August 9, 2014

One of the very best publications existing today is “NASA TECH BRIEFS, Engineering Solutions for Design & Manufacturing”.  This monthly publication strives to transfer technology from NASA design centers to University and corporate entities hoping the research and development can be commercialized in some fashion.  In my opinion, it is a marvelous resource and demonstrates avenues of investigation separate and apart from what we have come to know as the recognized NASA mission.   As you well know, in the process of exploration, there are many very useful “down-to-Earth” developments that can utilize and commercialized to benefit manufacturing and our populace at large.  These are enumerated in this publication.  Several distinct areas within the magazine highlighting papers and studies may be seen as follows:

  • Technology Focus: Mechanical  Components
  • Manufacturing & Prototyping
  • Materials & Coatings
  • Electronics/Components
  • Physical Sciences
  • Patents of Note
  • New For Design Engineers

As you can see, each of these areas concentrates upon differing subjects, all relating to engineering and product design.

Let me now mention several publications and papers coming from the Volume 38, Number 8 edition.  This will give you some feel for the investigative work coming from the NASA research centers across our country.  These are in the August 2014 magazine.

  • “Extreme Low Frequency Acoustic Measurement System”, Langley Research Center, Hampton, Va.
  • “Piezoelectric Actuated Valve for Operation in Extreme Conditions”, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California.
  • “Compact Active Vibration Control System”, Langley Research Center, Hampton, Va.
  • “Rotary Series Elastic Actuator”, L.B.J Space Center, Houston, Texas.
  • “HALT Technique to Predict the Reliability of Solder Joints in a Shorter Duration”, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California.

I feel one the great failure of our federal government is the abdication of manned-space programs.  WE REALLY SCREWED UP on this one.  If you have read any of my previous posting on this subject you will understand my complete and utter amazement relative to that decision by the Executive and Legislative branches of our government.  This, to some extent, underscores the deplorable lack of vision existing at the highest levels.   We have decided to let the Russians get us up and back.  Very bad decision on our part.  Now, it is important to note that NASA is far from being dormant-NASA is working.

Let’s take a look at the various NASA locations and the areas of research they are undertaking.

  • Ames Research Center:  Technological Strengths: Information Technology, Biotechnology, Nanotechnology, Aerospace Operations Systems, Rotorcraft, Thermal Protection Systems.
  • Armstrong Flight Research Center: Technological Strengths: Aerodynamics, Aeronautics Flight Testing, Aeropropulsion, Flight Systems, Thermal Testing Integrated Systems Test and Validation.
  • Glenn Research Center: Technological Strengths: Aeropropulsion, Communications, Energy Technology, High-Temperature Materials Research.
  • Goddard Space Flight Center: Technological Strengths:  Earth and Planetary Science Missions, LIDAR, Cryogenic Systems, Tracking, Telemetry, Remote Sensing, Command.
  • Jet Propulsion Laboratory: Technological Strengths: Near/Deep-Space Mission Engineering, Microspacecraft, Space Communications, Information Systems, Remote Sensing, Robotics.
  • Johnson Space Center:  Technological Strengths: Artificial Intelligence and Human Computer Interface, Life Sciences, Human Space Flight Operations, Avionics, Sensors, Communication.
  • Kennedy Space Center: Technological Strengths: Fluids and Fluid Systems, Materials Evaluation, Process Engineering Command, Control, and Monitor Systems, Range Systems, Environmental Engineering and Management.
  • Langley Research Center:  Technological Strengths: Aerodynamics, Flight Systems, Materials, Structures, Sensors, Measurements, Information Sciences.
  • Marshall Space Flight Center: Technological Strengths: Materials, Manufacturing, Nondestructive Evaluations, Biotechnology, Space Propulsion, Controls and Dynamics, Structures, Microgravity Processing.
  • Stennis Space Center: Technological Strengths: Propulsion Systems, Test/Monitoring, Remote Sensing, Nonintrusive Instrumentation.
  • NASA Headquarters: Technological Strengths: NASA Planning and Management.

I can strongly recommend to you the “Tech Brief” publication.  It’s free.  You may find further investigation into the areas of research can benefit you and your company.  Take a look.

As always, I welcome your comments.  Many thanks.


August 5, 2014

The following post is taken from a PDHonline course this author has written for professional engineers. The entire course may be found from  Look for Introduction to Reliability Engineering.


