Archive for the 'Engineering' Category

Rubik’s Cube Machine World Record

Infineon Technologies have updated their Rubik’s Cube-solving machine and taken a quarter of a second off their previous time to set a new world record!

I know a quarter of a second doesn’t sound like much, but given that the previous best time was 0.887s, the new time of 0.637s is a 28% improvement.  Wow!

It’s not until the video slows it down to x12 slow motion that you can even begin to see just what the machine is doing.

The machine, known as Sub1 Reloaded, contains an ultra-powerful AURIX micro controller which Infineon, no doubt amongst other things, are looking to use in their efforts of self-driving cars.  When you apply that time saving to the complex decision making scenarios that autonomous vehicles are in, a quarter of a second is invaluable.

Meanwhile the human record for solving a Rubik’s Cube stands at a substantially higher, but still impressive, 4.74 seconds!

Transparent Wood

Yes, you read the title correctly, transparent wood!

Transparent wood

The same block of wood before and after treatment

A team at the University of Maryland has developed a process to remove the colour and light blocking properties that wood has, rendering it not only stronger and more insulating than glass but also more biodegradable than a lot of current plastics.  Wow!

To turn the wood transparent, Dr. Hu and his team boil the wood in water, sodium hydroxide and other chemicals to remove the lignin (an organic polymer that gives wood its colour) to leave behind the colourless channels of the wood’s natural cellular structure.  They then pour epoxy over the block to increase the strength.

Video from New York Magazine

Ok, it doesn’t have the optical clarity of glass but for a material that is inherently opaque the transparency is impressively high.  And don’t forget, this is only a recent discovery.  I’m sure that with more research the process can be refined to improve the clarity beyond the current maximum of 90%.

The natural channels that remain in the wood have more than just an aesthetic quality to them.  They actually guide light waves along the internal structure, focussing them rather than dispersing them.  This means you could not only get more light in through “wooden windows” but you could also improve the yield of solar panels with a coating of transparent wood!

The potential for use as windows and in other building areas is incredible, particularly when you consider that it has the conceivable ability to surpass steel’s strength to weight ratio for structural elements.

I look forward to being able to build a transparent tree house for my daughter one day!



In most sectors of the design industry mock-ups are commonplace.  They allow in situ testing of colours, materials, spacial reasoning, lighting effects, usability and so forth in a scale simulation of the final design with an opportunity for feedback to iterate and refine the design.

Although worthwhile, they can often be expensive and time consuming for the overall project.  Cue the Protopiper.


Created by a team at the HPI Human Computer Interaction Lab in Germany, the device acts as a mini handheld assembly line.  It draws tape from a roll, shapes it into a tube, seals it, and cuts it off with a wing connector allowing you to join endless pieces together.

Innovation sometimes sits between AutoCAD and balloon animals.

What might have easily have started out as a joke down the pub is actually a very cleverly detailed piece of kit.

It allows for very quick and very cost effective mock-ups of, well, almost anything that you can think of!  Being able to “air sketch” 1:1 scale objects in real space would be an invaluable tool for many architects, interior designers, space planners, and designers in general.

It’s like wireframing in real life.

Ok, so it’s not 100% perfect.  But it does have appeal with an almost whimsical and crafty element to how it looks and performs (as a hacked tape dispenser) that can effectively draw and build ideas in real time.  It’s not always about being perfect but often more getting a feel for something, which the Protopiper achieves rather well.

Read the published paper Protopiper: Physically Sketching Room-Sized Objects at Actual Scale here.

Via Fast Co.


Absolutely astonishing. The truly incredible story of a present day bionic man.

The remarkable and moving story of Les Baugh.  Robotica.

Les Baugh lost his arms as a teenager in an electrical accident and, with help from engineers at Johns Hopkins and their Revolutionizing Prosthetics program, has become the first bilateral shoulder level amputee to wear and simultaneously control two Modular Prosthetic Limbs.

