemicals which, when soaked into brain tissue, make opaque tissues transparent, leaving the neurons visible without altering or changing their structure. However, up to now it has only been effective in rodent brain tissue, and there are major differences between the brains of mice and those of humans, including important differences in the chemistry of the tissues and the density of certain substances.

The Imperial/HKU team developed a new clearing solution which they called OPTIclear. Described in a paper in Nature Communications, the solution contains three main components: iohexol, a contrast agent used to visualise blood vessels in x-rays; 2,2’-thiodiethanol, a sulphur-containing alcohol which is used in microscopy; and N-methylglucamine, a urea derivative which was identified thanks to its ability to render boiled egg whites soluble and which helps the solution to penetrate regions containing dense concentrations of proteins.

The team combined this solution with fluorescent staining, and on testing it with human brain tissue, managed to visualise microscopic structures including nerve cells, glial cells (non-nerve tissue that supports the structure of the brain) and blood vessels.

One particularly striking result was that the team imaged 3,000 large neurons in the human basal forebrain in five days, a task which would normally take three weeks using conventional techniques. They also mapped the dopaminergic neurons in the brainstem – structures that generate the signalling chemicals involved in movement – in three dimensions on the millimetre scale. The solution is effective both on freshly obtained brain tissue and in clinical samples that have been kept preserved for over 30 years.

“We hope that a better understanding of the connections and circuitries of the brain will help uncover the pathologies that underlie the common degenerative diseases of the brain, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease,” commented Prof Wutian Wu of the School of Biomedical Sciences, Li Ka Shing Faculty of Medicine, HKU, co-supervisor of the study. Lead researcher Lai Hei-Ming added: “In principle, this method is also applicable to other human organs and clinical specimens. We hope that this technique can also be used in studying other diseases, and eventually help us to unravel the mysteries of the human body.”


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US firm builds 3D printed house in less than a day

Thu, 2018-03-15 16:44

US construction technologies firm Icon has demonstrated a method for 3D printing a single storey house in less than 24 hours.

The small company – which is hoping to pioneer the use of 3D printing for homebuilding – has unveiled a 650 square foot home in Austin, Texas that was built using its Vulcan 3D printer, which builds structures by depositing layers of specially formulated cement.

The firm claims that it can print an entire home for $10,000 but that costs could ultimately be brought as low $4000.

It has now joined forces with housing charity New Story to further develop the technology and use it to build affordable homes in parts of the developing world. The two companies reportedly plan to work together to build around 100 3D printed homes in El Salvador.

Artists rendering of the Vulcan 3D printer in action

Icon claims that the planned production version of the printer will have the ability to build a single storey, 600-800 square foot 3D printed house in under 24 hours for less than $4,000.


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Interview: Anthony Finkelstein, Royal Academy of Engineering’s chief scientific adviser for national security

Thu, 2018-03-15 14:30

The chief scientific adviser for national security is far from a Bond techie and passionate about British research

Magazines like The Engineer arrange interviews in two ways. Sometimes we contact organisations to request interviews with people who we think might be interesting, and sometimes they are pitched to us. In this case, the Royal Academy of Engineering got in touch and asked if we’d like to speak to Anthony Finkelstein. He is the chief scientific adviser for national security, we were told. “Basically, he’s like Q from the James Bond films.”

This is not the sort of introduction that one can turn down. Meeting Finkelstein in a basement conference room at the Academy’s headquarters near St James’s Park (a time-honoured rendezvous for Cold War spies, as John Le Carré told us), I wasn’t sure whether to expect the sort of bumbling-but-brilliant character portrayed by Desmond Llewelyn in the original films, the donnish-but-sarcastic type played by his successor, John Cleese, or the unassuming-but-penetrating new version of Ben Whishaw. Finkelstein resembles none of these; he is a tall, slightly gangly man with a taste for floppy caps and warm knitwear, and has a measured manner of speaking that indicates he is considering every word carefully. He is also quite adamant that he isn’t Q. When asked whether there is, in fact, a Q at all, he replied that he can neither confirm nor deny it. “But if there were one,” he added dryly, “she’d be doing a quite marvellous job.”

Finkelstein is a software systems engineer by profession, holding the chair in the discipline at UCL and based at the Alan Turing Institute, the UK’s national institute for data sciences headquartered at the British Library. However, he added, we should not necessarily draw any inferences from that about the nature of the science he advises on. All other government departments save one have chief scientific advisers (CSAs), he explained (the Treasury has a chief economist). “We try to have a kind of mix among all the CSAs of different disciplines, so that when we have a multidisciplinary problem we can call on a range of people. We have physicists and materials scientists and people who have control and robotics experience, and a statistician, so I’m the sort of resident computer scientist.”