One of the most difficult issues when designing a product is determining how long it will last and how long it should last.  If the product is robust to the point of lasting “forever” the price of purchase will probably be prohibitive compared with competition.    If it “dies” the first week, you will eventually lose all sales momentum and your previous marketing efforts will be for naught.   It is absolutely amazing to me as to how many products are dead on arrival.  They don’t work, right out of the box. This is an indication of slipshod design, manufacturing, assembly or all of the above.  It is definitely possible to design and build quality and reliability into a product so that the end user is very satisfied and feels as though he got his money’s worth.     The medical, automotive, aerospace and weapons industries are certainly dependent upon reliability methods to insure safe and usable products so premature failure is not an issue.  The same thing can be said for consumer products if reliability methods are applied during the design phase of the development program.  Reliability methodology will provide products that “fail safe”, if they fail at all.  Component failures are not uncommon to any assembly of parts but how that component fails can mean the difference between a product that just won’t work and one that can cause significant injury or even death to the user. It is very interesting to note that German and Japanese companies have put more effort into designing in quality at the product development stage.  U.S. companies seem to place a greater emphasis on solving problems after a product has been developed.  [5]   Engineers in the United States do an excellent job when cost reducing a product through part elimination, standardization, material substitution, etc but sometimes those efforts relegate reliability to the “back burner”.  Producibility, reliability, and quality start with design, at the beginning of the process, and should remain the primary concern throughout product development, testing and manufacturing.


There seems to be general confusion between quality and reliability.  Quality is the “totality of features and characteristics of a product that bear on its ability to satisfy given needs; fitness for use”.  “Reliability is a design parameter associated with the ability or inability of a product to perform as expected over a period of time”.  It is definitely possible to have a product of considerable quality but one with questionable reliability.  Quality AND reliability are crucial today with the degree of technological sophistification, even in consumer products.  As you well know, the incorporation of computer driven and / or computer-controlled products has exploded over the past two decades.  There is now an engineering discipline called MECHATRONICS that focuses solely on the combining of mechanics, electronics, control engineering and computing.  Mr. Tetsuro Mori, a senior engineer working for a Japanese company called Yaskawa, first coined this term.  The discipline is also alternately referred to as electromechanical systems.  With added complexity comes the very real need to “design in” quality and reliability and to quantify the characteristics of operation, including the failure rate, the “mean time between failure” (MTBF ) and the “mean time to failure” ( MTTF ).  Adequate testing will also indicate what components and subsystems are susceptible to failure under given conditions of use.  This information is critical to marketing, sales, engineering, manufacturing, quality and, of course, the VP of Finance who pays the bills.

Every engineer involved with the design and manufacture of a product should have a basic knowledge of quality and reliability methods and practices.


I think it’s appropriate to define Reliability and Reliability Engineering.  As you will see, there are several definitions, all basically saying the same thing, but important to mention, thereby grounding us for the course to follow.

“Reliability is, after all, engineering in its most practical form.”

James R. Schlesinger

Former Secretary of Defense

“Reliability is a projection of performance over periods of time and is usually defined as a quantifiable design parameter.  Reliability can be formally defined as the probability or likelihood that a product will perform its intended function for a specified interval under stated conditions of use. “

John W. Priest

Engineering Design for Producibility and


“ Reliability engineering provides the tools whereby the probability and capability of an item performing intended functions for specified intervals in specified environments without failure can be specified, predicted, designed-in, tested, demonstrated, packaged, transported, stored installed, and started up; and their performance monitored and fed back to all organizations.”


“Reliability is the science aimed at predicting, analyzing, preventing and mitigating

failures over time.”

John D. Healy, PhD

“Reliability is —blood, sweat, and tears engineering to find out what could go wrong —, to organize that knowledge so it is useful to engineers and managers, and then to act

on that knowledge”

Ralph A. Evans

“The conditional probability, at a given confidence level, that the equipment

will perform its intended function for a specified mission time when operating

under the specified application and environmental stresses. “

The General Electric Company

“By its most primitive definition, reliability is the probability that no failures will occur in a given time interval of operation.  This time interval may be a single operation, such as a mission, or a number of consecutive operations or missions.  The opposite of reliability is unreliability, which is defined as the probability of failure in the same time interval “.

Igor Bazovsky

“Reliability Theory and Practice”

Personally, I like the definition given by Dr. Healy although the phrase “performing intended functions for specified intervals in specified environments “ adds a reality to the definition that really should be there. Also, there is generally associated with reliability data a confidence level.  We will definitely discuss confidence level later on and how that factors into the reliability process.   Reliability, like all other disciplines, has its own specific vocabulary and understanding “the words” is absolutely critical to the overall process we wish to follow.


The main goal of reliability engineering is to minimize failure rate by maximizing MTTF.  The two main goals of design for reliability are:

  • Predict the reliability of an item; i.e. component, subsystem and system ( fit the life model and/or estimate the MTTF or MTBF )
  • Design for environments that promote failure. [10] To do this, we must understand the KNPs and the KCPs of the entire system or at least the mission critical subassemblies of the system.

The overall effort is concerned with eliminating early failures by observing their distribution and determining, accordingly, the length of time necessary for debugging and methods used to debug a system or subsystem.    Further, it is concerned with preventing wearout failures by observing the statistical distribution of wearout and determining the preventative replacement periods for the various parts.  This equates to knowing the MTTF and MTBF.   Finally, its main attention is focused on chance failures and their prevention, reduction or complete elimination because it is the chance failures that most affect equipment reliability in actual operation.  One method of accomplishing the above two goals is by the development and refinement of mathematical models.   These models, properly structured, define and quantify the operation and usage of components and systems.


