Tuesday, November 22, 2011

First Engineering Education Flash Week in Lisbon

“My name is Amin and I am from Quanser Consulting in Canada. Our company specializes in robotics, mechatronics and control systems for teaching and research. We have been committed to enhancing engineering education worldwide for 25 years now, with over 80 different products and hardware-based course materials in more than 3500 universities.”

This is how I introduced myself to over 100 students, professors  and engineering deans whom I met in Lisbon last month. I was attending the 1st World Engineering Education Flash Week in Portugal. The goal of this  gathering was to bring together some of the most important engineering education international events, including :
  • The IFEES Summit (International Federation of Engineering Education Societies)
  • The SEFI Annual Conference (European Society for Engineering Education)
  • The ASIBEI Conference (Associación Iberoamericana des Instituciones de Enseñanza de la Ingeniería)
  • The EED Council (European Engineering Deans Council)
Flash Week  enabled  students, engineers, and professors from various academic and industrial backgrounds to share their thoughts on emerging challenges and solutions for the future of engineering education.

What made the whole event more exciting was the presence of many engineering students from all over the world. Ultimately, improving their education is the main reason for these events. Two different generations - students and teachers - were both participating and sharing their experiences about engineering education. Two main student organizations constituted the major percentage of student attendees:
  • BEST Board of European Students of Technology
  • SPEED Student Platform for Engineering Education Development
Students delegates at Flash Week 2011
 To add even more sizzle to Flash Week, the delegates were given Samsung Galaxy tablets to record live videos of ongoing events, dialogues, and presentations from various points of view and through the lens of different cameras. Although some people found the concept too much of a change, this was a means of reminding everyone of how the new technologies are revolutionizing the methods of interaction and will ultimately influence the methods of teaching and learning. I called the idea” visual twitter”, which seemed quite out of the box and novel.

Messages from a Hybrid Delegate
I received my engineering degree just a few years ago and most of my friends are still university students. On the other hand, I have been collaborating with many university professors throughout my career in Quanser. As a result, I am a hybrid who had a lot in common with both generations of attendees and had a lot to discuss with both groups.

As a robotics R&D engineer at Quanser, a state-of-the-art educational systems center, I had many things to share with people that I met at Flash Week. For me, the most important were these:
  • The knowledge that is gained by hands-on experience is much easier to retain  and very efficient.
  • It is the convenience and capacities of user interfaces that rule in educational systems of the 21st century. Quanser is dedicated to providing the best educational platforms and interfaces for teaching and research.
  • New curriculums should be developed that will allow students to learn in one year what their teachers learned in two years. That is the only way to maintain a sustainable educational growth from one generation to the next.
Amin with Dr. Reddy and conference delegates from India.
My Conference Highlights
My favorite keynote talks were  by Dr. Lueny Morell from HP Labs and Jim Ryan from Mathworks at the SEFI closing ceremony. The IFEES DNA working sessions were some of the most efficient and productive groups, with  teachers and students collaborating on discussions about sustainability, mobility, and IFEES’ vision for future.

One of the most interesting sessions was about mathematics and engineering education. The  authors had used image processing applications to explore a different methodology to teach linear algebra to first year university students. They believe that the concept learned by the students must have a meaning so that they can assimilate it.

Dr. Nagchaudhuri from the University of Maryland used Quanser experiments such as the Coupled Tanks, SRV02 base unit and pendulum to teach real-time control as well as mechatronics and instrumentation, with special emphasis on continued learning consistent with the ABET outcome of life-long learning.

One of the impressive new curricula was an undergraduate two-course sequence developed in Michigan for students to gain hands-on experience in the design and fabrication of nanoscale MEMs and BioMEMs. To overcome the cost challenges, the authors placed equipment from multiple educational entities into a pool available to students from all participating organizations.

Dr. Saunders-Smiths at Delft University of Technology investigated a research-based course on a flight simulator for undergraduates. Their interesting observation was that rather than working on the theoretical parts, students prefer to get straight to work with the implementation and learn the theory in practice.

A hands-on, problem-based learning approach was taken in University of Sao Paulo to teach concepts of robotics to freshmen undergraduate students using LEGO kits.

At Lund University, a hands-on course was given to industry practitioners to refresh their knowledge of process control principles. According to the authors, the objective was to get the participants familiar with common lab equipment and dynamics rather than producing well tuned loops.

Lila, Library of Labs, is an interesting pilot project to provide online access to lab experiments worldwide. University of Stuttgart is the head of the Lila project and a founding member of an international group of universities that specify and implement such lab equipment.

