Monthly Archives: February 2023

Interactive Touchscreens

The interactive touchscreen, being an outstandingly adaptable technology, is a common feature in almost all settings. This includes manufacturing, healthcare, restaurants, movie theaters, shops, railway stations, and even in outer space. People use interactive touchscreens universally for the simple reason that they make life easier. In any industry, interactive touchscreens allow people to do their job better and more quickly.

In the age of digital transformation, the above features are essential. The trend in industries all over is to optimize workflows with technology. More stakeholders value convenience and speed now. Although touchscreens find universal applications, system integrators and their vendors of integrated software uphold their versatility by finding newer uses for them. That means a bright future lies ahead for interactive touchscreens. Moreover, manufacturers are integrating them with future technologies like artificial intelligence, voice recognition, and computer vision.

With a change in customer preference, businesses can respond by using touchscreens. For instance, theaters that have been in business for a long time, are now adapting to new customer expectations of greater convenience. Customers decide on remaining at a site and purchasing, depending on whether the ordering process is convenient for them.

At times, when customers are facing a busy night, or they are running late, they may decide to forego buying candy and popcorn. This represents a substantial loss for the theater since they make huge profits from concessions.

Therefore, theaters are setting up self-service concession and ticketing kiosks based on interactive touchscreens. Any moviegoer can now buy their tickets and concessions as soon as they enter the theater, as many kiosks are available at the entrance in the lobby. Each kiosk has the capability to serve up to 350 customers every day.

This has resulted in a substantial improvement across the board. Customers are more satisfied now that waiting time has come down, and concession sales are booming.

Touchscreens are available in diverse types. For instance, they may be huge 65-inch large-format displays or tiny handheld models the size of a smartphone. Manufacturers are offering additional features to make them more versatile and attractive.

For instance, touchscreens are available with peripherals that the user can customize. They have a choice of peripherals ranging from biometric scanners, status lights, RFID and NFC readers, to webcams, barcode scanners, and so many more. Manufacturers often enhance the basic modularity of touchscreens with computing devices for control over complex situations. For instance, the integrated software in a touchscreen offers a point-of-sale application supporting a number of different peripherals with custom configurations.

Interactive touchscreens are evolving fast. Stand-alone touchscreens are transforming self-service applications. Identification of products using computer vision is speeding up the customer’s intentions of purchase by speeding up at self-checkouts. This integration of technologies is benefitting both, the businesses and the customers. While customers prefer to make their own choices, they receive help from the combination of computer vision, voice recognition, touch facility, and artificial intelligence. All this allows the user to drive the interaction.

By putting the control back where it belongs—in the customer’s hands—the future of interactive touchscreen is moving towards fulfilling its original purpose.

What is Soldering?

Although soldering electronic components in place is a complex activity, most people involved with the soldering process do not realize it. Complicated chemical and thermal processes occur within a very small space when soldering. To make a good solder joint, it is necessary to follow a few basic rules.

Apart from just making good electrical contacts, solder joints should also be mechanically strong and must not oxidize. Additionally, there should not be chemical residues in the joint. Usually, chemical residues come from flux, which can corrode plastic and metallic surfaces both.

Manufacturers offer solder in three categories—consumer, industrial, and high-end. The automotive and health industry makes use of the third category. Consumer and industrial grades are more common for manual, automated, and other construction purposes.

For several years, the standard was the leaded solder. With a relatively low melting point of around 183 °C, leaded solder has good flow and wetting characteristics. For proper melting and formation of a good solder joint, the recommended temperature at the tip of a soldering iron is 120 °C above the alloy’s melting temperature. This corresponds to a tip temperature of about 300 °C.

Manufacturers provide flux inside the hollow of the solder wire. The flux helps to dissolve oxides of the metals at the solder joint. General purpose leaded solder is typically an alloy of tin and lead in the ratio 63:37. Typically, the tin in the alloy amalgamates with the metal (typically copper), producing an alloy of the two metals, as an intermetallic diffusion zone. This helps to form a good solder joint, well-formed, mechanically strong, and durable.

However, an ideal solder joint does not happen in all cases. Sometimes, the solder forms a cold solder joint. Reasons for the formation of a cold solder joint are the presence of highly oxidized metals and dirt, inadequate heating, or fast cooling after the melting process. Inadequate wetting is common in cold solder joints, leading to easy detachment of components.

