News Article | February 4, 2016
(Phys.org)—A new technique developed by researchers at East China University of Science and Technology and Shanghai Jiao Tong University has led to the development of a high-strength carbon nanotube film that retains much of the elasticity of native carbon nanotubes. In their paper published in the journal Nano Letters, the team describes their technique and the characteristics of the materials they made.
News Article | August 31, 2016
Never forget that China has a “managed economy.” The national government may have embraced elements of capitalism a generation ago, but the country’s leaders are well aware of the problems that can result if capitalism is allowed to run wild. “Boom or bust” syndrome is something the government thinks is bad for the economy in general and especially bad for the burgeoning electric car industry. To date, more than 200 Chinese startups have announced plans to build an electric car. 100 years ago, every blacksmith and bicycle mechanic in the world was busy building an automobile in the barn at night. Then they started companies to manufacture their creations. Worldwide, thousands if not tens of thousands of nascent car companies have failed over the last century or more. China looks at the money investors lost backing all those companies that never were. From its managed economy perspective, it thinks funneling more investment into companies that are economically viable is better for the nation than throwing good money after bad and letting market forces determine the winners and losers. Today in China, every refrigerator manufacturer, moped maker, and backyard tinkerer is jumping into the electric vehicle game. A lot of that frenzy of enthusiasm is fueled by generous government incentives that make “new energy vehicles” affordable for the masses. Those incentives can amount to as much as 60% of the sticker price of a new energy car, which has sparked a huge demand from the public. Right now in China, more than 4000 new models of electric cars are under development. Many of those small companies have no experience building automobiles. Their cars are shoddily made and service after the sale is non-existent. The government of China says it will now pick the winners itself. Soon, entrepreneurs will need a license from the government to become an automobile manufacturer. (Existing companies like SAIC and BYD will not need to apply for licenses.) According to reports, no more than 10 licenses will be issued — a very small number for such a large country. “There are too many entrants in the sector, and some of them are just speculators,” said Yin Chengliang, a professor at Shanghai Jiao Tong University’s Institute of Automotive Engineering. “The government has to raise the threshold. It’s bad to see irrational investments in projects with low technology levels.” 335,000 new energy vehicles were sold in China last year. By 2025, the government wants that number to rise to 3,000,000 vehicles a year. It will be boom times for whichever companies survive the permitting process. China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology published a draft policy document for public comment this month. It listed 17 technologies that companies that intend to sell electric cars must have in order to ensure “healthy” development of the industry. The factors include a control system for the performance and stability of any new energy vehicle, an information system that tracks the sources and conditions of key parts, and a process for recycling or reusing batteries. Citing unnamed sources, Economic Daily, an official newspaper run by the State Council, says 90% of the companies currently developing EV platforms won’t be able to meet the standards in two years. A lot of money has been invested in those companies already. “There’s definitely a bubble,” said Yale Zhang, a managing director at researcher Autoforesight Shanghai Co. “If you don’t own the core technology and can’t build up the brand, it’s ‘game over’ very quickly once you burn through the cash.” Drive an electric car? Complete one of our short surveys for our next electric car report. Keep up to date with all the hottest cleantech news by subscribing to our (free) cleantech newsletter, or keep an eye on sector-specific news by getting our (also free) solar energy newsletter, electric vehicle newsletter, or wind energy newsletter.
