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Industry Experts Forecast Future Changes in the Technologies

Sept. 9, 2009
Top-notch technologists speculate about the future of design, development, and the industrial landscape.

Authored by:
Stephen J. Mraz
Senior Editor
[email protected]

Banner Engineering Co.,
Dorner Mfg. Corp.,
Lee Co. The,
Lee Spring Co.,
Omron STI,
Phillips Plastics,
Dassault Systèmes SolidWorks Corp.,
Turck Inc.,

This year MACHINE DESIGN's birthday cake has 80 candles. As part of the celebration, we invited industry experts to peer into the future and take educated guesses as to how the technologies they work with will change over the next several decades.

Circuit boards get an update
Printed-circuit boards (PCBs) have long been central to electronics. Among the more-recent PCB advances are ex circuits, with components and electrical connectors laid down on insulating materials such as polyester and polyimide. According to expert in R&D materials Jared Rud, Minco, Minneapolis, Minn., here are four other long-term trends for flexible PCBs:

Copper is still king: One thing that won’t change in the future is the use of copper for electrical connections and traces on circuit boards. Even with the advancements in ink-based circuits, roll-to-roll manufacturing, and nanotechnology, copper will never disappear. There are just too many applications that need its stability, conductivity, and performance.

Inks gain ground: Techniques for making PCBs using roll-to-roll ink processing will expand until they can create almost every circuit feature, not just the smaller ones. This will lead to inexpensive devices for all aspects of life, making almost every electronic product “smart,” inexpensive, and safely disposable.

ICs take over: ICs will carry out ever more circuit functions, thanks to photonic-based technology, making PCBs more of a carrier connection rather than a major part of the overall circuit. However, complex board-based devices such as lab-on-a-chip diagnostics may still require complex PCBs that combine fluidic chambers, heat, gas, and biological sensors, gas sensors, as well as other MEMS devices.

PCBs as sensors and actuators: PCBs will analyze and manipulate the environment, while ICs will handle controls, process data, and transmit it to a human operator. For example, a board-based medical device could analyze fluids, gases and solids in the body, process the information, and wirelessly transmit the information to a computer where a doctor could decide to have the actuator perform some task.

Some of the products that future ex circuits will make possible over the next quarter century include: Eyeglasses that handle worldwide audio and visual communication, as well as night vision and toxin sensors, wallpaper that changes color using electrochromic materials, along with self-cleaning windows and self-cooking entrees, entertainment and communication systems built into chairs, walls, floors, tables, and lamps, thin-lm batteries and other disposable, green power devices.

Aerospace controls have changed significantly over the last two decades, says Marketing Manager Jim Klapper, The Lee Co., Westbrook, Conn. For example, the aircraft industry has moved from relatively simple hydro/ mechanical controls to electrohydraulic controls which include fly-by-wire and direct drives, on to the latest “more-electric” electro-hydrostatic actuators (EHA).

EHAs, despite the pre x “electro,” are actually self-contained hydraulic modules without the tubing, reservoirs, and components normally associated with traditional hydraulics. EHAs do not need labor-intensive troubleshooting such as draining an entire aircraft hydraulic systems. The latest commercial transports from both Boeing and Airbus rely on EHAs.

But space and weight, which determine airliner operating costs, have always driven aircraft design. So barring the discovery of some miracle energy source, the aerospace industry will continue to stress fuel effciency by reducing weight and improving engines.

On another front, reliability and formal quality assurance programs have always been a prerequisite for aerospace suppliers. And aerospace components have typically been qualified as parts of larger systems. But component suppliers must demonstrate the reliability of their products through dedicated qualification programs. It’s likely the industry will continue to emphasize ISO and ASO certification, and aerospace manufacturers must be prepared to invest even more in proving the integrity of their products.

Tomorrow’s wireless world
What will wireless sensing look like in the future? The technologies that affect wireless networking, power, and sensing will soon combine to create a breed of sensors never before possible, says Senior Product Manager Bob Gardner, Wireless Div., Banner Engineering, Minneapolis, Minn. These sensors will let us monitor critical aspects of machines and factories to radically boost productivity and extend the lifespan of equipment.

