Engineering News (July 2017)

Rolls Royce on the up

More than 7000 jobs in the East Midlands have been created following an announcement by Rolls Royce following the largest single investment in the United Kingdom for over 10 years. Rolls Royce have confirmed that they will be investing £150 million in a new testing area in Derby. The site will be used primarily to test large civil aero-engines, creating 200 jobs at the new plant. The investments in Derby, Hucknall and Annesley in Nottinghamshire have ensured that 7,000 employees will remain in their jobs for at least the next five years.

Speaking for Rolls Royce, Eric Schulz explained that the “unprecedented growth” in the company currently is the driving force behind the investments. It has been reported that Rolls Royce have currently doubled production of their jet engines alongside the introduction of three new engines currently in development.

Greg Clark the Business Secretary said, “The UK and Rolls-Royce are known throughout the world as pioneers of advanced engineering technology. I welcome the confidence the company is showing in the UK.”


Hop it

SALTO is an amazing hopping robot. Created by The University of California’s Biomimetics Lab, the name is short for “Saltatorial Locomotion on Terrain Obstacles”. Its creators have designed the moving device with the ability to jump and thrust from upright obstacles. The design includes additional aerodynamic thrusters, allowing the machine to repeatedly bounce – the design also takes advantage of a rudimentary tail in order to reposition itself.

With the ability to jump more than 1.25 metres, SALTO can execute moves and manoeuvres that have not been seen before in robotic systems. It has been reported that any further alterations and improvements to the design would give SALTO improved controlled interaction when confronted with obstacles and uneven terrain, including improved landing control after jumping.

The device could be the answer in the near future for search and rescue operations, as it would be able to utilise its jumping ability to hop through loose rubble, whilst also locating any survivors.

SALTO will be introduced at the IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems in Canada later this year.


Out voted

Chief Executive, Samir Brikho has reportedly been forced out of his position at Amec Foster Wheeler with immediate effect, following a loss of confidence within the board. Amec Foster Wheeler won a contract to rebuild and reconstruct the sewage systems within war torn Iraq, but due to cash squeezes within the construction group and a loss of faith, Brikho was asked to go. The bid was worth $1 billion.

Amec Foster Wheelers’ Chief Finance Officer, Ian McHoul in the meantime has stepped in as ‘Interim Chief Executive’, but has announced that he does not wish to pursue the role permanently. The company are currently in search for an external full time successor.

Oil markets were in turmoil last year, and in the process, Amec Foster Wheeler proceeded to halve its dividends in November, upsetting many of its shareholders. Since then, shares have dropped 49% in the past 12 months, although they have recently recovered some ground.

It was in 2006 that Brikho took over as the Chief Executive, which was when then followed by the £1.9 billion merger of Amec and Foster Wheeler during February 2014. The merger included a large amount of debt that should have been easily cleared through restructuring and asset management – however, the downturn in the markets caused a major squeeze, affecting the company’s ability to repay its debt. The debt currently stands at £1 billion.  The inability to pay this means that the company has seen its credit rating significantly downgraded.

Reports lead us to believe that Brikho wanted to remain with Amec Foster Wheeler to enable them to tackle the debts and “engineer its recovery”.  Without the confidence of the board, this was never going to happen.

McHoul, who has remained in his role since 2008 had supported the outgoing CEO during the acquisition of Foster Wheeler.  Even so, many investors could be tarred with the same brush as Brikho. Refinancing will be virtually impossible for Amec Foster Wheeler without a permanent Chief Executive, and February 2018 would be a major turning point as some of their lines of credit could be called in.  With McHoul at the helm, many are of the opinion that he is the ideal man to deal with lead negotiations.

Brikho was a high flyer and moved around in a high-profile role. Brikho was selected to be a UK Business Ambassador by the now ex-Prime Minister David Cameron during the last parliament. He regularly rubbed shoulders with other world leaders in Davos during the annual finance summit. Understandably, his trip there this year has been cancelled following his exit.


Dyson with the traffic

The boffins at Dyson, always looking for  future designs, are now working on ideas for a prototype electric car. Dyson are keen to put their technology to the test, and have shown desire to utilise their current cutting edge technologies for different applications, big or small.

