Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Drones : New Technology Brings New Challenges

The other day, I went to the running track at Nad Al Sheba cycle park where I always go twice every week to do my workouts. Much to my dismay and surprise, a man stood at one end of the track nonchalantly flying a bloody big bugger of a hexacopter.  It was extremely noisy, and had a camera on it.

Given the fact that an RC airfield was right next door, I didnt understand why this man would be flying in a public park. At one point, this machine was directly above my head and if I were in a mood to have a chat, I'd have cut short my run, gone upto him and made him aware of the unpleasant safety (and privacy) situation he was creating.

To put it short, I had absolutely no knowledge of him nor his flying skills. The park itself had no instructions posted banning the practice of flying drones. With no system in place, who was responsible if I got hurt? Would it be the drone pilot? Would it be me for venturing under the drone? Or would it be the park authorities?

What I just described to you is most probably the tip of the ice-berg. If media pundits have called 2014 the year of the Drone, 2015 must be the year of drone mischief and it surely is gathering critical mass.

Here last week, the busiest airport in the world came to a halt for almost an hour until authorities could figure out how to control the situation of a drone flying into the Dubai airport's airspace. Yesterday, some guy crashed his into the White House property provoking Obama to step up and issue a statement.

I'm not entirely foreign to drones, as I lived the hype cycle a bit myself last year when I joined a small group of individuals to take part in the UAE Government sponsored Drones For Good competition. Participants were asked to come up with ideas on how drones could positively change the lives of people and communities.

We submitted entries for a pollution controlling drone and a Drone Center, a less complex way of stating the obvious , that there was a big void in an air traffic control system for these new vehicles. We worked hard night and day to prepare and submit proposals. None however made the cut into the semi-finals.

Judging from the newly released statement by the competition committee that over 800 entries were received from both national and international entities, a lot of people seem to be busy poking at the cash cow. Incentive based competitions are just that. They bring in a great pool of thinkers vouching for a chance to prove a concept and if they make some money with it, all the better.

Now a number of these drone ideas are frankly solutions looking for a problem. For example, there's arguably little commercially competitive need for window cleaning drones, especially if there's little assurance of safety compared to present systems.

And that idea of delivering books to your door step, good luck if you haven't considered how you're going to go from Point A 80ft high in the air through point B a row of houses, point C a gate, point D a tree, point E a dog house and point F, the front doorstep of someone's house.

Some "innovators" though have posted interesting thoughts, ranging from forest building, fire control to crop surveillance for farmers.

If you, as I did, sat through a Youtube replay of the Small Unmanned Aerial Systems Business Symposium held in the US last year, you'd learn that things like crop surveillance, construction inventory management, fire fighting etc are all being tackled and quite smartly by people who have in-depth knowledge in these systems. Some, like Gene Robertson from Texas, has been cutting his teeth on RC aircraft based search and rescue for over a decade. So the pioneers in this business didn't just pop up yesterday.

Standards and regulations often come up in the US, and other parts of the world either make their own version of it or choose to adopt those standards entirely. An example would be the ASME Pressure Vessel Code which took many accidents to bring about but today just about any vessel manufacturer worth their salt follow the "Code", no matter where they are in the world. Standards assuredly leads to engineering safe systems.

Right now, the mother of drone invention is pregnant and can't deliver because there is no equivalent of a "drone Code" in United States which integrates drones into the airspace, clearly outlines what is accepted and what isn't.

Currently, the total number of entities authorized to fly commercial drones in US airspace is less than 10. That's probably why Matternet, a Singularity University shoot-off going on the promise to build aid carrying transportation networks using drones are flying around in places like Bhutan. They couldn't test an idea in the United States.

It will take some real work for the aviation authorities to come up with regulations that do the regulating without cutting the innovation. Any fool will know that the process can be extremely conservative when it has to do with the Air Traffic Control adopting a new change.

Drones may be out to set an entirely new paradigm in innovation and it's an exciting time to join the band. It is wise for the innovators to be patient and to understand the implications of their solutions. They must consider all stakeholders in the innovation process, not the least of which is a Joe Blow who isn't just a mere externality, but a living breathing person with safety and privacy concerns and he's right there at your system boundary diagram.

Friday, January 16, 2015

The Ins of a Duathlon

I'm not new to long format multisports. In 2010 I finished a 130 mile bike ride followed by a full fledged marathon in the Finger Lakes region and I thought that was fun. But it wasn't until 2013 that I took part in my first Duathlon in Dubai.

Duathlons attract me because I can't swim for nuts but I'm a fairly decent runner and cyclist. It is also a fascinating optimization problem for a guy who likes numbers.

Below is a plot from one of my actual races, a Sprint distance duathlon featuring a 3K run 20K bike 3K run format. The flat plateau's in the beginning and at the end are Run#1 and Run#2 and the middle is my biking leg.

My goal over the course of several races is to make this plot look more even. If I overlayed a red line over the blue, it would look like :

However, goals should be specific. In this respect, it's nice to know a little about the competition I'm against.

