Computing aids advance rapid development

Tom Shelley reports on technologies to aid brainstorming and getting products to market faster, especially in the challenging field of alternative energy.

A new concept harnesses off-the-shelf the computer hardware and software to greatly assist brainstorming, while advances in the automated generation of control code accelerates the transfer of ideas into real products, especially important in the development of green and clean technologies which pose new and often very difficult engineering design challenges.

Dr Andy Bardill, programme director in the Product Design and Engineering department at Middlesex University, has devised a brainstorming studio that combines projectors and webcams with a system for recording the resulting ideas and discussions.

One of projectors is aimed downwards onto a horizontal table, while others project onto vertical screens around the room. The system calls up different designs when the webcam above the table detects 'fiducials' – symbol shapes placed on an appropriate part of the image. Designs can be marked up on the table and this information is then captured by the webcam. Video and audio recordings are made of discussions, which are stored in blogs. Prince said the system 'allows us to get direct feedback on our blogs'.

Having come up with an idea and baked the design, the challenge then comes to implement it as quickly as possible. One of the most challenging design areas is in harnessing alternative sources of energy. While the base ideas may often be simple, implementing them usually means venturing into new areas of technology.

Efficient operation almost inevitably involves sophisticated control and monitoring and, since one of the quickest ways of implementing such systems is to use National Instruments LabView and related products, users will be pleased to hear that these have just been through a major revamp of their compiler technologies.

Among British and Irish recipients of the scheme so far, Romax Technology in Nottingham is using LabView and CompactRIO in software developed to improve monitoring and predictive maintenance in wind turbines. This, according to Ian Bell, market development manager at NI, has now gone into 'one or two turbines'. Failures of bearings and gearboxes in wind turbines have proved to be a major problem and repair and replacement costs tend to be high, especially if the turbines are situated offshore. Magnomatics, a spinout from the University of Sheffield is using LabView for the control and data acquisition system for testing and CompactRIO to rapidly prototype and deploy controllers for its non contact gearboxes. These use only magnetic forces to transmit torque between elements, and this requires no gear lubricants and avoids friction losses and the possibility of failures arising from chipped and broken teeth.

Wavebob, invented by Irish physicist William Dick, uses two bodies above each other, which move up and down relative to ocean waves and to each other. The bodies are coupled by hydraulic cylinder pumps which extract the power from the relative motions. In order to optimise performance and protect itself against damage, it, Bell said: "Wavebob tunes itself to adapt to changing wave conditions." A half size unit has been on trial in Galway Bay for more than a year, and the next stage is to build and deploy full sized units in a farm, starting in 2013. Sorting out potential problems at an early stage is crucial, since the idea has a number of increasingly established competitors.

Last but not least, with few details yet revealed, Sunamp in Scotland, is using LabView in a new phase change heat storage system which also has competitors using similarly-based technology.

Tom Shelley

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