Monday, December 12, 2011

Lessons in elementary fluid power

A website based in the Netherlands has some great graphics showing how fluid power (hydraulic and pneumatic) components work. Visuals are simple, two-dimensional drawings, but color coding and animation are effective at conveying basic principles.

So if you have colleagues who need some basic training in fluid power or have trouble visualizing how things work, you might want to refer them to this site.

However, there's more to this site. It describes a three-gear pump (at right, top). Gear pumps and motors can already transmit extremely high power in a small volume, and this concept seems to take it further: increase output by 100% while increasing the size only 50%. In fact, as long as the components were strong enough, you could probably also use this concept to make a three-gear motor with twice the torque capability of its conventional counterpart.

A similar concept along these lines was described in a short article I edited earlier this year — the February 2011 issue, to be exact. In the article, I describe how an engineer modified a standard gear motor to provide two outputs (at right, bottom). He did this by replacing the idler gear with one having a shaft extension. Of course, he also had to use a side plate to accommodate the (output) shaft. But this was done successfully, and both output shafts run at exactly the same speed. This could prove useful in many applications, I'm sure.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

A diesel-hydraulic motorcycle

Bikers are a passionate group. So are hydraulics guys. So it shouldn't be surprising that an enterprising hydraulic system designer would take on the task of designing and building a motorcycle powered by hydraulics. That's just what Ron Holcomb, of Hydra Tech in Houston did.

Ron has a custom-built chopper that's powered by a Kohler 1372-cc in-line four cranking out 34.9 hp at 3600 rpm. Its front end is from a Harley Softtail, and its exhaust is from a Sportster.

I don't want to reveal too much because we have an article about it in our December 2011 issue. However, here is a video showing the bike on a test run at speeds to about 60 mph. Love the unmistakable sound of that hydrostatic transmission.

Here's another video that shows the machine cruising down the boulevard.

Or go straight to the article on our website for extra pics and info not in the printed article.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

200 countries, 200 years in 4 minutes

I'm not into world economics, but this is an interesting video that follows world health and economics of 200 countries over the last 200 years.

It would be interesting to spend some time with Mr. Rosling to discuss some observations. For example, the video shows that the life expectancy in China rose steadily in the 1950s, then dropped quickly and dramatically from 1958 to 1960. Is this a discontinuity in data, or was something going on in China?

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

There's no momentum in sports

While watching some of the 2011 World Series coverage, I noticed commentators talking about teams' "momentum." I don't know what sports journalist first started using the word momentum. It's a technical sounding term — like torque or hemi — that people use frequently, but often don't know its meaning.
Let's look ahead to next year's World Series:

It's just before the start of game four, and the Miami Marlins have won the first three games of the contest. In front of the home-team dugout at brand new Marlins Ballpark, field reporter Ken Rosenthal asks manager Ozzie Guillen what his strategy is with momentum on his team's side.
"Guillen responds sharply, "To suggest that our strategy would be any different because we've won the last three games is ridiculous. Are you suggesting that we would even consider playing at less than 100%? That would go against every principle every player or manager has ever learned. You play every game one at a time, whether you won a blowout yesterday or were shut out." The camera quickly cuts to a commercial.

Returning to game coverage, Rosenthal is now at the visiting team's dugout. Turning his microphone to Indians Manager Manny Acta, Rosenthal asks, "Manny, no team has ever won a World Series after losing the first three games. With momentum clearly on your opponent's side, what is your strategy for tonight's game?"

Acta pauses impatiently, then seems to choose his words carefully. "First of all, Ken, the fact that no team has ever come back from a 3-0 deficit in the World Series is completely irrelevant. That streak will be broken eventually, so why not this year? Second, the fact that we've lost the last three games is also irrelevant. Every day brings a new game, a clean slate, and we play as hard as we can whether we've lost the last three games or won the last three. So if you want to ask me what our strategy is for this game, today, I'll be happy to put together a string of clich├ęs for you. But don't tell me about momentum or what's happened in the last hundred years."

Granted, teams get hot, they go on streaks, and they may seem to get all the breaks, but they don't build momentum. Momentum follows the laws of physics. It increases steadily and when opposing forces act against it continuously or repeatedly, it gradually decreases. No exceptions. A sure thing. You can't say that about sports teams.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Would you rather be lucky or smart? Steve Jobs was both.

Even before Steve Jobs died, media reports repeatedly referred to his 2005 commencement speech at Stanford University. In his speech, Steve jobs reflected some of the events that led him to co-found Apple Computer — what he called connecting the dots.
He saw how sitting in on a calligraphy class led to one of the signature features of the MacIntosh — the use of multiple fonts. Windows had no choice but to copy this and other innovations of the MacIntosh.
Jobs also talked about getting fired from Apple. I had always thought that Apple suffered from Jobs' absence — and vice versa. I still think Apple suffered, but Jobs revealed that what he accomplished apart from Apple wouldn't have happened if he hadn't been been fired. And after reading his speech, I see that he took what he learned during his time away from Apple to accomplish much more than the MacIntosh — the iPod, iTunes, and iPhone.
So Jobs was lucky for many of the opportunities in his life. But even more so, he was smart for recognizing opportunities, acting on them, and bringing them together for his many successes.
He also challenged us to find what we love to do and make it our life's work. But he never said we'd become rich or famous doing so. I can attest to that. After 30 years, I am still passionate about my job, and I'm neither rich nor famous. But by connecting the dots, I can see how I got here — by making some good decisions, some bad ones, and plenty of luck.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