No mechanical or electromechanical product will last forever without preventative maintenance and / or replacing critical components.  Reliability engineering seeks to discover the weakest link in the system or subsystem so any eventual product failure may be predicted and consequently forestalled.   Any operational interruption may be eliminated by periodically replacing a part or an assembly of parts prior to failure.  This predictive ability is achieved by knowing the meantime to failure (MTTF) and the meantime between failures (MTBF) for “mission critical” components and assemblies.   With this knowledge, we can provide for continuous and safe operation, relative to a given set of environmental conditions and proper usage of the equipment itself.  The test, find, fix (TAAF of TAAR) approach is used throughout reliability testing to discover what components are candidates for continuous “preventative maintenance” and possibly ultimate replacement.  Sometimes designing redundancy into a system can prolong the operational life of a subsystem or system but that is generally costly for consumer products.  Usually, this is only done when the product absolutely must survive the most rigorous environmental conditions and circumstances.  Most consumer products do not have redundant systems.   Airplanes, medical equipment and aerospace equipment represent products that must have redundant systems for the sake of continued safety for those using the equipment.  As mentioned earlier, at the very worst, we ALWAYS want our mechanism to “fail safe” with absolutely no harm to the end-user or other equipment.  This can be accomplished through engineering design and a strong adherence to accepted reliability practices.  With this in mind, we start this process by recommending the following steps:

  • Establish reliability goals and allocate reliability targets.
  • Develop functional block diagrams for all critical systems
  • Construct P-diagrams to identify and define KCPs and KNPs
  • Benchmark current designs
  • Identify the mission critical subsystems and components
  • Conduct FMEAs
  • Define and execute pre-production life tests; i.e. growth testing
  • Conduct life predictions
  • Develop and execute reliability audit plans

It is appropriate to mention now that this document assumes the product design is, at least, in the design confirmation phase of the development cycle and we have been given approval to proceed.  Most NPI methodologies carry a product though design guidance, design confirmation, pre-pilot, pilot and production phases.  Generally, at the pre-pilot point, the design is solidified so that evaluation and reliability testing can be conducted with assurance that any and all changes will be fairly minor and will not involve a “wholesale” redesign of any component or subassembly.  This is not to say that when “mission critical components” fail we do not make all efforts to correct the failure(s) and put the product back into reliability testing.  At the pre-pilot phase, the market surveys, consumer focus studies and all of the QFD work have been accomplished and we have tentative specifications for our product.  Initial prototypes have been constructed and upper management has “signed off” and given approval to proceed into the next development cycles of the project.  ONE CAUTION:  Any issues involving safety of use must be addressed regardless of any changes becoming necessary for an adequate “fix”.  This is imperative and must occur if failures arise, no matter what phase of the program is in progress.

Critical to these efforts will be conducting HALT and HAST testing to “make the product fail”.  This will involve DOE (Design of Experiments) planning to quantify AND verify FMEA estimates. Significant time may be saved by carefully structuring a reliability evaluation plan to be accomplished at the component, subsystem and system levels.  If you couple these tests with appropriate field-testing, you will develop a product that will “go the distance” relative to your goals and stay well within your SCR (Service Call Rate) requirements.  Reliability testing must be an integral part of the basic design process and time must be given to this effort.  The NPI process always includes reliability testing and the assessment of those results from that testing.  Invariability, some degree of component or subsystem redesign results from HALT or HAST because weaknesses are made known that can and will be eliminated by redesign.  In times past, engineering effort has always been to assign a “safety factor” to any design process.  This safety factor takes into consideration “unknowns” that may affect the basic design.  Unfortunately, this may produce a design that is structurally robust but fails due to Key Noise Parameters (KNPs) or Key Control Parameters (KCPs).


As you might expect, this is a “lick and a promise” relative to the subject of reliability.  It’s a very complex subject but one that has provided remarkable life and quality to consumer and commercial products.   I would invite you to take a look at the literature and further your understanding of the “ins and outs” of the technology.  As always, I welcome your comments.


July 29, 2014

Information for this post came from the NASA web site.  All of the information relative to the program and the flight hardware is derived from same.


In my opinion, our country made a huge mistake in abdicating our hard-won position relative to manned space flight.  Due to the very near-sighted government types in Washington D.C., we were perfectly willing to let the Russians carry our crews to and from the International Space Station (ISS).  According to – “Russia will charge the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) $71 million to transport just one American astronaut to the International Space Station aboard its Soyuz spacecraft in 2016”.  That’s more than triple the $22 million per seat charged in 2006, according to a July 8 audit report by NASA’s inspector general.   NASA, at this time, has little choice but to pay Russia’s inflated ticket prices.   In August of 2011, the U.S. space agency retired its 30-year-old space shuttle program and now, NASA has no way of getting American astronauts to the space station. The Russian Soyuz is “the only vehicle capable of transporting crew to the ISS”.  During the second half of 2011, the price per seat jumped to $43 million.  The price of purchased seats for launches in 2014 and 2015 are $55.6 million and $60 million, respectively, the audit report noted.  Again, 2016, $71 million for a “ride” to the ISS.   Could we not see that coming? Are they so blind in Washington that the obvious is overlooked? (Maybe we were trying to improve our golf game or possibly attending a fund raiser.) With issues in Crimea and the Ukraine, we may be denied altogether.