A Worthwhile Week
There were many more exciting surveys and researches into engineering education that were presented during Flash Week. However, it is beyond the scope of this blog to talk about all of them. In the end,  I found Flash Week to be a very inspiring and exciting event for improving the future of engineering education.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Quanser wins BIG at the Markham Business Excellence Awards!

The Board of Trade of the City of Markham, Ontario hosts an annual Business Excellence Awards ceremony to celebrate the business achievements of the 10,000+ companies in Markham. This year, Quanser was nominated for the Innovation award and secured a spot as a finalist. The awards gala was held on November 17 and a table full of Quanser execs and engineers were there to represent the company. The final award was announced for the most innovative company in Markham and the winner was...... Quanser!!!

The theme of the awards gala this year was the Roaring 20s, if you're wondering why we're all posing around the classic car.

I was able to capture the occasion on my cell phone camera, so please forgive the amateur videography. Congratulations to the whole Quanser team, as this award represents the skill and dedication of the entire company to make us world leaders in innovative solutions for educational and research technologies.


What Is Innovation?

Before heading out to the ASME DSCC conference in Washington DC last month, I was trying to answer this question.  When you’ve visited over a hundred academic engineering research labs across the US and Canada, you start to recognize some patterns - where some researchers struggle and others thrive.  

The popular understanding of innovation is something that is borne from a eureka moment - maybe someone sitting on a stone and thinking up the next Facebook or hitting their head and coming up with a Flux Capacitor.  
However, for many of our clients involved in engineering research, this is hardly the case.  It takes many years of toil, guiding graduate students, dealing with lots of challenges, and only the faintest prospect that what they’re doing is going to pay off in a big advancement.  

If we define innovation as expanding the physical or thinking capability of humankind, most of the work involved in research does not cause innovation.  It’s only at the very end of the work that some small expansion of human capability happens.  The issue my colleagues and I see over and over again is the effort it takes some researchers to pierce the edge and be innovative.

Coming to the aid of these struggling researchers is Moore’s Law.  The reason why Moore’s Law has persisted is that we use tools we’ve already created to come up with new tools. With each advancement, it gets easier to create and we end up with exponential increases in almost every area related to computation - including robotics, mechatronics, medical devices, and unmanned systems.

The biggest dichotomy in research progress now is between those who are adopting already developed platforms and components versus those who do it all from scratch... from bolts to code.  The latter still happens.  

In any physical research platform there are four key components - plant, power, data acquisition, and software.  Depending on the focus of research, we can accelerate research by adopting as many pre-built components as possible:

Software - open architecture that can allow for quick development of controllers and extend already existing code

Data Acquisition - reliable board spec’d to suit the application.  Building data acquisition (unless that’s the research focus) from scratch is usually a huge time sink for researchers.

Power - reliable power supply is very basic - very few researchers build power supplies from scratch now.

Plant - this is usually the heart of the research. Unless there are already existing plants that can be used for research, this is where to focus should be.

There has been an explosion of creativity in the DIY community because of the increasing ease and falling cost of the software, power, and data acquisition. This creativity is only starting to spill over into engineering research.  The mindset of throwing a limitless number of grad students at a problem is slowly evaporating and being replaced with finding the tools that will get researchers to publishable content more quickly.

As the price of these tools drops and they get easier to use, the challenge of innovating will be more on coming up with new earth-shattering ideas.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Three R's of Control Systems

Over the past six months, I have been immered in a series of amazing new experiences at Quanser. When I joined the company, I was aware of Quanser's well-earned global reputation for delivering the best technology of control system experiments, but every day, I seem to learn something new about just how creative and innovative this company has been. It's easy to see this when you look at our solutions for the hot applications areas such as unmanned aerial systems (Qball) or haptics (HD^2), but one of themost impressive things for me was the elegance of what is considered our "bread and butter" product line - the rotary solutions family based on the SRV02 servo motor. I contributed this article recently for one of our business partners but I thought it might be good to reprise it for our blog. A good story is always woth hearing over and over again ... even if it's not as earth shattering as ...say... our Shake Table!

Mechatronics - Synonym with Modern Control Systems
Modern control systems are one of the most significant engineering achievements of the past two decades. These marvels govern the latest high-performance automobile, next-generation renewable energy plants, and countless miracle medical devices. Though the formal science of control systems have existed for over half a century, modern control techniques combine the amazing advances of the computer revolution with the artistry of traditional engineering design, and the fundamental physics of engineering science. The new discipline of mechatronics is closely related if not synonymous with modern control systems.

