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New Glass Bubbles Could Cut Composite Weight by 40%

3M Company has rolled out a new version of its glass bubble technology that could help cut the weight of sheet-molded composites by up to 40%. In doing so, it opens up new possibilities for automotive fenders, trunk lids, door panels, and headlight assemblies.

The new H32HS Glass Bubbles would reportedly enable sheet-molded composites to have a specific gravity roughly equivalent to that of water. By comparison, aluminum has a specific gravity about 2.5 times that of water, while titanium is 4.5 times heavier and steel is 7.5 times heavier than water. “This is a breakthrough because up until now, most sheet-molded composites have had a density of 1.2 to 1.4 grams per cubic centimeter,” Joe Bommarito, global business manager for 3M, told Design News. “This allows us to get down below 1.0 (g/cc) and still have a paintable surface.”

3M’s new H32HS Glass Bubbles enable sheet-molded composites to have a density of 1.0 g/cc. (Image source: 3M Co.)

The powder-like glass bubbles, made from soda-lime borosilicate glass, serve as an additive, replacing the polymer or filler material used in conventional sheet-molded composites. Because the bubbles measure just 25 µm in diameter, tens of thousands of them are typically used, even in a small part.

3M said the new breed of glass bubbles is drawing attention from automakers and molders, mostly due to the industry’s growing demand for weight reduction in vehicles. “Given the current race for electrification, the OEMs are looking at every gram they can take out of the vehicle,” Bommarito said. “So something like this is big news for them.”

The new H32HS bubbles are an evolution of a technology that has been offered by 3M for about 40 years. The original microspheres were used in oil, gas, and industrial applications. About ten years ago, however, 3M rolled out a new version of the microspheres that could be employed in molded parts. Since that time, the specific gravity of the bubbles has dropped from 0.60 in 2008 to 0.46 in 2012 to 0.32 in the new product.

A sheet-molded composite part using the newest bubbles will ultimately have a specific gravity of approximately 1.0, Bommarito said. That makes it 20% better than a sheet-molded composite using 3M’s earlier bubbles, and about 50% better than a sheet-molded composite using conventional fillers.

Bommarito said the new bubbles have a crush strength of about 6,000 psi, which is lower than that of predecessors. Still, their strength is sufficient for use in sheet molding. “Unlike injection molded parts, where you might see higher pressures, sheet-molded composites don’t need very high pressures,” Bommarito told us. “So with a strength of 6,000 psi, the bubbles can withstand the SMC processes and allow for even more lightweighting.”

Bommarito said that the stiffness and tensile strength of the resulting composites is dependent on the material formulation used by the molder. He did not offer any specific numbers for mechanical properties, but said that the materials could be formulated so that they meet the strength needs of specific automotive applications.

This is not the first time 3M has targeted the glass bubbles at the auto industry. 3M sold earlier versions of the technology into Chevrolet’s 2015 Corvette, where they were employed in construction of rear quarter-panels. But the latest density reduction, combined with a growing emphasis on automotive lightweighting, is making the technology an even stronger candidate for future automotive parts.

“This is nearly a 50% weight reduction over traditional sheet-molded composites,” Bommarito said. “That makes sheet-molded composites more relevant and more interesting for all kinds of automotive applications.”

Senior technical editor Chuck Murray has been writing about technology for 34 years. He joined Design News in 1987, and has covered electronics, automation, fluid power, and auto.


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Japan’s Mitsui Chemicals plans POE/POP plant in North America; sees minor impact from shale-gas derived polyethylenes in Asia

Japan’s Mitsui Chemicals plans POE/POP plant in North America; sees minor impact from shale-gas derived polyethylenes in Asia

Tsutomu Tannowa, President & CEO of Japan’s Mitsui Chemicals recently discussed the company’s most recent financial results and the business outlook for the current year at an event at the company headquarters in Tokyo, where he hinted at a major impending development in the company’s Tafmer polyolefin plastomer and elastomer (POP/POE) business.