Finkelstein works across the range of government organisations that bear upon national security. Formally, his affiliation is to the government office for science, but he deals most often with the Ministry of Defence, the Home Office and the police. His remit covers the whole technology spectrum, but is not concerned with weaponry or what he describes as “a large defence infrastructure”.

The role of CSA is both proactive and reactive. “I run a large national security-related research programme, and I have creative input in that,” Finkelstein said. “But also people in the national security arena bring problems to me which I try to use science to address. The other people who bring me problems are our adversaries; I look very closely at what they are doing and look very closely at how any technologies provide a threat or an opportunity to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of our national security.” The nature of those adversaries is as various as the technologies Finkelstein deals with. “They range from lone actors and spontaneous volatile extremists through to terrorist organisations, or ‘hostile non-state actors’ as they are sometimes called, to states which wish us and our values ill,” he explained.

Although not all of the technologies with which Finkelstein is concerned are in the digital domain, because of his background he has a particular interest in the computer science aspects of national security.

One thing that is particularly interesting to him at the moment, he said, is privacy-enhancing technologies “both for the opportunities they provide for national security to be able to maximise its function while minimising intrusion, but at the same time, I’m really interested in the exploitation of these privacy-enhancing technologies by our adversaries to hide bad stuff”.

Flexible batteries will be used to tackle adversaries at home and abroad

Some of these privacy-enhancing technologies include statistical disclosure control, which is a technique intended to ensure that when a survey or administrative data is analysed, no person or organisation can be identified from the results; privacy-preserving data mining, a related technique that tries to ensure that while knowledge can be extracted from data, that knowledge should not include information about individuals or organisations that should be kept private; and another related technology known as homomorphic encryption, which is computing unencrypted data, so inferences can be drawn without decrypting private information.

In the case of such technologies, Finkelstein’s role is to encourage research that will help provide tools for providers of critical national infrastructure to manage related data and ensure that it is kept as secure as is feasible.

“The national security community now knows we can’t do everything behind the barbed-wire fence. We are only going to be able to keep up with exponential technlogy advances and with fast-moving agile adversaries if we exploit the full value of the innovation community and of the open science and technology community”

One thing Finkelstein is particularly keen to stress is that even when security structures seem to be crude, the science that goes into constructing them or optimising them is often considerable. The most visible pieces of the security apparatus that the general public see are probably bollards and barriers protecting sensitive buildings or places where crowds gather. “Designing a really good bollard is extremely difficult because the more deeply you embed it the more expensive it is, and you have to withstand all sorts of force,” Finkelstein insisted. “Actually, vehicle mitigation is really difficult, complex and quite hi-tech. The point is, you always want to use technology appropriately for the challenge you are facing, and that isn’t always the most elaborate solution. It’s the best solution to meet the requirements.”

Another part of security procedures that many people know about is the use of spotters surveying crowds in airports or sometimes in video feeds to identify patterns of suspicious behaviour. “There is an astonishingly complicated bit of behavioural science research that’s gone on in order to underpin changing the way we do things in public spaces. It may appear crude but if it does that belies the fact that it is based on a lot of very serious behavioural sciences.”

As part of ongoing efforts to develop technology in the national security sector, Finkelstein and the Royal Academy of Engineering have launched a post-doc programme to help identify exciting and important research that might make a contribution to the UK’s national security and that of our allies. “We are also interested in developing the UK capability in many of these areas of science and engineering. We want to encourage work on topics which are likely to make us safer, while developing the tech ecosystem around networks to our collective benefit.”

Partly inspired by a similar successful scheme in the US, this programme is a response to a problem which will be familiar to many in the industrial R&D community. “Things have changed, technologies are a lot easier to access and the global science base is a click away, so the government is very conscious that science is globalised, and there is a whole range of states that now have advanced science and are moving at our rate if not faster. The national security community now knows we can’t do everything behind the barbed-wire fence. We are only going to be able to keep up with exponential technlogy advances and with fast-moving agile adversaries if we exploit the full value of the innovation community and of the open science and technology community. It’s difficult and counter-cultural for us to achieve that openness – we prefer in general not to tell people about our capabilities or our lack of capabilities, but on the other hand the brightest people don’t necessarily work for you, so we have to reach out.”

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Leonardo youngsters impress with innovative cyber solution

Wed, 2018-03-14 21:54

Bristol apprentices working at Leonardo have created a Disaster Recovery System to help businesses recover more quickly from cyber-attacks.

According to government research, almost half of UK businesses were hit with IT breaches in the 12 months leading up to April last year. Nearly seven in ten big firms identified either a breach or an attempted breach, but it is often smaller companies that feel the effects of cyber-attacks the most, often taking a day or more to recover.

The Bristol apprentices were set the challenge of designing, building and testing an affordable system so that it could be used by smaller customers. To give the project an interesting twist, they had to build the system from scratch at zero cost, without drawing on existing technology, using equipment previously scheduled to be retired. The IT package had to be robust enough to cope with a range of challenging scenarios including fire, flood, loss of access to the building and failed computer software.