Well, NASA does have one program, the ORION that promises to get manned-space efforts back on track.  ORION will push the envelope and investigate manned-space flight well beyond low Earth orbit (LEO).


The spacecraft will launch on Exploration Flight Test-(EFT-1), an un-crewed mission planned for this year, 2014. This test will see Orion travel farther into space than any human spacecraft has gone in more than 40 years. EFT-1 data will influence design decisions, validate existing computer models and innovative new approaches to space systems development, as well as reduce overall mission risks and costs. Lockheed Martin is the prime contractor for EFT-1 flight.  The EFT-1 will take Orion to an altitude of approximately 3,600 miles above the Earth’s surface, more than 15 times farther than the International Space Station’s orbital position.  By flying Orion out to those distances, NASA will be able to see how hardware and software perform in and return from deep space journeys.  A graphic depiction of EFT-1 may be seen with the graphic below.  As you can see, the launch vehicle will be the DELTA IV Heavy Rocket.



The Orion flight test vehicle is comprised of five primary elements which will be operated and evaluated during the test flight:

  • The Launch Abort System (LAS) – Propels the Orion Crew Module to safety in an emergency during launch or ascent
  • The Orion Crew Module (CM) – Houses and transports NASA’s astronauts during spaceflight missions
  • The Service Module (SM) – Contains Orion’s propulsion, power and life-support systems
  • The Spacecraft Adaptor and Fairings – Connects Orion to the launch vehicle
  • The Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle to Stage Adaptor (MSA) – Connects the entire vehicle structure to the kick stage of the rocket

The JPEGs below will indicate the basic configuration of the system and the five (5) modules comprising the “complete package”.




In the very first un-manned test mission, the following targets and goals will be explored:

  • Programmatic Risk Reduction – Critical flight data collected from EFT-1 will validate Orion’s ability to withstand re-entry speeds greater than 20,000 miles per hour and safely return the astronauts to Earth.  Reentry at these speeds has not been attempted before.  The ablative shields will be given a remarkable test during reentry.  Other systems will be evaluated relative to reducing possible risks.
  • Technical Risk Reduction – Valuable data about key systems functions and capabilities such as kick stage processing on the launch pad, vehicle fueling and stacking, and crew module recovery will ensure these systems are designed and built correctly.
  • Demonstrates Efficiencies – Gives NASA the chance to continue to refine its production and coordination processes, aligning with the agency’s commitment to build the world’s most cutting-edge spacecraft in the most cost-efficient manner.  We sometimes look at the entirety of the assembly and fail to realize the tremendous number of individual components needing to network and perform together.  This includes the redundant systems certainly required for a complex mission such as this.
  • Enhances and Sustains Industry Partnerships – Orion’s design teams will gain important experience and training to ensure the industry is prepared for a launch of Orion in 2017 aboard the SLS.  John Doan said: “No man is an Island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main.”  NASA-ORION is the very same way.  The teams will be evaluated as well as the “hardware” to make sure continuous success is obtainable and everyone is on board relative to work assignment and job duties.
  • Skill Sustainment – Focusing on mission flight-test objectives, helps to reduce or eliminate risks to crew, and refines Orion core-systems development.  This is a big objective.  Everyone comes home—and not in a body bag.  The crew must remain safe at all time during takeoff, the mission and reentry.


The next few years will be exciting years for NASA and ORION will definitely get us back into space.  Manned missions will once again be on the agenda.  Hopefully, time off will be no detriment to success and mission-critical critical components will meet the demands of NASA engineers and scientists.  I welcome your comments.



July 12, 2014

I really don’t know how I missed this one.   This document deals with “phone sats”.  You can get a better feel for the technology by taking a look at NASA press release 13-107.  Let’s do that right now.

RELEASE: 13-107

NASA Successfully Launches Three Smartphone Satellites

WASHINGTON — Three smartphones destined to become low-cost satellites rode to space Sunday aboard the maiden flight of Orbital Science Corp.’s Antares rocket from NASA’s Wallops Island Flight Facility in Virginia.

The trio of “PhoneSats” is operating in orbit, and may prove to be the lowest-cost satellites ever flown in space. The goal of NASA’s PhoneSat mission is to determine whether a consumer-grade smartphone can be used as the main flight avionics of a capable, yet very inexpensive, satellite.

Transmissions from all three PhoneSats have been received at multiple ground stations on Earth, indicating they are operating normally. The PhoneSat team at the Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., will continue to monitor the satellites in the coming days. The satellites are expected to remain in orbit for as long as two weeks.

“It’s always great to see a space technology mission make it to orbit — the high frontier is the ultimate testing ground for new and innovative space technologies of the future,” said Michael Gazarik, NASA’s associate administrator for space technology in Washington.