Mitsui Chemicals has for some time now been studying the construction of a new plant for Tafmer, which is primarily used in impact modification for automotive polypropylene (PP) grades but also finds application in packaging, wire & cable, footwear and engineering plastic modification applications. Besides North America, China and Singapore were viewed as potential sites for the new facility. The company already operates two 100,000-tonnes/year production units for Tafmer in Singapore.

Mitsui Chemicals President & CEO Tsutomu Tannowa: Mulling options for building an polyolefin elastomer/plastomer plant cost effectively in North America

From a market perspective, North America appears to be the first choice locale, but high construction costs remain as a major negative factor. According to Tannowa: “Construction costs in North America have not shown any signs of decline yet, but we are proceeding with our examination from a range of angles. To cite one example, we can adopt a method in which construction costs are reduced by building a plant in an area where construction is inexpensive until the intermediate stage and assembling it in North America at the final stage. We will proceed with our examination of various options such as this one and make a decision at an early stage.”

In terms of the North American market, Mitsui Chemical notes that while automobile production is failing to grow in North America, output of full-sized cars that use large quantities of plastic, such as sport utility vehicles (SUVs) and pickup trucks is increasing. “Weight reduction is also continuing as an overall trend for cars. We expect the quantity of resins used per vehicle to keep rising. Regarding the shift to electric vehicles (EVs), PP compounds may be adopted for hoods and other sections as a result of the power source switch from [gasoline] engines to [electric] motors, which lowers thermal resistance requirements. We are planning to make proposals to cash in on that possibility,” notes Tannowa.

In Europe, meanwhile, Mitsui Chemicals will start up production of PP compounds at a new plant in the Netherlands in June 2020. “We expect the output of the facility to rise to the maximum level immediately after its launch because the current sales volume for outsourced production is close to 30,000 tonnes [annually],” says Tannowa. “We are already in the stage of studying the expansion of this facility as the next step.”

Back in North America, Mitsui Chemicals notes that there has been a view that exporting shale-derived polyethylenes to other Asian countries is difficult because of bottlenecks, including logistics infrastructure. “The conditions for their export have grown more severe in the most recent period due to problems in areas including packing and the securing of transportation personnel,” says Tannowa. “North American products account for [only] about 6% of the polyethylenes imported by China at this point. Shale-derived products are not having a major impact.”

How Clean is Clean Enough?

Image courtesy of Nelson Laboratories
Image courtesy of Nelson Laboratories

ISO 19227 Implants for Surgery--Cleanliness of Orthopedic Implants--General Requirements is a long-awaited guidance document that was finalized and published early 2018. This guidance document is intended to assist orthopedic medical device manufacturers address the cleaning of their devices. One of the requirements of the good laboratory practices (GLPs) mandated by FDA is that medical devices be free from manufacturing residuals. Determination of what is needed to fulfill this requirement has largely been up to manufacturers and has been a topic hotly debated across the industry.

Absent of specific guidance on setting acceptance criteria, and what classes of residuals to look for in a cleaning validation, individual manufacturers (and to a limited extent testing laboratories) have defined a set of tests and acceptance criteria to screen for potentially concerning residuals, which are highly variable from company to company.

The tests to be included, and their acceptance criteria, are commonly tied to safety of the device with a risk-based approach using the following four steps:

  • Risk analysis of the manufacturing process to identify most concerning potential residuals.
  • Selection of analytical tests that are capable of detecting targeted residuals.
  • Selection of a sampling strategy that results in a statistically meaningful set of measurements.
  • Development of acceptance criteria related to a demonstration or assessment of patient safety, relying on history of device use, toxicological risk assessment, or biocompatibility tests executed in parallel with the cleaning validation.

Determining how clean is clean enough has consistently been the key challenge in the cleaning validation process. The preferred method for setting acceptance criteria is by relating analytical results measuring cleanliness to those tests that provide an indication of device safety (like cytotoxicity testing). The motivation for this practice is understandable, as protecting patient safety is a goal shared universally. However, the difficulty with using a simple biocompatibility test to set acceptance criteria is that there are occasions where a device may be safe, but not clean, and occasions when a device may be clean, but not safe.