The young team, made up of Alex Cameron, Jason Cardoz and Nat Clarke, delivered a presentation on their Disaster Recovery Solution to Leonardo’s senior internal design authority. According to Leonardo, the team managed to define a solution which initially wasn’t thought to have been feasible by more seasoned IT engineers.

“I’ve been blown away by their success on this project,” said Tim Ozmen, head of Client Services at Leonardo. “I have a team of highly skilled professionals who have up to 15 years’ experience in this specialised field who would’ve had their work cut out with something like this. But the apprentices dived straight in and created a really innovative solution. It just proves what the next generation of innovators can achieve given the right opportunity.”

Having successfully risen to the cybersecurity challenge, the young trio are now starting the next stages of their apprenticeships at Leonardo. Further information on the company’s cyber apprenticeships can be found here.



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Haemostat device eliminates risk of embolism

Wed, 2018-03-14 18:31

UK company invents powder dispenser that can stop blood vessels from bleeding but does not inject air into wound

Team Consulting, the Cambridge-based medical device design and development agency that came up with the original design for the life-saving Epi-pen, has developed the Convesaid device, which allows surgeons to spray opened blood vessels with a powdered substance that stops bleeding during an operation without any risk of introducing air into the blood vessel, which could cause a life-threatening embolism.

The handheld device, which is disposable, is currently at a functional proof of principle stage, and the agency hopes it will serve as a shop window for its expertise.

The Convesaid device in use

According to the British Medical Council, 30 per cent of specialist inpatient surgeries involved a bleed during the process which increased the length of hospital stay. Current devices to stop bleeding, which dispense substances known as haemostat powders, tend to entrain the powder within a stream of air. However, using these carries a risk of squirting air into an open blood vessel.

The Convesaid device is designed to be intrinsically safe, and the design team, led by head of MedTech Ben Wicks, employed a little-known principle of physics to ensure its safety. Called the Coanda effect, this states that a stream of gas will tend to follow an adjacent curved surface.

A return channel in the device nozzle uses the Coanda effect to return air to the pump, confining it inside the casing

Like other sprays, the device contains a battery powered pump to create a stream of air which entrains particles of haemostat powder from a reservoir attached to the back of the device. The powder-laden air stream is sent down the long nozzle of the device. At the tip of the nozzle, however, the channel down which the stream flows splits into two, with a smooth curve leading into a separate return channel back along the nozzle and back to the pump. The powder, meanwhile, is propelled out of the tip and onto its target “It’s almost like magic,” Wicks comments. “It looks like there must be air coming out of the device, but there isn’t.” The tip can even be placed directly onto the wound without any risk of embolism.

As the design evolved in consultation with surgeons, the team introduced failsafe features such as a trigger that cannot be operated until the pump is turned on. “Convesaid gives surgeons the ability to stop a variety of bleeds in a rapid, accurate and safe way. It takes no time to set-up and is unencumbered by any air lines. Convesaid will give haemostat manufacturers the ability to deliver haemostats more effectively, more conveniently and, above all, more safely than ever before.”

Watch this video to find out more about Team Consulting and how Convesaid was designed:


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Crop monitoring “agribot” could revolutionise farming sector

Wed, 2018-03-14 17:30

A low-cost agribot capable of autonomously monitoring crops could revolutionise the agricultural sector, its developers have claimed. 

Professor Girish Chowdhary with the TerraSentia crop-scouting robot

Weighing just over 10 kg, the university’s TerraSentia robot is able to travel autonomously between crop rows using a variety of sensors to measure the traits of individual plants and transmitting the data in real time to an operator’s phone or computer. The team behind the robot are also developing algorithms to “teach” it to detect and identify common diseases, and measure traits such as plant and corn ear height, leaf area index and biomass.

“These robots will fundamentally change the way people are collecting and utilising data from their fields,” claimed project leader, Professor Girish Chowdhary.

University of Illinois plant biology specialist Prof Carl Bernacchi added that automating data collection and analytics has the potential to improve the breeding pipeline by unlocking the mysteries of why plant varieties respond in very different ways to environmental conditions.  Data collected by the crop-scouting robot could help plant breeders identify the genetic lineages likely to produce the best quality and highest yields in specific locations, he said.

“It will be transformative for growers to be able to measure every single plant in the field in a short period of time,” Bernacchi said. “Crop breeders may want to grow thousands of different genotypes, all slightly different from one another, and measure each plant quickly. That’s not possible right now unless you have an army of people – and that costs a lot of time and money and is a very subjective process.” Bernacchi added that a robot, or even a swarm of robots, could offer a low-cost and more efficient alternative to what is currently a highly labour intensive process.

