Tag Archive for: engineering

Engineering principles: keep it simple

We’re developing a neat little workshop based around catapults, bits of which have sneaked out into the world in test events over the last couple of months. The core of the challenge is the simplest possible catapult we could dream up, which uses a paper cup, elastic band and a plastic spoon to fire a table tennis ball at least five metres. It’s tremendously satisfying, but it’s not quite enough on its own for the workshop.

My Mark II Catapult uses the same basic ingredients, but pivots the spoon on a kebab stick bearing. It’s even more satisfying, but a little more fiddly to make and – annoyingly – slightly less effective in range.

This morning: the Mark III Catapult, which uses the elastic band as a torsion spring. It’s fiddly to make, pushes the limits of cardboard cup rigidity even more than the other designs, and…

…is almost completely ineffective.

Back to the drawing board, with one key engineering principle ringing in our ears: keep it simple.

Turns out motor racing might be useful after all

The Formula 1 Championship is a strange beast. I’m not alone in having become thoroughly bored with the political wranglings around it, and I’ve drifted far enough away that I no longer even recognise most of the team names. So it’s something of a surprise to learn that the engineering work going on behind the scenes might still be – whisper it – relevant and useful.

Animagraffs car engine

Click for animated diagram of an internal combustion engine, from the excellent Animagraffs.com.

Burning petrol in a car engine is fairly mad in the grand scheme of things, partly because internal combustion engines are horribly inefficient. They typically bumble along around the 20 or 25 per cent thermal efficiency mark: only one fifth or so of the energy input (in the form of petrol) is turned into useful work. That’s not necessarily a great surprise if you look at everything that’s going on inside an engine –  click the picture for a brilliant Animagraffe page illustrating the four-stroke engine cycle. Car engines get hot, and that heat isn’t doing anything to propel you down the road.

Diesel engines can head up towards 40% efficiency, but even as recently as 2014 it was big news when Toyota managed to hit 38% for a petrol engine, which I think is the one currently in their latest Prius hybrid.

So a rumour that the Mercedes and Ferrari F1 teams have petrol engines that achieve somewhere around 47% efficiency is eye-catching. They’re managing this thanks to German engine component supplier Mahle, whose design adds a secondary combustion chamber linked to the main cylinder head. The spark plug ignites a fuel-rich mixture in that secondary chamber, blasting a turbulent jet of burning gases into the leaner mixture in the cylinder. That leads to more complete combustion, and hence a more efficient engine overall.

Now, internal combustion engines are at their most efficient when they’re operating under load (ie. accelerating) and with the throttle full open (ie. accelerating hard). Which is more like the typical situation for Formula 1 engines than a daily commute, bumbling along in nose-to-tail traffic. So gains at the racing circuit don’t necessarily mean as much on the public road. Nevertheless, the thought that there are still major gains to be wrung out of old engine technology is surprising, and encouraging. Maybe we’ll see some of these ideas in road cars in the not-too-distant future?

Read more about the ‘Turbulent Jet Ignition” technology in this excellent Ars Technica article.

In fact, engine technology remains a huge field of research. Here’s engineer Hannah Petto giving a behind-the-scenes peek of the engine test facilities at Caterpillar’s engine research site, here in the UK, outside Peterborough:

The racing teams may have all the showy glamour, but there’s similar sorts of work going on for construction and agricultural machinery.

Not-so-coincidentally, the Think Physics office is currently reverberating to the sound of power tools and hydraulic hammers, as the building here at Northumbria University is being partially rebuilt to accommodate – amongst other things – a new engine test facility similar to the one Hannah shows in the film. It’ll be used to help deliver the new Automotive Engineering degree course we have starting up here from September this year.

The future may rest in electric vehicles, but we’re a long way from done with internal combustion.

Watch this marble run with magnets

Brilliantly inventive. See if you can work out how all the different mechanisms work – there are some amazing and subtle ideas in here. Great stuff.

Tip of the hat to Joe for spotting this as it hit Digg this afternoon.

British Science Week. That’s all for now, folks!

Each March, British Science Week celebrates the awesomeness of science, technology, engineering and maths. Over this year’s week, from 11th – 18th March, Think Physics joined in the fun by opening up specially-designed workshops and lectures to schools from across the North East. The result was a fantastically action-packed and rewarding week of workshops. We had Key Stage 2 students making Incredible Machines and Key Stages 3 and 4 investigating Rollercoaster Physics.

In Incredible Machines, pupils explored the simple mechanisms of gears and linkages and made their own machines from cardboard and paper fastners. The workshop invited children to look at the role of engineers in designing and creating machines which help shape the world around us.