A trip through the former East Germany

A few years ago I was invited to a press tour by Bosch Rexroth, headquartered in Germany. I spent nearly a week with editors from four other US publications in a VW minivan driving across Germany. We had been invited to visit the Hannover Fair and tour of several manufacturing plants scattered across Germany. Bosch Rexroth conducted the event to bring us up to date on the merger between Mannesmann Rexroth and Bosch Automation Technologies. Naturally, we toured some of their manufacturing plants, but we also visited other facilities of some of their customers.
The Volkswagen headquarters and manufacturing plant in Wolfsburg employs 50,000 people. And even though some last-minute security issues kept us from touring the actual manufacturing areas, we were, nonetheless, presented with some interesting facts and figures. We also spent some time in their visitor’s center, which is designed as a theme park.
We also visited Koenig & Bauer AG, a manufacturer of printing machines in Wurzburg. We all are aware of how far computers and telecommunications have advanced over the last ten years. But I was completely unaware of how much the performance of printing has improved in the same time frame. Most of this is attributed to the electric direct drives that now power these machines. These new machines use a continuous web of paper that shoots through the machine at an astounding 12 m/sec (27 mph) while maintaining a printing resolution of 0.050 mm.
But what really blew me away was what I learned at EMAG Mfg. GmbH, in Salach, in the former East Germany. Some of the manufacturing methods they used were completely new to me, but the big news was their boost in productivity. Manfred Hekeler, the marketing communications manager, proudly informed us that the average turnaround to produce a typical vertical machining center was about five weeks. Then he mentioned that this was a dramatic improvement in productivity over what it had been prior to the reunification of Germany. How dramatic? Previously, it took five years to put out a machine! And he said that was pretty good; citizens generally had to wait 12 years for a new car. Needless to say, once your new car arrived, you went out to order its replacement the very next day.
Mr. Hekeler explained that under the old system of working for the government, there was no competition, so there was little incentive to improve productivity or quality. But it wasn’t EMAG’s fault. Their suppliers worked for the government too, so it was not uncommon to wait months for parts that should've been available in a few days. Nonetheless, once EMAG entered the free market, company officials quickly realized that in order to survive, they would have to upgrade their operations to world-class standards — and fast. They did, and my hat goes off to them. Their success is as much a tribute to their resourcefulness as it is to the value of the free-enterprise system.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Did Steve Jobs change the world?

Appropriately enough, my wife and I first got the news that Steve Jobs had died as an alert on her iPhone. Initial news reports mentioned how Jobs’ contributions changed all of our lives. At first I didn’t buy into this, but after just a little thought I realized there’s no denying it.
Computers first entered my workplace in 1985. They were actually dedicated word processors, but they were a huge leap forward from typewriters. I still remember seeing Macs on clearance at the local Sears store in the early 90s. The early versions all had a monochrome monitor, and when the new ones came out with color, the older ones were clearance priced at $1000. This was way out of reach for a guy with a growing family — especially for what was still considered a novelty. But I knew computers would be important for my kids, so I ended up buying a Commodore 64 system. It wasn’t a Mac, but it served its purpose.
A few years later we got our first MacIntosh computers at Penton, and I was thrilled. I marveled at how easy it was to do things. Pop in a disk, and an icon of a disk appears on the desktop. Double-click it to see what’s inside. What could be simpler? We learned how to use the Mac operating system in one short class. Later, we would often discover little tricks to do things quicker or make files more organized.
On the other hand, people in the “business side” of the office had IBM-compatible PCs. Their machines used MS-DOS, and they had to enter commands on a keyboard. Working on a PC became a lot easier when Microsoft Windows entered the scene. PCs with the Windows operating system cost much less than Macs, so Windows-based machines dominated.
The two different systems polarized most users into Mac people or PC people. But even PC people have to acknowledge the contributions of Steve Jobs. If it wasn’t for Apple’s easy-to-use operating system, Windows would be light years behind what it is now. Who knows, we might still have to type in commands from the keyboard. As big and powerful as Microsoft is, it has been forced to continually change Windows to try to keep up with Apple’s innovations. Unfortunately, changes aren't always improvements, so people sometimes choose not to upgrade their older Windows operating systems because of problems and incompatibility issues with the new ones.
But Jobs’ contributions only started with the Mac. The iPod has changed the way people manage their music collection. You may not have an iPod or use iTunes, but you probably listen to music on an MP3 player — even if it’s your phone. That leads to still another innovation from Jobs — the iPhone. Before the iPhone, smart phones needed you to use a stylus to select tiny icons from a tiny display. Today, of course, the touch of your finger lets you scroll though and select from dozens of icons for music, e-mail, video, and different apps of your own choosing.
Some people have even compared Jobs’ genius to that of Edison. I wouldn’t go that far, because Edison was an inventor, and Jobs was a visionary. But either way, they both changed the world.