Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Why Do So Many Professors Consider the Shake Table II Essential To Their Labs?

In two previous blog posts about Quanser shake tables, we introduced the shake table family and then featured the largest of our offerings in this category, the Shake Table III.  In this blog post we cast the spotlight on the Shake Table II.

The most popular of all Quanser shake tables, the Shake Table II is found in university engineering labs all around the world.  A heavy load, bench-scale, single-axis shaker, this table features a wide surface that can easily hold a number of structures and accommodate complex as well as simple experiments. These factors, along with its convenient portability, make the Shake Table II particularly useful in teaching and research labs. Read on to see how it is being put to work today.
The most popular member of the Quanser Shake Table family, the bench-scale Shake Table II simulates earthquake movements along a single axis and can move a substantial 7.5 kg load at 2.5 g.  It features a wide surface that  can accommodate several structures and increase the complexity of your experiments.

University of East London, London, UK:  Easy to use, portable and ideal for teaching
Students from more than 100 countries attend the University of East London, and many of the students who study civil engineering return to countries that are affected by seismic activity. Dr. Mihaela Anca Ciupala, Program Leader at the university’s School of Computing, Information Technology and Engineering (CITE), is very pleased with the learning opportunities made possible with Quanser’s Shake Table II.

The table is used in a number of study areas, including the determination of natural frequencies in multi-DOF structures, and the seismic response of building frames. The Shake Table II provides students with valuable, hands-on experimental experience along with a better understanding of the theoretical concepts presented in CITE’s Civil Engineering courses. It has also enabled research in such areas as seismic response of base-isolated structures and soil-structure interaction.

Dr. Anca Ciupala cites several reasons the Shake Table II was added to their lab. “It’s ideal for teaching purposes because it is easy to use, accessible, portable. And since it has simple software operation, it helps a large number of students to understand and complete projects in a relatively short time.”

University of Alaska, Anchorage, USA:  Provides a real world model that makes abstract seismic concepts easier to understand
Alaska has felt the terrible effects of at least one catastrophic earthquake in the past, and with an eye to preventing serious damage in the future, Professor Zhaohui Yang of the University of Alaska’s Department of Civil Engineering wanted to help the general public experience a vivid demonstration the nature of seismic destruction.

To that end, he and his students created a series of mini-laboratories to showcase structural and geotechnical aspects of earthquake damage, including the effects of a mass damper on a one-story building, as well as the effects of liquefaction on a one-story building. According to Professor Yang, these simulations “provided a real-world model to an otherwise abstract concept, making these concepts easier for the general public to understand.”

The Shake Table II served Professor Yang’s purposes because “it can accurately mimic seismic activity and test building seismic performance”.  The Shake Table II’s small scale and portability offered additional advantages, since it is simple to work with in the lab and easy to transport to public demonstration sites.

The Shake Table workstation consists of (from right to left)  the blue Shake Table II; on top of it is the one-story Quanser-made model structure, which is connected to the power module in the center of the photo; MATLAB software can be seen on the computer screen.  (University of Alaska photos)

Tongji University, Shanghai, China: Worldwide popularity makes it ideal for collaborative projects
Professor Haibei Xiong, Dean of Tongji University’s College of Civil Engineering, acquired Tongji’s first Shake Table II in 2006 and two more in 2012. The shake tables are used for teaching, conducting structural experiments, and especially for student structural competitions. They use QUARC® with MATLAB®/Simulink® software, and an active mass damper for demo purposes.

Professor Xiong finds the shake tables worthy additions to their lab for several reasons.  To begin with, the shake tables’ small scale means students can do experiments easily and safely. There is no additional maintenance cost, so a lab assistant isn’t needed.

She appreciates the fact that QUARC’s open architecture control software, working with MATLAB/Simulink, makes it easy to control several tables at the same time. That capability made the school decide to acquire additional Shake Table II’s. This allows them to conduct multi-point shaking experiments on a bridge structure, and also work on shaking a bigger structure with several small shake tables.

