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Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Creating physical objects using 3D printer technology

Sept. 5, 2011
by Mark Ollig

Astronaut and mechanical engineer, Mike Massimo mentioned how cool it would be having a science-fiction replicator, so that a tool used on earth could all of a sudden be made to appear in space.

“But we don’t have that yet,” he said.

What we currently do have might not be exactly like the replicator seen on the TV science fiction series “Star Trek,” but today’s 3D (three-dimensional) printers are getting closer to Massimo’s vision.

I recently watched a 2011 National Geographic video which showed how a crescent wrench was created using a 3D printer manufactured by a company started in 1994, called Z Corporation.

David Kaplan, a theoretical physicist, was covering the story for the National Geographic channel and brought his own crescent wrench to Z Corporation for replicating.

One can think of 3D printing as a process of fitting together loose materials to create a solid object.

It can also be compared to “additive manufacturing technology,” whereby a three-dimensional object is manufactured by placing down repeated layers of material.

The secret ingredient used in this particular 3D replication of a crescent wrench is a specially engineered composite material, which starts out as a powder, and has a binder material added to it, which solidifies the powder particles together to shape a structure.

So think of the powder as the plaster material or paper, and the binder material as an adhesive or the ink.

Inside the 3D printer, there is a print head for the binder materials to solidify the parts.

Another print head inside the 3D printer ejects specific fluids used for coloring different parts.

Joe Titlow, vice president of product management for Z Corporation, showed how an existing object (in this case, a crescent wrench) would normally be scanned into a software program and physically replicated via a 3D printer.

Titlow demonstrated the surface scanning technique on Kaplan’s crescent wrench and showed how the dimensional details of the crescent wrench would be used with a 3D computer-aided design (CAD) and computer-aided manufacturing (CAD) program.

The scanner would measure and send every dimensional aspect of an object into the 3D scanner computer program, which would then create a final 3D image that would be sent to the 3D printer.

The 3D scanner Titlow used in the demonstration was a hand-held device.

Digital editing can be performed on a scanned image before being printed.

An interesting twist to this is when Kaplan wanted to make the adjustable captive worm screw on the crescent wrench the color red. The 3D program designer clicked onto the crescent wrench image’s captive worm screw and then clicked a palette color which made the captive worm screw red.

After visually inspecting the edited 3D image on the screen, Titlow clicked “print” and the words “initiate build” were seen on the computer display screen.

The 3D ZPrinter 650 being used suddenly came to life and began operating.

It started to create a cross-section of the crescent wrench inside the powder – it was printing out a physical crescent wrench.

After the process completed, the newly created and “solidified” crescent wrench lay covered inside a small mound of excess powder particles.

Kaplan reached inside this powder mound with his hand and removed the newly created crescent wrench.

With a look of wonderment on his face, he blew off the excess powder and held up the new crescent wrench in his hand.

It looked very much like the crescent wrench he brought in with him, although the nylon plastic was whiter in color and it had a red captive worm screw.

He then tested the newly manufactured crescent wrench by tightening a bolt, (which I saw him do). Kaplan said on the video that he was able to do this “reasonably well.”

Surprisingly, it was later revealed by Kaplan himself (in a separate video I watched) that when he tried to tighten the bolt as hard as he could, the new crescent wrench manufactured by the 3D printer broke.

Kaplan said he was told there were methods of making a newly made crescent wrench stronger.

He also made it known the scanner used in the demonstration did not scan the internal structure of his crescent wrench.

Kaplan also revealed the crescent wrench he had brought with him was not the actual scanned image used; Z Corporation used an existing 3D software template image of a similar crescent wrench when manufacturing it on the 3D printer.

I can only assume Z Corporation’s existing 3D software template image of a crescent wrench was used to save time from having to edit a newly scanned 3D image of the crescent wrench Kaplan had brought with him.

Kaplan did, however, make it very clear that the new crescent wrench was, in fact, created using the 3D printer.

This is an exciting technology, and we will be hearing more about it.

The demonstration video can be seen at

A video explaining the 3D ZPrinter 650 can be seen at

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

SPIDER technology on a chip will speed up the Internet, and more

Aug. 29, 2011
by Mark Ollig

A process for measuring optical pulses has been successfully merged onto a computing chip and will, before long, replace the high energy-consuming and expensive electronic equipment currently used inside the core of the Internet.

