Not that long ago, the idea of a radio and a refrigerator talking to each other was reserved for a “Jetsons” episode or the movie “2001:A Space Odyssey”. However, today it’s not so farfetched. Internet of Things (IoT) has revolutionized the way we live, and how we interact with our environment. What’s better, is any house can become a smart house and you don’t even need a “HAL” to interact with components like your smart switches, Wi-Fi routers or even your advanced camera.

Lights Out!

In manufacturing, IoT allows for faster and more efficient workflow. “Lights out” manufacturing (or dark factory) is when automated devices, 3D printers, and CNC machines are able to run without any physical person being present to observe the machines running. All can be controlled remotely from a handheld device. When a machine is down, a signal is sent to someone to repair the device. Minimal contact with the machines means manufacturers are able to save money and allow a person to be freed up to work on a more critical job and let the computer follow its own mission objective.

Do-it-yourselfers aren’t left out either

As for those of us that enjoy building things ourselves, the possibilities are endless, with help from cheap single-board computers. Products like Raspberry Pi (delicious name, powerful board) and Arduinos (speedy and adaptable) coming in at about $40, single board computers can help automate various appliances to perform tasks such as plant watering or activating a motor. Here at PWI we have used Raspberry Pi’s and Arduinos for prototyping as well as to build smart displays.  

The true MVP

With the price of processors down in comparison to 10 years ago, wireless controllers have become more With the price of processors down in comparison to 10 years ago, wireless controllers have become more mainstream. The unsung hero in the IoT landscape is truly IPv6 or internet protocol version 6. The introduction of IPv6 has allowed the creation of almost a limitless number of IP addresses. IP addresses allow wireless devices to be located within a network. Without IPv6 or with a limit on IP addresses, only select devices could be controlled at a time. With help from IoT you’ll never have to worry about hearing “I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

This month we are going to move away from manufacturing technology and talk about something that is affecting the entire manufacturing industry – the lack of silicon for producing computer chips. Everything from the phone you’re most likely reading this on, to the wireless keyboard I’m typing this on, is comprised of computer chips. We all rely heavily on chips and more specifically semiconductors that make up those chips.

What is the bullwhip effect? 

The demand for silicon is far beyond the current supply and it’s affecting almost every industry causing the bullwhip effect. (I’m going to refrain from any Indiana Jones allusions here.) The bullwhip effect is a phenomenon within manufacturing that shows that distortion in the supply chain can multiply, meaning that small standard errors can compound as you move up the supply chain causing massive shifts in demand. Recent events (i.e., Covid and the shift of work and school at home) have created a massive demand for chips in computers and hardware inside the home. This demand has put stress on the entire supply chain, spiking prices, and generating greater lead times, thus the bullwhip effect.  So, grab your fedora, and let’s dive in -ok, I couldn’t resist.

When did this start?

Despite the once in a century global pandemic. This shortage did not start in 2020 and X never, ever marks the spot. As developing nations have become more developed, the need for more chips in those regions have increased. Economists had starting taking note of the silicon shortages all the way back in 2018.

The hits just keep coming. 

As we have discussed so far, the bullwhip effect has caused a bulk of our silicon shortages. However, a once in a century global pandemic is also more directly to blame. While the United States is returning to business as usual, other countries around the world are still being devastated by the Covid-19 pandemic. North America only makes up a small portion of the total silicon production in the world. Those facilities are currently being slammed with orders that they simply can’t fill. Countries like China and India are still having issues with the virus and are unable to keep up with silicon manufacturing. 

When will things return to normal?

This could be a new norm for a little while. Some companies have announced a push to add to their silicon manufacturing facilities; however, this may take as long as 2 years to finish construction of these new facilities. This could cause more of a bullwhip effect in reverse.  And so, the cycle continues. But if you can look on the bright side, there’s no snakes. At least this time, It didn’t have to be snakes.

In the same vein as last month’s topic (hint: ray tracing) we are going to discuss a type of software that helps engineers save time and money developing hardware.  Computational fluid dynamics or CFD software is similar to ray tracing software in that it allows a computer to simulate the laws of nature, but in this case – it’s simulating a fluid. Specifically, how a fluid reacts in the presence of an outside force. Example – think of a fan in a room. When the fan is off you can’t feel the air. It’s present, but you don’t notice its force. However, when the fan is turned on, suddenly you can direct the air flow and feel its force. This is an example of fluid dynamics. Air acts like fluid in that it moves and flows. CFD software is able to show where areas of high and low fluid pressure exist and since air is a fluid, it can also measure the route air takes through an enclosed area.  