The fact that many civil engineering schools in China are doing collaborative work with universities in North America that use the Shake Table II is another reason for the Quanser Shake Table II’s popularity and presence at Tongji University. The school plans to acquire an additional two Shake Table II’s in the near future. 

Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana, USA: Sheer convenience of complete system provides true flexibility
Professor Shirley Dyke is professor of mechanical engineering and civil engineering, at the School of Civil Engineering at Purdue University.

She uses the Shake Table II and an Active Mass Damper Controller to teach Structural Dynamics to her first year graduate students. Specifically the Shake Table helps demonstrate the dynamics of building structures.  A key reason the Shake Table has a place in her lab is simple convenience. “The system consists not only of a shake table, but includes accelerometers, test structures, data acquisition and a computer to record data and control the shake table itself,” she says. “It gives us desired flexibility in performing experiments.”

In 1999, Professor Dyke was one of the founders of the University Consortium on Instructional Shake Tables (UCIST), a group whose goal was to introduce earthquake simulators into classroom teaching.  In fact, the Shake Table II was built in cooperation with UCIST, and UCIST now recommends it as a turnkey solution for teaching structural dynamics to civil engineers.

Cornell University, New York, USA:  Brings earthquake simulations to life in the classroom
Professor Anthony Ingraffea believes that his students grasp structural dynamics concepts better when those concepts are brought to life through real world earthquake simulations in the classroom. Cornell University’s School of Civil and Environmental Engineering uses a Quanser Shake Table II for that reason.

Typically Professor Ingraffea organizes students into teams that design and build model structures, then test the structural integrity of their designs in a big “shake-off”. The Shake Table and the simulations effectively mimic the real world and bring theory to life for the students.  Professor Ingraffea feels that the Quanser Shake Table II has motivated five generations of Cornell freshmen to better understand the theory of structural dynamics.

University of California, Davis, California, USA:  An essential tool for education, research and outreach
The Shake Table II is a very popular lab tool at University of California, Davis, according to Nima Tafazzoli, postdoctoral researcher in the school’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. It’s used for teaching, research, and outreach.

At the undergraduate level, it helps professors teach classes and seminars in civil and environmental engineering. At the graduate level, it demonstrates the response of single or multiple degrees of freedom structures subjected to earthquakes. As a research tool, the Shake Table II is involved in several projects at Departments of Civil and Environmental Engineering as well as Mechanical and Aeronautical Engineering when dynamic load is required to be applied to the system. The Shake Table II has also been featured in outreach programs, and is an essential tool in entry in the national seismic design competitions.  UC Davis chose the Shake Table II because it is easy to set up, use and transport, without requiring the work of a group of lab assistants. They find it an engaging way to demonstrate the actual behavior of structures and see it as safer to use than most lab equipment, especially with inexperienced students.

Stay tuned to our blog for another post in this Shake Table series. For more information about Quanser Shake Table solutions, click here.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Can Engineering Theory Ever Be Fun?

This year again Quanser joined Electrical and Computer Engineering Department Heads for their annual ECEDHA conference, held in Florida. It was the first conference I have attended as a part of Quanser team, so it was a great opportunity for me to meet people who may be using our systems in their labs and talk to them about the best ways to deliver engineering education and make it attractive to young generation.

Can Engineering Theory Ever be Fun? Quanser’s Chief Education Officer, Dr. Tom Lee, raised this question in his ECE Spotlight presentation. The short answer, in my opinion, is yes, it can be - with hands-on labs that offer a more industrially-relevant and motivating experience. A key objective is balancing the motivation and the fun with the rigorous traditions of engineering. 

To make things even more fun, Quanser developed a driving simulator, a solution that introduces students to engineering concepts through a highly visual, immersive, video game-like environment while maintaining the conceptual connection to engineering methodology and applications.

ECEDHA delegates not only heard about the driving simulator, but visiting Quanser’s booth they could also experience for themselves this dynamic, real-time, Hardware- in-the-Loop simulation and high fidelity 3D representation of a vehicle driven in a closed racing track environment. Solutions like this help students learn to observe and think critically about the effects of system parameters on not just the discrete plant, but also on the overall system.