“Smartphones offer a wealth of potential capabilities for flying small, low-cost, powerful satellites for atmospheric or Earth science, communications, or other space-born applications. They also may open space to a whole new generation of commercial, academic and citizen-space users.”

Satellites consisting mainly of the smartphones will send information about their health via radio back to Earth in an effort to demonstrate they can work as satellites in space. The spacecraft also will attempt to take pictures of Earth using their cameras. Amateur radio operators around the world can participate in the mission by monitoring transmissions and retrieving image data from the three satellites. Large images will be transmitted in small chunks and will be reconstructed through a distributed ground station network. The JPEGS shown below will give indication as to the orbit.

phone-sats (1)



The systems are now operating properly and orbiting Earth delivering information that will be used in evaluating the program.  I feel NASA has married the private and public sectors to produce workable technology that will represent much lower costs yet, hopefully, the same results. Time will tell. According to Chad Frost, Chief of the Mission Design Division at NASA Ames, “We all carry around smartphones these days, so we’re intimately familiar with what a smartphone is and what it can do.  And a few years ago, we had the intriguing idea that you might actually be able to build a spacecraft around a smartphone. So, we were very intrigued by the notion that you could build a very small spacecraft based entirely on consumer electronics devices and other low-cost systems.”


JPEGs of the configuration may be seen by the following JPEG:


PhoneSat is a nano-satellite, categorizing the mass as between one and ten kilograms. Additionally, PhoneSat is a 1U CubeSat, having a volume of around one liter. The PhoneSat Project strives to decrease the cost of satellites while not sacrificing performance. In an effort to achieve this goal, the project is based around Commercial Off-The-Shelf (COTS) electronics to provide functionality for as many parts as possible while still creating a reliable satellite. Two copies of PhoneSat 1.0 were launched mid April 2013 along with an early prototype of PhoneSat 2.0 referred to as PhoneSat 2.0.beta.  PhoneSat 2.4 is sitting on the launch pad ready for lift-off.  The PhoneSats use a Google Nexus smartphone running the Android 2.3.3. operating system.  Two of the PhoneSats have standard smartphone cameras that were used to take images of Earth from space.   The first JPEG in this post shows one of those pictures.

Now, here is a fact that blows me away.  NASA engineers kept the total cost of the components for the three prototype satellites in the PhoneSat project between $3,500 and $7,000 by using primarily commercial hardware and keeping the design and mission objectives to a minimum.
NASA added items a satellite needs that the smartphones do not have — a larger, external lithium-ion battery bank and a more powerful radio for messages it sends from space. The smartphone’s ability to send and receive calls and text messages has been disabled.  Each smartphone is housed in a standard cubesat structure, measuring about 4 inches square. The smartphone acts as the satellite’s onboard computer. Its sensors are used for attitude determination and its camera for Earth observation.


There are several phases to “powering-up” the PhoneSat system.  These are as follows:

Phase 1: After the initialization phase, the phone is in phase 1 in which it performs a health check. During this phase, each sensor and subsystem is checked and data is compiled into a standard health packet, stored in the smartphone’s SD card and transmitted over the beacon radio at a regular interval of 30 seconds. The last 10 health packets are stored in the SD card. After every 10 packets sent, the beacon radio is rebooted. This phase happens during the first 24 hours of the mission. The mission time is kept in the phone throughout the mission so that a system reboot during this phase does not reset the 24 hour countdown A health packet consists of: Satellite ID, restart counter, reboot counter, Phase 1 count, Phase 2 count, time, battery voltage, temp 1, temp 2, accel X, accel Y, accel Z, Mag X, Mag Y, Mag Z, text “hello from the avcs”.

Phase 2: This phase starts once a full system health check has been performed. During this phase, image packets and health packets are sent to Earth through the beacon radio. A health packet is sent once for every 9 image packets downlinked.

This phase can be divided in 3 sub-phases:

• Health Data Measurements: Health data is measured and the 10 most recent samples are stored in the SD card.

• Health Data Downlink: Once 9 packets have been sent through the beacon containing image information, the 10th one is reserved for a health packet.

• Image Sequence: One picture is taken every minute until 100 pictures are taken and stored to the SD card. Pictures are then analyzed and the top image is selected. This image is packetized and compiled into standard image packets. These image packets are transmitted over the beacon radio coupled with health packets in the ratio explained above.

Safe Mode: If the watchdog detects that the phone is not sending any data to the radio for a certain period of time, the spacecraft functionality is reduced to the bare minimum. In this condition, the spacecraft only transmits health data containing the last 10 sensor data values stored in the SD card prior to failure. This mode lasts for 90 minutes. After this period, the spacecraft resumes its normal operations. A safe mode packet consists of: Satellite_ID, last 10 voltage values, last 10 temperature sensor 1 values, last 10 temperature sensor 2 values, text “SAFEMODE”.


The timeline for research and development started in 2009. Definite planning has gone into the program.  You may see that timeline below.