Inside a large, windowless room in an electronics factory in south Shanghai, about 15 workers are eyeing a small robot arm with frustration. Near the end of the production line where optical networking equipment is being packed into boxes for shipping, the robot sits motionless. “The system is down,” explains Nie Juan, a woman in her early 20s who is responsible for quality control. Her team has been testing the robot for the past week. The machine is meant to place stickers on the boxes containing new routers, and it seemed to have mastered the task quite nicely. But then it suddenly stopped working. “The robot does save labor,” Nie tells me, her brow furrowed, “but it is difficult to maintain.” The hitch reflects a much bigger technological challenge facing China’s manufacturers today. Wages in Shanghai have more than doubled in the past seven years, and the company that owns the factory, Cambridge Industries Group, faces fierce competition from increasingly high-tech operations in Germany, Japan, and the United States. To address both of these problems, CIG wants to replace two-thirds of its 3,000 workers with machines this year. Within a few more years, it wants the operation to be almost entirely automated, creating a so-called “dark factory.” The idea is that with so few people around, you could switch the lights off and leave the place to the machines. But as the idle robot arm on CIG’s packaging line suggests, replacing humans with machines is not an easy task. Most industrial robots have to be extensively programmed, and they will perform a job properly only if everything is positioned just so. Much of the production work done in Chinese factories requires dexterity, flexibility, and common sense. If a box comes down the line at an odd angle, for instance, a worker has to adjust his or her hand before affixing the label. A few hours later, the same worker might be tasked with affixing a new label to a different kind of box. And the following day he or she might be moved to another part of the line entirely. Despite the huge challenges, countless manufacturers in China are planning to transform their production processes using robotics and automation at an unprecedented scale. In some ways, they don’t really have a choice. Human labor in China is no longer as cheap as it once was, especially compared with labor in rival manufacturing hubs growing quickly in Asia. In Vietnam, Thailand, and Indonesia, factory wages can be less than a third of what they are in the urban centers of China. One solution, many manufacturers—and government officials—believe, is to replace human workers with machines. The results of this effort will be felt globally. Almost a quarter of the world’s products are made in China today. If China can use robots and other advanced technologies to retool types of production never before automated, that might turn the country, now the world’s sweatshop, into a hub of high-tech innovation. Less clear, however, is how that would affect the millions of workers recruited to China’s booming factories. There are still plenty of workers around now as I tour CIG’s factory with the company’s CEO, Gerald Wong, a compact man who earned degrees from MIT in the 1980s. We watch a team of people performing delicate soldering on circuit boards, and another group clicking circuit boards into plastic casings. Wong stops to demonstrate a task that is proving especially hard to automate: attaching a flexible wire to a circuit board. “It’s always curled differently,” he says with annoyance. But there are some impressive examples of automation creeping through Wong’s factory, too. As we walk by a row of machines that stamp chips into circuit boards, a wheeled robot roughly the size of a mini-fridge rolls by ferrying components in the other direction. Wong steps in front of the machine to show me how it will detect him and stop. In another part of the factory, we watch a robot arm grab finished circuit boards from a conveyor belt and place them into a machine that automatically checks their software. Wong explains that his company is testing a robot that does the soldering work we saw earlier more quickly and reliably than a person. After we finish the tour, he says, “It is very clear in China: people will either go into automation or they will go out of the manufacturing business.” China’s economic miracle is directly attributable to its manufacturing industry. Approximately 100 million people are employed in manufacturing in China (in the U.S., the number is around 12 million), and the sector accounts for almost 36 percent of China’s gross domestic product. During the last few decades, manufacturing empires were forged around the Yangtze River Delta, Bohai Bay outside Beijing, and the Pearl River Delta in the south. Millions of low-skilled migrant workers found employment in gigantic factories, producing an unimaginable range of products, from socks to servers. China accounted for just 3 percent of global manufacturing output in 1990. Today it produces almost a quarter, including 80 percent of all air conditioners, 71 percent of all mobile phones, and 63 percent of the world’s shoes. For consumers around the world, this manufacturing boom has meant many low-cost products, from affordable iPhones to flat-screen televisions. In recent years, though, China’s manufacturing engine has started to stall. Wages have increased at a crippling 12 percent per year on average since 2001. Chinese exports fell last year for the first time since the financial crisis of 2009. And toward the end of 2015 the Caixin Purchasing Managers’ Index, a widely used indicator of manufacturing activity, showed that the sector had contracted for the 10th month in a row. Just as China’s manufacturing boom fed the global economy, the prospect of its decline has already started to spook the world’s financial markets. Automation appears to offer an enticing technological solution. China already imports a huge number of industrial robots, but the country lags far behind competitors in the ratio of robots to workers. In South Korea, for instance, there are 478 robots per 10,000 workers; in Japan the figure is 315; in Germany, 292; in the United States it is 164. In China that number is only 36. The Chinese government is keen to change this. On March 16, officials approved the latest Five Year Plan for China’s economy, which is reported to include an initiative that will make billions of yuan available for manufacturers to upgrade to technologies including advanced machinery and robots. The government also plans to create dozens of innovation centers across the country to showcase advanced manufacturing technologies. Some regional authorities in China have been especially bold in their own efforts. Last year the government of Guangdong, a province that contains many large manufacturing operations, promised to spend $150 billion equipping factories with industrial robots and creating two new centers dedicated to advanced automation. The goal is to overtake Germany, Japan, and the United States in terms of manufacturing sophistication by 2049, the 100th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. To make that happen, the government needs Chinese manufacturers to adopt robots by the millions. It also wants Chinese companies to start producing more of these robots. The hope is that this will create a virtuous cycle, helping to birth a new high-tech industry and inspiring innovations that could spill over from manufacturing into other sectors and products. Introducing hordes of robot workers is hardly something that can be done overnight, however. That much is clear from the struggles faced by Foxconn, a $130 billion Taiwanese manufacturer famous for employing hundreds of thousands of workers in city-size factories—and for making, among other products, Apple’s iPhones. In 2011, Foxconn’s founder and CEO, Terry Gou, said he expected to have a million robots in his company’s plants by 2014. Three years later, the effort had proved more challenging than expected, and just a few tens of thousands of robots had been deployed. Despite the challenges, Day Chia-peng, general manager of Foxconn’s automation technology development committee, says the company is automating a growing number of tasks on its lines. These include the manufacture of displays and printed circuit boards, although processes that involve bending or snapping components into place still pose challenges. The company is even exploring ways that products themselves can be redesigned to make automated manufacturing easier. And it recently said it will sell some of the robots it has developed in-house to other manufacturers. The transition from human to robot workers may upend Chinese society. Some displaced factory workers could find employment in the service sector, but not all of the 100 million now employed in factories will find such jobs a good match. So a sudden shift toward robots and automation could cause economic hardship and social unrest. “You can make the argument that robotic technology is the way to save manufacturing in China,” says Yasheng Huang, a professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. “But China also has a huge labor force. What are you going to do with them?” A few days before visiting CIG, I went to China’s first major robotics event, the World Robot Conference, held inside a vast exhibition hall located within Beijing’s Olympic Park. The city was in the grip of an unusually cold spell, and producing the electricity to meet its heating needs had resulted in lung-searing air pollution from nearby coal power plants. But the snow and smog had done nothing to deter hundreds of researchers and companies, and thousands of attendees, from coming to the event. First came a theatrical opening ceremony, during which a huge video wall showed innovations from China’s ancient history spliced, somewhat oddly, with clips of robots from science fiction movies. The guest list included several high-ranking Chinese politicians. Li Yuanchao, China’s vice president, read messages of congratulations from President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang. The vice president said that investing in robotics research would not only feed the country’s manufacturing industry but encourage greater domestic innovation. After watching several talks, I wandered past endless demos set up by robot companies and research institutes. I watched as an enormous industrial robot fitted with a fork-like appendage went through some sort of routine factory work at terrifying speed. Other demos were more whimsical, like a small industrial machine performing a mesmerizing rendition of a traditional Chinese dragon dance (in full costume), and a mobile robot equipped with two racquets playing badminton with excited attendees. A humanoid robot with flashing eyes was carrying a small automated vacuum cleaner around on a tray. It was also possible to grasp just how ambitious China will be in trying to replace human workers in its factories. HIT Robot Group, a company affiliated with one of the country’s foremost technical universities, Harbin Institute of Technology, had mocked up a battery production line that itself seemed like one giant robot. Robotic vehicles ferried components between various manufacturing machines. The only spots for humans were