It is easy to recognize a cold solder joint with leaded solder. The joint has a dull matte surface against a shiny, glossy surface of a good solder joint. With lead-free solder, this is no longer the case. Newer alloys of lead-free solders usually form a matte surface. However, this depends on the specific composition, and it remains matte whether the solder is establishing a good or a cold joint.

New lead-free solders are RoHS compliant, meaning they do not contain certain hazardous substances, as specified by the EU Directive and the Restriction of Hazardous Substances.

The lead content in lead-free solder cannot cross a 0.1% limit. The intention is to prevent the operators from inhaling toxic vapors. Earlier, the use of suitable extraction systems prevented the risk of such inhalation, provided they were in actual use.

The absence of lead in lead-free solders has resulted in an increase in their melting point. The presence of about 95% tin raises the melting point of the alloy from ~217 °C to ~227 °C. This also changes the flow characteristics. Higher temperatures mean the actual soldering time must be small to prevent damage to the components.

What are Spring-Loaded Connectors

Selecting the right spring-loaded connectors saves not only expenses in the long-term, but reputations as well. In most key applications, reliably machined pin contacts can significantly reduce the total cost of ownership.

Industrial applications are cost-sensitive. Hence, designers tend to specify solutions that cost the lowest. However, while ensuring the price of their solution is competitive, designers must also ensure their company remains profitable. This is because a low-cost, low-quality connector solution can easily lead to premature failure and considerable re-work costs, while possibly damaging reputations.

This is where machined pin spring-loaded connectors come in. There are numerous ways in which these precision-made interconnects can provide better solutions while improving efficiency, and lowering overall costs.

In a spring-loaded connector, the main components are the spring-loaded pins—also known as pogo pins, spring probes, or spring pins. They provide highly reliable interconnecting solutions for a wide variety of demanding applications. In typical spring-loaded connectors, manufacturers provide precision-machined contacts to ensure low resistance, high quality, and compliance.

Spring-loaded contacts typically comprise three or more separate machined components, assembled with an internal spring. Manufacturers precision-machine these components from brass and electroplate them with gold for ensuring excellent electrical conductivity, corrosion resistance, and durability. They assemble these contacts into high-temperature insulators to produce spring-loaded connectors in various configurations. In the market, these connectors are available in SMT, through-hole, and wire termination styles. They are also available in horizontal or vertical orientations.

At working travel, contact resistance is typically less than 20 milliohms, while the current capacity can range from 2-9 A continuous. Most manufacturers offer connectors they rate for 100,000 to 1 million cycles, with an operating temperature range covering -55 °C to +125 °C—depending on application variables like exposure time.

Precision machining is the most reliable and flexible method of making pins for connectors. The process delivers not only high quality but is also repeatable while offering material flexibility and versatile design. The process creates high-precision pins with cylindrical geometry, which are also known as turned pins. Precision machining is highly accurate and remarkably consistent. It can hold critical feature tolerances to +/- 0.0005”(0.0127 mm) or better.

Designers often have an incorrect perception that machined spring-loaded pins are high-cost solutions, beyond their budgets. The basis of their perception is the high-quality processes and materials manufacturers employ in the connectors. While there is justification for higher piece-part costs, the overall price of the connector is lower because of the several benefits and features the spring-loaded pins provide.

For instance, a spring-loaded pin may be simply contacting a pad on a mating PCB. The diameter of the mating pad provides the amount of positional tolerance that the spring-loaded pin can tolerate. Consequently, the spring-loaded pin solution offers tolerances in the x, y, and z directions. This ensures not only better overall functionality, but also reduces assembly time. Moreover, the Bill of Materials has only one part number instead of two.

Many designs today feature a packed occurrence with a lack of visibility in the connection area, typically known as blind mating. Here again, positional tolerances offer an advantage to the spring-loaded pins and connectors.

Advanced Solutions for Electric Vehicles

Although EVs or electric vehicles have existed in some form or the other for many hundred years now, it is only in the past few decades that technology has advanced and companies have found success. With concern over the effects of air pollution, climate change, and an ever-diminishing supply of fossil fuel, more and more people are considering changing over to EVs.

Consumer demand constitutes the basis of the growing popularity of EVs. The role of governments also helps by tightening their regulations and mandates in reducing carbon emissions with an effort towards reducing global warming.