Utilizing a technology called Spectral Phase Interferometry for Direct Electric-Field Reconstruction (SPIDER); this newly designed, ultra-fast operating computing chip will work within the Internet, processing signaling information much more efficiently than the current technology being used.

Incorporating this new technology into the Internet’s core will dramatically speed up processing by providing faster response times of the data traveling from point A to point B.

SPIDER was invented by Professor Ian A. Walmsley, who is a professor of experimental Physics at the University of Oxford, and is a pioneer in quantum optics.

Walmsley is involved in research which manipulates “atoms and molecules using classical light . . . using state of the art laser systems and ancillary technologies.”

The new computing chip using SPIDER came about through the work of an international team led by University of Sydney physicist, Associate Professor David Moss.

Moss is a 2011 Eureka Prize finalist in the category “Innovations in Computer Science.”

This recent announcement of incorporating SPIDER technology onto a silicon chip will open the door to a world of all-optical computing processes, which will overcome the existing speed limitations we have within the electronics used by the technology of today.

The use of SPIDER technology on chips will also be used inside computing devices and communication networks, significantly improving the overall operations of these systems, as well.

The Internet’s fiber-optic network makes use of high-speed signals which manipulate the properties of laser light that transmits coded information.

Up until now, it has only been possible to accurately measure the intensity and phase of these optical light pulses with expensive and bulky laboratory equipment.

“The ability to monitor and characterize these signals has, until now, been restricted to optical laboratories,” Moss said.

The SPIDER chip will be able to integrate with the existing silicon chips being used today.

One of the functions the SPIDER chip does inside optical systems is known as “four-wave mixing intermodulation.” This is the combining of three different optical wavelengths to produce a fourth wavelength within an optical signal.

In addition, according to Moss, the SPIDER chip will provide the ability to measure “state-of-the-art signals” of phase light, when used to encode information sent through fiber-optic networks over the Internet using silicon routing chips.

As we all know, the amount of data streaming over the Internet continues to increase at an incredible rate.

Just consider the sheer volume of all the packets of information traversing within the Internet and into our home computers and mobile computing devices. This explosion of data volume has no doubt increased as a result of more Internet users (and devices) from around the world downloading and uploading huge amounts of video and other kinds of data.

The Internet usage statistics for March 31 from Nielsen Online shows there were 2,095,066,055 total world Internet users, which is roughly 30.2 percent of the world’s population.

The US portion amounts to 245 million Internet users, which is about 78.3 percent of this country’s total population.

These numbers will only increase, as more of the world becomes connected to the Internet.

Currently, the only way to sort the traffic handling requirements of the enormous amounts of data packets navigating over the Internet is by using complex computing hardware comprised of routers and switches.

These devices incorporate silicon chips used in the intelligent processing of the information being sent between the senders and receivers of these data packets.

“Using the SPIDER technology, applications such as telecommunications, high-precision broadband sensing . . . are all set for a major speed upgrade,” explained Moss.

Moss talked about how this SPIDER “on-chip optical integrator” (I attempt to define it as photonic-processing-empowering on a computing chip) as being significant in supporting many optical functions on a chip, including ultra high- speed signal processing, computing, and optical memory.

Walmsley is quoted as saying, “The interaction of light and matter at this fundamental level has broad application, both in physics and in future technologies.”

According to Moss, he trusts the SPIDER chip will have the ability of improving most of the “pieces” that comprise the Internet.

This is truly exciting stuff; we are now entering a new level of controlling and manipulating optical light signal pulses inside the core of the Internet.

Soon, we will see this technology used within our existing optical transport networks, and eventually inside most computing devices.

The University of Oxford SPIDER referenced links are and

Just imagine how our future computing devices (utilizing superior bandwidth) connected to those Internet clouds will make use of embedded, ultra-fast SPIDER chip technology.

Three-dimensional high-definition television or virtual-reality holographic video gaming anyone?