CFD software can be expensive, but using it can substantially reduce prototyping costs. For example, CFD software can be used to help computer designers keep their towers from overheating by illustrating the way air can move inside the framework. It can also help aeronautical engineers develop more efficient wing designs. When designing an airplane wing, engineers will use CFD software to show the high pressure effecting the bottom of the wing, and the low pressure effecting the top of the wing. Automotive companies use CFD software to develop sweet-looking streamlined auto bodies while reducing fluid friction and drag on the frame. It also lets you burn rubber all while getting better gas mileage 

Back in the day, companies had their CFD software handled by an engineer anointed to manage all things CFD. The programs were complicated and also involved quite a bit of coding knowledge for someone to operate. Many computers would also struggle to handle the complex CFD software, which is very dependent on the speed of your computer’s “brain”. 

Today, almost anyone can take an afternoon and a cup of coffee and decipher CFD software. If you don’t want to invest the time, most companies that create CFD software have quick tutorials you can check out on YouTube. Much of the CFD software out there is now browser based so that they can be run remotely on supercomputers. Here at PWI we use CFD software to help us improve the design of our products while we explore the future of using UV light to clean the air in enclosed areas. Purchasing CFD software may be the best way to perfect your designs without the cost of producing multiple prototypes. CFD software may well be your solid answer to a fluid problem.

If you’ve heard of ray tracing but not quite sure what it means to your business or the world outside of Gen Z gamers, huddled alone in dark basements; we’re here to give you the lowdown.

What exactly is ray tracing?

Ray tracing is the process of following the path of a ray of light as it travels and bounces off of surfaces.  This technology has seen a surge in popularity due to new gaming consoles and graphics cards able to perform real-time ray tracing. This gives users a more detailed and realistic image of their content. While you may have just recently heard about the wonders of ray tracing, it was actually first discovered in the 16th century, back when peak gaming consisted of chess, checkers and a rousing contest of backgammon. But there are more applications than meet the eye.

Engineers dig it.

As engineers, ray tracing is essential to us in developing all kinds of innovations in multiple fields; including optics, architecture, automotive, and many more. Ray tracing software provides realistic lighting scenarios by simulating the physical behavior of light and tracing the path the light would take when travelling. When we combine it with 3D design software, it kicks it up a notch and allows us to observe the effects of light on a prototype before the prototype is built. This helps to save time and money in the prototyping process.   

Ray tracing goes mainstream.

Ray tracing has real world uses, like when a designer is developing automotive headlights. Ray tracing software is essential in determining the overall light field, and the intensity at different degrees off of the main focus of the beam. The beams are at their brightest in the  midline of the car’s path and progressively get dimmer the further away from the center focus of the beam. This is an intentional design choice that stops the headlights from blinding oncoming traffic. If you look at your headlights there are reflectors and lenses that help shape the light. An engineer can build a prototype to test these patterns, however by using ray tracing technology an engineer can make adjustments and see the effects of those changes throughout the process. This saves time and money. Compare today’s car lights to those manufactured in the 90’s. While you were rocking out to Pearl Jam and driving to Blockbuster, you probably didn’t notice your car lights were much dimmer and not as effective at dispersing those light rays. You also may not have noticed that older lights have a softer progression from the brightest point to the outer diameter of the light. Newer cars have a much sharper contrast on the outer edge of the light cone so as not to blind oncoming traffic and to better focus the light. Credit the progress in ray tracing technology for allowing engineers to run tests before a prototype is ever built. Being able to narrow down design options makes our lives a little bit easier and saves time and money while getting products to market more quickly.

Ray tracing – fighting the good fight.

Today, industries all over the world are using ray tracing technology to create photo-realistic images of the heart, brain, and other vital organs in order to better target tumor growth and treat other medical defects. Ray tracing can also combat viruses such as SARS, H1N1, and COVID by helping to determine the light intensity and the effectiveness of UV light in eradicating airborne viruses. PWI’s sister company Aero Biotek used this very technology to create a revolutionary method of continually cleaning the air in aircraft. Check out how Aero Biotek neutralizes viruses with a little help from ray tracing, at www.aerobiotek.com . In short, ray tracing technology has progressed far beyond enhancing the gaming experience, to helping mankind fight real-world battles. Ray tracing – it’s not just for gamers anymore.