Adapting Curriculum to Reflect Real Challenges
From, an education perspective however, this exciting new context has been nothing short of a nightmare as professors rush to update curriculum to reflect modern realities. Revising courses that must now seamlessly integrate mathematical and modeling theory, computing and programming, electronics and sensors, and conventional engineering device design embody one of the grand educational challenges of our time.
The engineers at Quanser, believe they have an important part of the solution. Long known for their innovative designs for advanced research devices for mechatronics and control systems, they directed the same creative energy towards the primary experimental platform for educational applications.

The Quanser Rotary Control Workstation is a uniquely modular experimental platform that will guide students from the most fundamental of control concepts to advanced concepts needed for modern industry and research. The foundation is the humble SRV02 Base Unit (the "heart" of the system). The SRV02 through its controlled rotations can then drive a series of modular experiments numbering no less than eleven. The experiment modules range from the classic Inverted Pendulum (which never fails to draw a chuckle from students), to various industrial robot configurations, to the seemingly magical 2 DOF Ball Balancer. The appeal of this system is not so much the cool factor of the experiments but the educational philosophy designed into the platform.

Relevant, Realistic, Rigorous
Quanser education solutions follow the three R's: relevant, realistic, and rigorous. Relevance comes from a rich combination of industrial relevance (i.e. learning the skills that companies are demanding) and simple fun (you really have to experience one to appreciate this). The realistic quality stems from a careful balance of industry-reflective complexity with student-appropriate constraints that not only challenges but also makes the experiments accessible and engaging. And finally, Quanser engineers believe that rigor cannot be sacrificed for fun. Consequently, all of the experiment modules are complemented with extensive curriculum resources that takes students through the conceptual and modelling background of the experiment, and recommended exercises.

In the modern world, I don't think you could ever do real engineering without seeing the total picture. This includes the device, the software driving the device, and the math that describes the behaviour. We try to reflect this big picture in everything we do. Indeed, the Quanser Rotary solutions have now been adopted by over 2,000 universities worldwide and continues to enrich its reputation as uniquely comprehensive. 

- Tom Lee, Chief Education Officer, Quanser

Want to see how your peers use the rotary control experiments in their labs? Visit our Rotary Control Lab YouTube Channel.

Host Blocks in QUARC 2.2

In our previous blogs we introduced some of the new features of the now-released version 2.2 of our QUARC control software. Today, let's have a look at the Host Blocks in QUARC 2.2:

Redesigned Host Peripheral Framework
In previous versions, QUARC supported the use of peripherals connected to the host interacting with models running on either host or target. In QUARC 2.2, this feature has been updated by introducing a new framework to enhance usability and performance.

Features included in this new framework:
  •  A new Host Initialize block,
  • Updated blocks for devices, such as keyboard, mouse and game controller,
  • The ability to use host devices with remote targets even without Simulink running on the host,
  • The option of restricting the use of host devices to a single window on the host rather than the entire desktop.

Host Initialize Block
The Host Initialize, similar to HIL Initialize, is introduced to work as a hub for configurations and settings of the peripherals on the host PC.

Host Keyboard Block
In the previous versions, interacting with multiple keys by using the Host Keyboard blocks could lead to a messy pile of Host Keyboard blocks occupying the entire screen as the old block only processes one key per block. Thanks to the updated framework, this situation becomes history. By defining the list of keys in the block parameters dialog, the block reads the state of the specified virtual keys on the host and outputs a vector of boolean values to indicate whether or not the keys are pressed at the current sampling instant. Also, it can read the state of more than one key at the same time. Please watch the video clip in the Host Device Usage Restriction section below to see how this block works.

Host Mouse Block
The updated Host Mouse Block brings more functionality into the equation. On top of the absolute coordinates and button monitoring functions offered in the previous version, it also supports scroll wheel state monitoring (Windows Vista or later), output mouse coordinates in pixels, in screen percentage, or high resolution count.


Controlling Remote Targets With Host Devices Without Simulink Running on the Host
A new client program Host Peripheral Client has been added into QUARC 2.2 to support the use of host peripherals without Simulink running. This program monitors host devices and communicates with the Host Initialize block running on a QUARC target. This application can be run manually via its menu item under the Start/Quanser/QUARC menu, or automatically when interfacing to the model through Simulink.


