Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Book of Jacob: Part 1

Hallelujah! One fateful day, Quanser Founder, Jacob Apkarian and I managed to find a common morning together with nothing else to do but to argue about education and raising teenagers. If you are a Quanser user, what you see is the technical ingenuity, the elegance of the modular components, and the slick set of ancillary models and docs that come with the products. Indeed such qualities are the hallmarks of the Quanser solution line and the core of the company's market reputation. But one thing that I had noticed was missing in our literature was a rich and satisfyingly deep treatment of the educational philosophy behind the products.

Surely such design elegance was the direct result of an equally elegant and ambitious educational concept and surely there must be a white paper, document, or ancient scroll somewhere articulating the seminal ideas using pretentious words like pedagogy, experiential, and Jungian. And surely Jacob would know where these scriptures lay. "Surely you jest" was the essence of Jacob's answer to my request. The reality is, like most brilliant products, the success isn't the result of careful planning and processes but by a lot of non-linear right-brain activity, caffeine, and all-night sessions with occasional naps on ratty old couches in the corner of the office.

So we spent a good morning chatting away, and debating the hidden pedagogical framework that I was certain was somewhere within our technology. In the end, we didn't get to the finish line but we did get to a remarkable whiteboard full of scribbles that started telling an amazing story. The photo of the whiteboard is below. The essence of it is the mapping of the continuum of related courses in the modern curriculum, starting from the first year design courses, through to modeling, to control, robotics/mechatronics, and ultimately to senior design (capstone course), to the various aspects of our product line, and ultimately to a very cool treatment of the modern engineering design process. This is when we paused, stared at the board, looked at each other and innocently commented to each other … "I think this is it". Unfortunately, it was horribly incomplete and illegible. But the good news is, this was clearly the start of something very, very good.

Like most successful technology, the first phase of its history is directed at convincing as many customers as possible to invest in a crazy idea. The good companies generally manage to do this by sheer will and the mojo that the core offerings were born with. The best companies then take this energy and begin applying input from the first generations of users and mix with a few more sleepless nights, to refine and clarify and support. In my experience this stage generally starts with a great story and my session with Jacob, I believe was a key milestone in fully articulating ours.

I am looking forward to running with the concepts scribbled on that whiteboard. You will hear a lot more about this in the not too distant future. And I'm looking forward to many more similar sessions with Jacob as we explore the nuances of all of its dimensions. My head is hurting already.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Getting ready for NIWeek 2011

Working closely with National Instruments, Quanser for sure won't miss the opportunity to meet with more than 3,000 engineers, educators and researchers attracted to NIWeek 2011. Quanser's booth # 636 will be the place to meet with our engineering team, experience some of our most popular control experiments and take part in engaging live demonstrations. Stop by to see:
  • Six QNET engineering trainers for NI ELVIS II that will help you teach the fundamentals of controls, mechatronics and bioengineering. Find out more about the comprehensive course materials that come with these experiments.
  • A prototype of the new myPLANT that is being developed at Quanser to expand the use of myDAQ. Incorporating Quanser visualization technology, myPLANT will allow students to take the controls lab with them and perform experiments anytime and anywhere. Note: myPLANT is slated for release in 2012.

Also, join your colleagues at the Academic Forum on Monday, August 1 to discuss and share ideas on the future of engineering and research.

Hope you will enjoy your time at the NIWeek as much as we will - and if you cannot attend this year, stay tuned for the reports from the conference.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Two new faces on our production team.

Quanser's Production Department is a busy hub of activity and in recent weeks two new additions have joined the team. Rebekah Skinner and Jill Walters are our new Electronics Engineering Technicians, and besides adding a new female presence to the group, they bring excellent skills and diverse experiences.

Two new faces on our production team: Jill Walters and Rebekah Skinner.

Rebekah chose to pursue engineering studies after she attended a week-long Engineering Camp for Women at Ryerson University while in high school. The camp was an eye-opener, exposing her to the wide range of career possibilities open for women in engineering. In 2006 she graduated from Centennial College in Scarborough, Ontario, specializing in Automation and Robotics.

She first became aware of Quanser while reading an article about medical robotics. Following a year spent in New Zealand working for a manufacturing company, Rebekah returned to Canada and discovered Quanser was advertising a position that appealed to her. She applied and was hired. Her immediate responsibilites are building a variety of Quanser components and products.

After hours, athletics play a big part in Rebekah's life. Her passion is hockey, but she also finds time for biking and flying big 4-Meter traction kites.

Jill Walters is a 2006 graduate of Durham College in Oshawa, Ontario, where she was enrolled in the Electronic Engineering Technician Program as well as the Mechatronics course. As a child she loved building and fixing things, which pleased her father no end. That - and her love of cars - led her to be part of a stock car pit crew for two years, while still a teenager.

Jill has previously worked for General Motors and Procter & Gamble and brings considerable experience to her new position. Her duties involve building the various Quanser products destined for our academic and research clientele.

