Category Archives: Engineering

Low-cost origami 3D-printing technique could improve bone implants

Scientists at Delft University of Technology (TU Delft) in the Netherlands have created a new way to print flat structures which self-fold into complex shapes according to a pre-planned sequence. The research has many applications, including the potential to improve bone transplants, the university said.

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Essentially a combination of the Japanese paper-folding art of origami and 3D printing, the technique created by Amir Zadpoor and his team of researchers is means of creating shape-shifting constructs without the high costs or manual labour usually associated with this process.

Zadpoor’s team used an Ultimaker, one of the most popular 3D printers, and PLA, the most common printing material available. “At about 17 Euro’s per kilo, it’s dirt cheap”, said Zadpoor. “Nevertheless, we created some of the most complex shape-shifting ever reported with it.” The process is also fully automated and requires no manual labour whatsoever.

Zadpoor’s team achieved this by creating a technique in which they simultaneously printed and stretched the material in certain spots. “The stretching is stored inside the material as a memory”, PhD researcher Teunis van Manen explained. “When heated up, the memory is released and the material wants to go back to its original state.”

The researchers also alternated the thickness and the alignment of the filaments in the material.

“What makes the team’s shape-shifting objects so advanced is the fact that they self-fold according to a pre-planned sequence,” TU Delft wrote about the project.

“If the goal is to create complex shapes, and it is, some parts should fold sooner than others”, Zadpoor explained. “Therefore, we needed to program time delays into the material. This is called sequential shape-shifting.”

This approach marks an important step in the development of better bone implants for two reasons, the researchers explained. Firstly, it makes it possible to create prosthetics with a porous interior which allows a patient’s own stem cells to move into the structure of the implant and attach themselves to the interior surface area, instead of just coating the exterior. This will result in a stronger, more durable implant.

Secondly, with this technique, nanopatterns that guide cell growth can be crafted on the surface of the implant, TU Delft explained.

“We call these ‘instructive surfaces’, because they apply certain forces to the stem cells, prompting them to develop into the cells we want them to be”’, said PhD researcher Shahram Janbaz. “A pillar shape, for instance, may encourage stem cells to become bone cells.”

It is impossible to create such instructive surfaces on the inside of a 3D structure. “This is why we decided we needed to start from a flat surface,” said Zadpoor.

Other applications for the research include printed electronics (“by using this technique, it may be possible to incorporate printed, 2D-electronics into a 3D shape,” Zadpoor said) and flat-pack furniture. “Shape-shifting could definitely turn many of our existing 2D worlds into 3D worlds’, he said. “We are already being contacted by people who are interested in working with it.”

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Mizuno race to make prosthetic legs ahead of 2020 Paralympics

Mizuno Corporation has announced that it will start producing prosthetic legs for sprinters from October, a recent article in the Asahi Shimbun informs us.

This allows plenty of time for the company to promote its product ahead of the Tokyo Summer Paralympics in 2020.

Paralympic silver medalist Atsushi Yamamoto (Photo: http://www.jsad.or.jp/)

For the development of their carbon-fibre prosthetic leg, the Osaka-based, international sports equipment and sportswear company collaborated with Gifu-based manufacturer of electric wheelchairs and other products for people with physical impairments, Imasen Engineering Corporation.

Yet this is not Imasen’s first foray into this particular market.  In fact, they became the first Japanese company to manufacture prosthetic legs for athletes in 2007. 

Even so, according to officials from the company, at present the Japanese market in lower-limb prosthetics for athletes is dominated by two overseas manufacturers: one German and one Icelandic. And together these two companies account for 90 percent of all prosthetic legs used by athletes in sports competitions held in Japan.

Mizuno and Imasen began working together, and making trials in the summer of 2014.

In comparison to Imasen’s previous prosthetic leg, the new design is said to have a smaller and lighter metal fitting for mounting. 