Host Device Usage Restriction
The input from host peripherals can be restricted to a window instead of the entire desktop. By checking the "Use a window instead of entire desktop" option in the Host Initialize block, a special "peripheral client window" will open when the model is started (or the Host Peripheral Client application is started). Actions from host peripherals will only be recognized when this window is the active window. Otherwise they are ignored. This feature can be useful for taking advantage of the mouse as a host device, for example, because it allows button clicks and mouse movement outside the peripheral client window to be treated normally and be ignored by the model.  


Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Quanser at NIDays 2011 London, UK

If you are planning to attend this year's NIDays on Wednesday, November 9, 2011 at the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre in London, you'll have the opportunity to learn about some of the latest developments in controls education from Quanser.
Join the engineers from Quanser for a hands-on session Design and Implement Control Algorithms Using LabVIEW that will show you how practical, project-based learning can be an asset to engineering education. Experience for yourself how effective Quanser Engineering Trainers for NI ELVIS (QNETs) are in solving real-world control problems in the classroom. The one-hour session starts at 11:20 a.m. in the Wordsworth Room.

You'll also be able to see a live demonstration of Quanser's open architecture systems and learn how you can extend the functionality of National Instruments hardware and software with Quanser tools. Stop by the Quanser exhibit to see our rotary SRV02-based system, powered by NI CompatRIO and LabVIEW, in action. Talk with our representatives about your teaching and research needs.

Paul and Tom's Excellent Chinese Adventure

Part 1: How many engineering deans does it take to change the world?
The context is China … October 2011. Various academic societies including the International Federation of Engineering Education Societies (IFEES), the American Society of Engineering Education (ASEE), and the Global Engineering Deans Council (GEDC) converged over the span of a week in Beijing and then Shanghai to discuss a wide range of issues concerning the current state and the future of engineering education. The conference participants were an impressive collection of 300+ engineering deans and senior university administrators from all over the world. 

Expectedly, there was a healthy contingent from China who offered fascinating insights into the particular needs of an emerging industrial superpower and the consequent pressures it places on the engineering profession and indeed, their society. Delegates from the so-called "developed" economies, or as Dr.Christophe Guy of Montréal's École Polytechnique put it, "emerged" economies, of Western Europe and North America offered their insights as well. We also had healthy input from many "yet to emerge" economies. A common theme among all of us, however, was that of nurturing innovation in our collective and regional education practice. The world has changed and will continue to do so and we need to become more nimble and proactive to properly prepare our next generation engineers for some pretty immense challenges.

Okay … so that was the academic part. For Paul and me, part of our goal was to explore the role of technology in modern education thinking. So we got fairly adept at shifting from cocktail party mode bantering about pedagogy and bold new initiatives, to absorbing immense amounts of demographic data on the various jurisdictions during the plenary sessions, and, to be honest, engineering a few opportunities to show off a bit of Quanser's technology mojo. For this trip, it meant showing off a new concept for control systems lab exercises.

Part 2: How many CEOs does it take to set up a fancy new demo?
Recently, the engineering team produced a prototype of a new control systems lab concept based on our QET (Quanser Engineering Trainer), LabVIEW, and our QUARC visualization software module. That's not all that impressive on its own, but the creative piece was to marry the technology to an application framework that presents all of the foundational concepts of modern control design and analysis in a motivating, visual, and richly interactive environment. Instead of memorizing the dozen rules of construction for a root locus plot, students explore the impact that roots have on the behavior of a realistic system - like a car in motion on a winding road. Instead of limiting exercises to the most trivial of examples, students engage in true system level complexity where dynamic systems meet environmental factors, and are influenced by human factors. Instead of 60 students falling asleep in the lecture room, you have eyes popping and adults giggling like five-year olds.

I'll be posting more details on this new concept in a future article. In China, our hope was to demonstrate the new concept to some profs, students, and business partners. So Paul packed up a large plastic case with QETs, a laptop, joystick, and countless other doo-hickies needed to show the system and dragged it throughout China (and subsequently Japan) and unleashed the demo to the masses having no sense of what kind of a reaction we would get.

Imagine if you will, an unairconditioned lab at the Tsing Hua University in Beijing (either best or second best Chinese engineering university depending on who you talk to) filled with curious profs, lab technicians, and grad students struggling to break through the language barrier as Paul and I go through the ritual introductory material of our presentation … then Paul proceeds to do his song and dance with the demo. First, we sense an eerie silence … then we hear the deafening sound of twenty jaws dropping … and then I witness half the audience rushing toward Paul hoping to actually touch and try out the demo. The reaction was literally that dramatic. Justin Bieber could not have triggered a more enthusiastic reaction.