Essentially, it is a robotic prosthetic that Les can control with his mind as if it were a real limb.  Wow!

It’s really amazing to see him, if he had a chance to use these more often he would be unstoppable.

The video is a little longer than I usually post, but it is totally worth watching the whole thing.  Enjoy.

Design Of The Year 2015 – Lung On A Chip

This year’s shortlist for Design of the Year was an incredible array of design and talent spread over a range of sectors from Architecture to Digital, and Graphic to Fashion amongst others.

I had thought that the brilliant Ocean Cleanup would take the win (or from a popularity standpoint maybe the self-driving car from Google), but it was in fact the phenomenal piece of design and engineering known as Lung-on-a-chip that took top prize.  It is the first time that a design from the field of medicine has won the top prize in the Design of the Year competition.

Produced by the team at Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering it is, in essence, “a new in vitro approach to drug screening by mimicking the complicated mechanical and biochemical behaviours of a human lung”.  Sounds incredible and it is.

lung on a chip

It combines microfabrication techniques with modern tissue engineering to give all the “biological complexity of your lungs distilled onto a computer chip”.  Wow.

Bacteria can be introduced to mimic infections (you can actually see the white blood cells successfully migrate across to engulf the infection!), or the effect of airborne chemicals and new medications can be tested.

Since the chip is lined with actual human cells it gives a much more accurate prediction than testing on animal cells and is not only a much quicker and smaller process, but cheaper too.

lung on a chip2

The goal is to build different organs and link them to create a whole body.  A team at Berkeley have even managed to model a human heart on a chip!

An absolute marvel.  Truly amazing.

Origami Robot

Origami and Robots – two things that I love.

Put them together and we seem to be on the verge of having our very own real life transformers (my preference resides with the original, not Michael Bay’s modern day efforts).

Ok, not quite as spectacular as Optimus Prime, nor does it function as much other than a flat sheet when not in robot form, but we now have something that can not only assemble itself but then walk away to do its job… without any human input!

Origami can produce stunningly complex shapes and geometry from a single sheet of paper, it’s even used more often than you might realise in science such as arranging sensors or amplifiers in particularly tight spaces, or understanding 6-dimensional spaces in Cosmology.

Inspired by the 1980s hit toy Shrinky Dinks (I remember making numerous keyrings and magnets) that, when heated, shrink to a hard finish without altering their colour or shape, scientists from Harvard and MIT now have a full electro-mechanical system.

The system consists of a flat polystyrene sheet, a flexible circuit board across each carefully designed hinge, two motors, a microcontroller and two batteries.  The microcontroller instructs the circuits to heat up which folds up the sheet, then, once cooled, the polystyrene hardens and the robot crawls off as tasked.

origami robot

The team from Harvard believes that future versions of this could help with activities from the mundane in helping people sweep leaves off their driveway to launching flat pack satelites that self-assemble into space.

Time and transport costs could also soon cost a fraction of what they are now if functional products can be shipped around as flat sheets and auto-assembled on site (a shelter for disaster zones is a perfect example).

In emergency situations or hard-to-reach places—under a crevice or pile of rubble, let’s say—the ability to deploy a compact robot that can then rearrange itself into a functional one could be a godsend.

There are still many obstacles to overcome, such as the frequency with which these prototypes catch fire due to the heat generated in folding, or the fact that the assembly alone completely drains the battery, but the future holds almost unlimited possibilities for these little guys, and all for materials that cost less than $100 (~£60).

A flat sheet of material is still a long way away from a 1967 Camaro SS or a Western Star truck cab, but given how those films usually end up that’s probably a good thing.

Read the full scientific journal here.





Internet Cables

Last year one of my favourite TED Talks considered What Is The Internet, Really?  From this came some incredible ideas, basic level thinking that most of us barely even consider on a day to day basis.  The fact that we are all connected physically by wires and cables at some point or other is what affords us the notion of WiFi, email and general day to day communications.