It is tempting to equate cleanliness with safety, but the two are not the same. Cytotoxicity testing has commonly been used as an indicator that device cleanliness is acceptable, and because cytotoxicity testing is an extremely sensitive test, this does provide a good general indication of cleanliness. However, it should not be assumed that passing cytotoxicity equals safety. There is, after all, a whole suite of biocompatibility tests addressing biological risks outside of cytotoxicity that are necessary to support safety.

If passing a cleaning validation does not provide an indication of patient safety, and the analytical methods used for cleaning validations are not appropriate or sensitive enough for toxicological risk assessment, perhaps the previous ways of setting acceptance criteria for cleanliness are misguided.

Understanding that demonstrating device safety is a task separate from validating cleanliness, ISO 19227 prescribes a set of tests for demonstrating cleanliness along with acceptance criteria broadly applicable to orthopedic implants. These tests and acceptance criteria (where specified) are outlined below:

  • Visual inspection – acceptable when meeting specifications of the manufacturer
  • Bioburden – acceptable when the level of specified sterility assurance is met
  • Bacterial endotoxin – acceptable when less than 20.0 endotoxin units
  • Total organic carbon (TOC) – acceptable when less than 500 µg/device
  • Total hydrocarbon content (THC) – acceptable when less than 500 µg/device
  • Metals – acceptable when less than limits established by ICH Q3D or 10993-17
  • Cytotoxicity – acceptable when passing per 10993-5

The most significant takeaways from ISO 19227 are the suggested acceptance criteria for common analytical tests that have, up to now, been difficult to interpret as they do not have the specificity and sensitivity to adequately indicate safety. Separating the ideas of safety from cleanliness helps to keep the determination of safety within the realm of biocompatibility per ISO 10993 and allows manufacturers to set common sense acceptance criteria in situations where criteria based on biocompatibility do not make sense.

Ultimately, for cleanliness of final finished devices, the points of greatest value of a cleaning validation per ISO 19227 are to demonstrate control over processing, know the level of cleanliness at the time biocompatibility was established, and then track cleanliness looking for unexpected changes using routine monitoring to know when biocompatibility might be in question.

Bridgestone develops first polymer that bonds rubber and resins at molecular level

Bridgestone develops first polymer that bonds rubber and resins at molecular level

chemical bondBridgestone Corp. (Tokyo) reports that it has successfully developed what it calls the world’s first polymer to bond rubber and resins at the molecular level. The new polymer boasts unprecedented durability: Compared with natural rubber, it achieves a five-fold increase in crack resistance and markedly improved abrasion resistance and tensile strength. 

Bridgestone describes the material, which it has branded High Strength Rubber (HSR), as a hybrid that bonds synthetic rubber components, such as butadiene and isoprene, with resin components such as ethylene at the molecular level by using its proprietary gadolinium (Gd) catalyst via copolymerization. The next-generation material is able to combine the pliability of rubber with the toughness of resin. This breakthrough was achieved by further evolving the Gd catalyst technologies used to synthesize polyisoprene rubber, first announced in December 2016, said Bridgestone.

HSR is a promising next-generation material with the potential to create tires that achieve the required levels of performance while using less material, said Bridgestone. The company anticipates that HSR will be a powerful asset in achieving the goal of 100% sustainable materials set for 2050 in the Bridgestone Group's Long-term Environmental Vision. The company also intends to actively examine the possibility of using HSR in products other than tires.

Medtronic and IBM Launch a Sweet New Diabetes App

Medtronic plc and IBM Watson Health Medtronic and IBM Launch a Sweet New Diabetes App

Artificial intelligence continues to prove valuable across many healthcare specialties, but diabetes management really seems to stand out as an area where AI can truly make a direct impact on patient lives.

The latest example of the industry embracing AI's capabilities for the millions of people living with diabetes is an app co-developed by Medtronic and IBM Watson Health dubbed the Sugar.IQ smart diabetes assistant. The app is designed to simplify and improve daily diabetes management by leveraging AI and analytic technologies from IBM Watson Health to continually analyze how an individual's glucose level responds to their food intake, insulin dosages, daily routines, and other factors.

The idea is that the app will help people with diabetes uncover patterns that affect their glucose levels, which can help them make small adjustments throughout the day to stay on track.