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

'Rock-like' optical disc will store digital data for 1,000 years

Aug. 22, 2011
by Mark Ollig

Chris Erikson, a digital archivist, says even when storing CD and DVD disc collections in special cases and in top-quality archival boxes in temperature-controlled environments; they are still experiencing a loss of 20 to 30 percent of the data stored each year due to optical disc deterioration.

The family photos, music and video files, along with your personal and business documents digitally saved on your computer hard drives, CDs, DVDs, flash drives and tapes; do you sometimes wonder whether they will still be readable years from now?

The sad truth is these traditionally used data storage devices will deteriorate over time and will not permanently save the data.

Barry M. Lunt, Ph. D., is a professor of information technology at Brigham Young University, and proponent of long-term computer data storage.

In 1996, he learned about the ancient petroglyphs (rock engravings) art work in Nine Mile Canyon, located northeast of Price, UT.

Lunt recalls while walking along the rocky cliffs and examining the petroglyphs, he noticed they were not made by any type of painting process. The images were created by etching or chipping away at the outer layer of the dark rock, which exposed the lighter layer of rock beneath its surface.

“That’s permanent storage – optical contrast, light vs. dark. You could store data that way,” Lunt is quoted as saying.

Lunt said he later recalled this memory while researching optical disc storage methods with a colleague.

They wanted to find a way to create optical discs that could store information permanently.

Remembering his examination of the petroglyphs, Lunt realized the needed materials were already available and would last a very long time.

He concluded it was strictly an engineering problem that was delaying a long-term storage solution using optical discs.

Lunt assisted in the creation of an optical disc with semiconductor substrate materials which would allow the data written onto it to last a full millennium.

This length of time was confirmed when using the 2nd edition, December 2008 Standard ECMA-379 optical media archival testing method.

The name of this new optical storage disc is the M-DISC.

The M-DISC is made by Millenniata Inc., an optical company located in American Fork, UT.

This new optical disc is made up of an upper and lower polycarbonate layer, with an inorganic data layer, and an adhesive layer sandwiched in between.

Lunt’s comparison with the petroglyphs comes to mind when the inorganic data layer materials on this optical storage disc undergo a physical change during the writing process.

As the disc’s data layer is treated by a focused laser beam, the extreme heat generated will cause the innermost layers of the advanced metals to melt, or “chip away” from the laser spot, thus creating a void or hole in the data layer.

After this writing process, the melted portions of the disc’s data layer cool down. The material surrounding these newly written data holes form a polycrystalline structure similar to the micro-crystalline structure found in many common rocks.

The digital data is literally etched into an inorganic “rock-like” material – similar to how the petroglyphs were made over 1,000 years ago.

Today’s DVD disc technology uses organic dyes and a common optical DVD disc drive, which uses a low-power laser light to burn or write data file information from a computer onto the data layer of a standard writable DVD.

The data markings on a traditional DVD eventually become unreadable because the organic dyes used will degrade over time due to the natural processes that negatively affect them, including; low light absorption, heat, and moisture.

However, the voids and holes on the M-DISC do not degrade; thus, no data loss.

The US Department of Defense Naval Air Warfare Center Weapon’s Division in California tested five well-known brands of DVD discs rated as “archival-quality” for data failure.

All five failed the testing. None of the data stored on these five discs was recoverable after the exposure cycle testing.

When testing the M-DISC, there was no disc degradation or data loss.

One M-DISC has a storage capacity of 4.7GB, which is equivalent to 100,000 documents, or 1,200 photos, or three hours’ worth of video.

A standard DVD optical disc drive unit cannot write the data onto an M-DISC, so one needs to use the Millenniata M-READY LG Super-Multi Drive made by Hitachi-LG Data Storage. This drive uses a standard USB 2.0 interface and connects to most computers and operating systems, including Windows, Mac, and Linux.

The M-READY drive needs to be used because it incorporates a more powerful laser designed to make the permanent physical etching changes onto the “rock-hard” data layer of the M-DSIC.

Once data is written to the M-DISC using the M-READY drive, access to this data can be achieved using any standard DVD drive.

The M-DISC and M-READY disc drive will be available for purchase over the Millenniata website starting Thursday, Sept. 1. By Oct. 1, both will be sold through online and retail stores.

