Monday, July 19, 2010

Cold, Colder, Really Cold, and Construction

There are four seasons in the year.  When you are from the northern latitudes, they are cold, colder, really cold, and construction.  Construction season is in full swing and many of you have probably noticed the extra chips in your windshields by following too closely behind that asphalt-laden dump truck.  You may also have noticed the diesel belching, earth moving equipment slowing your commute in an effort to shave 30 seconds from your daily trek when construction completes... sometime next year.  But have no fear my tree-hugging aficionados, not only is that off-road equipment much more fuel efficient than in years past, but the methods used to repair existing roads are also eco-friendly.  (Note: the Caterpillar Rotary Mixer RM-500 is shown above because I have classmates that work for Cat and huge equipment is, well, it's just cool.)  I am referring to an old technique that is gaining new found attention, ROAD RECYCLING, sometimes referred to as road reclaiming.

Road recycling utilizes the existing road material to build the new road (over the same road bed and rights-of-way).  When done properly, the technique of Full Depth Reclamation (FDR) uses 100% of the old road.  That means no waste to be hauled away, fewer diesel-belching off-highway construction vehicles, and fewer chips on your windshield.  Check out the following graph for potential savings.

The process is pretty simple and straightforward.  Heavy equipment, like the RM-500 shown above, pulverizes and mixes the old pavement and road bed.  During the pulverizing, water or stabilizing agents such as cement are added to the old material.  The result of the pulverizing and mixing is a suitable material for a stable foundation that can be shaped, graded, and compacted into a new road bed.  The final step is a new pavement layer made of chip-seal, asphalt, or cement.  Although that means there is energy and materials in order to supply new raw materials for the pavement layer, it also means that all of those used tires can still be chopped up and used for a quiet driving surface instead of tossed into landfills.

I, for one, am pleased to see this old idea breeding new life into our roads.  We can carpool, take public transportation, or buy hybrid vehicles all we want to help save the environment, but the truth of the matter is we still need roads to ride on.  I like my roads pot-hole free and that means road construction.  Finding GREEN methods to repair or replace existing roads deserves just as much attention as the vehicles that ride them.  I think Captain Planet would be proud.

Information for this post provided by and American Road Reclaimers.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Because No One Told Them They Couldn't

Congratulations to Bishop Kelly High School students in Boise, Idaho, for winning the "Best Overall" title for inventing the P.A.W.D., or Personal Assistive Writing Device during the National Engineering Design Challenge (NEDC) sponsored by the Junior Engineering Technical Society (JETS). (image courtesy of NEDC)
I love design competitions.  Where else does uninhibited free thought reign supreme?  No politics; no business plan; no ROI calculations; no worries about intellectual property or protecting patent rights -- it is the ultimate location for the entrepreneurial spirit.  Imagine the troubles associated with designing an adaptive device in the business world: E&O insurance, liability insurance, time to market schedules, IP safeguarding, just to name a few.  There is little possibility that something this simple, and this elegant, would have been designed.

What is even cooler about this design competition?  It is done by high schoolers.  I don't know about you, but I was pretty smart in high school and I still wouldn't have thought about designing an adaptive device much less actually make it happen.  Students these days are incredibly gifted if we would just properly guide them and keep all the crap out of their way.  And to see a high school that actually has an engineering department!  I may just move to Idaho.

So how do these students design such a device and win a national competition?  Are they that much smarter than we were in high school?  Do they just have a better administration and opportunities provided to them?  Maybe, but I think it comes down to the simple fact that no one told them they couldn't do it.  No one told them that you better not develop an adaptive device because someone will inevitably come at you with a lawsuit.  No one told them that insurance companies won't pay for an assistive device, so there is no monetary value in helping the disabled.  No one told them that great ideas shouldn't be followed just because someone else will be there to stand in your way.

I love design competitions.  They bring out the true entrepreneurial spirit.  They bring out the altruistic nature in those that WANT to do good, but are hindered by FEAR.  They bring out the creative minds unfettered by society's constraints.

Congratulations Coach Guy Hudson and the Bishop Kelly team.  Try spending some of that prize money on hair cuts.  {Teens these days.}

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Turn Your Design Process Upside Down

Reading through some industry literature today, I'm finding a trend done by best-in-class companies on techniques they use to remain best in class.  Specifically, I'm looking at the ways they have done their engineering design process.

I like this description of the design cycle (image courtesy of NASA).  But, I'm more interested in the detailed steps between 4. Build the Item and 5. Evaluate.

For example, I envision a team sitting around a conference room table 1. Stating the Problem that needs to be resolved and putting together a mind map during the successive brainstorming sessions to 2. Generate Ideas.  Out of those ideas, a 3. Solution is Selected and then the engineers go to work 4. Building the Item and sending it to the analysis experts to 5. Evaluate.  Of course, the results are presented and if the item does not resolve the problem, the cycle repeats.

What is the Most Efficient Way to Build and Evaluate the Item?

Another way to phrase that question is how to Design and Analyze the item?

The typical way is to take the idea and throw it into the designers' (design engineers') desk and let them build up a concept until they are ready to send it over to an analyst.  After the analysts run their simulations, they provide feedback to the designers to make the needed changes.  That back-and-forth cycle repeats until the resultant solution is acceptable, typically with the analysts time consuming most of the design cycle.

CAx software providers are helping to sway that process by bringing analysis tools to the designer.  By using ease-of-use, dumbed-down, integrated CAD/FEA, the designer can perform first-pass analysis and decrease the development cycle time by not involving the analyst until later in the process while still running multiple "what-if" scenarios.  WHAT IF THAT PROCESS IS WRONG?  We've all heard "blue is good, red is bad" from people who don't understand what accurate simulation requires.  Putting these tools into the hands of the inexperienced is dangerous and does not protect the safety of the public nor create higher quality or less expensive parts.  Having designers run first pass - which eventually leads to skipping the detailed analysis all together - may look good on the books, but that practice will come back to bite you.

The New Design Process

Rather than put analysis tools into the hands of the under-educated or less experienced designer, get the models to the analyst sooner - not later.  Let the analyst create a detailed and accurate simulation of the design and run the first simulation to prove the simulation's accuracy.  Then, turn the entire simulation over to the designer in the form of a template.  The designer is allowed to modify the design within the boundaries of the template.  With each modification, the designer can re-run the accurate simulation - not just a simplified first pass.  If the modifications overstep the boundaries of the template, the analyst will have to review the model and update the parameters of the simulation; run it to verify accuracy; and then hand it back to the designer to continue using the updated template for additional "what if" scenarios.

All Is Not Lost

The entire framework to integrate CAD and FEA is not wasted.  In order to get the new design process to work, a smooth transition between design and analysis still needs to happen.  Data needs to be interchangeable.  But focus needs to be on software features that allow development of a simulation template unique to each design.  The features need to include user-level control so designers can't just override an analyst's template.  The UI needs to allow simplification for the designer yet full control for the analyst.  Processing power needs to continue to increase to allow for complete simulations to run quickly.  Software algorithms need to be adjusted so only modifications (within template limitations) need to be reanalyzed, not the entire model.

The current trend of integrating CAE with CAD is on the right track, but simplification of analysis for the design engineer may be the wrong focus.  Instead, focus on allowing an experienced analyst set up simulation templates for the designer to use.  Keep the simulations complete and accurate while still reducing the development cycle time.  So turn the design process upside down.  Stop moving more FEA features towards the designer while delaying analyst input.  Instead, move the analyst forward in the process and more integral in the design cycle.