According to data presented at the American Diabetes Association Scientific Sessions on Friday, people who used the Sugar.IQ app spent 36 minutes more per day in healthy glucose range than they did before using the app. This included 30 minutes less time in hyperglycemia (>180 mg/dL) and six minutes less time in hypoglycemia (<70 mg/dL). This represents more than nine additional days in a year that a person with diabetes is spending in a healthy glucose range.

Michelle Shaw, a Medtronic employee and registered nurse, has been using the Sugar.IQ app for four weeks through an employee preview program.

“Sugar.IQ has given me insights that I could never have uncovered on my own, even with 30 years of diabetes experience," Shaw said. "It’s been eye-opening and fun to gain new insights into my diabetes without additional burden.”

The app is available to people who use the Medtronic Guardian Connect system, a standalone continuous glucose monitoring system. It is currently available for iOS-based mobile devices in the United States.

Recently Medtronic also updated its iPro2 myLog app with FoodPrint report. The iPro2 myLog app is designed to give clinics a simple way to import patients' logged data during their professional iPro2 continuous glucose monitoring (CGM) evaluation. With the addition of Nutrino's FoodPrint report, patients' meals are graded based on their body's unique glucose reaction, making it easy for them to understand the link between meals and glucose variability, the company said.

Is Eversense the Latest Game Changer in the Diabetes Market?

Stigmama/Pixabay Is Eversense the Latest Game Changer in the Diabetes Market?

Senseonics’ newly approved Eversense implantable continuous glucose monitoring (CGM) system could be in patient’s hands as early as next month. Tim Goodnow, the Germantown, MD-based company’s president and CEO spoke with MD+DI just a few hours removed from the start of the American Diabetes Association’s 78th Scientific Sessions in Orlando, FL. about the approval and upcoming plans for the device.

“We think we’ll have our first patients on the product in the third week of July, so it will take us just about a month,” Goodnow, told MD+DI. “We’ve got to print some of the instruction manuals that were approved by FDA now that we have the final wording.”

The Eversense CGM system uses a small sensor that is implanted just under the skin by a qualified health care provider during an outpatient procedure. After it is implanted, the sensor regularly measures glucose levels in adults with diabetes for up to 90 days.

Goodnow said there are plans in development for a sensor that can last up to 180 days and another that can last for up to a year.

Although Eversense has just received FDA approval it has been on the market in Europe for about 21 months.

“We think Eversense is going to be a very big deal to people,” Goodnow said. “Once a person is diagnosed with diabetes, it’s not curable, but you can manage it effectively and really minimize the long-term effect if you’re very aggressive in managing your glucose control. Diabetes patients already know this, they just want tools and techniques to help them do it easier. They don’t want one more thing to think about. The value of a long-term implantable is it takes the interaction with the sensor off the table.”

Eversense differs from other technologies developed by some of the larger medtech players in the space.

“Dexcom, Medtronic, and Abbott all have different twists on their features and attributes, but they all work with what is called a transcutaneous sensor,” Goodnow said. “That means that the sensor goes through the skin and there’s always a small wound or a small opening with any of those technologies.”

He noted that as a result you have that area protected so you don’t lose the sensor, or have it move around.

Market Disruptors

Eversense’s approval is yet another significant development in making diabetes management as less cumbersome as possible. The device is one of several products containing the potential to shake up the diabetes market. MD+DI documented a list of several key events that helped disrupt and reshape the diabetes market.

Medtronic kicked off the shift in 2016 when it won a nod for its 670 G fully automated closed loop system, dubbed the artificial pancreas.

Abbott Laboratories would follow nearly a year later with FDA approval of its Freestyle Libre Flash Glucose Monitoring System. Abbott’s Libre is significant because it is being touted as a replacement for blood glucose monitoring. Recently San Diego-based Dexcom’s G6 CGM was classified by FDA as a less-stringent class 11 medical device that is interoperable with other technologies.

Collaborative robots find sweet spot in plastics processing operations

Collaborative robots find sweet spot in plastics processing operations

If you have a technology that combines a relative low cost of entry with a high return on investment, it’s almost inevitable that you will see sales skyrocket. That’s what is happening in the collaborative robotics space, which is projected to reach a compound annual growth rate of almost 60% through 2023, according to a report from Stratistics Market Research Consulting Pvt Ltd.