Jill is the proud mother of three children: two boys, aged 15 and 13, and a six year old girl. She somehow finds the time to play on two rugby teams in Oshawa and Cobourg.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Hands-on opportunity to master QUARC

Would you prefer your students focus on control design theory, rather than tedious code writing? Are you looking for a tool to accelerate your research? If your answer to either of these questions is "yes", you should consider QUARC, Quanser's control design software. You can learn more about the software on our website, but how difficult would it be for you or your students to actually master it and use it to its full potential?

Based on the experience of Dr. Rifat Sipahi from Northeastern University, you don't need to worry: "As an instructor, I always use MATLAB and Simulink in my teaching," he told us. "Then students can use their Simulink knowledge to easily interface with Quanser's QUARC, with which real-time control becomes extremely easy. In less than an hour, all undergraduate students who had no prior experience in real-time control could learn how to build a simple control loop and obtain successful experimental results."

For more evidence of just how easy it is to learn & use QUARC, take the new QUARC Interactive Tutorial (QIT), an online simulation of the software that gives you an overview of how QUARC works and how it can handle all sorts of tasks, from basic to advanced. Mr. Q, your animated guide, will demonstrate all the features and capabilities of the software and will even let you try it. With his help you can create the programming yourself and see the results, even if you don't have MATLAB or Simulink installed on your computer. Just try it! And if you have any questions, get in touch with our engineers - the very people who developed QUARC in the first place.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Who is the winner of the HP EliteBook?

Visitors to Quanser's booth at the ASEE 2011 and ACC 2011 conferences not only had a chance to see live demos of rotary control systems or the Denso open architecture robot, they could also win a high-end laptop - and use it to run a real-time control workstation in their lab. So who is the lucky winner? Dr. Adeel Khalid, Assistant Professor of Systems Engineering at Southern Polytechnic State University in Marietta, GA. Congratulations, Dr. Khalid!

If you missed the conferences, you can still get a live demo - contact us to arrange a visit to your university or an online webinar tailored to your needs.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Engineering Conferences - Then and Now

I've been going to our two major engineering control conferences for most of the nine years that I've been at Quanser. The American Society for Engineering Education Annual Conference and Exposition (ASEE) and the American Control Conference (ACC) represent a great sample of Quanser's customers. The ASEE is a tradeshow and conference on engineering education, while ACC is a conference that focuses on control engineering and research. Since Quanser is a company devoted to improving engineering education, and since controls engineering being at our core, it's a great fit.

When I first joined Quanser it was a small but growing global company and those of us who attended tradeshows were used to wearing many hats. One of my "hats" was to represent the company at these two major conferences. As the years passed and Quanser grew, I moved aside to allow more recent R&D and Sales Engineers to attend and get a chance to meet and interact with our customers.

I have many fond memories of both conferences. In the early days, there was the excitement (and sweat) of constructing the booth and setting up our experiments for display. We weren't too well known back then but our experiments would really captivate passersby and serve to break the ice and start some great conversations. The most rewarding aspect of this experience for me was understanding our customers' point of view, and seeing how well they actually utilized our solutions. I'd be talking all day and by the time both conferences were done, so was my voice. But it was worth it. We'd come back to the office with a long list of follow ups and an even longer list of product ideas and improvements.

But here it was 2011, 5 years since my last ACC/ASEE, so it was time for me to get back to the shows! I flew into Vancouver, where this year's ASEE was being held, and made my way into the exhibit hall. To my amazement, I was surrounded by Quanser "Q's" from the moment I walked in. The Quanser flag greeted me as I walked towards the hall, the internet station was sponsored by Quanser (and decorated with our "Q's") and as I walked into the exhibits I could follow the Quanser "Q's" on the floor that would lead me directly to the Quanser Innovation Hub! This wasn't the ASEE that I remembered! What's more, the booth was already in place and the Quanser engineers who had arrived before me had already set up all the experiments - there wasn't much left for me to do!

As the exhibit hall opened to the delegates, we were overwhelmed by a mass of attendees (I'm sure the free breakfast helped). I was in tradeshow mode again, the helicopter was spinning, the pendulum was inverting and the flexible link was flexing - we were ready to put on a show. Although we had 4 people at the booth, we were all engaged with professors discussing a variety of topics, everything from our new ABET-aligned curriculum to the exciting Unmanned Vehicle we were demonstrating at the Innovation Hub. The discussions I was having were different from what I remember - I was no long explaining 'who' we were to prospective clients, I was discussing existing clients' experiences with Quanser labs.

There were still a handful of professors that hadn't heard of Quanser (with all the "Q's", they will not easily forget), but the majority of my time was spent discussing the implementation of a Quanser lab at a university and listening to feedback from professors who have already deployed a Quanser lab.

Strangely, after the initial onslaught of delegates, we found that the exhibit hall traffic slowed down considerably. With seven Quanser delegates at the booth and Innovation Hub, the slow times were a little boring. I noticed that something had changed over the years, but wasn't sure what. Were the conference talks and seminars more interesting? Was Vancouver too seductive of a city to keep delegates in an exhibit hall? Or was personal digital technology now enabling people to "kill" 10 minutes by flipping through their apps or checking their email as opposed to walking the show floor? I didn't have the answer, but I knew something was different.