I've crunched the numbers and realize that to be competitive in my age group category, I've got to be able to do Run#1 at around 6:10 min/mile, the biking at about 23mph average and the Run#2 at about 6:30 to 6:40 min/mile. Each transition should be limited to sub 50 seconds.

So if I placed those benchmarked figures over the previous plot, I get a perfect race :

Theoretical things aside , what does it take me to achieve it?

1) The first and major challenge was coming to grips with a dirty reality that my flexibility was shabby on the bike. To move at 23 mph from what is currently around 21mph ave (no super skin suit, no TT bike, no super helmet), power is forward velocity cubed which means I have to get more aerodynamic to beat drag. Unfortunately, my hamstrings limit the ability to tuck in and produce power from the glutes and I'm working hard on changing this.

2) Secondly, short duathlons demand energy from predominately from carbohydrates.

Years of sporting activity has taught me that I'm naturally inclined to high heart rates. My internal engine can rev up quite high when racing. In 2012, my heart rate was at 94% throughout the Mount Washington Hill climb in New Hampshire and I was just minutes short of placing Top Notch category. This was one of the most difficult things I have ever attempted but I was also in peak shape for it.

Some years ago, a laboratory testing when I was in an untrained state showed that my natural state of affairs is to rely on anaerobic energy production to run anything less than 8 min/mi and a caloric intake upwards of 700 kcal/hr. I don't know how this may have improved over the course of training, however the message was telling in two ways.

One, I needed more energy stores for shorter races.  Secondly, perhaps my body was more inclined towards shorter bursts of high intensity exercise than longer endurance formats, where I could use the natural ability of my body to kick into anaerobic mode and be comfortable there for periods of up to an hour.

Currently, I'm fixing up the flexibility and nutrition issues. My marriage to a loving and supporting wife has been a blessing. She teaches me yoga and fixes up some good meals where I try to get upto 3000 calories while training.

Our idea is to try and achieve a daily energy balance that looks like the following figure (courtesy Advanced Sports Nutrition Table 17.4) where I can get 2800 calories and hit a anabolic:catabolic ratio of 1.4. In layman's terms, eat small meals more often and when it matters most. Growing up in a culture where eating 3 big meals a day is the modus operandi, it's been a challenge to fight it but if you want something, you go get it.

3) The most challenging task I suppose has been dodging the day job with the requirements of training and a part time on going college education. Time management is so essential in this business. That's why I love the short workouts necessitated by the Sprint Duathlon. No longer do I have to tool around on my bike for 4 hours pretending I'm training myself. Time is a luxury.  People ask me why I can't sleep till 11am on a Friday in Dubai. Brother, it's because I've got some goals in life and I'm bent on achieving them. How about you?

4) Finally, one important word. Over-training. It happens with me every so often, and like everyone else dabbling in this sport, I have learned a lot about when to rest. Schedules are just that, goals. But trying to become a slave to them is a surefire way to failure. I've been there, done that.

Anyway, that wraps up my short Duathlon career. I've a few more races to go and if I really like doing this, I'll look into a TT bike. But before that, its the Indian and not the bow.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Charlie Hebdo : A Systems Failure

It isn't my intention to lay polemics in this post. But somethings have to be said.

The Charlie Hebdo incident points to an inability on the part of our civilization to think in terms of "systems". People keep talking about how complex and interconnected our world is but it is to no effect, people truly don't get it.

At the top of this mess is a seemingly confusing set of antiquated French laws that treat the publishing of a prophet's cartoons as okay, i.e blasphemy is fine, but on the other hand it is considered a crime to publish material provoking hatred among his followers.

You must be a toddler to not understand that the two could be interrelated, especially when we talk about the Islamic religion. Messing around with one could automatically trigger the other and often the consequences in our post 9/11 world are on a macro level, not just restricted to France.

Faith is old as the earth. It's complex. It's super sensitive. If you don't understand it, leave it alone. You don't know the unknowns.

Unfortunately the editorial team at Charlie Hebdo did not exercise broad based thinking. This could have easily been done in a review meeting some days before publishing, where each member weighed the pros and cons of what they were about to attempt. They could have had a PR guy who had expertise in foreign relations chime in with inputs. 'Hundreds of French people live and work in Middle Eastern countries. Could this at a very minimum risk their lives? Many Muslims live in our own country but aren't well integrated. Could this create more friction in society?' 

Given the attrition rate in newspaper readership these days, I'm not surprised that the desire to be ever more edgier takes predominance over the need to exercise control. A national tragedy could only have been prevented if the decision making went correctly or if a system of laws were crisp and clear of what is allowed and what isn't allowed. I'm quite sorry for the French. 

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Enchanted Objects : A Review

A few months ago, I imagined that the time might be ripe to read a book on the Internet of Things. So with a degree of satisfaction I just put down an interesting book called Enchanted Objects : Design, Human Desire and the Internet of Things. 

David Rose, the author, is a product of  MIT's Media Lab, long known for its research initiatives into innovative human machine interfaces, advanced sensor networks and sociable robots. He is an expert in tangible human interfaces which holds the promise that everyday objects that we take for granted can be designed with an engaging interface to digital information in a way that emotionally resonates with users. 