Many people who stopped by our booth decided to try their hand at driving our car around the track (which became much more interesting after cocktail hour). 

ECEDHA 2013 was my first conference with Quanser (and this is my first blog post). I would like to thank everyone for making it a great experience. Your comments on how to make engineering theory "fun" are welcome and your feedback is greatly appreciated.

Abdullah Dhooma
Product Marketing Engineer, Quanser

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The 2013 Waterloo Mechatronics Symposium: A Showcase For Inventive Student Capstone Projects

Quanser is a provider of educational teaching and research tools for controls, robotic and mechatronics. So when the Mechanical and Mechatronics Engineering Department of the University of Waterloo, considered by many to be Canada’s top engineering school, invited us to be a part of their annual Mechatronics Symposium, we accepted with alacrity.

The Mechatronics Symposium is an end-of-year capstone project showcase for Waterloo’s fourth year engineering students. The challenge for the students is to work in teams to design and build prototypes of commercially viable products that promise to improve the quality of life in big and small ways. Once again Waterloo’s senior engineering students more than met that challenge.

This year, Quanser was represented by Paul Gilbert, Quanser’s CEO and Dr. Tom Lee, Quanser’s Chief Education Officer and a University of Waterloo graduate. Their first duty was to be part of the larger panel of judges of the Symposium, but they also spent a good deal of time mingling and talking to students and faculty alike.
Paul Gilbert, Quanser CEO, and Dr. Tom Lee, Quanser Chief Education Officer, were part of the judging panel that  collectively assessed over 150 capstone projects from fourth year engineering students at the University of Waterloo's 2013 Mechatronics Symposium.
Both Paul and Tom found the quality of the presentations first-rate. “I loved talking to the students,” Paul says. “Across the board they’re incredibly bright and completely focused on problem solving, and that’s typical of Waterloo-trained engineers.” Proof that that’s not mere flattery: upwards of 50% of Quanser engineers are Waterloo graduates and half of the company’s management team are Waterloo grads as well.

Over 150 diverse projects were presented over the course of the day. They ranged from a single player air-hockey table and an automated egg washer for small scale farms, to a portable water purification system that can be attached to a bicycle and a search-and-rescue robot that replaces a rescue worker. 

Quanser was pleased to sponsor a $500 prize for Best Presentation, which went to the team known as Group 11. Their project was an automated Laparoscopic Suturing Tool that could assist in abdominal surgery. It was designed in collaboration with KidsArm Project researchers at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, Ontario.

The award for Best Presentation, sponsored by Quanser, went to Group 11 for their Automated Laparoscopic Suturing Tool.  Shown above: Karl Price, Angelica Ruszkowski (Group 11); Professor Jan Huissoon, Chair of the Department of Mechanical and Mechatronics Engineering, University of Waterloo; Brock Kopp (Group 11); Professor Willaim Melek, Director of Mechatronics Engineering, University of Waterloo.
At the end of the day, Paul Gilbert summed up his experience. “I learned a lot today and was completely energized by the dedication and skills of these fourth year students. In talking to them I saw they found hands-on engineering incredibly motivating, which is one of our core beliefs at Quanser and which guides us as we produce teaching and research tools. This program is representative of the best of today’s engineering schools – the ones that are forging a path to developing a new breed of interdisciplinary-skilled engineers. We’re honored to be so closely associated with them and will continue to support them in the years to come.”

Friday, April 5, 2013

Zen and the art of raising teenagers

Click here to watch the FIRST GTA West Regionals in full swing
Nothing could be more terrifying to most adults than being surrounded by thousands of sleep-deprived, cola-filled teenagers wielding power tools … unless you're at a FIRST Robotics competition, of course. Quanser, once again, was an active participant in this highly successful annual competition designed to give young nerds, and young nerd wannabes a chance to show off their cerebral mojo. This past week was the Greater Toronto Regional, one of the largest and most prestigious among the many FIRST regional tournaments. I had the pleasure of being Judge Advisor for the event. Joining me as part of the Judge team were Quanser engineers Peter Martin and Abdullah Dhooma. On the field, the newest Quanser engineer, Gilbert Lai was a mentor for Team 771 affectionately known as SWAT. Additionally, Quanser was once again the proud sponsor of Team 4001, the Rams of St. Robert CHS of Thornhill near Toronto. Our team competed in the Toronto East competition and Calgary.