Moreover, the “spring leaf”, designed by the two companies and which functions as a leg, is said to be competitive on two more fronts.

Firstly in terms of price, while the cost of prosthetic legs made overseas ranges around 500,000 to 600,000 yen ($4,770 to $5,730, or €4,370 to €5,250), Imasen have said that the main body of their new product will be around half this, coming in at less than 250,000 yen. 

Secondly, officials from the company said that the design is better tailored to fit the leg length of Japanese athletes than existing products from overseas. 

Long jump athlete and 2008 Beijing Paralympics silver medalist who helped in the development of the new prosthetic, Atsushi Yamamoto, concurred.

“We are coming close to the point where we can run at full throttle,” he said. “The new prosthetic will give a better fit to the physical builds of Japanese, so our views about it will more easily get through.”

The new prosthetic leg can be seen against a backdrop of booming developments in equipment for Paralympic athletes.

Jamie Gillespie, head prosthetist at the UK-based Pace Rehabilitation told CNN that significant changes have taken place in the last two or three years.

“It used to be that there were only two types of running blade, but companies are now offering a greater range for different competitions, adjusted to boost performance, so the challenge now is to find the right blade for the right person for the right sport.”

Meanwhile Andy Lewis, gold medalist at the 2015 Madrid Paratriathalon, said, “By the Paralympics in 2016 I can envisage a lot of new legs coming out …The knees are getting smaller, the legs will have microprocessors, and you will be able to press a button to change foot for the different events.”

At the same time, these technological advancements will not only be to the benefit of athletes. Looking beyond the 2020 Paralympics,Yasunori Kaneko head of Mizuno’s research and development department told Asahi Shimbun, “We don’t want to stop with just making prosthetic legs.”

“We also hope to develop products that will enhance the abilities of those who have lost their physical functions and of elderly people.”

Sources include: Asahi Shimbun and CNN

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Nintendo to launch sleep-tracking device

Japanese game maker, Nintendo Co. Ltd plans to develop a sleep-tracking device to help users cultivate healthy sleeping habits. The company announcement was made on Thursday by Nintendo Chief Executive, Satoru Iwata. The device will be the first product launched by Nintendo’s newly created healthcare division.

“By using our know-how in gaming… to analyse sleep and fatigue, we can create something fun,” Iwata said.

Nintendo’s sleep tracker will be produced in collaboration with US company, ResMed, who specialise in products to treat sleep disorders. Designed to be placed on a bedside table, it will measure fatigue and map the sleep of users without physical contact, using a non-contact radio frequency sensor.

According to Iwata, the new device may be offered via a subscription service rather than as a one-off purchase, but refused to give any more details about the company’s sales expectations.

“We only start something new if we think we will be able to create a big market, but as I’m not able to discuss pricing plans and other details today I don’t think there’s much point in giving a figure for our projected scale,” he said.

The device will be available in the financial year ending March 2016.

Source: Reuters

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CEATEC 2014 showcases Japan’s cutting edge technology

CEATEC Japan 2014, showcases the most innovative new technology breakthroughs. Some of the highlights from this year’s current exhibition include a new concept in wearable tech from Toshiba Glass, an intriguing ‘Tempescope’  and the CEATEC 2014 award winner an 8K Super high vision television from Sharp.

Toshiba Corp. is looking in the same direction as Google Glass, but the prototype it unveiled at CREATEC takes a slightly more conventional approach to wearable tech.

While other eyewear tech, including Google Glass, have futuristic designs, the Japanese company Toshiba is banking that people will feel more at ease when facing someone with conventional glasses rather than techy ones.

Unlike other glasses-type wearables, which feature a device in front of the lens, the hardware of Toshiba Glass is positioned less obtrusively to the side of the right lens.

The Toshiba Glass device itself is a mini-projection system using small prisms. At CEATEC the company demoed it projecting information — such as weather forecasts, recipe ingredients or step-by-step manuals — into the user’s field of vision.