Founded in 2005, Universal Robots (UR; Odense, Denmark) is a pioneer in the development of collaborative robots that can work safely alongside humans in industrial environments. The cobots bring a number of benefits to plastics processing, according to UR, which amplified that message by returning to ATX East, co-located with PLASTEC East, in New York, NY, last week, and exhibiting earlier this year at NPE for the first time. First impressions of the massive plastics industry event in Orlando, FL, in May were clouded by the booth location, said Brian Dillman, Area Sales Manager covering eastern North America, who spoke with PlasticsToday from UR’s ATX booth.

“The Universal Robots booth was in the south hall, tucked behind the Chinese pavilion, and our immediate reaction was, ‘uh oh, no one’s going to find us.’” If you know the geography of the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, FL, the reaction is understandable. But plastics processors did find UR, and for one simple reason: The versatility, efficiency, ease of use and affordability of collaborative robots make them a perfect fit for plastics processing operations of all sizes.

Universal Robots
Universal Robots introduced its line of e-Series cobots this month.

“There are lots of good robotics companies out there that produce machines to get parts out of molds,” said Dillman, who has worked for some of those companies during his 20+ career in automation. “But, what happens to the part after it is removed from the mold? Eighty percent of the time, the part is put on a conveyor or dropped directly into a box. Then, someone picks up the box and takes it somewhere else, where an employee cuts off spurs, chamfers the part and so forth. Where we see value in plastics processing for our equipment is after the part has been removed from the mold,” Dillman told PlasticsToday.

As one example, Dillman cites a medical application that involves two molded halves of a shell. “The picker takes it out of the mold and drops it on a conveyor. It’s picked up by a cobot, which holds it in front of a pincer that cuts off the gates. The part is transferred to an operator, who does some simple chamfering to take off the edges, performs a quick visual inspection, folds it in paper and puts it in a box,” explained Dillman. “You’ve eliminated a couple of steps, and the part is ready to go out the door.” There are countless applications where collaborative robotics can help to reduce the number of times a part is touched, added Dillman.

Cobots can also squeeze into tight spaces, such as the aisles in-between injection molding machines, that are off limits to conventional automation, and they are portable, noted Dillman.

While much has been written about the impact of automation on jobs—and there are two sides to that debate—Dillman shared an anecdote about how cobots are helping to solve one hiring challenge that employers often face. “A manufacturer in Buffalo told me his experience, which is all too familiar in the industry based on my conversations in the field and at trade shows. He told me that at least 30 to 40% of job applicants he sees can’t pass the drug test. ‘Then, there’s the question of whether or not they will stay for training,’ the manufacturer said. ‘I have had guys walk off the job before the lunch break on their first day. If they stay for the training and pick up their first pay check, the watershed moment is if they show up on the following Monday. If they do, I know I’ve got an employee.’” When he tells that story to other manufacturers, said Dilman, many of them nod in agreement.

On the opposite end of the employee spectrum, of course, is the skills gap. Solving that problem is beyond the scope of collaborative robotics, at least for now.

UR announced this month the introduction of its e-Series cobots, which includes technology advances that enable accelerated development for a broader array of applications, said the company. The control panel has been redesigned, and new programming and control software make deployment and programming easier than ever, regardless of application, according to UR. It is taking orders for the new cobots now for shipment beginning on Aug. 1, 2018.

Universal Robots sold its first UR5 cobots in 2008 in Denmark and Germany. Since then, it has established deep footprints in China and other locations around the world, and has operated a subsidiary in Garden City, NY, since 2012. It opened a repair center offering overnight delivery of spare parts in North America in 2017, and set up a regional office in Boston this year.

Universal Robots has received numerous awards and accolades over the years, and company co-founder and current Chief Technical Officer Esben Østergaard is this year’s recipient of the Engelberger Robotics Award, which has been called the Nobel prize of robotics.