In the past, a wireless application had a standard PLC I/O rack connected to a PLC via a wireless data link that replaced Ethernet or an RS-485 serial cable. But this is expensive and limiting because it requires a complete control cabinet holding a PLC I/O rack, power supply, fusing, and sensors at a remote location. These set ups were typically one-directional, expensive, and plagued by reliability issues.

Today, a number of manufacturers offer wireless I/O systems that let machine builders easily replace the wireless link, I/O rack, and power supply with a “wireless I/O node.” Such nodes are similar to traditional I/Os in that they can interface with digital or analog signals. But to be truly wireless, these wireless nodes must also provide power to sensors. In the next few years, we will see a proliferation of low-cost, long-range, self-powered I/O nodes. Applications will include sensing on mobile equipment such as forklifts, cranes, AGVs and mobile freezers, as well as equipment that is stationary but less expensive to monitor wirelessly such as molding, testing, and assembly machines.

For example, even a forklift’s wireless hour meter must be logged. But instead of walking around the factory with a clipboard and reading forklift meters, end users will sit tight while wireless I/O nodes return meter readings. This saves time and provides real-time data — in a simple-touse electronic form.

Engineers and scientists are making serious progress on every wireless technology front, including energy harvesting, power conservation, extending the range, increasing bandwidth, reducing network response times, advancing protocol standards, and improving reliability. Wireless I/Os of today will be replaced by self-contained wireless sensors in the future. These sensors will harvest all the energy they need from the vibrational or thermal energy in their environment. So maybe the question should be, where isn’t wireless going? After all, no one wants to pull wire. We pull wire because we must — for now.

In the next 20 years, sensors will consume less power, energy harvesting will be more widely available, and new wireless standards will evolve. The combination of these factors will let machine components like motors have inexpensive wireless vibration and temperature sensors built in. In this way, machine components will become wireless, just as laptops are today. Supervisory wireless gateways will constantly monitor all these sensor-enabled assets. In the future, most mobile machines and replaceable tool fixtures will also be monitored and controlled wirelessly, eliminating the cost, complexity and downtime associated with wires.

The marriage of RFID and the Ethernet
One trend we see coming is that manufacturers will combine RFID and Ethernet to get the best of both, according to Senior Product Manager Karie Daudt, Network and Interface Div., Turck Inc., Minneapolis, Minn. RFID lets companies easily collect data from the factory floor, while Ethernet quickly and simply passes lots of data from one point to another. The trend is being pushed by industries that need more manufacturing data to accurately track raw materials from receipt to processing to packaging and for tighter quality control.

On the RFID side of this equation, technological advancements will make it easier for RFID to migrate from supply-chain tracking and logistics to the factory floor. For example, most current RFID equipment is not suited for harsh plant floors, so manufacturers are developing more-robust tags, transceivers, and controllers. The future will also see more custom-designed RFID tags that retro into current devices and products.

Furthermore, as RFID becomes even more widely used, companies will demand versions compatible with I/Os, so they may use separate gateways for RFID working with higher-level controllers. But some manufacturers have added RFID slices into I/Os to pass data through a single gateway. This is easier to implement and ultimately lessens installation expenses. It will likely be the most common way to put RFID on the plant floor.

Connecting safety and controls
The most important machine-safety trend over the next few years will be flexible safety systems tightly integrated with controls, says President and COO Jim Ashford, Omron STI, Fremont, Calif. This combination will let faster and more flexible bus-based control work with more powerful and versatile sensors to increase productivity and provide workers a safer environment.

Traditional safety systems are a blend of hard guarding, permanently mounted light curtains, interlocks, switched gates and doors, pushbuttons to stop robotic processes, and relays that work with control systems. They are run by redundantly wired circuits which are complex and costly.

But companies now are deploying smarter devices such as laser scanners and programmable networks that are compatible with machine controls. The resulting safety systems are less intrusive and more flexible. For example, soon it will be possible to run several products through a single process while safety devices adapt to the changing work envelope and protect one product from the next. Operators will be able to get closer to the process, thanks to shorter controller response times.

Letting operators safely move closer to the product and process should improve productivity by reducing the time needed for loading and unloading, tooling changes, and maintenance. And tailoring safety systems to the process should reduce or eliminate instances of operators disabling or circumventing protection devices, bringing the most important benefit of all, a safer workplace.