One of the most intriguing points that came from that talk was the idea that continents, you know, those huge land masses, need ‘plugging in’ to each other.  Something that I had not even considered but this series of images from Andrew Blum’s talk shows just how physical cables expand the world wide web, well, across the world.

What prompted my thinking to a post from last year was CNN‘s recent article of TeleGeography‘s undersea map of cables that actually do wire us together and make everything from emails to video chats across the world possible.

telegeography1click to view large

There’s a very interesting interview with CNN and TeleGeography’s Research Director, Alan Mauldin, here.  Alan highlights a common misconception that people think the future of communication is satellite, but for international communications over 99% is delivered by these undersea cables.

The main advantage being that it is much cheaper and, because the cables can be equipped to carry more data, it doesn’t have the limited capacity that satellite does.  More wavelengths can be added enhancing the bit rates meaning that “there is no threat of exhaustion”.


In the past year, many cables were being built to the coastal countries of Africa, where it was previously all satellite.  I suspect that part of this was the installation that Andrew Blum saw.





The last cable laid across the Pacific cost $300 million and one cable last year serving multiple locations in Asia topped $400 million.  However, when you consider what these cables provide to millions of people, and that they are designed to last for a minimum of 25 years, they really aren’t that expensive.


Despite the technology being used, our connections are almost worryingly fragile.  About three quarters of all the cable faults are due to “external aggression” which seems to cover everything from ship anchors and fishing equipment to the shifting of tectonic plates.  It would be interesting to see a breakdown of human vs natural effects when considering the damage to the cables.

However, it is the foresight in the technology and design that protects us even though shifting plates and fishing occurs all the time.  Any impact has to be quite drastic to cause significant damage.  For example, the catastrophic tsunami in Japan in 2011 knocked out about half of the Japanese-fed cables.

Substantial yes, but operators managed to re-route data to nearby lines with spare capacity proving a wise decision to spend money on a well designed and robust system.


A lot of things that we take for granted in our daily lives are made possible by fibre optic cables on the sea bed that connect us to all corners of the globe.

Each major international one has been recorded by Washington research firm TeleGeography in its Submarine Cable Map 2014.

If you have a historic interest in how these cables have developed you can see their previous Submarine cable maps here.

The Gunpowder Plot – Exploding The Legend

“Remember, remember, the fifth of November,
Gunpowder Treason and Plot”

That’s exactly what I’m doing today, and doing so by looking back to 2005 when engineering firm Arup led an investigative analysis of the original Guy Fawkes plot to see what would have happened should his “gunpowder plot” have succeeded.

The plot was an attempt to kill King James I and any other influential persons who happened to be in parliament at that time.  Guy Fawkes was captured underneath Parliament with 36 barrels of gunpowder and a slow-burning fuse and since then many historians have speculated as to whether this concoction would have actually been sufficient to execute his plan.  So a few years ago Arup set about recreating the very same scenario to determine the potential outcome once and for all.


Arup’s advanced technology and research team first used blast analysis techniques (used in investigating terrorism attacks) to accurately predict and model the effects of the explosion.  Then a replica of the building was constructed (using authentic techniques where possible) and mannequins were used to simulate the body count.  36 barrels of gunpowder were placed underneath and the result, as you can see, is quite conclusive!

To see the actual blast skip to 1.25 on the video below (or watch in more detail on the Arup site here).

“direct blast pressure, heat, impact of high-speed timber fragments and the impact of falling back to earth could also have killed many, if not all, of those present. But the extreme upward thrust would have been the primary cause of death.”

It is estimated that the explosion would have been heard five miles away, with debris falling over a 200m radius.  Substantial impact on the surrounding area to say the least.

Coinciding with the 400th anniversary of the Guy Fawkes attempt the analysis was commissioned by ITV for a documentary back in 2005.  You can watch the full documentary in eight short instalments all neatly together in a playlist here.

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