In Rollercoaster Physics, pupils got hands-on with rollercoasters, building their own K’nex test track and using data loggers to measure the speed of a golf ball as it looped-the-loop. Would its speed match the predictions of the physics?

It was a pleasure to deliver workshops to schools including:
Corpus Christi Primary, Wellfield Middle, Stephenson Memorial Primary, Monkseaton Middle, Marden High, Burradon Community Primary, Southridge First, West Jesmond Primary, The Drive Community Primary and Usworth Colliery Primary.

We did not stop there, though. Oh, no. We ended the week with Physics in Perspective, a half-day of talks and discussions combining physics lectures and STEM careers information. We were delighted to welcome Professor Danielle George, a former pupil of Kenton School, who is now Professor in Microwave Communication Engineering at the University of Manchester and was the brilliant host of the 2014 Ri Christmas Lectures Sparks will Fly: How to Hack your Home. Danielle talked about the new rules of invention and showed participants how to use modern tools and technologies to have fun, transform everyday items and make a difference in the world. We were also joined by Northumbria University’s very own Dr. Rodrigo Ledesma-Aguilar who illustrated how nature has evolved some of the cleverest solutions to everyday problems by building “soft matter” structures. Exploration of these natural solutions is inspiring cutting-edge technological developments: bio-inspired smart materials.

We rounded off the day with a careers panel, where pupils had the opportunity to learn about the variety of pathways open those who study physics at A-Level, and to ask questions of the panel (Candace Adams from QuantuMDx, Paul Casson from Macaw Engineering and Danielle George).

Tomorrow’s Engineers EEP Robotic Challenge

The Robotic Challenge is a curriculum-linked programme run by Tomorrow’s Engineers that sees students (11-14) working together in teams to solve real-world engineering, technology and computing challenges. Teamwork, robots, design, discovery, fun and loads of LEGO are all part of the mix, as are real-world challenges, teacher support and some great prizes.

Students learn how to build, program and control autonomous LEGO robots to complete a series of short, exciting space missions using LEGO® MINDSTORMS® Education EV3 sets. From assembling the crew to launching the satellite, they’ll demonstrate the skills they’ve learned at challenge events held around the country.

The journey starts in school. The challenge events are the culmination of a ten-week extra-curricular or in-school programme where students learn how to design and control their robots to complete the space challenges. Tomorrow’s Engineers will provide structured activity plans and learning software, training and equipment.

Activities can be run with your team outside the classroom or during lessons. The challenge could take your team all the way from regional heats to the national final!

Booking opens: April 2016
Visit robotics.tomorrowsengineers.org.uk/What-is-the-challenge/ for the latest information

Introducing the Technology Wishing Well for Maker Faire UK 2016

At Maker Faire UK last year Think Physics had two stands; a wall of light boxes, and a magnificent harmonic pendulum display which, slightly embarrassingly, I still haven’t written up. Hoping to avoid a similar mistake this time around, I should introduce you to this year’s new installation: the Technology Wishing Well.

WishingWell v1

Er… yeah, that’s a bit of a mess. What you’re looking at is a corner of my desk, on which you can see the black disc of a small turntable. That’s part of the light box installation, repurposed shamelessly (hey, I’m allowed to steal from myself, right?). On the turntable are a couple of LED lights. The green one is pointing upwards, the red one fell over and is pointed off to one side.

Left of frame is a retort stand, holding a Raspberry Pi (Pi 3! Woohoo!) and a PiCamera, which as far as I can tell is a mobile phone camera module on the end of a stubby little cable. The Pi is driving the big monitor upper right, and the window in the top corner is showing… what, exactly?

OK, so I’ve written a little Python code which does the following:

  1. Grabs a picture from the camera.
  2. Takes all the stuff which is ‘dark’ in that image, and turns it transparent.
  3. Adds the result to the previous image.
  4. Repeat.

So, as the turntable turns the green light smears into a ring, and the fallen-over red light smears into a… weird red blobby donut thing. My python code is appallingly slow, but conveniently the result is mesmerising to watch as it gradually builds up. Which is a relief, because we’ve committed to building this thing and there’s no turning back now.

The plan is to build a big one of these, so the current turntables can sit on the big turntable, and then we’ve made a giant light-powered video Spirograph-like-thing. We’re also planning to build little gizmos which move lights around, or change their colour over time, or … well, you’ll have to wait and see. You’ll also be able to make your own lights and toss them onto the turntable disc to add to the artwork as it develops, which is where the whole ‘wishing well’ idea comes in.