I left the ASEE Conference with mixed emotions. On the one hand I was a little disapointed that I did not get to talk to as many people as I had hoped, but on the other hand I was filled with pride at seeing the Quanser logo blanket at the ASEE and hearing the great feedback from our customers about all the successful Quanser installations.

I then made my way to San Francisco to join the Quanser team setting up for the ACC. Quanser had six delegates at this conference, so I arrived at our booth to find everything was already up and running - nothing to setup again! The ACC, in contrast to the ASEE, is an academic conference focused on cutting edge research in the fields of automation and controls. It was exciting to see and hear about all the new areas of research, specifically in the areas that Quanser is also focusing on, such as unmanned vehicle systems, smart energy, and intelligent systems. Where the ASEE focuses on educating the undergraduate engineer through hands-on learning, the ACC focuses on new, emerging technique to advance the study of controls into new fields.

As at the ASEE Conference, I was pleasantly surprised that I was no longer explaining "who" Quanser is but discussing "how" we could collaborate with professors to further enable their research ambitions or assist with a graduate student's thesis. The conference sessions were very interesting and with six delegates, I found I had plenty of time to attend more talks and experience the various specialties that are emerging in Controls Engineering. During the conference breaks, the 1200+ delegates would swarm the exhibit area (thanks in part to the free coffee and food). That was where we would engage in discussions and talks. At some points it was so busy; it was difficult to move around our booth!

By the end of the conference, I again was left with mixed emotions. The excitement of introducing our solutions and research tools to new prospective clients wasn't completely fulfilled but the satisfaction of hearing about a successful installation or taking in presentation that discusses research in collaboration with Quanser was definitely gratifying. I again got the sense though that the new handheld and connectivity technologies took away from the face-to-face discussions. It is simpler, easier and currently more natural for someone to fill the time between talks on their iPhone instead of talking to an exhibitor or another delegate.

I left the tradeshows in much better shape than I remember from the previous shows - my voice wasn't hoarse and my feet didn't hurt, but I wasn't as fulfilled by the experience as I had expected. Was it my romantic perception of days gone by or had the nature of these conferences actually changed? I think it was a little of both. As technology changes, academic conferences and gatherings will also undoubtedly change. That means our approach and expectations at these conferences must change and adapt as well. Maybe next year will be a good time to launch a Quanser App!

- Paul Karam -

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Quanser Haptic Devices Draw Considerable Attention at the IEEE-World Haptics Conference 2011

The recent IEEE - World Haptics Conference (WHC) 2011, held June 21 - 24 in Istanbul, Turkey, brought together a wide variety of industry and university researchers who are currently focused on haptics-related projects.

The conference was an excellent opportunity to demonstrate to researchers from around the world the flexibility, versatility and efficiency of Quanser's haptic systems. With the assistance of Remzi Artar and his team from Simcotech, our Istanbul-based distributor, conference delegates could try Quanser's 5 DOF Haptic Wand and OMNI Bundle themselves, learn about our latest haptic device HD^2 and about possible applications of these systems in research.

What did the delegates like the most? They were very excited about the open architecture of the systems and that they allow researchers to work with Matlab/Simulink libraries as well as C++ libraries. Plus they appreciated the fact that the systems are turn-key, and come complete with QUARC real-time control software, high-performance amplifiers and data acquisition boards. The advantages don't end there. All the control hardware and software components can be used with any haptic devices designed by our customers.

Remzi and his team were pleased to showcase Quanser's haptic systems at the IEEE - World Haptics Conference 2011 for several reasons. But surely one of the most important was seeing the conference delegates leave with ideas on how these devices can lend themselves to their individual research activities.

Visitors to Simcotech's booth at the IEEE - World Haptics Conference 2011 could try Quanser's 5 DOF Haptic Wand themselves. In the image (from left): Remzi Artar, Simcotech; Dr. Ozkan Celik, Rice University; Dr. Volkan Patoglu, Sabanci University and two of Dr. Patoglu's graduate students.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Grade School Kids Take On A "Seismic Challenge"

On Wednesday, June 22nd, Quanser and the Let's Talk Science organization welcomed 30 students from St. Francis de Sales Catholic School in North York, Ontario to Quanser headquarters in Markham.

The students were here to take part in a challenge of "seismic" proportions: a friendly competition to build tall structures that could withstand a simulated 6.7 magnitude earthquake. It was a great exercise in creativity, design and teamwork. In the process, the kids learned a lot about how engineers can help make the world a better place.

The morning-long activity went off smoothly, thanks to volunteers from Let's Talk Science and Quanser. Interested observers and speakers included Let's Talk Science President and Founder Bonnie Schmidt, Paul Gilbert, CEO of Quanser and Ontario Deputy Minister of Education Kevin Costante, who conveyed his ministry's support for the partnership between Let's Talk Science and Quanser as important for advancing science learning in Ontario.

Watch the video to see how well the kids did: