My old watch would supposedly tell me the time at a glance and a flick of the wrist. Its battery-hungry screen went dark when not in use to save power. With a flick of the wrist, the screen was designed to wake up and display the time, my steps and heart rate. In theory, this makes a lot of sense. In practice, it often looked as if I were accelerating on an imaginary motorcycle, flicking my wrist again and again to make it light up, sometimes resorting to tapping on the screen. The accelerometer wasn’t sensitive enough to detect the motion, or as often happened, the screen wouldn’t light up because the battery had already died without me knowing it.
My new watch looks like a traditional watch. It has hands that are always “on” because they’re not digital. It also has a tiny, monochrome digital screen that will display alerts from my phone, such as incoming calls or texts. The lack of a large, color screen allows it to go about a month between charges, instead of the four or five days my smarter watch could manage. The designers compromised some features for battery life, but soon they may not have to.
Advances in nanotech materials, more power-efficient semiconductors, flexible energy-harvesting sensors, 3D printing and functional fabrics could make us walking batteries, assuming we’re wearing “power suits” or other energy harvesting outfits and devices. That will mean a lot more than just watches that are both smart and energy efficient. It could mean fall-detection clothing for the elderly, better wearable haptic devices to facilitate human-computer interactions, wearable patches for intelligently administering prescription medications, everyday augmented reality eyewear and more.
A number of organizations are working to make those dreams a reality. For example, the Advanced Functional Fabrics of America (AFFOA) is a nonprofit with a mission of “enabling a domestic manufacturing-based revolution by transforming traditional fibers, yarns and fabrics into highly sophisticated, integrated and networked devices and systems.” PowerAmerica, a Manufacturing USA Institute, is working to accelerate the adoption of advanced semiconductor components made with silicon carbide (SiC) and gallium nitride (GaN) into various products and systems. According to the organization, those semiconductors can cut power losses in half, compared with silicon. Another Manufacturing USA Institute, NextFlex was formed in 2015 through a cooperative agreement between the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) and the FlexTech Alliance to help expand the manufacture of flexible hybrid electronics (FHEs).
Simulating Advanced Materials
Having scalable manufacturing systems in place that allow new materials to be created and used is critical, of course, but then what? How will engineering teams design, simulate and prototype products for those materials? For example, imagine if additive manufacturing makes good on its promise to change the material makeup of a product, at the voxel level, on the fly.
As Dassault Systèmes SIMULIA’s Scott Berkey asked at the recent Science in the Age of Experience conference: “Can we engineer materials to meet design requirements, rather than modifying design to meet constraints?”
Thankfully, some organizations are now focused on those upfront processes that will enable new materials to be used in manufacturing. The Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute (DMDII) was launched in 2014 with the goal of transforming industries using digital technologies, including design and simulation software. NAFEMS, a simulation-focused association, launched a Manufacturing Process Simulation Working Group (MANWG) last year. And, of course, design and simulation software vendors are working to keep up with the latest material developments. However, with advanced materials already in use for additive manufacturing, and the potential for smart fabrics to cause another disruption, they have their work cut out for them.
Until then, workarounds and compromises will remain for design engineering teams. While walking more than 10 miles exploring Stockholm the day before the NAFEMS World Congress, my phone died, but I always knew what time it was.
Jamie Gooch is editorial director of Digital Engineering. Contact him via firstname.lastname@example.org.