inside a control room in the center and on a line where especially fiddly manual work needed to be done. I later learned that HIT estimates the new factory could reduce human labor by as much as 85 percent. But it was also evident that as a country with a history of seemingly endless cheap labor, China had to date been outpaced in the robot revolution. Rethink Robotics, a Boston-based company, was showing off a pair of flexible and intelligent industrial machines. Unlike conventional industrial robots, these products, called Baxter and Sawyer, require very little programming, and they are equipped with sensors that allow them to recognize objects and avoid hitting people. They also cost between $20,000 and $30,000 instead of the hundreds of thousands typical of an industrial robot. Speaking to me after the event, Rethink founder and robotics pioneer Rodney Brooks said that China represents a huge potential market for his company, which recently opened offices in Shanghai. Chinese robot makers are likely to start making more flexible and intelligent robots, too. But for now their products lag behind those of Western manufacturers. “A game we often play when we go to a trade show in the Far East is we go and see the industrial robots from little companies and say, ‘Oh, that’s a copy of that, and that’s a copy of that,’” Brooks said. It will, he suggested, take time for China’s robotics companies to catch up. To see for myself how far China’s researchers have to go, I visited Shanghai Jiao Tong University, one of the country’s most prestigious institutions and home to China’s oldest academic robotics lab, founded in 1979. I found myself on a lush and sprawling campus in a quiet suburb in south Shanghai, surrounded by students cycling around on squeaky bicycles. There, I found a modern-looking building that housed the robotics lab. Zhu Xiangyang, a professor in his late 40s with thin glasses and a fleece sweater-vest, welcomed me to his office with tea and an irrepressible smile. The lab has a few dozen professors and research scientists and more than 100 doctoral and master’s students, and Zhu is justifiably proud of its research. In one room was a brain-controlled robotic wheelchair, operated by means of an electroencephalogram cap worn by a graduate student. A video showed a cyborg cockroach fitted with a wireless implant that connected to its peripheral nervous system and made it possible to control the creature’s movements from a computer. In another room, a researcher demonstrated snakelike and soft-bodied robots capable of reaching or crawling through narrow spaces. Inside a garage, a prototype self-driving car, not unlike one of Google’s, is being developed in collaboration with a Chinese carmaker called Chery. Despite the impressive research projects at places like Jiao Tong, I kept wondering just how China will fulfill its manufacturing ambitions. Kai Yu is the founder of a startup called Horizon Robotics and was previously the head of an AI-focused research lab set up by Baidu, China’s dominant Internet company. Within the Baidu lab, Yu and colleagues were focused on a field of AI called deep learning, which involves training large simulated neural networks to recognize patterns in data. Researchers are now starting to explore how machine learning might make the next generation of industrial robots even smarter and more flexible. “In the future, what I see is China being more creative [in robotics],” Yu told me. “Original design, original ideas, but also some of the fundamental technologies, like deep learning, neural networks, artificial intelligence.” Yu believes that the AI techniques developed by China’s big Internet companies for search, e-commerce, and other purposes could be applied to robots. “China has a very good opportunity to catch up,” he said. “The skills they have learned in the last five years can be transferred to making intelligent machines.” When I later toured CIG’s factory, it wasn’t too hard to imagine how such advances could start feeding into Wong’s efforts to automate his operation. For one thing, a robot capable of learning and adapting presumably wouldn’t be baffled by a misaligned box that needs labeling. After the tour, Wong took me through a PowerPoint presentation that laid out the company’s plan for the next few years, and then the conversation turned to intelligent robotics. “We’re going to use standard robots at first,” Wong said. “But then we’re going to use more advanced ones. More and more, we need to get into more advanced robotics. That can help make a dark factory.” Given the economic imperative, the government’s determination, and the country’s growing technological sophistication, it seems very likely that manufacturing companies across China will automate successfully and that the country will become a leader in the technologies of advanced automation. And yet it’s strange to think about the changes in store for Chinese manufacturing workers. At one point during our tour we had passed a group of about 20 people taking an afternoon break. Everyone was apparently snoozing, heads rested on arms folded in front of them. That’s hardly something a robot needs to do. But I couldn’t help wondering what will happen to these workers once robots have taken their jobs. Wong says they will most likely return to their hometowns and find employment there, on a farm or perhaps in a shop or restaurant. That may be so, but for some it won’t be so simple. A week after leaving China, I received an e-mail from Wong with some more information about his plans, along with a characteristically bold promise. “Stay in touch,” he wrote. “We will make the dark factory happen.”
