Technology Reviews

3D printers of tomorrow

MultiFabConsumer 3D printers of today are pretty much computer-controlled needles that squeeze out one material at a time to build an object. A process that is slow and cumbersome, frequently calling for items to be printed in individual parts before being pieced together. But the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) at MIT have developed a 3D printer, called MultiFab, that pushes the technology a major step forward by integrating 3D optical scanning with the ability to print with ten different polymers in the same project. Although 3D printing that can use several substrates simultaneously already exists, the equipment can usually just use a maximum of three substrates at any one time as each often requires different parameters for successful extrusion. MultiFab, on the other hand, is able to use up to ten different substrates on the same print job by applying microscopic droplets of the polymers using ‘inkjet’ printer heads. This technique also has the advantage that a much greater resolution of 0.04 mm can be obtained compared to typical resolutions of 0.1 mm for current consumer-level 3D printers. The MultiFab also scans the geometry of any existing parts in its field of view allowing it to print directly around other objects, for instance, the MultiFab has been used to print a case directly around a smartphone. Soon, we could be placing everyday items into our home 3D printers and having them print bespoke accessories without the current 3D modelling prerequisite step – now that would be a revolution!


The personal CNC machining space just got bigger

PCNC440Tormach, a business known for making compact, relatively inexpensive CNC machines recently launched an even more compact, personal factory, the PCNC440. Following in the steps of the latest desktop CNC machines such as the Carvey and the X-Carve, the PCNC 440 was created specifically for the bench-top and at an affordable price. With movement of up to 25.4 cm x 15.9 cm x 25.4 cm in the X, Y and Z axes respectively, it is a true CNC machine. Similar to big professional machines, both computer-aided design (CAD) and computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) programs are needed to operate the PCNC440. So Tormach has formed a partnership with Autodesk, the 3D software maker, to offer one-year access to the commercial version of their CAD/CAM software, Fusion 360, with each device. However, this means that the PCNC440 requires a conventional software process to cut parts which is in contrast to other desktop CNCs and 3D printers that enable one to use a more drag-and-drop methodology. But Tormach has addressed this to some extent by creating PathPilot, the company’s machine control system, which is based on the open-source Linux CNC project, and capable of reading and modifying any industry-standard G-code project. As for the type of material that can be used in the new machine, the PCNC440 can cut just about anything including timber, plastics, and metals like aluminium and steel, and can even cut titanium. In the near term, Tormach also hopes to release further optional accessories for the machine including an automated tool changer and another axis, helping to make this device a truly comprehensive manufacturing hub.


More Home Automation: The Axis Gear

AxisGearA newcomer to the ranks of the as-of-late home automation frenzy is the Axis Gear which in this case automates the opening and closing of window coverings like blinds or curtains. Much like other autonomous systems for the consumer, the Axis Gear is easy to set up and mount, and includes useful features like manual opening and closing of the window drapes if your smartphone is not immediately at-hand. Axis Gear is designed to work with any sort of window-covering control cord, irrespective of its constituent material or size. The built-in motors are able to raise a maximum of 9kg in weight, which is more than sufficient to handle just about any type of window covering that are in homes today. During hot summer months, Axis Gear can be programmed to close the window shades autonomously to reduce internal temperatures while during the winter, it can leave the windows unobstructed so that as much thermal radiation is able to pass into home interiors. Bespoke control apps are available for both iOS as well as Android, which can control one of a group of devices simultaneously. In addition, a number of units can also be controlled from any individual Axis Gear on the network. The units themselves take energy from photovoltaic panels that operate using indirect sunlight with each device incorporating a battery backup for added insurance. Axis Gear is currently undergoing crowdfunding on Indiegogo so that it can be put through mass manufacturing design and production, and if all goes well, the company says that it ought to have units shipping to backers by late 2016.


Another trip in the autonomous direction

peugeot_citroenA PSA Peugeot Citroën driverless car has just made the 580km trip from Paris to Bordeaux in France completely in autonomous mode while driving on the highway. Having successfully controlled its velocity, switching lanes when necessary to overtake any slower traffic, the Peugeot Citroën completed the journey without incident demonstrating the growing feasibility of driverless motor vehicles. As with other autonomous vehicles, the car is fitted with a raft of electronics, including pedestrian awareness sensors and accident avoidance systems. The car was also fitted with systems to receive data transmitted from other automobiles in front of it as well as from dynamic roadway signs that are normally used to deliver customized notifications to motorists.  All the systems worked in unison under a single car management system– but were also carefully monitored from a remote Peugeot Citroën nerve center every step of the way.  In addition, a safety driver was ready to take control of the vehicle throughout the trip, setting the autonomous driving level to what is referred to as “Level 3”; where the the automobile is able to accelerate and decelerate and maneuver the car independently while a human driver is close at hand. Unlike a lot of self-driving initiatives, however, PSA Peugeot Citroën states that its automobile is going to be be fully-capable of “Level 5” or completely human-unattended within a few years, and that buyers will be able to purchase vehicles fitted with all the features displayed in this most recent trial in 2018.