As mentioned above, PhoneSat 2.0 has already been scheduled for launch later on this year, 2014.  The technology is definitely evolving. NASA is working towards extremely low-cost deployments that provide workable communications to government agencies and private concerns.

I welcome your comments.


July 3, 2014

One of the services my company (Cielo Technologies, LLC) provides is locating resources for clients, both individual and commercial.  We find people and vendors that can do “stuff”.  People and companies that can perform successfully, on time, following specification given as a part of a contractual arrangement.  In short, we provide sourcing services for commercial concerns.  Ones that can get the job done.

In 2006, I was given a call by a manufacturing company providing extension springs for doors used on residential cooking products.  This company has been in business since 1974 with springs being the first product produced.  Due to decreasing demand for the product and increasing costs for hard-drawn and oil-tempered wire, they made a management decision to out-source manufacturing efforts.   I immediately started searching for vendors, both domestic and foreign.  I looked at thirty-seven (37) companies that I eventually interviewed for the products required.  During that search, the name ALIBABA, came up frequently—very frequently.  Let’s take a look at this company.


Alibaba Group was established in 1999 by 18 people led by Jack Ma, a former English teacher from Hangzhou, China.  Jack Ma chose the name because it is well-known around the world and can be easily pronounced in many languages.  According to Mr. Ma,  “One day I was in San Francisco in a coffee shop, and I was thinking Alibaba is a good name. And then a waitress came, and I said do you know about Alibaba?  And she said yes. I said what do you know about Alibaba, and she said ‘Alibaba and 40 thieves’. And I said yes, this is the name!  Then I went onto the street and found 30 people and asked them, ‘Do you know Alibaba?’ People from India, people from Germany, people from Tokyo and China… They all knew about Alibaba.  Alibaba — open sesame.  Alibaba is a kind, smart business person, and he helped the village. So…easy to spell, and globally known. Alibaba opens sesame for small- to medium-sized companies. We also registered the name Alimama, in case someone wants to marry us!”.  E-commerce is global so the company needed a name that was globally recognized.  Alibaba brings to mind “open sesame,” representing the hope that their platforms would open a doorway to improved sales and even fortune for small businesses.  From the outset, the company’s founders shared a belief that the Internet would level the playing field by enabling small enterprises to leverage innovation and technology to grow and compete more effectively in the domestic and global economies.  Since launching its first website helping small Chinese exporters, manufacturers and entrepreneurs to sell internationally, Alibaba Group has grown into a global leader in online and mobile commerce. Today the company and its related companies operate leading wholesale and retail online marketplaces as well as Internet-based businesses offering advertising and marketing services, electronic payment, cloud-based computing and network services and mobile solutions, among others.


As of March 31, 2014, Alibaba employed more than 22,000 people around the world.  Quite a jump from the original eighteen.   As of December 31, 2013, the company maintained seventy-three (73) offices in mainland China and sixteen (16) offices outside mainland China.  In 2012,two of Alibaba’s portals together handled 1.1 trillion yuan ($170 billion) in sales, more than competitors  and e-Bay and combined.  In  March 2013 it was estimated by The Economist magazine to have a valuation between $55 billion to more than $120 billion.  The following timeline will indicate the growth of the company.

  • In May 2003, Taobao was founded as a consumer e-commerce platform.
  • In December 2004, Alipay, which started as a service on the Taobao platform, became a separate business.
  • In October 2005, Alibaba Group took over the operation of China Yahoo! as part of its strategic partnership with Yahoo! Inc.
  • In November, 2007, successfully listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.
  • In April 2008, Taobao established Taobao Mall (, a retail website, to complement its C2C marketplace.
  • In September 2008, Alibaba Group R&D Institute was established.
  • In September 2009, Alibaba Group established Alibaba Cloud Computing in conjunction with its 10-year anniversary.
  • In May 2010, Alibaba Group announced a plan to earmark 0.3% of its annual revenues to fund environmental protection initiatives.
  • In October 2010, Taobao beta-launched eTao as a shopping search engine.
  • In June 2011, Alibaba Group reorganized Taobao into three separate companies: Taobao Marketplace, Taobao Mall ( and eTao.
  • In July 2011, Alibaba Cloud Computing launched its first self-developed mobile operating system, Aliyun OS over K-Touch Cloud Smartphone.
  • In January 2012, changed its Chinese name as part of a rebranding exercise.
  • In March 2014, Alibaba group said it will begin the process of filing for an initial public offering in the U.S.
  • Prior to its IPO filing on Form F-1 as a foreign issuer in the U.S., Alibaba undertook an aggressive acquisition spree – previously atypical for the company – acquiring numerous majority and minority stakes in companies including micro-blogging service Weibo, China Vision Holdings, and car sharing service Lyft.
  • On May 6, 2014 Alibaba Group filed registration documents to go public in the U.S. in what may be one of the biggest initial public offerings in American history.
  • On June 5, 2014 Alibaba group agreed to take a 50 percent stake in Guangzhou Evergrande Football Club, winners of 2013 Asian Champions League, for 1.2 billion yuan ($192 million).
  • In June 2014, Alibaba acquired the Chinese mobile internet firm UCWeb. The price of the purchase has not been disclosed, but the company did claim that the acquisition creates the biggest merger in the history of China’s internet sector.