DOE to Spend $21 Million on Thermal Solar Desalination Research

The US Government, through the Department of Energy (DOE), has announced $21 million in funding of new projects to advance solar-thermal desalination technologies. The monies will be spread across 14 projects with the objective of reducing the cost of producing fresh water from seawater, brackish water, and contaminated water.

In a press release from the DOE, it is noted that today’s desalination plants must be connected to a power grid, due to the large amounts of energy used in the process. Smaller, more portable systems that could operate off-grid would provide water for human consumption and agriculture in places without access to an electrical grid.

Tampa Bay Desalination Plant
The Tampa Bay Seawater Desalination Plant is the largest in the US. It is located next to an electric power plant that supplies the energy needed to convert saltwater into drinking water. (Image source: Tampa Bay Seawater Desalination Plant)

Energy Intensive

Desalination of water takes a lot of energy because salt is easily dissolved into water and forms strong chemical bonds that are difficult to break. There are two methods that can be used to remove the salt from saltwater. Thermal distillation involves boiling the water and capturing and condensing the steam to produce pure water. This method has been around for centuries and may have been one of the first industrial processes. The second method, called reverse osmosis, involves forcing seawater through a semi-permeable membrane that traps the dissolved salts, resulting in pure water. Reverse osmosis requires less energy than distillation, but is still energy intensive.

The DOE has identified four markets that are particularly attractive for solar desalination. They include: municipal water production, agriculture, industrial processes, and the purification of water produced from energy development, including oil and gas extraction.

Hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) to produce oil and gas produces large amounts of salty industrial waste water that must be processed before it can be safely returned to the environment. According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), fracking now accounts for more than half of all of the US oil production. Less than 2% of US oil production came from fracking in 2000. The cost of dealing with wastewater is a big problem for the fracking industry.

Novel Tech

The solar thermal desalination funding program is intended to explore novel uses of thermal solar energy technologies. Thermal solar concentrates the light energy of the sun (think of a magnifying glass) to produce high heat that can be used to boil water (distilling) or drive the separation process (osmosis). Thermal solar differs from the photovoltaic (PV) rooftop solar panels that directly produce electricity from the interaction of photons with semiconductor materials. Thermal solar can be used to produce electricity using steam turbines in concentrate solar plants (CSP). Or, the heat energy can be used directly as is proposed for desalination.

The awardees represent industry, laboratory, and university researchers and include:

  • Advanced Cooling Technologies, Inc. (Lancaster, Pennsylvania): $1.5 million
  • Columbia University (New York, NY) $1 million
  • Fraunhofer USA Center for Energy Innovation (Storrs, Connecticut): $800,000
  • GreenBlu (Hamilton, New Jersey): $1.6 million
  • Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley, California): $800,000
  • Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority (Kailua-Kona, Hawaii): $2 million
  • Oregon State University (Bend, Oregon): $2 million
  • University of California: Los Angeles (Los Angeles, California): $2 million
  • University of California: Merced (Merced, California): $1.1 million
  • University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (Urbana, Illinois): $1.6 million
  • University of North Dakota (Grand Forks, North Dakota): $2 million
  • Rice University (Houston, Texas) $1.7 million
  • SkyFuel, Inc (Lakewood, Colorado): $1.6 million
  • Sunvapor, Inc. (Livermore, California): $1.5 million

The projects include improvements in the following: the present desalination processes, the low-cost collection and storage of solar thermal energy, the integration of new technologies into systems with improved efficiencies and lower cost, and the development of in-depth analysis tools to assist in the evaluation and improvement of desalination processes.

It's in the Cost

It presently costs between $1 and $2 to produce a cubic meter (264 gallons) of fresh water from seawater using desalination. This compares to about 10 to 20 cents per cubic meter for water sourced from a river or aquifer. The DOE goals for the thermal solar desalination are $0.50 per cubic meter for water sourced from seawater or municipal sources and $1.50 per cubic meter for small-scale plants that process low-volume, high-salinity water, like brine from oil and gas operations such as fracking.

The largest desalination facility currently in operation in the US is the Tampa Bay Seawater Desalination plant. Using reverse osmosis, the plant produces up to 25 million gallons of drinking water a day. This accounts for 10 percent of the region’s needs. The desalination plant is located next to Tampa Electric Company’s (TECO) Big Bend power station that supplies both warm seawater from its cooling system and electricity to run the desalination process.