Shown on the cover of the book is an image that stroked my imagination, the possibility that an ordinary umbrella can be "enchanted" to where it would be able to weigh the chances of a rain and notify its user whether it was needed that day.

Rose starts the book with what he calls his recurring nightmare where years into the future, all our interactions with mundane objects are digitized and reduced into a thin black slab of glass. He then explores the user experience challenges in wearable and prosthetic "computers" and animistic robots that fail to captivate and are dull to interact with.

Moving in a counter trajectory to a screen based world where tablets and clunky wearable heads up displays clutter our world, Rose unravels his career fascination with the most natural, desirable, even invisible ways for human to interact with tools and objects without having to learn a new set of skills. His answer is essentially to take ordinary objects and augment them with a link to the internet and a bit of computation power to enrich the experience of using that object.

The book is littered with numerous imaginative ideas and prototypes which tugs at the heart of the human interface problem. Rose describes an alternative world that range from Ambient orbs, Energy Joules, Live Scribe pens to glowing medicine bottle caps , smart wallets and modular cloud connected cars with over-the-air updating. Designers might like the in-depth instruction that follows in how to design enchanted objects that targets fundamental human desires - six of them - omniscience, telepathy, safe keeping, immortality, teleportation and expression. The rest of the book is a guide on designing enchantment for human senses, human centered homes and human centered cities. 

To be the devil's advocate, I can't but wonder how much true progress will mankind make in a world full of enchantment? Will the promise deliver in solving our most fundamental problems? In a world where a billion people are starving and climate related changes threaten to havoc our peace of mind, the problem of designing better human interfaces don't show up high on the list of our priorities.

However, pressing questions make me sympathetic to some of Rose's appeals, particularly those crying for a dose of reality to the inevitability of smart phones.

For instance, just the other day, I discovered an app for a digital stethoscope on my friend's iPhone. The price of computation might be peanuts these days but it sounded a bit ludicrous to me that you could rely on a phone to reliably monitor your heart beat among the multiplicity of other tasks and background processes the iPhone could have been running at that time. 

The larger question is whether the technology in phones can displace our tools, purpose built artifacts that are designed to do one task and do it right. And who monitors the standards by which these apps are created? How are users informed about for example, the accuracy, precision and reproducibility about readings taken by digital apps? What are the credentials of these app makers? And who watches what users do with these apps? 

The book may have its faults but without visions like those of Rose, we miss asking and debating those vital questions that could potentially enhance and enliven our interactions with the world around us. There is hope that our tools can be made better in such a way that the tool itself can change our behavior to achieve greater goals.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

The Time to Create

Much time has been spent over the last 20 years celebrating Steve Jobs but there is something else we ought to talk about which, at a fundamental level, gives each of us a tiny bit of the ability to change the world.

When I was a child, an incident made an imprint in my mind for years to come. While visiting a somewhat distant relative of mine, a boy of perhaps 5 years more my age, I found him busy working on what seemed to be his own version of an audio amplifier. He had obtained the parts for a midrange speaker and the wiring and was making a wooden enclosure to fit it all into. This was an alien concept in a world I came from - the big city - where we hardly had any time to cobble up a speaker at home. We went out and bought it!

Several years later, while in Western New York attending University, I made a lot of American friends and visited some of them at home. I was surely impressed by their candidness and friendly attitude, but something about their homes really blew my mind. It was a garage! 

A different sort of garage. A garage stocked with hundreds of tools. Tools with which people did projects! What was a project? Well, anything from making your own wooden cabinets, to crafting and tuning your own hot rods. Infact, one evening, I found myself visiting the home of my manager and was just fascinated when he showed me his garage. He had several model aircraft to show me, and even revealed a half finished CNC router he was working on. He told me he wanted to make one on his own so he could cut the foam and balsa wood required for the airplanes he flew. In a world where flying your plane at the local model airplane rally was serious business, I could understand what motivated him so much.

Several others impressed me with their tales of welding their own bicycle frames and making their own furniture. While describing their tools, they would attach an almost godlike reverence to them. 

So it's not the homebrew club i want to talk about when I began this post. What predates the homebrew computer club or the Whole Earth Catalog is a very elementary philosophy. It is the ethos of hacking. Hacking, not in the strict computer sense of the word, but the activity of using tools, methods and procedures to devise your own "things" for self-reliance. 

Ralph Waldo Emerson in a famous essay on self-reliance admonishes a need for consistent conformity to society and evokes the notion instead of believing in your own thought. He writes: "To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, — that is genius." 

It is apt to link this transcendental American philosopher's words with the craft of making things because at a fundamental level, this activity takes first and foremost a belief that you make something yourself . It is a feeling that you can dig up from within the deep gulf of your mind many elements, memories and experiences, link them together and create. It is a confidence that you get when you feel you have the tools and the time to create. It is the wisdom you get from making mistakes and trying to create better the next time.

