Wednesday, August 27, 2003

Technologies that'll change the world

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Three-D printing is changing the world of product design. These printers typically shape objects by laying down materials, such as wax or plaster, one layer upon the other. A small model can take as little as an hour to create, and some printers can create objects in full color. Three-D printing is being used to design everything from children's strollers at Graco to running shoes at New Balance and Reebok, allowing designers and engineers to show their work earlier in the process, make changes with less fuss, and get new products to market faster

the way that power is generated in the United States looks a lot like the old world of mainframe computers, says Chip Schroeder, CEO of Proton Energy, the Connecticut company installing the hydrogen system at Mohegan Sun. A few big, clunky plants are connected together in what's known as "the grid." In some ways, that system is efficient -- it's the cheapest way that we know to produce and distribute electricity -- but in other ways, it's terrible. Electricity is lost as it's transmitted over long distances. No one likes living next to a massive power plant. And the huge capital investments mean that old, expensive plants keep running long after cleaner, more efficient technology becomes available. the new power network will look a lot more like the Internet than the outmoded mainframe model. Smaller generating facilities -- some using solar, wind, and other renewable energy technologies and others using scaled-down gas-fired turbines -- will be widely distributed and placed closer to where the power is actually being used. They will be more easily upgradeable. The power will be more reliable, because most outages are caused by distribution problems, like a downed line.

The promise of smart tags is that they could serve as an advanced version of the omnipresent UPC bar code, providing information about not just what a product is, but also where it is, where it has been, and how it has been handled. A smart-tag reader in a warehouse, truck, or store can "query" all of the smart tags in its vicinity, taking inventory without human help. Smart tags are also being affixed to refrigerated containers to make sure that food is stored at the right temperature. The tipping point for smart tags will likely arrive by 2005, when Wal-Mart will require its top 100 suppliers to attach them to each forklift pallet of products they deliver to the retailer.


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