Advances in Artificial Intelligence

The interaction between humans and machines has a history of evolution that is as interesting as the evolution of man itself. We have come a long way from the days of the hunter-gatherer tools through the Stone Age, the Iron Age and the different phases of human advancement. We learned to use the things around us to get results. Horses for transportation, fire for heat and so on. And we also learned to even build systems of our own- Furnaces, cars, and aeroplanes.

Artificial IntelligenceAmong all our creations, however, one stands out significantly- the computer. Starting from the humble beginnings of the large machines that required punch cards. The computer has advanced quite exponentially. We have witnessed computing power increase and the size of computers decrease in accordance with Moore’s law. We have developed algorithms to make computers perform some basic routine tasks and cut out a lot of the superfluous activities that were necessary in the industrial age.

And now we are at the point of today’s most popular topic in computing: Artificial intelligence and machine learning. Our computers are now being taught not just to perform tasks, they are being taught to think. And here’s where it gets weird. If we could train computers to perform our tasks better than us, we may be able to get them to think faster and better than we are. We actually have.

The machines are finally smarter than we are

If you think the above statement is just an imaginary snippet, you’re wrong. The Artificial intelligence systems we have now are capable of thinking far better than we can and they’re beginning to beat us at our own games. Take two historically significant games for example- Chess and go which have both been played by powerful machines- Deep blue and Alpha Go respectively.

Deep Blue– Deep blue is the Artificial Intelligence machine which was built by IBM beginning in 1985. It played against the reigning world chess champion- grandmaster Gary Kasparov in 1996 and won the first game despite eventually losing the match. In 1997, deep blue was upgraded and once again faced Kasparov again, summarily defeating him this time. Chalk one up for the machines.

Alpha Go- Go is another board game that originated from Asia. It is a little more complicated than chess. Alpha Go was also designed as a computer with complex go playing abilities and it defeated one of the best go players in March 2016.

The algorithms have been able to outsmart our best players at playing some of our most complicated games. This is an interesting time to be alive and we can only look forward to how much more progress will be made with Artificial intelligence.

What does the future hold?

The plan currently is to extend the immense abilities of AI to more practical uses like Self driving cars, robots for assisting the disabled, and improved disease prevention and control. Hopefully, with careful precautions being taken, more advances in Artificial intelligence and machine learning will help to make human life far better than it is now.

3D Printing a House

3D Printing a House

House construction methods haven’t changed significantly for decades if not a century or more. In these modern days, the use of 3D printing houses has become an idea entertained by developers and engineers in solving the rise in demand of constructing homes.

A company called Apis Cor has come up with a 3D printer that is a game changer in the building and construction industry.

The company introduced its 3D printer by building a comfortable house in Russia and this project started in December last year. The house is a 400-square-foot, uniquely designed as expected due to the technology involved.

How the 3D printer looks and works

The machine which has the appearance of a giant crane more so than any 3D printer you have seen before . The printer can be transported to the site under development and with a little tuning, it is ready for use. The company has explained that the 3D printer places layer upon layer of the concrete mixture and after 24 hours the frame of a standard house is ready.

The windows, doors, insulation and the roof are installed by skilled workers. The machine handles all partitioning and outer walls. This has been tried and proven as per the project successfully done in Russia. This method ensures flexibility in terms of design and functionality.

Success in Extreme Weather

Of importance to note was the weather condition in Russia during the period the project was undertaken. The project took place during the coldest period of a Russian winter. The equipment can operate in temperatures as low as -35 degrees C. However, the cement mixture needs to be at 5 degrees C or warmer. This was solved by placing a tent over the work site so the necessary temperature could be maintained. So, in spite of the frigid temperatures at the time, the 3D printer was able to perform flawlessly. This test was intentionally done under those conditions to ensure the machine could operate under extremely harsh conditions.