The rapidly increasing rate of growth of EVs is presenting a huge opportunity not only for EV manufacturers alone, but also for OEMs, and suppliers of aftermarket parts. Although there has been a significant advancement in EV technologies and solutions over the past few decades, there are still a few challenges that must be overcome, and which can quickly become hindrances. Manufacturers must develop new and innovative ways of addressing these challenges if they want to continue on the path to success.

At present, there are three important considerations that most consumers stipulate manufacturers must overcome—range anxiety, performance, and cost.

Even among modern EVs, many could not go very far without their batteries needing a recharge. For most people, this range was too small to seriously consider a changeover to fully electric vehicles. Although battery and motor technology have advanced significantly, range anxiety is still a factor.

Even two decades ago, EVs were struggling to match the performance and power of fossil-fuel-powered vehicles.

As with any new technology, EVs were initially expensive. Typically, modern EVs were far beyond the reach of most people, or what people were willing to pay for them.

Although car manufacturers are actively addressing the above challenges, an EV that is affordable enough for most consumers and does not compromise on performance, and one that requires only a single charge a month, is still only a mirage. Right now, manufacturers are busy balancing tradeoffs between range, performance, and cost. For instance, improving the performance affects range and cost, while cutting costs can severely compromise range and performance.

Fortunately, manufacturers are finding enhancing efficiency to be the key to the solution. For instance, the primary bottleneck to improving range is the capacity of the battery. Although the obvious solution is to use a bigger battery, that complicates matters further. Not only do bigger batteries cost more, but they also weigh more. Therefore, a bigger battery while increasing the vehicle’s cost can also decrease its performance.

Therefore, manufacturers are looking for ways to use the existing battery more efficiently. They are reducing the energy losses occurring naturally in the power-conversion system of the vehicle. This is mainly as lost energy in the form of heat in the EV’s motor, powertrain, and the power-electronics systems in the vehicle.

Weight is another factor affecting performance—a lightweight vehicle has superior performance. Therefore, manufacturers are trying for higher power density, where they add more power to the vehicle without increasing its weight. With lighter batteries and power-conversion systems, the vehicle can achieve better performance and speed.

Importance of Edge Sensor Data

The industrial setup is seeing a significant increase in the amount of autonomous machinery with Industry 4.0. Not only are these machines providing human-like thinking capabilities, they are also revolutionizing the industry with their utmost precision and efficiency of operation. Edge sensors are an integral part of the industrial automation ecosystem. The edge sensors collect surrounding and environmental signals, sending them to edge data centers for monitoring and control of various parameters that affect operations. These sensors generate vast amounts of data that require monitoring for the identification of patterns while extracting important insights for further optimization.

With AI or Artificial Intelligence, ML or Machine Learning, and BDA or Big Data Analysis forming the base of Industry 4.0, the industry is treating data as the new gold. These tools process the data generated by edge sensors for efficiently managing and analyzing extensive processes. Enterprises use these tools to obtain insights into the working of processes, for recognizing patterns and looking for events associated with the industrial operation. The analysis helps with the further creation of algorithms that help in the optimization of machines and monitoring devices.

However, large computational power is necessary for processing the data that the sensors produce. The industry resorts to cloud computing, as data processing with the symbiotic support of the cloud, reduces the necessary investments. But this comes at the cost of higher bandwidth requirements and increased latency. On the other hand, applications like computational healthcare and self-driving cars require a faster response. Edge computing easily fills such gaps.

For the computation of data and remote monitoring, the Internet of Things happens to be a complete ecosystem of supporting devices and connected sensors. The cloud processes the enormous amounts of data the system generates. The cloud is simply huge data centers working round the clock, handling extensive amounts of data while being in connection with the internet.

The location of most of these data centers is in remote areas, as they need massive areas of land and cheap power to operate. This increases the bandwidth requirement and latency. Engineers are trying to solve this issue by placing smaller data centers close to the edge sensors, actuators, motors, etc.

Industries also use IoT to share data through unified analytic platforms. Industries usually deploy similar kinds of machinery, but use them in varied conditions of environments and load conditions. This generates various types of data, which when industries share them, can help build a robust ecosystem.