This interaction with a high school competitions has multiple benefits for Quanser. At a pure business level, our future success depends on our ability to offer relevant products and services to a greater range of audiences. The fact that the K12 world has thoroughly embraced robotics and key essential concepts of control means our experiences today can help secure our success tomorrow. But perhaps the more important benefit is almost spiritual in nature. The competition depends largely on volunteers and in many cases, these volunteers are seasoned technical professional who sacrifice their own time to guide the teams through the monumental challenges that are at the heart of FIRST. I and my Quanser colleagues are examples of such people and year after year, we emerge from these sweaty, exhausting weekends with a newly found faith in the future and our youth. Any notion of the emerging generation being somewhat unfocused, or dispirited, or any disenchantments about the increasing volatility and meanness in society magically vanish for an all too brief moment.

I am currently in the latter stages of shepherding two teenagers into adulthood and like most parents in may phase, a large part of our lives is dedicated in worrying about whether we've provided the best guidance and environment for our kids to learn to make the best choices in life. At home, it's all too easy to dwell on the mistakes that we make as parents or our kids make as … well … kids. Or we repeatedly stress over things that didn't quite turn out as you thought they would or should. At a FIRST competition, you only see the good. Although there are countless disappointments — breakdowns, strategy errors, bad timing, and even the theft of an entire trailer full of essential equipment — the teams manage to achieve miracles. For judges like myself, the toughest part is figuring out how best to commend and congratulate students without resorting to clichés and overused platitudes. "Great job!" and "Way to go!" do not come close to capturing all the nuanced dimensions of success that the teams achieve. But in the end, we all get through it and the most precious part of the experience for us volunteers is we learn to become positive again and things make much more sense when we get home. Yes, it is true that a bulldozer could not clear away the clutter in my daughter's room but that is so insignificant when you consider that she pulled herself to an A grade from an earlier state of sheer terror in her AP math course.

I have been involved in one way or another with the FIRST program for almost twenty years but this year was my most active. And every year the importance of this competition becomes ever more clear. I consider myself extremely fortunate that I get to enjoy all of these existential and spiritual benefits but there are also distinct and real benefits to the company. Indeed it was at a FIRST event when Quanser CEO Paul Gilbert and Founder Jacob Apkarian ambushed me and persuaded me to sign on the dotted line. A very prophetic moment indeed.

P.S. Our team 4001 in their second year of competition was awarded the Innovation in Control award — an award typically won by the most seasoned and technically accomplished teams. I guess it's not a bad thing to have a leading mechatronic company as your mentors!

Tom Lee
Chief Education Officer, Quanser

Introducing the QUBE Servo – a Streamlined, Cost-Effective Way to Teach Introductory Controls

Imagine the well known high quality of a Quanser rotary servo motor experiment that is smaller than our flagship rotary servo base unit. Imagine this new experiment features fully integrated components instead of external, plug-in peripherals. Imagine it is remarkably simple for students to use. Now go further and imagine it comes with proven courseware that helps professors teach some of the same fundamental control principles as the Rotary Servo Base Unit.

Interesting? Engineering educators we’ve spoken with have replied with a resounding “yes”. But here’s the most interesting feature about the compact new rotary servo—its cost, which because of its simplicity and compactness is significantly lower than our traditional Rotary Servo Base Unit, in fact low enough to make Quanser’s hands-on approach to teaching controls an affordable choice for virtually any educational institution in the world, no matter what the local economic pressures are. This new solution is called the QUBE-Servo. It will be available from Quanser later this spring.

The QUBE-Servo is designed for maximum simplicity and ease of use. When released, it will feature two add-on modules, the inertia wheel and the inverted pendulum.