Toshiba Glass is light at 43g and does not feel that different from conventional glasses. In order to keep the glasses lightweight, the device must be connected via a wire to an external battery when in use.

Unlike Google Glass, the Toshiba Glass does not have a camera. Toshiba also said it will not be possible to detach the small projection device and attach to ordinary glasses since the projection requires a special lens.

Toshiba appears to be focusing on the corporate market and aims to make the glasses available for business use from 2015. Toshiba sees the fields of security, health care and maintenance inspection, as possible industries where the glasses may find an application.

Another interesting gadget showcased at CEATEC was the Tempescope. The team behind it call it “an ambient physical display that visualizes the weather, inside your living room” — basically an elaborate lit-up box that shows you tomorrow’s weather in a very classy, oddly relaxing, way.

To work out exact what kind of weather it should produce, the Tempescope pulls hourly forecasts through a wireless connection from a PC. Once the Tempescope has the forecast, it creates those meteorological conditions inside its tall, sealed glass cuboid. A combination of water and ultrasonics creates the cloudy vapor inside the box, while water can also be gathered at the top, and dripped down to create rain. LED lights at the top attempt offer up an estimation of either thunder or sunshine, depending on the next day’s forecast.

The 2014 CEATEC AWARD presented to the most innovative technologies, products, and services expected to contribute to the advancement of lifestyle, society, and economic activities, this year was awarded to Sharp.

Sharp’s prize winning LCD display is the world’s first 8K Super Hi-Vision full-spec LCD display. The display offers 3D pictures with overwhelming realism and without the need for special glasses providing a thrilling and sensational viewing experience.

The research and development of 8K Super Hi-Vision broadcast was started by the Japan Broadcasting Corporation (Nippon Hoso Kyokai in Japanese, hereafter “NHK”) in 1995, and the 8K broadcast service is planned to start by 2018. The 8K Super Hi-Vision broadcast, with four times the number of pixels compared to 4K broadcast, will be able to provide super-high-quality picture reproduction.

Source: Tha Japan Times, engadget.com, sharp-world.com, ceatec.com

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Nissan launches electric cars in China

Nissan Motor Co. has launched an electric car known as the Venucia on to the Chinese market. In doing so, it becomes the first Japanese automobile company to sell such an eco-friendly car in China – the largest vehicle market in the world.

Nissan collaborated with Chinese automaker Dongfeng Motor Co. to develop the Venucia e30.

‘With Nissan Global’s advanced technology, sales experience and know-how of electric vehicle, the Venucia e30 has been locally developed through our careful studies about market situations and consumer needs in China‘ said Jun Seki, President of Dongfeng Motor Co.

The Venucia is closely based on the Leaf electric car launched in Japan in 2010, and functions in a similar manner, despite having undergone some styling alterations. The Venucia can be fully charged in 4 hours via a household socket and is thought to be 7 times more economical than petrol models in the country. After a full-charge, the car can travel up to 175km. 

Nissan will manufacture the vehicle at a factory in Guangzhou and hopes to sell 50,000 of the models in 2018. By this time, the company also aims to have taken a 20% share of the Chinese market for electric vehicles.

The Venucia will retail at around 267,800 yuan, or around ¥4.7 million (GBP 27,000), for the cheapest model, and will be eligible for the Chinese government’s tax exemption for electric cars –  introduced to help reduce air pollution in the country.

‘I am looking forward to seeing the Venucia e30 lead China’s electric-vehicle market into the future and also to more development of new energy vehicles and the wide adoption of electric vehicles in China.’ said Seki.

Sources: The Japan Times; EV Fleet World

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Self-folding origami robot designed in US

A group of engineers from Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have succeeded in creating a self-assembling robot.

The robot’s assembly process relies upon origami, a traditional Japanese paper-folding craft.