It is this philosophy of self reliance that predate Steve Jobs, Nicola Tesla, Newcomen and many other giants who put together the mechanisms that drive our modern civilized world. They have answered questions that have helped mankind move forward. They had the time and the drive to answer the biggest questions. 

Personally, I find the spurts of inspiration are abundant. Currently I'm fixated on the idea of creating a network of indoor wireless sensors for my home to monitor ambient conditions. I'm also investigating a technological platform for a gas sensitive drone. Several other ideas seem to come and go but I struggle a bit with the time required to execute these plans.  

Which is unfortunate because time is a hard to find resource. In a fast paced society where our human brains are forced to share its resource power among things like the cell phone, the TV, constant exercise, family and many friendships (some pointless), a chunk of our cognitive load is lost on things we could other use to create. I find this to be one of the greatest impediments to free thought. 

I'm done here. But I'd like to hear your experiences on this topic so do write in!

Friday, June 20, 2014

Exploration in Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) : Part 1 Goal and Scope Definitions

Contained here are a series of my technical notes into the study and application of ISO 14040-14043 series of standards. These standards cover the environmental management of engineered products over their entire life cycle.

This "life cycle" as defined by ISO extends from raw material extraction and acquisition, through energy and material production and manufacturing, to use and end of life treatment and final disposal.

Its appropriate to start with Goal and Scope definition and it is nice to have a product entity for study. Let me first consider the product system "150g strawberry yogurt in a polypropylene (PP) cup with an aluminum cover", the first example suggested for review in the new book Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) by Walter Klopffer and Birgit Grahl.

ISO 14040:2006 section 5 gives the methodological framework for applying LCA. Applying sub-sections & to goal and scope definition, they are compiled below.


150 g strawberry yogurt in a polypropylene (PP) cup with an aluminum cover.


The intended application is that of a PP cup to store strawberry yogurt and hermetically seal it with a tear-off aluminum lidding. This is not a comparative study of two systems.

The reason for carrying out the study is only for information sharing and the intended audience are engineers and students of the LCA methodology. Using derivable facts for decision making and competitive assertions are beyond scope.

As far as possible, data for the study will be obtained from the internet.

I encourage readers to dispute the methods used or offer additional advice on improvements.


Identification of Functions :

The service delivered by the product system can be divided into primary and secondary functions.

Selection of Functions and Definition of Functional unit :

Within the scope of the study, functions above that are more relevant to the study must be identified according to Section 5.2.2.

The product system originally specified by Klopffer and Grahl is interpreted as pointing to a generic PP cup containing 150 g strawberry yogurt with the intent of storing and sealing.

We will assume that this product is intended to be made for distribution and so considered within the study scope is the labeling and printing of dates.

ISO defines a functional unit as the quantification of the relevant functions of the product in order to assign a reference to the inputs and outputs of the product system. For a start, we know that 150 g of strawberry yogurt is the unit to be stored.

But does assigning time to the functional unit matter?

Fruit yogurt would last 7-10 days past its sell date in a refrigerator and 1-2 months past its sell date when stored in a freezer. So for assigning a time to the PP container, what time is to be considered? This is a case for further discussion but for this post, I take 2 weeks of yogurt life past its sell date.

A note here is that it is not the product but the product system that is under consideration. So it is not necessarily the yogurt that has the maximum time.

Depending on the health and life of the cow and the constituents of the plastic cup, either the cow or the plastic may outlive each other to put the most environmental burden. For example, if the plastic cup is made of part recycled material that could break down sooner than conventional cups, perhaps the cow whose lifetime is 15 years would govern the LCA study as far as time goes. This given the idea that the time line that is important is the time necessary to remove the waste from the environment.

This is a significant factor and will be revisited in later parts of this post.

Identification of performance of the product and determination of the reference flow :

The quantity of product necessary to fulfil the defined functional unit constitutes its performance. The questions here is whether to define the reference flow to fulfil the "product system" or the product. The intent of defining the reference flow below is the quantity of product needed to hold 150g of strawberry yogurt.

With a small amount of research, I found that a standard cup of 150mL capacity with a heat sealable aluminum lid will do the trick.

Qualitative System Flowchart & System Boundary:

Below is what I consider to be a system flowchart (or product system tree) and system boundary for the yogurt product system. All man made products, systems and processes relevant to the product system are bounded by a dotted line, the region considered as the "Technosphere".

The product tree starts on the extreme left by considering all processes necessary to get raw materials used. This includes the polypropylene granules, the starter yogurt, the aluminum for the lidding, the strawberries.

As you move towards the right, you see process boxes for the production of the cups, the lidding and the strawberry yogurt. Distribution of the final product is followed by use, disposal and (perhaps) incineration or a trip to the landfill, or a reclamation process that puts back recycled raw material into the raw material box.
This is closed loop recycling. Any recycled product that is an input to external products flows out of the technosphere.

Cut-off Criteria:

For simplicity, the recommendations of Klopffer and Grahl will be followed by using the 1%-5% cut-off criteria. This means that any inputs to individual process boxes that constitute less than 1% by mass fraction can be safely ignored provided that the sum of the ignored inputs do not add up to more than 5% of the total mass of the output.