We have seen the future and it is 3D printing! 

Not quite…in reality, the first commercially available 3D printer was actually released in 1984. So, if you indulged in the 80’s bomber jacket and big hair, but you didn’t end up purchasing a 3D printer, you were not alone. Few 3D printers were sold at that time. It’s only been in the last ten years that 3D printers have become more common in all types of industry.

So, what’s the best 3D printer for your manufacturing purposes? Here’s a breakdown of some of the more popular choices.

The Stereolithography or SLA printer, is the Grand Pappy of all 3D printers. This was also the first commercially available 3D printer. The SLA uses a UV laser to trace resin one layer at a time. The UV light further cures the resin as additional layers are added. The use of a laser makes this process incredibly accurate and some machines even use multiple lasers to speed up this process and maintain accuracy. However, you can guess the downside to this style of printer-it’s not nearly as fast as other types of 3D printers. Also, if you increase the number of lasers, it can increase the overall price tag of the unit as well as increase the current draw from the wall. 

Up next, the Digital Light Processing printer or DLP. If SLA is the Grand Pappy of the 3D printing world, this is the quick and agile whippersnapper. In the same vein as the SLA this printing process uses UV light to cure layers of resin. However, the difference is that instead of a laser this uses an LCD screen to cure an entire layer at one time. Curing an entire layer at once drastically increases the speed of the 3D print. The limiting factor on this style of printer is the resolution. Just like on a TV, the resolution on the screen makes a massive difference in the image clarity. Looking at a 4K screen, you get a clear, crisp picture. By contrast, looking at a 720p screen is bound to be pretty blurry. Depending on the resolution you prefer, more post process work like sanding or polishing, may be required. On the up side, this style of printer is very reasonable priced. FYI-the higher resolution screens will cost you a bit more.

Lastly, let’s take a look at the Direct Metal Laser Sintering or DMLS. Now, to introduce the big boy of the printer world (we prefer to say he’s just big-boned) – the DMLS! Physically these units are much bigger, have a lot more moving parts and are truly able to be used in end product manufacturing. While the other 2 types of printers are used primarily for prototyping or one-offs, the DMLS can be scaled up to produce many parts at once. Just like the SLA, the DMLS uses lasers to create the forms. A thin layer of metal is deposited as the laser creates the forms, then the part is moved down and another layer of metal is deposited to be set in place by the laser again. As you can guess, the cost of this large-and-in-charge printer will set you back a bit, but if you’re looking for a highly specialized or large quantity manufacturing printer, can justify the purchase of the DMLS.

Here at PWI, we use the Fused Filament Fabricator or FFF. When customers need prototypes or we engineers need a design brought to life, the FFF gets the job done. The FFF can use a variety of filaments, but we prefer polyethylene terephthalate filament (PET) or poly lactic acid (PLA) filament because they’re nontoxic and fairly versatile. These filaments work great for when customers need a quick prototype or when we engineers need to truly visualize our concepts. 

3D printing offers limitless opportunities for all types of companies. You never know when a 3D prototype will be helpful to close a deal or take your presentation to the next level. Let’s face it, you’ll also have a bit of a cool factor when you can casually say, “Let me fire up my 3D printer and I’ll get you a prototype, ASAP”. 

When you hear the word “Spark”, many images come to mind…like electricity, maybe an idea, or an ignition, maybe even fire? That’s the idea behind the launch of PWI’s first  blog, titled The Spark

With The Spark, we hope to ignite inspiration, curiosity, understanding and maybe even solutions. Our new blog will center around a variety of topics including coding, magnetometers, UV light, transistors and much more. As you may have guessed, these topics relate to engineering – specifically electrical and software engineering but there may be a rogue topic here or there. We also want you to help call the shots. If you want to discuss or explore more on a topic, let us know! We probably want to dive into the details just as much as you!

So, who will be offering up these pearls of wisdom, information and advice? PWI is proud to have a team of engineers and drafting ninjas that boast more than 100 years of combined engineering experience. They are knowledgeable about the latest in engineering trends and topics as well as new ideas that will make a difference to you!

A new Spark will light up our website about every six weeks so we’ll also give you a heads up when it’s posted. In the meantime, tell us what you want to understand and discuss! Email us at blog@pwi-e.com if you have a suggestion or you just want to chat. We’d love to hear from you. Every fire starts with a spark. Click here to read the next installment of The Spark and discover more about the future of manufacturing! Hint: it’s printable!