Regional scarcity of drinking water is becoming a growing problem. Beyond the needs of the fracking industry, the ability in the future to economically produce fresh water from seawater has great potential to alleviate these concerns. The DOE is betting that the power of the sun can be an important part of this future.

Senior Editor Kevin Clemens has been writing about energy, automotive, and transportation topics for more than 30 years. He has masters degrees in Materials Engineering and Environmental Education and a doctorate degree in Mechanical Engineering, specializing in aerodynamics. He has set several world land speed records on electric motorcycles that he built in his workshop.


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Magnetic 3D-Printed Structures Can Crawl, Jump, Play Catch

Innovations in biomedicine could get a significant boost from researchers working at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), who have designed soft, 3D-printed structures that can be controlled remotely by magnets. A team in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering and Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering—working with scientists at the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT)—created a number of these structures, including the following: a smooth ring that wrinkles up, a long tube that squeezes shut, a sheet that folds itself, and a spider-like “grabber.” The grabber can crawl, roll, jump, and snap together fast enough to catch a passing ball. Or, it can be directed to wrap itself around a small pill and carry it across a table.

The structures could be applied to the development of new magnet-controlled biomedical devices for a variety of diagnostic, surgical, and treatment functions, said Xuanhe Zhao, an MIT professor who led the research.

Crawling magnets react to magnetic fields

Researchers from MIT fabricated soft structures that can move by magnetic control from a new type of 3D-printable ink that they infused with tiny magnetic particles. (Image source: Felice Frankel for MIT)

Useful Structures

“We think in biomedicine, this technique will find promising applications,” he said in an MIT press release. “For example, we could put a structure around a blood vessel to control the pumping of blood, or use a magnet to guide a device through the GI tract to take images, extract tissue samples, clear a blockage, or deliver certain drugs to a specific location. You can design, simulate, and then just print to achieve various functions.”

Researchers used a new type of 3D-printable ink infused with tiny magnetic particles as well as a modified printer to fabricate the structures. They fitted an electromagnet around the nozzle of a 3D printer, which caused the magnetic particles to swing into a single orientation as the ink was fed through the nozzle.

The team produced structures and devices that can very quickly shift into intricate formations and even move around by controlling the magnetic orientation of individual sections in the structure, Zhao said. Various sections of the structures responding to an external magnetic field caused the movements, he said in the release. Researchers published a paper on their work in the journal Nature.

While the structures developed by the team are similar to other soft, actuated devices made from hydrogel and elastomer materials, they have the advantage of being able to quickly move and take on a different shape, researchers said. They also can move untethered, which is a boon—especially for devices designed to move inside the body.

“There is no ideal candidate for a soft robot that can perform in an enclosed space like a human body, where you’d want to carry out certain tasks untethered,” stated Yoonho Kim, an NJIT researcher who also worked on the project, in the MIT release. “That’s why we think there’s great promise in this idea of magnetic actuation, because it is fast, forceful, body-benign, and can be remotely controlled,” he said.

Key to the success of the team’s work is that they developed structures with individual magnetic “domains”—each with a distinct orientation of magnetic particles—that can move distinctly in response to a magnetic field, researchers said. In this way, the structures have the ability to engage in more complex articulations and movements than if they were controlled merely as one entire structure.


The team also developed tools for others to use to print similar structures. Scientists can use their 3D-printing platform and process to fabricate various domains of a single structure. They also can tune the orientation of magnetic particles in a particular domain by changing the direction of the electromagnet encircling the printer’s nozzle as that domain is printed, researchers said. In addition, they developed a physical model that predicts how a printed structure will deform under a magnetic field to allow for some idea of how the finished, printed object will move.

“People can design their own structures and domain patterns, validate them with the model, and print them to actuate various functions,” Zhao said. “By programming complex information of structure, domain, and magnetic field, one can even print intelligent machines, such as robots,” he added in MIT’s release.