I would also like to add that for simplicity, the inputs to secure, maintain or repair capital goods used in the production processes, for example the injection molding machine , are not considered.

Geographical and Temporal System Boundaries:

It is assumed that all processes are within the boundaries of the United States of America. In analyzing the system, we'd also like to bound input data to a temporal boundary greater than year 2000. It hardly makes sense to consider outdated data for analysis when process technologies, energy efficiencies etc change year by year.

This concludes the goal and scope definition of the product system "150 g strawberry yogurt in a polypropylene (PP) cup with an aluminum cover".  It is not my intention to have neglected factoring in any important element to the scope but you are free to give your inputs and critique of the process thus far.

In part 2 of this series, I'll investigate the next phase of the ISO LCA methodology, which is Life Cycle Inventory.

*  *  *

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Repair, Reuse and Recycling of Composites

The material developed in the article is based on a presentation I delivered to the MECE 644 : Composites class at Rochester Institute of Technology, Dubai on May 13 2014.

This gist of my writing here is about considering design with fiber reinforced composite materials from a Life Cycle Engineering point of view. This philosophy suits best because it fits with the unique properties and challenges that these materials raise. It also promotes resource efficiency and so the approach makes sense for today’s design environment.

In order to be competitive with conventional materials, composites not only have to be superior in their specific properties, which is largely uncontested, but they have to bridge the gap with respect to the reuse and recycling question which is enviably high for conventional metals such as steel and aluminum. 


Fig 1 : Composite makeup in the Boeing 777
The first applications of advanced fiber reinforced composite materials were in the structures of aircrafts in the 1960’s. To the military establishments in the U.S, the idea of using composites made sense from a structural, weight, specific thrust and aerodynamics standpoint. 

The introduction of composites into these aircraft was far from a hurried exercise but more of a systematic part by part replacement of key areas on the aircraft. The aim was to gather as much flight test time as possible before actual production pieces were made.

Since then the confidence with using fiber reinforced composites trickled down into commercial aircraft and usage has shot up. For some perspective, the Boeing 777 that entered service in 1995 contained approximately 18,500 lb (8,400 kg) of composites by weight and at that time, it was considered to have employed the most use of composite materials than any previous Boeing aircraft (1). Compare that with Boeing’s latest 787 Dreamliner, where composites form approximately 40,000 lb (18,144 kg) (2). That translates to a 116% increase in composite makeup.

Increased usage of composites helps meet fuel efficiency targets and may help to cut emissions but it begs the question of what reuse/recycle strategies should be adopted when these aircraft get decommissioned. Boeing and Airbus estimate that by year 2025, nearly 12,000 aircraft will reach their end of life (3).

Consider the vast acres of aircraft boneyards which contain hundreds of decommissioned aircrafts in the desert environments of California, Mexico, Texas and Arizona. These are either interim resting spots for airplanes when an economic shock hits or final resting places for decommissioned aircraft when they are considered to have an appreciable performance disadvantage relative to newer aircraft. In most cases, the old airplanes become art pieces or are re-purposed in some fashion or the other. Otherwise, it takes several years to either sell or recycle them. 

Fig 2 : Satellite view of an aircraft "boneyard"

Even the conventional metals used in the older airplanes takes time to recycle because the alloys used to make aircraft aluminum renders it impossible to recycle in the same manner as cans or other aluminum products. Besides, the metal scrap dealers who purchase the scrap from these facilities run into a problem when they are asked to deal with composite wastes that are in the carcass mix. In most cases, it doesn’t make business sense for small scrap dealers to invest in the R&D required to process composite waste. Hence, they tend to avoid these carcasses with some even refusing to bid on them (4). Only a select few companies have that expertise.

Similar issues plague the marine sector where glass fiber reinforcements are widely used in vessels. Owners tend to abandon smaller craft on beaches and in harbors because the cost of holding onto an older vessel becomes prohibitive after a point. If the marine leisure industry continue to grow at the current 8% per year, new designs will make old vessels obsolete which will mean they meet with their end. 

At present, a large number of fleet owners don’t have sophisticated ways to deal with this end of life issue. Prominent conferences revolving around the topic, such as the ones commissioned by the European Boating Industry, reveal that present disposal methods are crude and generally involve chopping up composite wastes, reducing them to fragments before sending them to the landfill (5). Tougher End of Life Vehicle Directives in the EU restrict the percentage of composite wastes going to the landfill which makes the case for recycling even stronger. Recycling will face a challenge due to the large sizes of the vessels and the contaminated nature of the marine wastes.

Another market where the reuse/recycling issue is looming large is the sports industry. It was estimated in 1999 that by 2013 sporting goods will consume 17.6 million lb (8000 metric tonnes) of carbon fiber (6). This accounts for 18-20% of the carbon fiber market. There is no question that composites like carbon fiber has made bicycles, hockey sticks and golf shafts lighter and stronger.  However, what happens when an excited racing cyclist destroys his expensive monocoque bike in a crash as shown in Figure 4?