« A123 Systems opening new manufacturing facility in Czech Republic; support for increasing volume of 12V and 48V Li-ion systems | Main | Japan researchers develop two new lithium superionic conductors for high-performance solid-state batteries » Between now and 2020, GM and its joint ventures plan to roll out more than 60 new and refreshed models in China, including 13 this year, with a strong focus on SUVs, MPVs and luxury vehicles. During the period, GM and its joint ventures will roll out more than 10 new energy vehicles under the Chevrolet, Buick, Cadillac and Baojun brands. They will include the Shanghai-built Cadillac CT6 Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle (earlier post), which will go on sale later this year. Continued strong demand by customers generated record vehicle deliveries, which helped China remain GM’s largest market. Last year, China accounted for more than one-third of the company’s global deliveries. GM expects China’s vehicle market to increase by 5 million units or more by 2020, representing growth of about 3-5% annually. GM anticipates about 4.2 million units of growth in China’s SUV, MPV and luxury segments through 2020, with the industry’s luxury segment expected to generate compound annual growth of more than 10% during that period. To capitalize on this trend, about 40% of the new vehicles that GM launches in China over the next five years will be SUVs and MPVs, and GM’s Cadillac luxury brand will introduce 10 new and refreshed models. The China market will also benefit from GM’s global initiatives to accelerate the refreshing of its portfolio. This year and in each of the next few years, 40% of the company’s global sales are expected to come from new and refreshed models, up significantly from 25% in 2015. Several of these vehicles will be developed, built and sold in China. GM announced last July that it will invest $5 billion over the coming years in a family of vehicles for global growth markets. Working with its Chinese partner SAIC, GM will replace several current vehicles for growth markets based on multiple architectures with an even larger family of vehicles based on one core architecture. In addition to vehicles, GM is also addressing business opportunities in value-added services such as automotive financing and insurance. Its SAIC-GMAC joint venture is the largest dedicated automotive finance company in China. By the end of this decade, GM sees potential for up to 40% of car buyers in China to finance their purchases, compared to about 30% in 2015. At the same time, GM is executing a plan to capitalize on the future of personal mobility using tools such as connectivity, ridesharing, car sharing and autonomous driving. GM holds nearly 500 connectivity patents and has been the industry leader for two decades with OnStar. By the end of 2016, GM will have 12 million OnStar-connected vehicles on the road. By 2020, more than 75% of its global sales volume is expected to be actively connected. In China, all Cadillac, Buick and Chevrolet models will be connected by 2020. Earlier this month, Shanghai OnStar and the Midea Group announced a strategic partnership for the integration of onboard telematics and smart household technology to enhance the consumer experience. (Earlier post.) GM recently announced a long-term strategic alliance with Lyft to create an integrated network of on-demand autonomous vehicles in the United States. GM will invest $500 million to help the company continue the rapid growth of its successful ridesharing service. (Earlier post.) In January of this year, GM started its own personal mobility brand called Maven, which combines and expands the company’s multiple car-sharing programs, including the EN-V 2.0 pilot program with Shanghai Jiao Tong University. (Earlier post.) GM followed that up earlier this month, when it announced the acquisition of Cruise Automation to add Cruise’s deep software talent and rapid development capability to further accelerate GM’s development of autonomous vehicle technology. (Earlier post.)