Made from a composite sheet of paper, polystyrene and a circuit board, the machine can fold itself up from a flat sheet into a four-legged beetle-like form, and crawl away autonomously. The design also includes two motors, two batteries and a microcontroller. Hinges were programmed to fold at specific angles. Each hinge contained embedded circuits that produce heat on command from the microcontroller. The heat triggers the composite to self-fold in a series of steps.

When the hinges cool after about four minutes, the polystyrene hardens – making the robot stiff – and the microcontroller then signals the robot to crawl away at a speed of about one-tenth of a mile per hour.

“We were originally inspired by making robots as quickly and cheaply as possible,” says Sam Felton, doctoral student at Harvard and lead author of the paper described in Science. “The long-term plan is printable manufacturing; the short-term plan is building robots that can go into places where people can’t go.”

The robot is controlled by a timer which means that 10 seconds after the battery is inserted it will begin assembly.

Felton came upon the final design after testing around 40 prototypes. He fabricated the sheet using a solid ink printer, a laser machine, and his hands. Assembly took around 2 hours.

As the pre-stretched polystyrene hardens after assembly, the robot cannot yet unfold itself and return to a flat sheet form.

‘There is a great deal that we can improve based on this foundational step,’ said Felton. He plans to experiment with different kinds of shape memory polymers, including those that are stronger and require less heat to activate.

The potential applications of this type of machine are wide-ranging, stretching beyond the cheap manufacturing of robots.

‘Imagine a ream of dozens of robotic satellites sandwiched together so that they could be sent up to space and then assemble themselves remotely once they get there – they could take images, collect data, and more,’  said Felton.

Source: The Engineer; Bloomberg Businessweek 

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Blooming bouquets! Japanese scientists discover flower aging cure

morning-glory-173440_640Japanese Scientists at the National Agriculture and Food Research Organization in Tsukuba, Ibaraki Prefecture, claim to have found a way to delay the aging process in flowers by up to half, keeping bouquets fresh for longer.

Discovery of the gene believed to be responsible for the short shelf-life of flowers in one Japanese variety of morning glory is responsible for the breakthrough. By suppressing this gene — named “EPHEMERAL1″ — scientists found the life span of each flower was almost doubled.

“Morning glory” is the name for a large group of flowering plants whose petals unfurl early in the day and begin to fade and curl by nightfall. So far, the scientists have managed to isolate the aging gene in just one variety of Japanese morning glory but believe these methods could be applied to other flower species.

“Unmodified flowers started withering 13 hours after they opened, but flowers that had been genetically modified stayed open for 24 hours,” said Kenichi Shibuya, one of the lead researchers in the study carried out jointly with Kagoshima University.

This means the plant has fresh purple flowers alongside the paler blooms from the previous day, he said.

This gene is linked to petal aging, the researchers discovered. Although the scientists have only modified the genes of living flowers in the study, their discovery could lead to  the development of methods to extend the life of cut flowers.

“It would be unrealistic to modify genes of all kinds of flowers, but we can look for other ways to suppress the (target) gene . . . such as making cut flowers absorb a solution that prevents the gene from becoming active,” said Shibuya.

Some florists currently use chemicals to inhibit ethylene, a plant hormone which sometimes causes blooms to ripen, in the preparation of some cut flowers. This does not always help as ethylene is not present in the aging process of some very popular flowers, such as lilies, tulips and irises.

A gene similar to EPHEMERAL1 could be responsible for petal aging in these plants, Shibuya said, meaning the ability to suppress it would extend their life.

Source: The Japan Times

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A robot with a heart: Japanese company unveils newest creation

Japanese company Softbank has unveiled its newest design: a robot able to respond to human emotions. Using a cloud-based artificial intelligence system and an “emotional engine”, the robot, known as “Pepper”, is able to to interpret human voice tones, expressions and gestures, and perform various tasks.

In the past several different robotics companies have claimed to have created robots that read or mimic human emotions, but Softbank CEO Masayoshi Son told a press conference it is the first time in history a robot has been given a heart.