You could argue that repairing a carbon fiber bicycle frame would require more expertise and time than the frame is worth. It is not known whether users of sports equipment such as bicycles are aware at all of the recycling possibilities as few studies are done into this area. But it begs the question of how many of these broken pieces are simply going into the trash and what waste collectors do with them.

Figure 4 : Image of a broken bicycle shared with me by a reader

Life Cycle Design Approach

Generally, the old design approaches have been concerned with improving performance and first costs. Closing the resource loop in the product’s lifecycle wasn’t as much as a priority. This is the case even today in companies where there isn’t much incentive to develop an efficient and integrated design approach.

The new approaches particularly began to take shape with the energy crisis in the early 70’s. Tougher environmental laws and tight economics meant that companies had to think about ways to optimize the entire value stream in the procure-design-manufacture-operate loop. This became particularly true for big public companies having stakeholders and hard metrics on factors like corporate responsibility. Climate change and environmental legislation fueled the life cycle design methodologies. 

Life cycle design approach is essentially summarized in Figure 5. You start with the feed stock stage and think about how materials and resources loop their way around clockwise.

Figure 5 : Lifecycle Engineering cradle-cradle loop

Fiber reinforced composites such as CFRP, are not the most easily produced materials and contain a number of processing steps. The fibers involve processing steps having high pressures and temperatures and the production of the resin matrix involves the use of fossil fuel sources. Whereas it can be argued that the fundamental idea of designing with composites inherently reduces waste due to the bottom-up build approach, it becomes important to think about repair, reuse and recycling issues early on in the design stage particularly in light of the issues briefly highlighted in the introduction stage. 

The design methodology for structural composite materials is very well discussed in (7). The performance criteria can be any or a combination of the following:

  • Design for stiffness
  • Design for strength
  • Design for dynamic control and stability
  • Design for environmental stability
  • Design for damage tolerance
For example, an aircraft control surface or a bicycle frame requires small deflections from high buckling or torsional loads and it should be of low weight. Design for minimal deflection is a design for stiffness which requires the use of carbon, graphite, boron or Kevlar fiber composites. In other applications like ballistic armor which require high impact tolerance and resistance to damage growth, tougher epoxy matrices and interleaving fibers are used.

The point is that the choice of the materials to be used and the decisions made during the design phase will affect the cost, energy intensities, manufacturing processes, disassembly and repair and reuse possibilities at the end of life stage.
The various steps in the life cycle loop is discussed below.

I. Raw Material/Feedstock

The first stage in the product life cycle is the “material extraction” stage which involves pulling fossil fuels from the earth. Thermoset and thermoplastic composite materials are created through energy intensive chemical processing. The energy content of various materials have been compiled by (8) and borrowed for perspective. The reason there are wide ranges for each material is because of the variations in processes and economies of scale.

Figure 6 : Energy content of various materials
Consider the sport of tennis. New materials and processes allowed the rapid decline of solid, wooden racquets which were in use from the 1890’s upto the 1970’s when steel and aluminum frames started making inroads into the market.  The first carbon reinforeced frame was introduced by Dunlop in the 1980’s. High modulus graphite became a staple in the 1990s. These new materials were able to answer to players’ needs for stiffness balanced with compliance, enlarged sweet spots, and what they call “responsiveness” of the racquet.

A materials inventory collected for 4 tennis racquets have been borrowed from
(9). It can be readily seen that the amount of carbon or glass fiber material used in the frame is large comparitively. A lifecycle design approach would consider the material intensities required for this inventory and what that means in terms of the aggregate environmental load.

t can be infered from the energy intensity chart that carbon fiber and resin has a higher energy content than aluminum. The high energy content translates to high cost. However, this is the first cost of procuring the raw material. The inherent nature of the carbon fiber part production involves building from the bottom up instead of buying a big block of material and reducing geometry by machining. There are savings to be realized later on so the first cost of the material shouldn’t necessarily be the deciding factor. 

Figure 7 : Material inventory from 4 tennis racquets

Figure 8 : Composite racquet and an old style wooden racquet

II. Production

Production processes of composites involve the production of the fiber, matrix and the composite structure.

For fibers like carbon fiber, 10% of the production feedstock is made from a rayon or pitch based precursor but the majority is made from polyacrylonitrile (PAN). The quality of the precursor determines the quality of the finished fiber. PAN fibers are made starting with a polymerization process followed by wet spinning. The final cross-linking is achieved by oxidizing the PAN fiber. The fibers are placed into a series of specially designed furnaces that cause carbonization to occur when the atmosphere is inert. Producers then treat the surface which is critical to the enhancing the adhesion properties between matrix resin and carbon fiber.

Epoxy on the other hand is made of two liquid components, an epoxide resin and a polyamide hardener which when mixed together in equal proportions, start a curing process that results in a permanent bond.

Additional processes such as textile manufacturing and prepreg preparation are required prior to the integration of fibers and polymer resins. These processes, along with the needs for solvents, additives, heat and pressures constitute the total spectrum of production.