News Article | December 3, 2001
This weekend our Entourage X database became corrupted. The problem also rendered other Office X applications unusable. We ultimately managed to fix the problem, and rebuild the database and recover all our messages, but our experience illuminates several issues for Mac OS X troubleshooters in general and Office X users specifically. We are going to take an in-depth look at what we did, what we learned, and what might be done to improve OS X troubleshooting in the future. We have been using the same email database for several years. It began life with Outlook Express 5, migrated to Entourage 2001 and finally to Entourage X. The file has been rebuilt several times, and once we have had to restore from a backup because a crash rendered the file unreadable. (Had we not been able to recover the data file this time, we had a backup that was less than 24 hours old. The damage would have been minimal.) At present the file contains over 67,000 messages. We were in the process of archiving a large number of old email messages into FileMaker Pro with an export script we wrote several years ago. It is interesting to note that under Mac OS 9, exporting would tend to halt because of a memory error after about 500 messages, however, under Mac OS X, the same script moved over 14,000 messages in a single batch without complaint. The trouble began when we tried to delete the archived messages. The 14,000 messages were deleted in a single batch, and because we have Entourage set up to empty the deleted messages folder on quit, we quit the program. At some point while removing the messages from the deleted items folder, Entourage crashed, and subsequent attempts to open it resulted in the program unexpectedly quitting almost immediately after launch. In hindsight, it would have been far better to increase the number of batches each with a smaller set of messages, but we were so impressed by the performance of the export script that we didn't give it a thought beforehand. Assuming the database was damaged, initially we attempted to rebuild it by holding down the option key while launching Entourage. Both the typical and advanced rebuilds, each run several times, all resulted in a message that, after substantial processing, said in effect the database could not be rebuilt. Each time we launched Entourage, the program would quit as soon as the splash screen appeared. We also stumbled on the fact that Word would no longer launch, either. That discovery lead us to the conclusion that something common to both programs was damaged, in addition to the corrupted database. Our initial suspect was Office Notifications, however, we eventually found that removing all traces of the 'bad' Microsoft User Data folder from the Documents folder still caused both Entourage, Notifications, and Word to crash on launch. Another discovery made at this stage was that moving Microsoft User Data folder out of its standard location in the Documents folder was not enough to disable it. Although a new User data folder was created in Documents, Office appeared to still be opening at least some of the files in the previous data folder. It seems the only way to be certain which data folder Office is using to have only one on the drive and in the Documents folder. Forget about restoring the data files, now we just wanted to fix whatever was wrong with Office. This lead us to a conundrum: it seemed we had isolated the data file corruption, and one or more of the Office files had become damaged as well, but which one, and how do we fix it? We tried manually removing the Office preference files we could identify in Library/Preferences, without success. Reinstalling Office via the installer did nothing either: it reported that Office was fine and did not need to be installed. What finally worked was to delete the entire Office X folder in Applications, log out and back in, drag a new folder from the CD, and launch one of the programs. That got Office X running again. And since the unexpected quit error occurred with both the damaged database file and a fresh copy, we once again attempted an advanced rebuild. This time, the file was restored. The ultimate cause of this problem was that we probably pushed Entourage harder than was prudent, but the result did teach us a few lessons. Troubleshooting a major application under Mac OS X is both easier and more difficult than under previous versions of the Mac OS. Because we didn't need to reboot countless times, we found it much faster to isolate what turned out to be essentially two separate corrupted files, the database and at least one file inside the Office folder. Without rebooting regularly, we did however need to be careful to log out and back in on occasion to be sure that all the files were closed properly before moving anything around. Moreover, we were dependent on our previous knowledge of where Office stored its data, and we were lucky that the drag and drop reinstall weeded out whatever went wrong aside from the corrupted database. What have we learned that would improve OS X troubleshooting in general? At present, there is an option to replace the OS itself with a fresh install, but applications are less consistent. (Office X is quite good in this respect with its drag and drop install method, but we would have liked to see a bit more documentation for support files.) At minimum, we would like to see a provision to reinstall any application so that every file is replaced with a fresh copy, along with clear documentation about the location of every application-created support and preference file. A remove option would be even more helpful, especially if it removed every support file that did not contain user-created data. [Update: There is a Remove Office application in the Value Pak folder that does most of this.] Care needs to be taken also with respect to files left open after a crash, so that the files can be removed or repaired. Another improvement would be to expand the use of application packages as much as possible, so that reinstalling an application is as simple as dragging a fresh copy of a single icon from the CD to the hard drive. Given that most major applications are requiring hundreds if not thousands of files, extensive documentation on the locations and contents of user-created documents, application files, and application support files is crucial. [RD]