Dyson has become a world leading name with its vacuum cleaners, and more recently fans and hairdryers. Consumers may feel that Dyson could be punching above their weight with this recent announcement. With the ever-increasing numbers of companies working on electric vehicles – including internet and computer giants Google and Apple – keeping up with competitors is now the ‘driving force’ behind a lot of these initiatives. But if Google and Apple can do it, why can’t Dyson?

The current competition are hoping to develop their system into cars from their prototypes, taking advantage of faster manufacture processes. The number of consumers looking at electric-powered and automatic driven vehicles has increased greatly in the last five years, so there is a market already out there for Dyson to target.

It has been reported that Dyson have previously commented on rumours that Apple are currently working on their designs – yet, when asked if Dyson would join either Google or Apple, and if Tesla were also added to the mix, Dyson’s Chief Executive, Maximilian Conze confirmed that the possibility of that happening was currently being explored.

“We are ruling nothing out,” Conze said. “Like our friends in Cupertino, we are also unhealthily obsessive when it comes to taking apart our products to make them better.”  Cupertino is a region of Silicon Valley, where many of the big firms such as Google and Tesla reside.

Dyson this year, have already been involved in the purchase of a part of “Sakti3”, a battery company that looks to improve the life of future batteries immensely. Dyson wish to use these batteries in their hand-held cleaners but have not yet dismissed the idea of using them within electric vehicles.

Conze went on to say that Sakti3 have better facilities and advantages when it comes to battery technology compared to others in the field, but would not divulge what these were. Conze was keeping his thoughts and ideas close to his chest. “If you do what we do and invent disruptive technologies and have thousands of engineers working on these projects for as long as 15 years, then you want to keep that work in the lab until it’s ready.”


Easy as Pi

The engineering world has seen the Raspberry Pi win the UK’s top prestigious engineering award in a ceremony in London last week. The Royal Academy of Engineering’s MacRobert Prize was awarded to the team behind the device.

The original device was launched in 2012 with designers aiming to make the tiny computer device both affordable and was aimed to introduce and encourage children to maximise their computing potential with a view to giving them a platform to develop the skills for coding with modest ambitions.

The team behind  the Raspberry Pi steamed ahead of finalists Darktrace, a cyber security company and Vision RT who are radiotherapy pioneers to secure the major prize. The innovation award has been running since 1969, and other winners have included the creator of the CT (computerised tomography) scanner, the designers to the Severn Bridge and also includes the team at Microsoft based in Cambridge that introduced and developed the Kinect motion sensor.

The idea behind the Pi was to produce a small cheap computer that would encourage young children to learn about the principles of programming. However, the team did not expect their development to become so popular.  With an original view of just selling a few thousand models, they exceeded their expectations, and have currently sold over 14 million. The Pi is now commonplace within classrooms, households, and is also widely used in factories.

Dr Frances Saunders, a member of the MacRobert judging panel said that the team had “re-defined home computing”.

“The Raspberry Pi team has achieved something that mainstream multinational computer companies and leading processing chip designers not only failed to do, but failed even to spot a need for.”

Back in 2011, the BBC were originally introduced to an early prototype of the Raspberry Pi in 2011 by Computing Academic, Eben Upton and Legendary Games Designer, David Braben who was responsible for the all time classic Elite. That footage was placed onto the internet and continued to go viral. This showed an insatiable appetite for the small device. It’s minimalist design is now the best-selling computer in history, leaving behind previous competitors including Amstrad and Sinclairs ZX Spectrum by a mile.

It was rumoured last week that Intel had ceased competing against the success of Raspberry Pi by withdrawing three of their devices that were aimed to rival it. Upton announced that due to the size of his organisation, he now has a fortunate advantage when it comes to rivalry, due to ironing out any “early kinks”.

Originally, the  Pi was attractive to “middle-aged nostalgic hobbyists” though, and not the younger market as targeted. The devices’ main attraction though remains in education. Having recently merged with CoderDojo, it has become the largest global coding teaching organisation. With the vast amount of funds that the team now have at their disposal as well as their expertise, the company behind the Raspberry Pi are now able to step-up their work and transform attitudes towards computing.