Energy intensities of industry manufacturing processes are ranked below (8). Such data, if accurate and current, can help in the decision making process of what manufacturing process to select to raise performance and resource efficiency.

III. Transportation

In designs which are large in scale, transportation costs are estimated by the size and weight (tonnage) of material. This determines the type of crane, truck, containers etc required to move material. The material is both the raw material and finished product. If composites can bring down the weight of the structure that translates not only in direct transportation cost savings but also indirect cost savings such as fuel required in the transportation process.

Similar arguments apply to airplanes and satellites. The rocket boosters that transport satellites into space are largely weight limited and thrust/weight is a key parameter. If satellites can use more composite parts, this means that for the same costs, more material can be carried as payload.

In aviation, the 787 Dreamliner was claimed to use 20% less fuel than similarly sized airplanes, although the biggest contributor to the figure comes from the engines used. Composite materials make up roughly 50% of the primary structure including fuselage and wing. The company claims that the use of a one-piece fuselage section eliminated 1,500 aluminum sheets and 40,000-50,000 fasteners (10).

IV. Design Optimization

Integration of functionalities, miniaturization and extended durability are advantages that composites offer. They are discussed below.


Consider a racing bicycle. For over 100 years, the bicycle was made with traditional materials and the shape of the bicycle assumed the classic, double diamond shape. This meant that the head tube, down tube, top tube, seat tube and chain stays were separate pieces of tubing all carefully selected and then welded together. The latest carbon fiber bicycles are of monocoque construction, meaning that there is no breakup in the structure and the same shape can be made in a single unit. This is not only lightweight (a modern bicycle frame can be less than 1000g) but also eliminates a series of operations associated with the conventional metals.


A side discussion that is relevant here is the idea of durability. If the design approach finds it important to reduce the environmental impact of composite raw materials that indirectly means that the durability of fiber re-informed composites must be high. The limiting factors to composite durability may be classified broadly into :
  • Ageing and degradation of material constituents: This decides the premature failure of structural components in a design when the internal stresses exceed the strengths of the laminate.
  • Improper design and processing cycle. Complexities in the part can mean difficulties in the reuse and recycle stage.
  • Product obsolescence: Rapid technological progress and shifting consumer and market patterns render “old” products that’s still may have life in them obsolete (11).
Durability of a material drops at each step of the product life cycle. Being able to predict the impact of processing, service loads and environmental factors and the coupling phenomena of the latter two on durability will change the way composite parts are under/over designed. This directly feeds into material inventory question, as was introduced in the tennis racquets.

Figure 10 : Concept of durability decrease at each life cycle step


Composites offer tremendous design freedom and room for optimization. An optimized design increases resource efficiency.

A case study of design optimization for a composite airplane wing was demonstrated in class during the author’s presentation. This optimization exercise was done by Altair Engineering Inc. for a Bombardier wide body aircraft. The exercise was described by Altair in 3 phases (12).

Figure 11 : Distribution of ply thickness at the bottom of the wing
In phase 1, a concept model was designed keeping OEM constraints in mind such as total laminate thickness allowed range. Another important manufacturing constraint was to restrict the maximum thickness of similar orientation plies in order to prevent failures during the curing stage. Phase 1 brought out a workable concept involving continuous distribution of thickness balancing the constraints. Phase 2 interpreted the results into a 4 ply layout for each fiber orientation. The end result was the number of plies in groups of 0/+-45/90 ply bundles. Phase 3 of the process focused on detailed finish of the final ply-book while preserving manufacturing rules and constraints. This process enabled mass savings and allowed for integration into Bombardier’s current design practice.

Figure 12 : The 3 phases of laminate ply optimization in the aircraft wing

IV. Repair and Reuse

Slightly down in the order of priorities in life cycle engineering is the idea of repair and reuse of composites. Fiber reinforced composites have certainly infiltrated the aerospace, automotive and sports markets but the question of repair and reuse is still moot.

One way to take preventative measures before the need for repair arrives at an inopportune time is to sense the stress or strain in the material. This turns the composite material into a smart material which can sense its state and possibly diagnose what the problem is. Some precursors into this idea have been demonstrated in research. 


Figure 13 : Deborah Chung with her "smart concrete"
Deborah Chung, a famous materials scientist within the composites arena demonstrated the use of smart concrete which uses the electrical properties of carbon fiber (13). [She actually also taught me at university!] 

A slab of concrete was impregnated with short 5mm length carbon fiber to about 0.5% by weight of the cement. The idea was that a crack in the material would lead to fiber pullout which modifies the electrical resistance of concrete. Resistance measurements were made along the stress axis using direct current in the range 0.1 to 4 amperes. The fractional change in resistance was observed could be related to the magnitude of stress or strain. This proof of concept demonstrates a potential application for the use of such smart concrete in civil infrastructure such as bridges and roads. The viability of passing electric current in such structures to measure resistance change is beyond the author’s knowledge.