Mr. Ma was definitely on to something as the chart below will indicate.  The projection through 2017 is dramatic.


China’s online shopping market is absolutely dominated by Alibaba.


If we look at other companies related to the Internet, we see the following, in billions:


The gross merchandise volume in 2013 looked as follows:


As you can see, the company is a “player” on the global stage.

In the very near future, Alibaba will issue an IPO.  At this time, the Wall Street Journal estimates the IPO could be one of the largest in corporate history.  Only time will tell.

By the way, I placed the spring business with a company in Texas.  We wanted to keep the product “at home” for several reasons, 1.) Communication, 2.) Transportation, 3.) Import complexities, 4.) Changing exchange rates and 5.) Buy American.  With this being the case, Alibaba is still a great source for products purchased.  I would invite you to take a look.

I always welcome your comments.


June 30, 2014

OK, what is an encoder?  Who cares?  What do they do?  Why should I know about them?  How are they used?   Let’s first start by defining the process of encoding in general.  According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary the definition of encoding is:

“to convert (as a body of information) from one system of communication into another; especially:  to convert (a message) into code”. 

Now that we have the definition, are there devices mechanical or otherwise, allowing for encoding of information from one system of communication to another system of communication?   A resounding YES!   For our purposes, an encoder is an electromechanical device that converts information from one format or code to another, for the purposes of standardization, speed, secrecy, security or compressions.  Encoders are sensors for monitoring position, angle and speed of moving mechanisms.   There are applications requiring very precise placement of components relative to a datum or mating surface.  Essentially, encoders can be categorized as rotary or linear.  Rotary encoders are sub-divided into incremental and absolute encoders.   There are many processes that require exact positioning of mechanisms, either linear or rotary.  In some applications, such as remote surgery using robotic systems, position and angle are absolutely critical.  Encoders provide this information to software and controllers.


Linear encoders are sub-divided into wire draw and non-contact types.    A linear encoder is for frictionless length measurement and determining position and is a sensor, transducer or reading-head linked to a scale that specifies position of a part relative to a datum point.  The sensor reads the scale and converts position into an analog or digital signal that is transformed into a digital readout. Movement is determined from changes in position with time. Both optical and magnetic linear encoder types function using this type of method. However, it is their physical properties which make them different.

The JPEGs below will indicate the “hardware” typically used relative to linear encoders.




 A rotary encoder also called a shaft encoder or magnetic encoder, converts angular position or motion of a shaft or axle to an analog or digital code.   A rotary encoder consists of two parts: a rotor and a sensor. The rotor turns with the shaft and contains alternating evenly spaced north and south poles around its circumference. The sensor detects these small shifts in the position N>>S and S>>N. There many methods of detecting magnetic field changes, but the two primary types used in encoders are: Hall Effect and Magneto resistive.  Hall Effect sensors work by detecting a change in voltage by magnetic deflection of electrons. Magneto resistive sensors detect a change in resistance caused by a magnetic field.

Two rotary encoder configurations may be seen as follows:


This type of encoder would require a shaft coupling to operate.



For this encoder, the shaft would be fitted into the opening shown and secured with key-seat or other fastening mechanism.

In each case, electrical connections are necessary to send encoded data to a software package then to a controller mechanism.


The mechanical world would be a very different place if it were not for linear and rotary encoders.  Let’s take a look at real-life uses for both.

  • Automotive GPS and radios
  • Medical equipment
  • Audio/visual recording/mixing equipment
  • Avionics
  • Transportation equipment
  • Fitness equipment
  • Test and measurement equipment
  • Agricultural equipment
  • Construction equipment
  • Oscilloscopes
  • Pulse/signal generators

As with any technology, there are advantages and disadvantages as follows:


Highly reliable and accurate
Low-cost feedback
High resolution
Integrated electronics
Fuses optical and digital technology
Can be incorporated into existing applications
Compact size


Subject to magnetic or radio interference (Magnetic Encoders)
Direct light source interference (Optical Encoders)
Susceptible to dirt, oil and dust contaminates –

I might note the disadvantages can be compensated for by applying appropriate shielding and components to the overall assembly.


Sophisticated robotic systems use encoders in many places to ensure accuracy when the need to accurately position mechanisms is paramount. Users of equipment are usually oblivious to their presence.  They work silently to perform predetermine tasks as dictated by software.