Cost of building with a 3D printer

Cost is the primary focus for this new concept of the 3D printer. The house constructed had a hall, a living room, bathroom and kitchen fitted with the best and most advanced technology in appliances and fittings. The roof is flat built and can withstand heavy snow fall. The total costs including the modern furnishings and appliances cost about $10,000 which if apportioned is approximately 265 per square meter. This price is way lower than the $1700 used in usual methods of building.

What are the expectations?

Building with a 3D printer is supposed to lower the cost of building by 70% in comparison to the current methods in use.

Not only is the construction affordable but fast with a standard household taking 24 hours to have the walls in place and not much longer to complete.. This will be extremely helpful in rebuilding houses for those affected by natural disasters and calamities.

Home Siding Options

There a variety of options that your siding contractor can recommend to you. It is amazing how siding has changed over time and how many options you now have to give a fresh distinct look to your home. (more…)

Non-Random Glass

What is Glass?

A new type of glass has been created. But first, what is glass? It is an odd substance that even to this day is not very well understood. Even though it seems solid, it is considered a liquid by some. This is primarily because of its random structure. The article on glass in Wikipedia calls it a “non-crystalline amorphous solid”.

What is Glass Made Of?

Glass is made by melting different minerals together at a high enough temperature. The primary one is silicon dioxide (about 75%) which is what sand is mostly made of. You may also know silicon dioxide as quartz. Sodium oxide, sodium carbonate and calcium oxide are the other primary constituents of glass.

Newly Discovered Glass

This new glass was discovered by accident. Rather than being random and amorphous, it has structure. They made the glass for a different reason, not expecting do discover glass with structure. But, when they tested their creation spectroscopically, instead of the random pattern that you usually get with glass, this sample had peaks and a definite pattern which indicated that the molecules in the glass were arranged in a regular pattern.

How to Make Structured Glass

Normally glass is made by melting the minerals together and pouring it out in a sheet or into a mold. With this glass they were doing vapor deposition. They heated up the glass and then would spray a thin layer at a time, over and over again until the layers built up and it became thick.

Temperature is critical in the process since you need to get the glass hot enough to melt and spray but not too hot because it then has to hit the newly formed glass and cool and solidify. So there is a very narrow temperature range which is feasible.

Key is Layering the Glass

By putting down a very thin layer at a time, it is thought that this traps the glass molecules in a certain orientation. Interestingly, once the glass cools and sets it keeps the orientation of all the molecules even if it is reheated. (Unless of course you go all the way to where it melts.)

Now, they are playing with the process and seeing how the properties of the glass change and how they can come up with different qualities and uses for these new types of glass. They will also probably modify the ingredients in the glass to see what effects they will have.

New Hydro Turbine

Most people think of hydropower as an old technology that hasn’t changed significantly in many years. A company called Natle Energy has come up with a new design for a turbine. The turbine is the part that generates the power.

How do turbines work?

You can have turbines that work just from the flow of a river or tidal flow, but normally there is a dam that holds back the water. Then you use the energy contained in the falling water to generate electricity. The way this works is that some or all of the water going down river is channeled into a channel or tube called a penstock. This focuses the water on a turbine. Turbines have different designs depending on the amount of flow and the amount of head. Head is the height which the water falls. But basically, a turbine has blades that the water pushes against and causes it to turn.

Some of the turbines look like propellers, some look like the blades in jet engines. There are several variations, but they haven’t changed that much in decades.

Generators

Once the water is turning the turbine, a shaft from the turbine is connected to a generator and causes that to turn. The generator is what generates the electricity.

Problems with Turbines

One of the problems with turbines is fish. Any fish coming downstream that go through the turbine are usually killed. One reason is simple physical trauma. But another is less obvious, pressure change. Fish are very sensitive to pressure changes and the pressure change can be very abrupt and sudden as a fish goes through the turbine which can be deadly. That is why many dams have fish ladders to allow the fish to go around the dams.