There’s lots to do before Maker Faire, but right now I’m just excited (and a little relieved) to see something on a screen rather than in my imagination. This moment’s been a long time coming.

The header image shows the first run of the software – here’s detail of the second, just before the Pi crashed hard. Umm… I should probably look into what caused that.

Tech wishing well second run

RI Engineering Masterclass: Chain Reaction

My desk, earlier in this week.

My desk, earlier this week.

If you have the misfortune of following my Twitter feed, you may have noticed a flurry of posts this past week with pictures like the insanity in the heading, or this tumble of wires.

All is now revealed: I was prepping for a new workshop, delivered for the first time this morning to the poor unsuspecting members of our Autumn 2015 cohort for the Royal Institution Engineering Masterclass scheme. This was their sixth and last session, and we wanted to leave them with something creative, challenging, and just a little ridiculous.

There are lots of ‘chain reaction’ type workshops around, and while they’re a heap of fun they tend to go big on the trial-and-error aspect of engineering. I wanted something just a little more thoughtful that brought in a wider range of elements. So the plan was hatched for each stage of the machine to weave in and out between the physical domain and the electronic.

That is: the connections between stages of the chain reaction wouldn’t all be mechanical. So we had a wide range of sensors, some Arduino code to handle those inputs, and a few different types of servos, relays and motors to transfer the electronic processing back into the mechanical realm.

It was a lot of try to pack into a 2½ hour workshop, but it almost worked. It helps that this bunch of Masterclass students are smart, capable and inventive, and they worked really hard to make something out of the session. We didn’t get a sustained chain of machines going, but here’s what they did, and what it all looked like:

Well done, everyone. I thoroughly enjoyed working with you, and you should be properly proud of your inventiveness and ingenuity.

Some of you were asking about the Arduino kits we use: I recommend Oomlout’s ARDX kits. There are other starter kits out there, often with glossier booklets to accompany them, but I’ve found Oomlout’s documentation to be better-written than most, and the range of components is good. They’re also one of the cheaper starter kits. You can buy directly from Oomlout (which is a lovely chap called Aaron who’s usually around at Maker Faire UK) or via Amazon. Other useful suppliers include Pimoroni and Kitronik.

The Arduino ecosystem is vast but fairly accessible, and the suppliers above have a huge range of breakout boards, add-on ‘shields’, sensor inputs, servos, and so on. The hardest part is starting to think of projects to apply all your new tools to – which is precisely why I like things like chain reaction machines or playing musical instruments. There are lots of books of projects like plant waterers or burglar alarms, but straight-up playing with this stuff gives you an excellent idea of the range of problems to which you might apply it all. In the end, I think guilt-free playing is the most effective route to learning about electronics and micro controllers, at least for these initial steps. Later on… well hey, people do degrees and apprenticeships and make careers in this stuff. But start with something you find amusing.

I’ll be making quite a few changes to the Chain Reaction workshop before I run it again. But I will run it again. Thanks again all!

Update Monday 23rd – the lovely folks at Cambridge Science Centre have this morning tweeted a link to this video. Wow.

Jobs with the European Space Agency

The European Space Agency (ESA) describes itself as:

Europe’s gateway to space. Its mission is to shape the development of Europe’s space capability and ensure that investment in space continues to deliver benefits to the citizens of Europe and the world.

The organisation brings together 22 member states and wider partners from Bulgaria to the Ukraine, sharing financial resources and intellectual skills, allowing ESA to achieve far more than if one single European country were to go it alone. It’s a shining example of the benefits of collaboration.

The main objectives of ESA’s programmes are to find out more about Earth, its immediate space environment, our Solar System and the Universe. It also works to develop satellite-based technologies and services, to promote European industries, and to collaborate with space organisations outside Europe.

ESA has sites in Germany, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium and in the United Kingdom.

Could you have a future space career?

Yes of course! If you have a passion for space, build the skills and knowledge that are required and you’ll be in with a shot.

For more information and to see the types of jobs available visit the ESA Careers website. There, you’ll find information on graduate traineeship schemes, work placements for undergraduate or masters students, case studies, videos and current opportunities, so you can get a flavour of the types of jobs and more importantly the skills and qualifications you would need.

Find out More: Subscribe to the ‘vacancies announcement‘ list and receive weekly updates about job opportunities.