June 18, 2014

Several days ago I published a blog concerning “Conflict Minerals”.  This is a very real attempt issued by legislatures to lessen or eliminate minerals and substances mined to support destructive political actions taken to subjugate populations.  Necessary actions must be taken by engineers and management to evaluate products received insuring none contain conflict minerals.  Companion legislation has been issues by the European Community (EU )to insure environmental issues are also addressed.  RoHS is the abbreviated name for this directive. Any company doing business in the European Community must adhere to RoHS requirements.  This is mandated policy affecting all manufacturers supplying domestic consumer products or commercial products.  The purpose of RoHS  is to require companies to quantify six (6) materials used in the manufacturer and assembly of products.  Let’s take a look. The European Union set forth RoHS (Restriction of Hazardous Substances) Directive to establish environmental guidelines and legislation to reduce the presence of six (6) materials deemed hazardous to the environment.  To comply, products entering the EU must not have a homogeneous presence of these materials above the following levels by weight percentage:

  • Lead (Pb) < 0.1%
  • Mercury (Hg) < 0.1%
  • Cadmium (Cd) < 0.01%
  • Hexavalent Chromium (CrVI) < 0.1%
  • Polybrominated Biphenyls (PBB) < 0.1%
  • Polybrominated Diphenyl Esters (PBDE) < 0.1%

RoHS Compliance is determined by a combination of supplier certification and engineering design verification.    The directive applies to equipment as defined by a section of the WEEE directive.  The Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive (WEEE Directive) is the European Community directive 2002/96/EC on waste electrical and electronic equipment(WEEE) which, together with the RoHS Directive 2002/95/EC, became European Law in February 2003. The WEEE Directive set collection, recycling and recovery targets for all types of electrical goods, with a minimum rate of 4 kilograms per head of population per annum recovered for recycling by 2009. The RoHS Directive set restrictions upon European manufacturers as to the material content of new electronic equipment placed on the market. The symbol adopted by the European Council to represent waste electrical and electronic equipment comprised a crossed out wheelie bin with or without a single black line underneath the symbol. The black line indicates that goods have been placed on the market after 2005, when the Directive came into force. Goods without the black line were manufactured between 2002 and 2005. In such instances, these are treated as “historic weee” and falls outside re-imbursement via producer compliance schemes. The following numeric categories apply:

  1. Large household appliances.
  2. Small household appliances.
  3. IT & Telecommunications equipment (although infrastructure equipment is exempt in some countries)
  4. Consumer equipment.
  5. Lighting equipment—including light bulbs.
  6. Electronic and electrical tools.
  7. Toys, leisure, and sports equipment.
  8. Medical devices (exemption removed in July 2011)
  9. Monitoring and control instruments (exemption removed in July 2011)
  10. Automatic dispensers.
  11. Semiconductor device

Batteries are not included within the scope of RoHS. However, in Europe, batteries are under the European Commission’s 1991 Battery Directive (91/157/EEC), which was recently increased in scope and approved in the form of the new battery directive, version 2003/0282 COD, which will be official when submitted to and published in the EU’s Official Journal. While the first Battery Directive addressed possible trade barrier issues brought about by disparate European member states’ implementation, the new directive more explicitly highlights improving and protecting the environment from the negative effects of the waste contained in batteries. It also contains a program for more ambitious recycling of industrial, automotive, and consumer batteries, gradually increasing the rate of manufacturer-provided collection sites to 45% by 2016. It also sets limits of 5 ppm mercury and 20 ppm cadmium to batteries except those used in medical, emergency, or portable power-tool devices. Though not setting quantitative limits on quantities of lead, lead-acid, nickel, and nickel-cadmium in batteries, it cites a need to restrict these substances and provide for recycling up to 75% of batteries with these substances. There are also provisions for marking the batteries with symbols in regard to metal content and recycling collection information. It also does not apply to fixed industrial plant and tools.  Compliance is the responsibility of the company that puts the product on the market, as defined in the Directive; components and sub-assemblies are not responsible for product compliance. Of course, given the fact that the regulation is applied at the homogeneous material level, data on substance concentrations needs to be transferred through the supply chain to the final producer.  An IPC standard has recently been developed and published to facilitate this data exchange, IPC-1752.It is enabled through two PDF forms that are free to use. RoHS applies to these products in the EU whether made within the EU or imported. Certain exemptions apply, and these are updated on occasion by the EU. The RoHS 2 directive (2011/65/EU) is an evolution of the original directive and became law on 21 July 2011 and took effect 2 January 2013. It addresses the same substances as the original directive while improving regulatory conditions and legal clarity. It requires periodic reevaluations that facilitate gradual broadening of its requirements to cover additional electronic and electrical equipment, cables and spare parts. The CE logo now indicates compliance and RoHS 2 declaration of conformity is now detailed (see below). In 2012, a final report from the European Commission revealed that some EU Member States considered all toys under the scope of the primary RoHS Directive 2002/95/EC, irrespective of whether their primary or secondary functions were using electric currents or electromagnetic fields. From the implementation of RoHS 2 or RoHS Recast Directive 2011/65/EU on, all the concerned Member States will have to comply with the new regulation. The bottom line—it remains a complex world and global issues abound.  These issues affect companies trying to market and sell their products to countries far and wide.  We will not be successful unless we “play their game”.  Maybe that’s as it should be.  I welcome your comments.


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