Fish ladders and sometimes fish elevators (if the dam is very high) are not always very effective. That is where Natle Energy has come up with an interesting solution. It can decrease the cost of the turbine and at the same time is much more friendly to fish.

Venetian Blind Turbine

The Natle Energy turbine looks kind of like a Venetian blind that has been made into a loop and turns around a top and bottom axle. The water flows through the side moving up, pushing it up and then because of the curve of the blade in the Venetian blind the flow angles down and pushes down the “blind” blades on the back side of the loop. So the water works twice, pushing the front side of the loop and pushing down the back side, making it rotate faster.

This turbine would be used in low head situations. Other turbines for low head situations such as the Kaplan or propellers or Hydromatrix are not fish friendly. The neat thing about the Natel Energy turbine is that it is fish friendly and they are smaller, lower cost and generate the same amount of power. The fish can swim right through a Natel Energy turbines without a problem. Neat new technology.

Service Economy

This blog is about manufacturing and engineering and production, but sometimes services are important too. You need to know how to market and sell your products and the internet is becoming ever more important in that process. Many companies are good at what they do, but they have no idea how to take the best advantage of the internet. It can be very complex. Take a look at enchantedmarketing.org to see the various aspects involved in internet marketing. And this doesn’t even cover it all. (more…)

New Engineering Concepts

Popular Mechanics had an article that listed new concepts to be aware of which is summarized here. Some are older concepts that have been reborn or upgraded.

  1. Flywheels. Old concept. However, a utility is using it for the first time. Beacon Power opened a 20MW plant that uses flywheels to store energy at off-peak times and draws the energy down at times of high demand and high prices.

2. White space – The electromagnetic spectrum is getting crowded. The FCC ruled that the space that used to be taken by analog television would not be regulated and that anyone could use it. There used to be very little unregulated space in the spectrum. Companies have found that is very good for wifi because it travels further and goes through walls better than wifi does.

3. Fracking – Already old hat and being vilified by environmentalists. It did have a tremendous impact on the supply of oil and on oil and gas prices.

4. Medical isotopes – The reactors that produce them are old and have had problems staying online. This has caused shortages and could cause further problems going forward.

5. Complex event pattern recognition – A lot of companies are mining databases and using pattern recognition to help make discoveries and understand trends. But now some companies are focusing not on databases of information from the past but on data streams that are coming in in the present. This can be used by people on Wall Street for trading purposes or intelligence agencies and anyone else who needs to make split second decisions.

6. Optogenetics – This is a way of stimulating specific neurons. In the past, electrical impulses were used to stimulate different areas of the brain but it wasn’t very specific. With this newer technique, individual neurons can be turned on and off.  It has been used in rodents and monkeys and they are looking to do testing with humans.

7. Mechanophores – Shades of the Terminator and other scifi movies. These are sensors that will change color when they are stressed or damaged that can be incorporated into infrastructure. This way engineers can just look and see if a bridge is compromised. They are working to make them react to different stress levels. They are also looking to see if they can be made to be self-repairing.

8. Cell Phone Medical Diagnostics – More and more apps and devices are being made to attach to cell phones that can help make medical diagnoses. This is incredibly important in 3rd world countries with poor health systems. There may be non-medical uses as well.

9. New Encryption Technologies – IBM has come up with a new “double blind” method that allows databases to be searched without knowing what is in the database. That is above our pay grade of understanding.

10. 100 Gigabit lines – New technologies that have allowed the production of fibreoptic lines that can transmit 100 gigabits per second. That is a big jump from the current 10 and 40 gigabit lines. It could carry 15,000 HDTV channels at once.

Manufacturing Helps Innovation?

Does manufacturing help innovation? No one knows for sure because it hasn’t been studied academically. This topic is now beginning to get attention. MIT Susan Hockfield has an initiative to reinvent manufacturing in the US. Following are notes from an MIT forum on the topic from an article in the Boston Globe.