Companies can optimize their products based on shared local consumer data. This optimization can be in the hardware or in the software. Industries frequently conduct software optimization through the internet, while hardware optimization involves generating newer editions of the product. Collecting user data typically involves privacy and security issues. With edge computing, proper handling of local and distributed storage of data can help prevent huge tech giants from accumulating large amounts of private data. However, this makes data more prone to attacks from cyber-crooks.

Engineers typically collect and process the data collected from the edge sensors near the sensor itself. Sometimes, they transfer the data to centralized data centers or localized edge data centers for adding value.

What are Low-Power Reflective Displays

The next-generation display technology is coming up with high-resolution reflective displays. These displays come with motion image capability along with a broad color capability. The reflective displays substantially reduce power consumption, allowing the realization of newer display applications, such as digital textbooks and smartwatches.

E-book applications have been widely using EPD or electrophoretic displays for the past few years. EPDs are low-power displays that form images by the electronic rearrangement of charged pigment particles. However, EPDs are of relatively low reflectivity, as their optical diffusion is essentially Lambertian. Avoiding further reduction in display reflectivity, therefore, requires using narrow color gamut filters, which impacts the display properties negatively.

The use of reflective color liquid crystal displays overcomes this issue of EPDs. Reflective LCDs use a diffusion film and a mirror electrode to diffuse light in its direction of travel. The design of the display system requires a suppression of the chromaticity of the optical components. This establishes a method of controlling the optical diffusion of the reflected light. The net result is a display with high reflectivity and a wide color gamut. This arrangement makes the display optically similar to the white paper.

Sharp makes this low-power, high-resolution reflective display with the technical name IGZO. They offer full color with high-resolution displays, and because of their reflective nature, they are sunlight readable. In fact, their exceptionally high resolution makes them comparable in performance to TFT displays.

Sharp uses unprecedented circuit thinning and transistor miniaturization, leading to a high electron mobility rate. Their design raises the light transmission of each pixel, thereby achieving nearly twice the resolution typically offered by a display of the same transmittance.

IGZO displays achieve power consumption reduction to the order of one-fifth to one-tenth that of conventional displays. This helps to preserve a longer product battery life. Sharp achieves improved pixel performance in their IGZO displays by utilizing a Pause Driving Method that capitalizes on high OFF resistance.

The trend in the electronics industry is towards increasingly thinner and lighter finished products. The IGZO reflective technology meets this demand exceedingly well. This makes IGZO displays ideal for handheld battery-powered products that need full-color, high-resolution displays that perform well in bright outdoor environments. Additionally, the elimination of the backlight opens up the design to a whole new world of possibilities.

The Sharp IGZO reflective displays offer several advantages. The major advantage is they do not require a backlight as they work in a reflective mode, resulting in ultra-low power consumption. The reflective electrode structure results in the displays offering high outdoor readability, with full-color moving images in high contrast. A special design effort from Sharp has resulted in these displays being thin and lightweight. The slim, low-power reflective design enables product design to be made compact.

The IGZO displays support a wide operating temperature range, extending from -20 C to +70 C. Corresponding storage temperatures extend from -30 C to +80 C.

The higher electron mobility of IGZO displays is about 20-50 times faster than those of amorphous silicon displays. This enables them to perform at higher resolution at the same or lower power consumption, as compared to amorphous silicon displays.

3-D Printed Skin Improves Dexterity

The healthcare industry has always had a longstanding relationship with soft robotics. Soft robots are increasingly making their presence felt by assisting physicians in surgical procedures and turning major surgeries into minimally invasive procedures. With more physicians using soft robots that can feel and respond to stimuli, they can be substantially more precise, thereby posing a vastly lower risk of damaging sensitive organs and soft tissues with the wrong amounts of pressure.

Soft robots are more responsive to various stimuli, making them substantially more delicate and refined grippers for machines. They allow researchers to pick up delicate specimens deep underwater, or make complicated repairs outside the ISS. It is essential to have robots with dexterous and easy-to-control extremities. Their pressure-sensitive grippers can detect if they are holding a soft squid or a tiny metal part. They can adjust their grip accordingly, thereby preventing dangerous and time-consuming mistakes.

However, while emulating the sense of touch, researchers have had limited success with tactile-sensing technology, especially when fine-tuning dexterity. This is now changing with researchers from the University of Bristol creating the bionic sense of touch. Researchers from the Department of Engineering Maths are using 3-D printed papillae mesh on the under-surface of a compliant skin.