A Budget-Friendly Solution that Upgrades Your Controls Lab
Engineering schools around the world face real funding challenges. As strong as those challenges are for institutions in North America and Europe, they can be daunting for schools in the developing world. Consequently, teaching solutions that are both cost-efficient and effective are needed more than ever.

The low cost QUBE-Servo is Quanser’s new turn-key solution to help engineering institutions and educators meet this need. Budget-challenged professors can now outfit their labs with control technology that’s notable for its high quality, ease of use, small footprint and safety, all in a cost effective way. Students will derive a deep learning experience from the QUBE’s hands-on experiments and courseware that allow them to make the connection between their classroom studies to the real world applications and problems they want to solve. 

Teach Fundamental Control Concepts, Lab by Lab
Upon release in the spring, the QUBE-Servo will be available with two add-on control modules—the inertia wheel and the inverted pendulum—plus full courseware for both. For the inertia control wheel experiment, students learn first-principle derivation, experimental derivation, transfer function representation, stability analysis, model validation and PD. For the inverted pendulum experiment, students learn state-space representation, balance control, optimal LQR control design, energy-based swing-up control.

A Brief Technical Tour
The QUBE-Servo is a fully integrated plant, with USB-based data acquisition system and amplifier all in one. It comes with two add-on modules that quick-connect to it magnetically. It features one USB 2.0 port that connects to a PC or laptop. No tools or additional cabling are required. The integrated components are fully supported by our Rapid Control Prototyping Toolkit software add-on for LabVIEW™ and our own QUARC® rapid control prototyping software. The data acquisition card has two encoder inputs for the motor itself and for whichever module you connect to it, as well as an analog output to control the motor itself. The PWM-based amplifier has been designed specifically for the QUBE’s motor. The QUBE can also be ordered with a Direct I/O interface that allows the QUBE to be connected directly to an external DAQ.
Instead of separate, plug-in peripherals, the QUBE Rotary Servo contains a fully-integrated plant, USB-based data acquisition system and amplifier, all-in-one. Its dimensions (L x W x H) are 102 mm x 102 mm x 118 mm.

Differences between the QUBE-Servo and the Rotary Servo
The flagship Rotary Servo Base Unit is designed to be extremely versatile and reconfigurable. It accommodates an extensive system of add-on experiment modules, amplifiers and data acquisition boards. To run an experiment you first select and externally connect the data acquisition board and amplifier you need, along with the rotary plant that you’re actually going to use. Such reconfigurability is particularly useful if you need a flexible lab, or if you are sharing lab equipment across departments with different needs.  The Rotary Servo Base Unit currently accepts ten add-on experiment modules and has the bandwidth and robustness needed to validate simple to advanced control algorithms developed by researchers in a variety of application fields and scenarios.

The QUBE-Servo provides maximum simplicity and ease of use.  Its major components are already integrated into one unit and are not designed to be reconfigured or “swapped out”. Two add-on modules will be immediately available for the QUBE: the inertia wheel and the inverted pendulum. Both allow professors to teach some of the same fundamental control concepts as the equivalent modules on the Rotary Servo Base Unit. 

The QUBE-Servo will be available this spring. To find out the release date, please contact Abdullah Dhooma, Product Marketing Engineer at Quanser.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Listen, Learn, Understand – My Passage Through India

I recently returned from an eight day trip to India that was unlike any other business trip I’ve ever taken.  That’s quite a statement since in the past 25 years, I’ve taken quite a few and to all parts of the world. This trip was intriguing for two reasons.  First, I have a personal connection to India. My father was raised there. As a result, I felt quite at home in a country that most Westerners find overwhelming or exotic. In fact, many of the people I met on this trip reminded me of my family members.

Second, this is a unique and pivotal moment for India.  Home to 1.1 billion people, this diverse and huge nation is on the verge of taking a front row position on the world stage. Virtually every area of this complex society is modernizing at a rapid pace, and no part so rapidly or comprehensively as its educational system.
For the past decade at least, India has been investing heavily in education.  It is building schools, investing in equipment, expanding and developing faculty.  This investment is being spearheaded not only at the government level, but by expatriate Indians who are returning to India to invest and modernize.