To learn more about storing your digital information on an optical disc readable for generations to come (or 1,000 years), visit the Millenniata website at

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Unique method to verify US population first used in 1890

Aug. 15, 2011
by Mark Ollig

There was something very special about the 1890 US census.

For the first time, census results were not hand-counted using simple tallying devices like the ones Charles Seaton invented for use during the 1870 and 1880 census.

The 1890 census results were counted using an electric tabulating machine.

Herman Hollerith of New York worked for the US Census office during the 1880 census as a statistician, when they were still tabulating census results by hand counting.

It was during this time when Hollerith decided on creating an improved method of counting the census results.

I might have, too; according to the US Census webpage, the 1880 census ended up taking seven years to complete.

Hollerith consulted with his mentor, Dr. John Shaw Billings, a statistics supervisor for the US Census. Billings suggested somehow mechanically tabulating the census results using coded cards with punched holes similar to the cards used on a device called a Jacquard handloom, which is used in textile processing.

Hollerith decided to go with a punched card system. The presence or absence of a hole in the card would indicate a specific type of data characteristic. This idea came to him while observing how railroad officials would identify seated passenger characteristics using “punch photograph cards.”

Hollerith invented an electric machine using circuit-controlling indexing points and made the location holes on each punch card indexed for collecting specific individual statistical information, cross-tabulations, and number totals.

Hollerith applied for a US Patent Sept. 23, 1884.

Jan. 8, 1889, Herman Hollerith was awarded US Patent number 395,782 titled “Art Of Compiling Statistics.”

He named his tabulating device, the Hollerith Census Machine.

Hollerith also invented devices which punched, read, and sorted card tallying data.

The Hollerith electric tabulating machine sorted census returns by completing an electrical circuit wherever a hole was located on a punched card.

The US Census office, after testing other tabulating methods, awarded Hollerith a contract for tabulating the upcoming 1890 census and paid $750,000 for the lease of his machines.

The tabulating machine could process almost 10 times the number of census data than a human census clerk could via hand counting. This greatly reduced processing time and saved millions of dollars.

The operator of the tabulating machine would place each card in the reader, pull down a lever, and remove the card after each punched hole was counted.

The keyboard punch template was of a pantographic design, which quickly transferred data from the census taker’s sheet to a punched card.

The tabulation results were displayed on clock-like dials located above the tabulating machine where a sitting clerk would be working. This tabulating desk system looked much like a vintage operator telephone switchboard (minus the cords).

The 1890 census included more detailed information than the 1880 census; also, the 1890 census population count was 25 percent higher.

Hollerith’s electric tabulating census machines finished the 1890 census much sooner than the 1880 census had been completed, and saved an estimated $5 million.

According to the US Census Bureau, the US population in 1890 was 62,622,250.

After the 1890 census, Hollerith was approached with contracts by foreign governments and railroad companies wanting to use his new electrical tabulating machines.

In 1896, Hollerith founded the Tabulating Machine Company, in Washington, DC.

His new company provided the tabulating machines used for the 1900 US census, and being Hollerith had a monopoly on the electric tabulating machine business, he was able to ask for (and receive), a great sum of money for leasing his machines to the US Census Bureau.

The good times almost came to an end for Hollerith’s company when employees within the US Census Bureau created their own electric tabulating machine – processing results faster and at a lower cost than Hollerith’s machine.

This new electric tabulating machine was used during the 1910 US Census.

In 1911, James L. Powers, a US Census Bureau technician, obtained the patent for this new tabulating device and started his own tabulating machine business.

During the same year, Hollerith merged his company with four other companies and renamed it the Computer Tabulating Recording Company; however, it almost went out of business.

In 1914, Thomas J. Watson, Sr. came to work for Hollerith’s new company and became an executive and its general manager.

Watson revolutionized how the Computing Tabulating Recording Company was operated, reestablishing the business and turning it into a very successful operation.

Herman Hollerith continued working as a consulting engineer for the company until he retired in 1921.

He went on to raise Guernsey cattle on his farm in the countryside of Maryland until his death at the age of 69, Nov. 17, 1929.