Giggles of delight erupts at the Beijing Institute of Technology as students and profs try out our new demo!

Imagine further, a cluttered hotel room in Shanghai (Paul's … I tend to fold and pack my clothes away in the closet neatly) … Paul has set up the complete demo system on a table and is enchanting the Dean of Engineering from a prominent university in the middle east (incidentally Paul was also at that moment, suffering from a combination a bad cold, jet lag and CCDOD -- Chinese Crispy Duck Overdose) with the same demo. What other CEO would have the brass fortune cookies to invite a dean of engineering to his hotel room for a demo session!

A Shanghai hotel room converted into Quanser's new Chinese Demo Outpost
I will publicly commend my friend Paul for doing such an outstanding job at presenting this exciting concept. Having worked at a math company for so many years, my brain was trying to reconcile the equation:

CEO + CEdO + PC + 2QET + DAQ + 3 missing cables - demo engineer = chaos and humiliation

But somehow Paul managed to pull it together. Not only did he pour his heart and soul into the task but he was able to figure out all the nuts and bolts of the rig as well as any application engineer I've ever worked with. If that CEO gig doesn't work out, I'm sure we can find a good job for him in the field ;-)

- Tom Lee -

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Innovative Ways of Teaching Control Concepts—Who Benefits Most?

I’m relatively new at Quanser, but already I’ve been given an opportunity to contribute to an exciting new initiative that aims to make controls education more engaging and effective for both students and professors. During my second week on the job, I was invited to a presentation given by Jacob Apkarian on a new approach to controls education.

Student Participation is Key
Jacob began by outlining the long-accepted, fundamental elements of a successful undergraduate laboratory. These include such essentials as experimentation, creativity, teamwork, communication, design and learning from failure. He then went on to propose a new and final element in the success of any laboratory: student participation. In order to motivate students to fully participate in the laboratory, he outlined three additional requirements:
  1. Relevance: Foster an appreciation for the value of the theory being learned by connecting the theoretical concepts to real-world applications
  2. Career: Use contemporary technology and tools to prepare students for industrial requirements
  3. Research: Promote self-directed learning to further their knowledge beyond the lab requirements
Accelerated Controls Education with the Quanser Driving Simulator
Since that meeting, I’ve become heavily involved in the project that Jacob outlined that afternoon. As you may have guessed, the primary goal of the laboratory is to take the normally dry and math-oriented control systems curriculum and make it relevant and engaging, while still covering the requisite curriculum goals of the course. To accomplish this audacious goal, Jacob and other members of the engineering team at Quanser created an equally audacious solution—the Quanser Driving Simulator (QDS).

The QDS structure allows students to design an autonomous driver model, as well as controllers for several hardware-in-the-loop components.

The QDS is a modular and expandable Simulink model of a car driving on a closed track. The model uses the QUARC Visualization block to immerse students in a highly detailed 3D environment. Through the use of real-time hardware-in-the-loop (HIL) components, students are able to gain an immediate real-world context for the control topics being covered. Here you can see the QDS in action:


An Immersive Experience for Students 
The system can be used to teach a wide-variety of topics including PD velocity control of a DC motor, PI position control of a DC motor, state-space modeling and control of an active suspension system, and autonomous vehicle navigation.

Moreover, students are able to design, model and
implement control systems with the objective of creating functional automotive analogs including a parking assist system, radar guided cruise control, active suspension, etc. In keeping with our goals, the laboratory curriculum is designed to promote critical thinking and big-picture analysis to make students’ observations relevant to real-world concepts.

The laboratory sessions conclude with a research or competitive component that prompts students to develop creative, new approaches to the challenge while gaining a better grasp of conventional approaches to engineering research and development.

A Paradigm Shift in Curriculum Development
Beyond the specifics of the lab and equipment, the QDS marks a paradigm shift in the way we approach laboratory curriculum development. The QDS serves as a model for a new lab-in-a-box concept where entire laboratory curriculum is developed as a virtual, hardware-independent session. Core topics of control systems are covered as elements of a larger real-world topic to highlight how and why engineers use control systems everyday. In essence, the labs answer the burning question of “why should I care?”

Everyone Benefits Equally
Innovative and dynamic, it advances the way control systems and engineering pedagogy are addressed in the laboratory. It’s a revolutionary new approach that offers great benefits to teachers and students alike. I am proud to be a part of it.