Elizabeth Montalbano is a freelance writer who has written about technology and culture for 20 years. She has lived and worked as a professional journalist in Phoenix, San Francisco, and New York City. In her free time, she enjoys surfing, traveling, music, yoga, and cooking. She currently resides in a village on the southwest coast of Portugal.


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Self-Driving Cars: Reliability Challenges, Solutions, and Social Adoption

When looking at new technologies, it’s typical for the focus of development to move from functionality to performance to reliability—and self-driving cars are no exception. Thanks to advances in machine learning, computer vision, and accelerated computing, self-driving cars are now a reality.

However, there are a few miles to go before we have the reliability levels that these machines are expected to ensure. The Automotive Safety Integrity Level D (ASIL-D), a risk classification scheme defined by the ISO 26262, rightly places a stringent reliability standard on self-driving cars. For these vehicles to be ASIL-D compliant, they can only make ten errors in 1 billion hours of operation, while an average U.S. driver makes 10,000 mistakes in the same duration.

Manish Gupta is working on making self-driving cars, machine learning, and artificial intelligence safer and more reliable. (Image source: Manish Gupta)

The strict reliability standards are critical for human safety and to help drive social acceptance of the nascent self-driving technology. According to a recent AAA survey, 54 percent of Americans feel unsafe on roads occupied by self-driving cars. Careful hardware and software design practices need to be employed to achieve high-reliability standards and establish the trust of American people in self-driving technology.

Today's Car

Wheels are the only significant part that has remained true to form in a modern automobile. Today, a car is a mini-supercomputer on wheels. A typical car these days has a mind-boggling 40 processors. Additionally, a self-driving vehicle requires an accelerator to support computer vision and machine learning tasks. Because self-driving cars run software with more than 100 million lines of code, careful hardware and software design is an absolute necessity because a blue screen of death at 60 MPH could mean actual death.

Failures in computer systems are broadly categorized into permanent and transient faults. Permanent faults are repeatable and occur the same way every time. On the contrary, transient faults are temporary and they are a function of the environment. While permanent faults sound nasty, they are easier to handle. A diligent testing framework can expose permanent faults. But transient faults are often harder to prevent, as they are a function of the environment.

In 2016, a self-driving car crashed because the camera failed to register a truck against the brightly lit sky. In theory, such crashes can be avoided using a better camera that could adapt to sudden changes in brightness. But a more practical and fail-proof solution is redundancy. The industry is moving in the right direction by integrating multiple sensor technologies, such as radar, LiDAR, ultrasonic, and camera, to increase redundancy. In practice, two or more sensor systems should always be used to detect obstacles while the self-driving is engaged.

Advancements in other sectors of technology are also helping to increase the reliability and precision of self-driving cars. For example, the rise of the Internet of Things (IoT) enables camera sensors not only on self-driving cars, but also at intersections and other potentially high-risk regions on the road. The additional sensing provides another point of redundancy. Self-driving vehicles rely heavily on the Global Positioning System (GPS). Today, GPS does not have the required precision to detect lanes, leaving self-driving cars to rely on the camera and proper lane markings on the road. However, with 5th Generation (5G) wireless systems, high-precision positioning could potentially enable lane-detection and is another way to increase reliability via redundancy.

When humans moved from riding horses to driving cars, we faced new issues with increased risk on our roads. It did not stop us from moving forward and building a better, faster, and safer means of transportation. With increased safety-features and regulations, we were able to make it possible. Air travel—another example—has now evolved to be the safest means of transport.

While we are still in acceleration mode, I am confident that with careful hardware and software design, we will soon have self-driving cars that are far more reliable than an average human driver. The next on-ramp we will face is cultural acceptance and adoption. As we’ve seen in our past, though, people will embrace technologies that improve their lives.

Manish Gupta has a Ph.D. in Computer Science from the University of California San Diego. His research focuses on the reliability of computing and the memory subsystem. He has published in top-tier computer science conferences and holds multiple U.S. patents. His research in the field of computer system reliability has had significant impact on projects at the National Science Foundation and U.S. Department of Energy. Specifically, his research help creates reliable next-generation supercomputers. He is now working on making self-driving cars, machine learning, and artificial intelligence safer and more reliable.