The firm said people can communicate with Pepper “just like they would with friends and family” and believes it could become a household aid to the elderly, especially in countries like Japan with rapidly ageing populations.

“Even if one can pre-programme such robots to carry out specific tasks based on certain commands or gestures, it could go long way in helping improve elderly care,” said Rhenu Bhuller, senior vice president healthcare at consulting firm Frost & Sullivan.

Softbank is a majority stakeholder in French company, Aldebaran Robotics. The two firms developed Pepper in collaboration. Bruno Maisonnier, founder and chief executive of Aldebaran said: “The emotional robot will create a new dimension in our lives and new ways of interacting with technology.”

Japan has one of the world’s largest robotics markets, which was estimated to be worth around 860 billion yen (approx £5 billion) in 2012.  The country employs more than 250,000 industrial robot workers. According to a trade ministry report last year, the Japanese robotics market is expected to have more than tripled in value to 2.85 trillion yen (£16.5 billion) by the year 2020.

Pepper will go on sale to the public next year for 198,000 yen ($1,930; £1,150). According to the company, it will be available at stores nationwide.

A prototype version of the robot will also serve customers in Softbank’s mobile phone stores.
Sources: BBC News; The Telegraph
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Hydrogen cars have the edge on Electric

Toyota Motor Corp will next year launch a hydrogen-powered car in the United States, Japan and Europe. For now, people at Toyota are calling it the 2015 FC car, for fuel-cell.

Hydrogen fuel-cell cars will cost significantly more than conventional cars and there are currently few refuelling stations. But Toyota believes that when they are compared to the other zero-emissions alternative, battery-powered electric vehicles, or EVs, fuel cells suddenly don’t look so bad.

Fuel-cell cars use a “stack” of cells that electro-chemically combine hydrogen with oxygen to generate electricity that helps propel the car. Their only emission, apart from heat, is water vapor, they can run five times longer than battery electric cars, and it takes just minutes to fill the tank with hydrogen – far quicker than even the most rapid charger can recharge a battery electric car.

“With the 2015 FC car we think we’ve achieved a degree of dominance over our rivals,” Satoshi Ogiso, a Toyota managing director, said in a recent interview at the group’s global headquarters. “With the car, we make a first giant step” toward making fuel-cell vehicles practical for everyday use.

What’s more, executives and engineers say Toyota is willing to sell the car at a loss for a long while to popularize the new technology – just as it did with the Prius, which, with other hybrids, now accounts for 14 percent of Toyota’s annual sales, excluding group companies, of around 9 million vehicles.

As a result, drivers in key “green” markets such as California may be able to buy the car for a little more than $30,000-$40,000, aftergovernment subsidies – if management approves a pricing strategy put forward by a group of managers and engineers. General Motors Co’s Chevrolet Volt, a near-all-electric plug-in hybrid, for comparison, starts at around $35,000 in the United States.

“It really provides all the benefits of a plug-in EV without the range anxiety and without the time it takes to recharge it,” says Bill Fay, group vice president of the Toyota division, in a interview at theChicago Auto Show.

Since most battery-powered cars are limited to about 100 miles per charge, the term “range anxiety” has come to mean the worries that owners face about running out of juice before they can limp home or to a public charging station. Hydrogen cars can go hundreds of miles on a fillup, and the fillup only takes about five minutes, Fay points out.

Takeshi Uchiyamada, the 67-year-old “father of the Prius” whose success catapulted him from mid-level engineer to Toyota board chairman, says technology inefficiencies will make the battery electric car little more than an “errands car” – a small run-around for shopping, dropping the kids at school and other short-haul chores.

As with battery electric cars, a major challenge for fuel-cell automakersis a lack of infrastructure, with few hydrogen fuel stations in the world. Estimates vary, but it costs about $2 million to build a single hydrogen fuel station in the United States, according to Toyota executives.