MIT has a new Production in the Innovative Economy Committee and the co-chair, Suzanne Berger says that not much work has been done studying the relationship between research and development in relation to manufacturing.  The question they are beginning to look at is how much sending production overseas hurt companies’ ability to innovate.

Manufacturing Moved from China to US

An MIT materials science professor co-founded a company to make better lithium ion car batteries. He said they wanted to start production but all the battery companies had moved production overseas. There was no one in the US that had a factory or the expertise in manufacturing. They had to go to South Korea and China to get the beginning knowledge to start up manufacturing. Now they have their own plants here in the US and find it very important. It allows them to play with product design, manufacturing procedures, and experiment with new ideas for quality improvement.

Why China and Why China is Bad for US Manufacturing & Innovation

MIT professor Ed Steinfeld said that a number of companies are almost forced to locate in China. They license cutting edge technology from universities or other companies and want to go into production quickly. There is not the expertise in the US so they go to China for a commercial scale demonstration project. Since that is China, they then go to full scale production there. The US loses out. All that expertise could stay here if we had more infrastructure.

Loss of Jobs & Expertise

Manufacturing accounted for one third of the jobs in 1950 and it has dropped to only 10% of the jobs in the US. The last two recessions in 2001 and 2008 took a fairly heavy toll on manufacturing companies. Massachusetts has lost jobs, but because of their hi-tech sector, they haven’t been hit as badly as some others have been. These sectors include medical, biotech and advanced electronic equipment.

Several people commented that despite the relatively good position of Massachusetts, that more work needed to be done to train workers for hi tech jobs.  Although there are not the studies proving it, a number of people commented that if was important to do something about the manufacturing base so that our innovation didn’t decline.

Metal Fabrication Methods

We had the pleasure of interviewing Ari of Annapolis Railings & Stairs (http://www.annapolisrailings-stairs.com) about his metal fabrication business. He has decades of experience and has developed a loyal following.  (more…)

Roof Trusses vs. Stick Built

This blog post only applies to houses that are being built. If the house is already there, you aren’t going to change it. Most houses are called stick built, meaning everything is done right there. All the materials are delivered and put together on site.

PreFab

There is a growing industry of prefab houses. This does not mean double wides and trailer park homes. These are whole houses that are made in a factory and shipped to the site. The walls and other parts come in sections and then they are attached together on site. That will be the subject of another blog post.

Pre Made Roof Trusses

There are other possibilities between stick built and prefab. In this case we are talking roof trusses. These are the structures on top of the house that support the roof. In stick built the joists and rafters are all assembled on site. They always depend on the exterior walls for support and may also depend on interior walls.

Trusses are prebuilt off-site and delivered to the construction site, ready for installation. They are designed and engineered for the needs of the house but also to withstand the typical weather where the house is being built. That may include a lot of snow, or lots of wind and rain.

Controlled Manufacture

They are built indoors so they are not affected by weather and moisture conditions when they are put together and they are cut by computer controlled saws so the fit is better than with stick built. They are labeled and bundled and shipped to the site to be installed. They will fit perfectly every time even though they are custom for each job. Unless of course, you are building a development with just a few models of homes. That can help reduce the price a bit as well.

They are environmentally friendly because they use 2x4s to a large extent rather than larger boards which means you don’t need to cut down larger old growth trees to make them.

Design Flexibility

Because they are designed to rest on the exterior walls, this means that you can move interior walls around at a later date without having to worry about whether they are a supporting wall or not.

Another major benefit of a truss versus stick built is that you can do interesting designs for about the same price. Instead of a simple flat ceiling, you can put in vaults and arches or other features and make the house look like a much more expensive house.

Cost Savings

There are several places where you will save money. Because they are prebuilt, there is little if any waste so you don’t have to worry about cleanup and dumpster costs. Also, they install much more quickly than if it was stick built, so there is time savings which means cost savings. This leads to savings in borrowing as well since construction loans tend to be at a higher interest rate and you won’t need the loan as long.

 

 

 

1 2