The future of CAD
CEO Jeff Ray, Dassault Systemes SolidWorks Corp., Concord, Mass., says, the most important rule in developing CAD software is to respect the way engineers work. So the future of CAD will include technologies that will help eliminate hurdles to getting the job done.

For example, upgrades should get a lot easier. Service packs will eventually go away and programs will have small pop-ups for downloading the latest versions. Users will simply click on the pop-up and keep working. They won’t have to go through the pain associated with major releases or migrations.

Also, more engineering data will be in online computer clusters. Certain applications will rely on databases with timely data such as carbon footprint, cost of raw materials by region, and impact of a design on the water table. Storing such data somewhere besides the desktop lets users crunch the stuff and get instant responses, and it eliminates the risk of using inaccurate or outdated data.

Software companies often look outside the engineering industry for technologies that will be relevant to engineers. They learn a lot about data management from the gaming industry, particularly live, online games such as Spore and World of Warcraft. Gamers need not open files to travel to new rooms or levels. And players needn’t worry about who has the authority over competitors or guest players. Contrast that to today’s cumbersome file data-management structures, which evolved from IT.

In fact, the term “data management” will become obsolete. Engineers don’t really manage data. They design and refine. CAD developers have forced engineers to become data managers because that is the only way engineers can communicate with computers to get information. In the future, CAD will be much more visual. So instead of, say, searching for an attribute, engineers would merely describe it. Think “visual Google” for engineers.

CAD will also become much more of an engineering tool than just a design tool. There is almost no such thing as pure mechanical design anymore. Everything is electromechanical. This means that more and more digital intelligence must be built into designs. Thus, CAD will include advanced kinematics and high-tech FEA. CAD will increasingly take the environment into account.

Also, hardware devices will better-target user needs. Consider, for instance, a designer on a business trip who needs to see a rotatable model simply to sign-off on a surface material color or texture. He shouldn’t have to hunt down a computer, log in, and navigate countless barriers just to get at the file.

Collaboration and sustainability
The day is not long when all industries will need to use technology to improve and renew concurrent-design collaboration between customers and suppliers, according to President Al Mangles, Lee Spring Co., Brooklyn, N.Y. Such collaboration might take place in some type of continuously operating interactive computer environment. If so, we will need a new generation of savvy engineers who can comfortably work in purely virtual space.

Another trend will be the increased emphasis on sustainability. We must all deliver quality products, but if the energy spent making an “energy-saving” device exceeds the energy that will be saved by using it, the intended purpose is defeated. Unfortunately, we don’t have a way to analyze this yet.

In general, we will see more sophisticated products, information, and manufacturing, and less waste and a smaller impact on the environment.

Designing mechatronics for patients
Medical Market Director Jeff Thompson, Phillips Plastics Corp., Prescott, Wis., says that medical-device firms seem increasingly interested in electromechanical devices that combine mechanical engineering with electronics and intelligent computer control. They also expect suppliers to not only design these mechatronic products, but also provide the expertise to turn concepts into reality using state-of-the art manufacturing. Gone are the days when medical devices of all kinds were created in “hospital white” with large displays. Going forward, the trend is toward designs that target users rather than just the disease. From user interface to aesthetics, consumer-product trends are strongly influencing medical devices.

Design-for-sustainability is another area medical firms are starting to focus on as the markets for their products circle the globe. Medical OEMs want thorough evaluations made at the concept phase not only for product use but also for disposal to satisfy the expectations of the increasingly eco-friendly consumers. One company, for example, recently began environmentally friendly disposal of its insulin-pump components, pointing out that diabetics shouldn’t have to choose between taking care of their health and taking care of the environment. Sustainable design is in its infancy, but it will be a driving force in the years to come within the medical market.

Conveyors get more energy efficient
Companies are continuing to demand more throughput for their material-handling equipment, but they also want to move a variety of goods and use as little factory-floor space as possible. Director New Product Development Mike Hosch, Dorner Mfg., Hartland, Wis., says to meet these challenges, conveyor manufacturers are relying on the latest drive and motor technologies, as well as engineered materials and modular designs.