Scientists, in an empirical study, have made substantial comparisons of the performance of a bionic fingertip against neural recordings made of the sense of human touch. Not only have they published their findings in a Journal of the Royal Society Interface, they have also described the creation of an artificial biometric tactile sensor, which they call the TechTip. Their creation can behave dynamically just like human skin does, and provide sensory responses. In simple words, the artificial fingertip mimics human nerve signals.

The robotic hand has a 3-D printed tactile fingertip on its finger. A black flexible 3-D printed skin covers the white rigid back of the fingertip. The construction is similar to the dermal-epidermal interface of the skin and is backed by a mesh consisting of dermal papillae and intermediate biometric ridges. The dermal papillae comprise markers tipping the inner pins.

Scientists constructed the papillae on advanced 3-D printers with the capability of mixing hard and soft materials to emulate effects and textures similar to human biology.

The scientists claim their work uncovers the complex internal structure of the human skin and recreates the human sense of touch. For them, this represents an exciting development in the field of soft robotics. They have been able to 3-D print an artificial tactile skin that can lead to robots that are more dexterous. They can also significantly improve the performance of prosthetic hands, providing them with an in-built sense of touch.

According to scientists at the University of Bristol, a 3-D printed tactile fingertip can produce signals from its artificial nerves. These signals are similar to the recordings from real tactile neurons. They claim human tactile nerves transfer signals from numerous mechanoreceptors or nerve endings. These indicate the shape and pressure of contact. In their work, the scientists claim to have tested their 3-D printed artificial fingertip, and they found the same ridged profiles and a startlingly close match to the recorded neural data.

A Digital Analog Hybrid Standard

In the industrial world, instruments typically communicate with one another over two wires by conveying a 4-20 mA analog instrument signal over them. To improve communication, engineers introduced a technological advance, which they called HART or Highway Addressable Remote Transmitter. HART is a hybrid communication standard that allows instruments to digitally communicate over the same 4-20 mA DC signal wires.

HART offers two channels of communication for instruments. One variable channel for communicating using the analog value of a 4-20 mA DC signal. The other variable channel offers digital communication using pulses of current representing binary bit values of 0 and 1, utilizing several variables. With the digital current pulses superimposing upon the analog DC current signals, the same two wires can carry both analog and digital data simultaneously.

A typical standard loop-powered, two-wire process transmitter has a DC power supply and a 250-ohm resistor for creating the 1 to 5 V signal from the 4-20 mA current signal that any voltage-sensing recorder, controller, or indicator can read easily.

In such circuits, the primary function of the transmitter is to regulate the current to a value representing the process variable it is measuring. The process variable may represent flow, temperature, pressure, etc. that the circuit measures using a current range of 4-20 mA. The DC voltage source provides the necessary power for operating the transmitter. In industrial instrumentation, such loop-powered instruments are common, as they allow conveying of both power and data on the same pair of wires.

With process transmitters now involving microprocessors, the instrument technicians can configure parameters digitally within the transmitter. These include damping values, range values, and more. They can query the transmitter for self-diagnostic alarms. However, to make full use of the digital functionality, it is necessary for the process transmitter to be able to communicate digital data to and fro over the same two wires that convey the 4-20 mA analog signal.

Another way of accessing the digital data within the transmitter would be to connect a communicator to a data port located on the transmitter. However, this would be inconvenient considering the location of these transmitters, mainly in inaccessible places in the industry, making it difficult to carry a personal computer or other communication devices to the transmitter.

The communication protocol, HART, solved the issue by adding digital data in the form of AC signals using audio-frequency tones, along the same two wires that carried the 4-20 mA DC current signal. A smart transmitter, with a modem built into it, translates these digital binary bits into AC signals, and vice-versa.

This allowed instrument technicians to communicate with the new microprocessor-equipped transmitters. They can do this simply by connecting a HART modem at any point on the two-wire cable, even at the far end, where it terminates at the hardware of the control system.

The ability to transmit and receive digital data over the same wire pair carrying the analog signal and DC power opens an entirely new range of possibilities. Now, technicians can send and receive status reports, self-diagnostic information, multiple process variables, alarms, and more in addition to the original signal representing the primary process variable.