Chowdhary anticipates a huge market for the agribot in both the developed world and the developing world, where subsistence farmers struggle with extreme weather conditions such as monsoons and harsh sunlight, along with weeds and pests.

Several major seed companies, US universities and overseas partners will shortly begin field testing 20 of the TerraSentia robots and the system, which is expected to cost less than $5,000, could become available in under three years.


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Kitty Hawk’s autonomous VTOL air taxi unveiled in New Zealand

Wed, 2018-03-14 16:58

An electric air taxi that can take off vertically and fly autonomously has been undergoing testing in New Zealand.

Known as Cora, the prototype has been developed by Kitty Hawk, a Silicon Valley-based aviation startup founded by former Google X chief Sebastian Thrun and backed by Google CEO Larry Page. The two-seater aircraft takes off using 12 independent lift fans and is powered in fixed-wing flight by a single propeller. It has a top speed of around 180 km/h and a range of roughly 100 km.


In 2016, Kitty Hawk established Zephyr Works, a New Zealand-based operator that has been working with the country’s government and local stakeholders to put a test programme for Cora in place. The first air taxi prototype was shipped to New Zealand in October 2017 and testing has been underway ever since.

“We’re really at the beginning of our quest,” said Zephyr Works CEO Fred Reid. “It’s one thing to design and rigorously test an aircraft, but it’s another to make it useful for society. That is the reason we’re so excited and proud to be working with the people and government of New Zealand to roll out a commercial air taxi service. New Zealand is known for its innovation, its devotion to clean energy, which we offer, and to its very high aviation standards.”

According to Kitty Hawk, Cora is equipped with three independent flight computers that each calculate the plane’s position, providing triple-redundancy. Designed to fly autonomously, the company says the aircraft will operate with ‘human oversight’, though what exactly this entails is unclear. Cora’s electric lift motors each work independently, but in the case of emergency, the air taxi is fitted with a parachute that should allow it to land safely even without power.

“We’re offering a pollution-free, emissions-free vehicle that flies dependably,” said Reid. “We think this is the logical next step in the evolution of transportation.”


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Beetle inspires ultra-white coating for use in paints, food and pharma

Wed, 2018-03-14 16:27

An ultra-white coating inspired by the scales on a type of Southeast Asian beetle could lead to brighter paints and coatings.

Cyphochilus beetle with cellulose-based coating (Credit: Olimpia Onelli)

The super-thin, non-toxic, lightweight, edible ultra-white coating could also find applications in the cosmetic, food or pharmaceutical industries.

The material, developed by a Cambridge University team working with researchers from Aalto University in Finland, is made from non-toxic cellulose and is said to achieve such bright whiteness by mimicking the structure of the scales found on Cyphochilus beetles. The results are reported in Advanced Materials.

Bright colours are usually produced using pigments, which absorb certain wavelengths of light and reflect others, which are then perceived as colour.

To appear as white, however, all wavelengths of light need to be reflected with the same efficiency. Most commercially-available white products (such as sun creams, cosmetics and paints) incorporate highly refractive particles – often titanium dioxide or zinc oxide – to reflect light efficiently. These materials are safe but not fully sustainable or biocompatible.

The Cyphochilus beetle is different. It produces its ultra-white colouring by exploiting the geometry of a dense network of chitin, which has a structure which scatters light extremely efficiently and results in ultra-white coatings which are very thin and light.

“White is a very special type of structural colour,” said paper co-author Olimpia Onelli, from Cambridge’s Department of Chemistry. “Other types of structural colour – for example butterfly wings or opals – have a specific pattern in their structure which results in vibrant colour, but to produce white, the structure needs to be as random as possible.”

According to the University, the team mimicked the structure of chitin using cellulose, which is non-toxic, abundant, strong and bio-compatible. Using tiny strands of cellulose, or cellulose nanofibrils, they were able to achieve the same ultra-white effect in a flexible membrane.

By using a combination of nanofibrils of varying diameters, the researchers were able to tune the opacity, and whiteness, of the end material. The membranes made from the thinnest fibres were more transparent, while adding medium and thick fibres resulted in a more opaque membrane. In this way, the researchers were able to fine-tune the geometry of the nanofibrils so that they reflected the most light.

“These cellulose-based materials have a structure that’s almost like spaghetti, which is how they are able to scatter light so well,” said senior author Dr Silvia Vignolini, also from Cambridge’s Department of Chemistry. “We need to get the mix just right: we don’t want it to be too uniform, and we don’t want it to collapse.”

Like the beetle scales, the cellulose membranes are a few millionths of a metre thick, although the researchers say that even thinner membranes could be produced by further optimising their fabrication process. The membranes scatter light 20 to 30 times more efficiently than paper and could be used to produce next-generation efficient bright sustainable and biocompatible white materials.

The technology has been patented by Cambridge Enterprise.


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