The Netflix Button

netflixButtonNetflix has just created a single switch that’s your one-stop shop to a relaxing night. Just hit a large white button on a small device to dim the room lights, switch off any disturbing mobile phone alerts, activate the Netflix video streaming service, and order your favorite take away, all in one go. That all sounds too good to be true – and it probably is, especially if you are not the ‘maker’ type. That’s because you will need to construct this little one-touch button yourself out of its component parts. The gadget is based around a Wi-Fi-connected microcontroller or CPU, that you will have to program, and you will need to be at ease with electronics and as well as electronic component soldering. In addition, once you have built it, you then need to make sure that you have the right hardware peripherals to work with it, such as the Philips Hue lightbulb that is able to be dimmed via network access. You’ll additionally require an ‘always-on’ web server if you would like the switch to order meals automatically too. Assembling the device is certainly a great deal more work than one is normally used to with consumer electronics but it may well be worth it if that sort of home automation appeals to you. This is not the first device to replace something we do repeatedly with a single button.  The PiePal from iStrategyLabs sent out a pizza delivery order merely at the push of a button, and Amazon’s Dash button initiated similar sorts of online purchases. One wonders which tech company will be next in line!


Microbots

microbotMiniature 3D-printed robotic fish much smaller than the size of a human hair might one day target drugs to precise areas in our bodies or detect and eliminate toxins, if research from the University of California, San Diego ever becomes mainstream. The appropriately-named microfish are magnetically steered and propelled by a chemical reaction involving hydrogen peroxide nanoparticles.  The microfish are fabricated using a high-resolution 3D printing technology called microscale continuous optical printing. This procedure permits scientists to print numerous microns-thick fish ‘robots’ simultaneously. Each microfish contains platinum nanoparticles in its tail as well as iron oxide nanoparticles in its head. When put into a mixture containing hydrogen peroxide, the tail nanoparticles react with the H2O2 to move the microfish forward. The nanoparticles in the head enable the microfish to be directed using magnets. The researchers ran a proof-of-concept experiment to see exactly how the microfish perform with detoxification. They spread toxin-neutralizing polydiacetylene nanoparticles within a solution and put the microfish into the mixture. The microfish began to fluoresce a deep red as their toxin-neutralizing nanoparticles chemically bound with the toxin molecules.  Plans to try the microfish in other applications such as directed drug delivery are in the works.


LiSence

LiSenseScientists at Dartmouth College have developed a sensing system called LiSense that strives at making the light around us more intelligent. It utilizes light to pick up individuals’s movements and allows them to control devices in their surroundings with simple body motions. To get LiSense to track an individual’s movements just with light, a light-sensing area is required, with LED lights in the ceiling and sensing units in the floor. The system makes use of the shadows created by an individual standing in the space to rebuild their 3D posture instantly.  LiSense makes use of  light intensity adjustments at high frequency, also known Visible Light Communication or VLC, to transfer information. Considering that so many smart gadgets on the market today possess light sensors, this makes them already capable of receiving information through light.
Unlike similar attempts to use light to control smart devices,  LiSense is more robust in that it works under different types of lighting and with users of varying body shapes and sizes. For future iterations of LiSence, the developers hope to reduce the number of light sensors needed to run the current system effectively and also have them integrate more into the surroundings. Together with making the system more sensitive in general, the researchers hope it will be applied to all sorts of unique situations. For example, intelligent lighting might check  one’s physical health to flag up any health issues in their early stages.


Maxplo

As the point of contact between a vehicle and the roadway, tires are among the most integral parts of a vehicle. However, no one tire fits all road types or weather conditions, switching them over when running into changing conditions isn’t really viable. The tire specialists, Kumho, have developed a concept tire that would prevent this issue by altering its tread to suit the environment it finds itself in. Its called the Maxplo and it builds on the airless tire concept. Unlike Maxploother airless tire designs, it makes its tread bigger to enhance its hold in icy or snow situations whereas in the rain, a specifically developed tread pattern is created to eliminate water from around the contact points of the tire with the road. As opposed to a fixed tread, it is designed to switch over between these various surface arrangements to handle all the environments it encounters from completely dry to snow-covered roadways.

To push water away from the contact points between vehicle and road in watery situations, the surface as well as circumference of the tire also includes specially-designed 3D grooves. The placement of these grooves isn’t simply arbitrary or ornamental but key to its ‘hydrophobic’ function.

If heading off-road, the large intersectional tread sections that compose the surface of the tire morph moving away from each other and widening the tire’s track to enhance its hold on the off-road surface. For snow and also ice, the tire has one more trick up its sleeve with spikes hidden under the tread blocks. And to top it all off, the tires also sport a hydrogen fuel-powered electrical hub motor for electrical energy generation.

Not hitting our roads any time soon but a great deal of the new concepts included in the tire are likely to find their way in future generations of our tires.