You can view Herman Hollerith’s US Patent at

To see how the tallying clerks used his census machine, go to

A color photograph of the Hollerith Census Machine can be seen at

Three years after Hollerith’s retirement, the Computing Tabulating Recording Company changed its name to the International Business Machines Corporation, or what is commonly known today as IBM.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Robot is given the ability to apply 'acquired learning'

Aug. 8, 2011
By Mark Ollig

Each day brings us closer to when humans will truly be living among the intelligent robots we observe in science fiction movies.

The latest robot one step nearer to becoming more human-like was created by researchers with the Hasegawa Group at the Tokyo Institute of Technology.

This group just released a new demonstration video of their robot’s ability to comprehend its surroundings and perform a task, that up until then, it didn’t know how to do.

This robot thinks and learns by interacting with an artificial intelligence called a Self-Organizing Incremental Neural Network (SOINN) technology, designed for performing online unsupervised learning tasks.

The experimental robot was connected to a computing system operating the SOINN.

SOINN creates algorithms (or set of rules) used by the robot for acquiring new learning.

The researchers were successful in getting a robot to appear to “think” as a human would when deciding on the best course of action to take when presented with an unfamiliar situation.

The human brain-like decision making taking place within the SOINN computing program is based, in part, upon the information communicated to it from the robot’s surveillance of its surroundings.

The experiment begins.

The video shows the robot (who is nameless) being instructed to fill a glass cup with water from a bottle sitting on a table.

I noticed they are not using real liquid water in this demonstration, but small plastic pellets simulating water.

On this table there is also a tray with one (plastic) ice cube in it.

“I’ll get the glass!” the robot verbally declares, while reaching with its left hand and picking up the cup.

“I’ll get the bottle!” says the robot as it picks up the water bottle using its right hand.

“I’ll put water in the glass!” the robot announces just before pouring the water into the cup it is holding in its left hand.

The robot then exclaims, “I’ll put the glass down!”

The robot then places the newly filled cup of water onto the table.

This part of the demonstration was completed satisfactorily. The robot picked up the water bottle with its right hand and while holding the cup with its left hand, it reached over with the bottle and poured the correct amount of water into the cup, it then placed the cup down on the table.

In this instance, the robot was following a predetermined set of computing instructions – which was impressive – but not overly extraordinary.

However, things get a bit more interesting when the robot is once again asked to perform the very same task; but this time, while it is pouring the water into the cup, the robot is told that the water needs to be cold.

Who really enjoys drinking lukewarm water?

Now the robot faces a conundrum, as its right hand is currently holding the water bottle and its left hand is holding the cup, the robot must “think” of a way to get the ice cube into the cup.

The robot is contemplating on how to accomplish a task it has never done before.

This is where the robot, using SOINN, determines what it needs to do in order to cool the water in the cup.

The robot then decides on what actions to take and in what order.

The robot chooses to place the water bottle down on the table and then reaches and picks up the ice cube out of the tray and successfully places said ice cube into the cup.

“So far, robots, including industrial robots, have been able to do specific tasks quickly and accurately,” says Osamu Hasegawa, associate professor, Imaging Science and Engineering Laboratory of the Tokyo Institute of Technology.

Hasegawa goes on to say that if one teaches the robot the things it can’t do, it will incorporate this as “new knowledge.” The robot will then attempt to solve new problems by including the newly learned knowledge.

In addition to the auditory, visual and tactile sensory data observed by the robot for use in creating SOINN algorithms, SOINN also collects information from other sources, including the Internet, and other robot’s experiences and knowledge.

Hasegawa also discussed another example of robot learning by verbally illustrating one possible scenario encountered when a robot was sent to assist an elderly person living alone.

The person asks the robot to make a cup of green tea; however, the robot does not know how to prepare green tea.

Being connected to the Internet, the robot asks other robots around the world (who are also connected to the Internet), how to make green tea.

A robot in the UK responds by saying it knows how to make a British-style tea.

Hasegawa explained how the robot would transfer the knowledge from the UK robot’s British-style tea-making method and apply it to making green tea using a Japanese teapot.

The lessons learned by the robot, over time, will allow it to become smarter.

The robot, like all of us, will learn by doing.

To view the Tokyo Institute of Technology demonstration video, go to