This intense focus on education seems to be reaching a tipping point, as two of the country’s biggest goals are to provide education for everyone at a young age, and to vastly improve the availability of a quality, high level technical education.  We believe Quanser can play an important role in achieving the latter goal.

Paul Gilbert of Quanser (right)  and members of the City of Markham, Ontario, Trade Mission meet with IIT-Madras  faculty members to develop a better understanding of the challenges facing engineering educators in India. 
An Immense Need for Quality Engineering Graduates
As in other countries, India’s engineering education occurs on many levels. The Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) specialize in high level engineering education, much like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) does in the United States.  Eight IITs exist at the moment, with another eight scheduled to come on stream by 2015.  Over 100 Tier 1 universities have engineering departments, while approximately another 3,500 Tier 2 schools (public and private) also teach engineering or engineering technology. Ten years ago this system was graduating well under 100,000 engineers annually; today, they are graduating 700,000 engineers a year. (This compares to 7,000 annually in Canada and 65,000 in the United States.)  Anecdotally, only 25 per cent of that number is immediately employable, while the remaining graduates need some degree of retraining after they get jobs in industry. 

Clearly it’s not hard to identify India’s major technical educational issue – Quality; in that I include quality teaching and research materials, courseware, faculty development and overall best practices for motivating the new generation of engineering students.

The need to enhance Quality in engineering education is why Quanser is paying such attention to India.  We’re recognized around the world as a provider of high quality engineering educational materials for teaching and research in controls and robotics. 

Understanding the Challenges and Opportunities
My role on this trip was to gain a deeper, detailed understanding of the challenges faced by India’s different engineering institutions. To that end, I met with senior level educators and government officials in seven cities: Gandhinagar, Chennai, Mumbai, Madras, Delhi, Jodhpur, and Coimbatore.

During that process, we started identifying ways Quanser solutions and services could help meet the diverse schools’ needs. I also took part in conversations with key educational, government and industry decision makers, to learn how they saw their institutions growing in the coming years, and how they could efficiently and effectively make their schools into models of 21st century engineering education.

Certainly such a conversation extends far beyond selling equipment. It involves a strategic discussion of so many things, including ways to raise the level of teaching, how to set up a modern controls and robotics labs, ways to encourage collaborative projects between Canadian and Indian universities, the potential of various virtual lab programs, how and when to conduct training, workshops and much more.

These conversations often centered on ways to excite and motivate the new generation of engineering students. Like their North American counterparts, these young Indian women and men respond to new methods, materials and learning environments. Theirs is the first generation of engineering students entering university familiar with cell phones, video games and tablets; a generation that is characterized by short attention spans, a remarkable ability to multi-task, and a strong interest in hands-on, practical learning.  Understanding them is the key to our helping Indian educational institutions achieve success.

Sunny Ray (left), Quanser's Channel Manager for South Asia and India, is working closely with Quanser CEO Paul Gilbert  (right)  to inform Indian engineering professors and deans of the ways engineering education can be enhanced through a strategic relationship with Quanser. 

This trip was not a one-man enterprise – far from it. Working closely with me was Sunny Ray, Quanser’s Channel Manager for South Asia and India. Sunny was tireless, meeting with engineering professors and deans to discuss the state of their curriculum, and joining the City of Markham, Ontario, Canada’s Trade Mission, which was meeting with Indian business and government officials.  He gave numerous presentations about Quanser, which is itself based in Markham. Thank you, Sunny, for your stalwart efforts.

Modernizing a Nation Through Education
To sum up, this trip represents to me a significant milestone in our efforts to understand the diverse, worldwide marketplace, as we strive to provide the cost effective and pedagogical effectively solutions our clients require.  For our colleagues and clients in India, we’re attempting nothing less than helping them build their nation through education. That’s a source of immense satisfaction for us.

This trip was a milestone on a very personal level as well.  Given my family’s connection to India, I take great pride in the fact that Quanser is committed to helping one of the oldest cultures in the world transform itself into one of the most vibrant modern communities in the future.

-       -  Paul Gilbert
Paul Gilbert is Chief Executive Officer of Quanser, Inc.