Water Power

Invented and patented by MIT, Open Water Power (OWP) have their sights on improving the range of unpiloted underwater vehicles (UUV’s), thus enabling them to perform in a multitude of applications underwater.

Having recently been acquired by L3 Technologies, an underwater aluminium-water system that processes seawater has been developed by OWP, and through their research have made it safer and more hard-wearing.

The underwater systems could help UUVs explore deeper seas for extended periods of time – thus giving a larger insight to the oceans, specifically areas such as the deep abysses and the exploration of shipwrecks, mapping the ocean floor and investigation of the seabed. The potential for UUVs have also been linked to various military applications and long-range searches for oil.

Working alongside the US Navy, the OWP are looking at technologies to replace batteries in the sensors that are used to detect enemy seacraft. Recently launched this summer by MIT, Riptide Autonomous Solutions, is a company with the technology and development capability to complete underwater deep-sea surveys. The UUVs in use at the moment currently cover 100 nautical miles – OWP intend to extend the distance to 1,000 nautical miles.

Co-inventor Ian Salmon McKay explained that exploring under the sea is about to get easier, and that investigations underwater is a growth area. “We’re off to conquer the oceans”.

He explained that most UUVs tend to use lithium-based batteries. There are often problems with Lithium batteries, namely safety issues with them catching fire. This means that they are also difficult to ship by plane. He went on to say that the batteries do not last very long, and that they are having to be recharged during their long seaborne journeys.

The power system used by the OWP is safer, cheaper and lasts longer. The manufacture of these batteries includes alloyed aluminium, a cathode alloyed with a combination of elements (mainly nickel) with an alkaline electrolyte that is positioned between the electrodes.

Once the UUV is fully prepared and positioned in the water, the water from the ocean is then drawn into the battery and split at the cathode into hydroxide anions and hydrogen gas. The hydroxide anions then interact with the aluminium anode which creates aluminium hydroxide, and releases electrons. These electrons then transport themselves back towards the cathode, donating energy to a circuit along the way in order to repeat the cycle. Both the aluminium hydroxide and hydrogen gas is then discarded as harmless waste. The internal aluminium anode corrodes but can be replaced at a low cost – the components are also only activated when they are flooded with water.

According to Salmon McKay, “Our power system can drink sea water and discard waste products,” he says, “but that exhaust is not harmful, compared to the exhaust of terrestrial engines.”

UUVs can now be launched from shore and don’t need to rely so much on service ships, thus reducing costs. This then opens up new opportunities for the aluminium-based power based system. For example, current UUVs have to stay close to shore in the Gulf of Mexico, which only provides a facility to cover a small number of pipelines.  In contrast,  OWP-powered UUV’s would be able to cover many more miles and head out deeper into the ocean before requiring recharging.  Another application would be searching for lost ships, vessels and planes that disappear in the dark depths of the oceans.  For example, locating the Malaysian flight that crashed in 2014 with OWP-powered UUVs wouldn’t be so limited in the time they could be used to locate wreckage sites on the seabed.

McKay and Hart started the OWP as a bit of a side project. They used their MIT classes and a lab for their investigations. The class involved developing alternative power sources for UUVs, with McKay eventually taking a gamble on an energy dense element: aluminium. The challenges that McKay had to overcome was the chemical issues and the difficulties found in the process of donating electrons to a circuit. In addition to this, the reactions such as aluminium hydroxide sticking to the electrodes surface, had to be overcome as this prevented the apparatus from functioning as it should. Eventually, McKay solved the first challenge and produced a gallium-rich alloyed aluminium anode – this was successful and gave out electrons, but unfortunately rusted rapidly.

Once these tests had been done and witnessing the potential in the new battery, further investigations were then made and the development of electrolytes and alloys were made to inhibit the parasitic corrosion processes that prevented the aluminium hydroxide layer forming on the anode. In 2013, OWP redefined the power systems design.

McKay stated that he owes much of the start-up and the successes to MIT’s innovative atmosphere, where professors were on hand and openly and readily offered sound technical and professional advice which has allowed him to work on his extra-curricular projects.


Engineering News – June 2017

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