Teachers: share with your pupils the types of jobs available within the Space sector. You could even inspire students (of all ages) by displaying job opportunities on the board as they enter the classroom. For example, very recently ESA have recruited for:

  • Thermal Engineer
  • Medical Officer
  • Systems Engineer
  • Earth Observations Project Specialist
  • Contracts Officer
  • Component Engineer
  • Microelectronics Engineer

Making Apple Watch

As a counterpoint to Monday’s post about building giant ships by throwing huge slabs of steel around, here’s the opposite end of the metalworking spectrum: the precision metallurgy and machining that goes into making Apple Watch.

Product Designer Greg Koenig has a terrific blog post which dissects what little Apple has said about the Watch with a fanatical eye. All he has to go on is this set of films about the ‘craftsmanship’ involved:

From there, Koenig explores work hardening; gold metal matrix composites; ultrasonic imperfection testing of the sort usually applied only to medical implants or aircraft engine components; the order of polishing vs. machining operations; stainless steel alloys and nickel allergies; forging and the effect of grain structure; datum detection and coordinate measuring; …

I could go on. Koenig does, and it’s fascinating. Turns out, the steel and aluminium watches are made using quite different processes (forging and extrusion, respectively), and there’s something extraordinary going on with the aluminium version:

Apple is doing something utterly unique […] using a laser to clean up any burrs or finishing defects from machining. You can see the laser quickly outline the lip of an inside pocket, and come in for a more intense second pass on the floor of that pocket. […] this is an astonishingly brilliant trick they cooked up.

Materials Science and Metallurgy are fields that are easy to overlook, but so many of the devices and technologies of our lives depend on continued innovation at all levels of the supply and manufacturing chain. Mass production has been one of the key technologies of the last hundred years or so, but there are still new advances to be found.

Do read the rest of Koenig’s post. If you find it as utterly compelling as I do, bear in mind that you’d get to work with this stuff most likely from studying physics, chemistry and design technology in school. You’d go on to fields like physics, chemistry, materials science, product design, or mechanical engineering, then specialise into surface physics, metallurgy, production engineering, quality control, and so on.

Tag Archive for: engineering

The Aerospace Engineer

Extension materials for our Aerospace Engineer workshop. Activities for primary-age children and families to do at home.

The Systems Engineer

Wind Turbine Engineering

Recap and extension materials for our wind turbine workshop.

National Careers Week: An inspirational STEM Role Model

National Careers Week is upon us, 7th-11th March 2016! A celebration of careers guidance and a focus for activity across the UK. Be sure to explore the official website for resources, including the free-download 2016 digital magazine.

If you’re looking for a quick case study to inspire your students, here’s a role model who’s current, pushes boundaries, and is positively dripping in STEMness:

Elon Musk. Picked by business magazine Forbes as the 38th most powerful person in the world, Musk is a self-made billionaire. South-African born, Canadian-American, and a physics graduate, he’s made his name as an entrepreneur, building businesses like PayPal, SpaceX and Tesla Motors. Elon’s back story is just as fascinating as what he is doing now, and as a leading visionary of the tech world, his work is likely to affect the lives of us all.

Messages to take away and reiterate:

Whether your students see themselves as the next Elon Musk or would like to work for someone like him, this presentation should encourage discussion about STEM careers as well as the characteristics and attitude to learning and life that Musk displays. His company SpaceX has a terrific careers page with a load of cool jobs like: commercial director, internship opportunities, propulsion development engineer (making rockets go fast), or software development. Yes, these job opportunities are in America, but if this is the type of company in which you’re interested, why let the Atlantic Ocean stop you in your pursuit of job happiness?

What’s happening in North East England?

Here’s a tiny handful of the most exciting and dynamic companies in our region. Have a look on their careers pages to gain an understanding of the types of jobs they offer, and the people they are looking for…

  • Nomad Digital: A Newcastle based company providing wireless networking for trains, right around the globe.
  • Hitachi Rail Europe: Based in Newton Aycliffe, Hitachi are fitting out trains to be used all over the world.
  • Kromek: Based at Netpark Sedgfield. Kromek develop a range of radiation detection equipment used in the nuclear industry, medical imaging and for security screening.
  • Sanofi – Aventis: a multinational company with a site in Newcastle who manufacture a range of pharmaceutical products for the healthcare industry. (Careers Page)
  • Tharsus: helping other companies develop their products through a team of developers with skills in manufacturing, prototyping and managing


Roller Coaster Design Workshop

Our roller coaster workshop looks at the range of specialisms involved in building rides… by building rides.

Goat on a Boat

Key Stage 1 workshop exploring floating and sinking: make a boat to float your goat!