Lean Manufacturing and reducing energy consumption have become important to industries and these trends will shape the conveyors of tomorrow. For example, conveyors will soon be able to adjust to differently sizes products without operator intervention, which should minimize downtime. This will also reduce equipment obsolescence because it will be able to handle a variety of different products. So traditionally large, uneconomical, and in flexible conveyors will be a thing of the past as modern versions run using less energy, space, and product-changeover time.

MIM goes micro
During the mid to late 1980s, there were some optimistic projections about where the fledgling metal-injection industry would go and how large it would become. Most of these projections forecast much more rapid growth than actually happened and in directions that have proven equally off-base, says Technology Advisor Ted Tomlin, Flomet LLC, DeLand, Fla.

The popular theory was that the industry would learn how to economically produce increasingly larger parts as the process was refined and powder prices went down. Although it is true that some larger parts are being made using MIM, the upper limit is still not much over 1 lb and there are not a great many of those. On the other hand, there are many MIM parts significantly smaller than 1 gm, so there is much talk and research going into what is often called “micro MIM.” The definition of “micro” is not clear, but the direction is clearly toward making smaller and smaller parts.

Several micro parts are now well established, including those for medical devices, guns, orthodontics, cell-phone hardware, and automobile turbochargers, to mention a few. It was believed (and may still come true) that automotive components would dominate sales at some point. And although the turbocharger market is significant in Europe, it is unimportant in the rest of the world. A handful of other auto components are made using MIM, but the percentage of the entire market is still small.

Still, the MIM industry will continue to grow at a rate of at least double that of traditional metal-forming technologies. The ability to make small components and a widespread awareness of MIM will fuel this growth. Few new materials will be developed and the backbone of the industry will remain low-alloy steels, low-carbon stainless steels, and to a smaller degree nickel, cobalt and copper alloys.

Several large users of MIM components have captive operations. This will trend will increase but commercial part makers will continue to develop MIM and be responsible for industry growth. It is also likely we will see some consolidation within the industry.

Optimization with low-cost customization
Original-equipment manufacturers (OEMs) always strive to balance function, performance, price, durability, energy consumption, and other attributes so that their products excel in the market. In the past, OEMs have often had to choose between relatively inexpensive standard components and custom components designed for the application that cost considerably more.

That said, the future of mechanical motion control won’t necessarily be marked by major advancements in technologies, but rather by the increased availability of rapid modifications and customization of those technologies, says Vice President Robert Caddick, Thomson, Wood Dale, Ill. In essence, the future of mechanical motion will be marked by the specification of economical components that match a machine’s performance requirements, rather than designing the machine around off-the-shelf components that most closely match its needs.

Increasingly, components suppliers offer modified parts and assemblies that provide the exact features, performance, and form factor with price and delivery times close to those of standard components. Often this new generation of parts and assemblies is designed, sized, and selected through online tools.

For example, a new approach to linear systems lets OEMs configure assemblies matched specifically to an application’s requirements based on economical and readily available standard components. The user enters key parameters such as mounting configuration, positioning needs, environmental conditions, loads, and motion requirements.

The data gets filtered through a comprehensive set of calculations such as linear-bearing load/life, ball-screw load/life, and ball-screw critical speed. The OEM is then given a list of products that meet the basic requirements. The OEM can easily evaluate features, performance, cost, and durability of various options and pick the best one. The design tool then provides useful information, including 3D models, pricing, delivery times, and ordering information.

Another approach to customization modifies a standard linear actuator for a specific application. Typically, the components supplier provides equipment that measures loads and stresses on the actuator. The supplier then configures an existing linear actuator to efficiently fit that specific performance profile by modifying its length, cabling and connectors, operating speeds, and mounting, feedback and other options.

Technological advancements are also letting OEMs obtain optimized systems without investing in customization. An example is the combination of electric actuators and electronic controls to improve performance, ergonomics, safety, and cost. In this case, the OEM provides features through software. In another example, joystick inputs to a control could drive electric actuators and steer a commercial lawn mower. Connecting the actuator to the vehicle controller lets designers improve safety and performance by setting limits on the vehicle turning speed.

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