At present, California, the state that once had planned a “hydrogen highway” of stations, has nine. But the state has plans to vastly increase the network, says Bob Carter, a senior vice president for Toyota.

Studies have shown, he says, that fewer stations than might be expected can support the needs of a lot of drivers. As few as 68 is enough to meet the needs of drivers of 10,000 cars.

Hydrogen fuel cell cars, Carter says, will “fundamentally change” how America thinks about alternative fuel vehicles.

However, many automobile manufacturers are staking their future on battery electric cars including Nissan Motor Co, Tesla Motors Inc, Bayerische Motoren Werke AG,GM, Ford Motor Co and Chineseautomakers backed by the country’s industrial policymakers. China offers generous purchase incentives for those buying battery electric cars and aims to have 5 million “new energy” vehicles – mostly all-electric and near all-electric plug-in hybrids – on the road by 2020.

Tesla chief Elon Musk has said hydrogen is an unsuitable fuel for cars. In a videotaped speech last year to employees and others at a new Tesla service center in Germany, Musk said: “Fuel-cell is so bullshit. Hydrogen is a quite dangerous gas. It’s suitable for the upper-stage rocket, but not for cars.”

Even Toyota only expects tens of thousands of fuel-cell cars to be sold each year a decade from now as the new technology will need time to gain traction. Ogiso says Toyota has cut the platinum use per car by more than two-thirds through nanotechnology and stack-design improvements, and he expects to trim that further. Engineer Hitoshi Nomasa said a hydrogen-powered Toyota SUV now uses around 30 grams of platinum in the fuel-cell, down from 100 grams previously. Platinum currently costs $1,437 an ounce (28 grams) on world markets.

Toyota has also borrowed spare parts from the Prius and other gasoline-electric hybrids it sells around the world. While the fuel-cell car uses hydrogen as fuel, it otherwise resembles the hybrid models as both use electricity to power their motors.

While costs have come down significantly, Toyota says a hydrogen car’s fuel-cell propulsion system alone still costs it close to $50,000 to produce. That’s partly why some Toyota money managers want a more conservative pricing strategy – of $50,000-$100,000 – said one individual on the 2015 FC car launch team.

“It might be tough to price it below $50,000,” Ogiso said. “But anything is possible at this point.”

Sources: USA Today, Business Insider, Toyota Co.

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Toyota pioneers recycling technology as global copper supply faces exhaustion

With only an estimated 40 years’ worth of minable copper reserves remaining worldwide. Global supplies are under threat and copper use is on the rise. Copper is increasingly being used for power transmission lines and other purposes in emerging nations, raising concerns in the near future copper prices will soar. Copper currently accounts for almost half of a vehicle’s wiring assembly, which extends between 3 and 5 kilometers and weighs 10 kilograms, excluding the plastic covering and other components. The wire harness is used for various electronic controls, including brakes. To counter future difficulties in supply the Japanese automobile manufacturer Toyota . has developed a pioneering technology to recycle copper from vehicles amid fears that the global supply of the resource will eventually run out.  Toyota aims to stem the outflow of the valuable resource through its recycling technology The recycling process involves crushing a vehicle’s wiring assembly and sorting the copper by examining differences in buoyancy and using magnets. The recycling technology produces copper with a purity of 99.96 percent that can be reused in new automobiles, Toyota said. Until now, the copper removal procedure had to be done manually due to the complex structure of the wire assembly, or harness. The enormous costs for domestic recycling forced Toyota to export car components containing copper to recyclers in countries such as China where labor costs are lower. Toyota has made arrangements to collect wire harnesses from auto-dismantling companies. Autoparts maker Yazaki Corp. will produce new wire harnesses using the recycled copper. Toyota started its copper recycling project in 2013. Since then over 200,000 Toyota vehicles have used recycled copper for part of their wire harnesses. The automaker says it plans to increase annual production of recycled copper to about 1,000 tons, enough for about 2 million cars, by 2016.

Source: The Asahi Shinbun   

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