Another demonstration takes it to another level with microscopic damage. Guoquiang Li et al. have done considerable research with temperature memory effect of shape memory polymers. They have been able to demonstrate that temperature induced memory effect along with embedded thermoplastic materials can heal structural length scale cracks (14). The idea is to use a special polymer thread inside a composite material which enables a crack formation to induce shape memory effect when that surface is exposed to infra-red light. Essentially, the crack is “stitched”. Embedded thermoplastic particles then melt, moving to the crack site to “heal” the “wound”. This is analogous to healing in biological systems.

The above is just one example in numerous research studies being conducted into self-healing composites. The author assumes that one practical demonstration of such principles have started manifesting themselves into consumer products. The new LG G Flex phone incorporates a lower level self-healing feature on the rear surface. The manufacturer demonstrated through a video that scratches made on the surface by a bronze brush under controlled conditions would disappear in 2-3 minutes (15).

Figure 14 : LG G Flex phone boasts a "self healing" back

Apart from the research domain, practical repair of fiber reinforced composites of structural parts are being carried out by select agencies. One example the author can think of is Craig Calfee’s carbon fiber bicycle repair service. One of a kind in the United States, Craig Calfee, a bicycle manufacturer of high performance bamboo and carbon fiber bikes has a side service of carbon bicycle repair. Essentially, Craig mends cracks in bicycle frames by sanding down the areas around the crack and using a unique molding and compression process with 3K type carbon weave fabric, lays the carbon layers and compresses the area with tape to set. 

Figure 15 : Example of a carbon composite bicycle repair done by Craig Calfee

For fractures around lug areas or with a unique shape, a custom mold is made to adequately and evenly apply pressure. In cases of severely damaged frames the area can be reinforced from the inside out with an insert; often made of foam or carbon depending on the nature of the damage. Sanding a long taper prevents stress risers, which can cause failure. This combined with well laid carbon layers means long lasting results. Though testing, it has been found that repaired areas meet the same degree of stiffness as the original tubing (16). Calfee claims that this generally means that the repaired tubing can also meet the same fatigue life as the original frame. To add a boost to that confidence, Calfee guarantees all his carbon fiber repairs for a period of 10 years from the date of service.

Repair and reusing a broken composite part in this manner blocks the same material from being dumped in a landfill. It is also cheaper to repair than to purchase an entirely new frame. The author assumes that similar processes have made inroads in other segments of the recreational vehicular market.   

V. Recycling Composites

Previously, it was discussed that composite materials and their methods of processing are intrinsically high energy processes. Therefore, there is a case to be made for recycling if the fibers can be reclaimed and sold in the market.

Two factors must be briefly covered here before recycling methods are explored.


The economic suitability of recycling composite materials depend on many sub factors. Before embarking on a recycling plan, first it must be gathered what the particular type of recyclate will be and what the market for it is. Will the recycling process be economically viable? Would the investment be justifiable? 

Legislation also drives the question of recycling. In Europe, the EU has strict End of Life Directives that seeks to discourage the transfer of waste to landfill and puts the onus of recycling on the OEM. The 1999 E.U Landfill Directive and End of Life Vehicle Directives mandate a recycling strategy based on a Waste Hierarchy (Prevent first, reuse next, recycle or recover energy last). Legislation means there is a financial burden for non-compliance and subsidies are regularly used to stimulate demand.

Technical Aspects:

Recoverability and separation method depend on the size and geometry of the waste, whether it is thermoplastic or thermoset and contamination level. Post industrial waste directly from the manufacturing operations is attractive because the waste stream has a clear history and contamination can be controlled and minimized. End of life waste, on the other hand, poses a bigger challenge in that it is obviously difficult to assure and control age, usage history and level of contamination. The nature of design is that it involves tradeoffs. Integration of parts to cut costs or for performance may mean that the end of life waste, particularly the non-composite parts, may be difficult to separate from the composite waste.


Landfill Disposal: This is the most commonly used method to get rid of waste. It is politically less favorable. Waste is collected by garbage collection agencies and dumped in an area with a specially made structure in such a way that it is isolated from the groundwater and air. This isolation just means that the decomposition process is slowed considerably compared to open pits such as a compost pile where the idea is to bury the trash in such a way as to promote decomposition. Since composites have high durability built into them, it can be inferred that composite waste will take a long time to break down, if they do at all.

Incineration: Incineration is aimed at burning waste in large furnaces to capture energy. When combined with energy capture, it can be viewed as a process of recycling. The effectiveness of incineration depends on the flammability of the waste. For example, sheet moulding compound – a material made by compression molding – from showers, sinks, boats etc contain very little flammable material and will hence burn poorly, yielding little value. Composites with thermoplastic resins burn more readily and also possess high calorific value. 

Chemical Technique: Chemical means involve either de-polymerization of the resin matrix to free up the fiber or chemical removal of the matrix to free up high value fibers, such as carbon. It is understood that this technique does not enjoy the economic viability and is still largely in the research phase.

Thermo-mechanical Technique: These processes are largely employed today to free up high value fibers from composite waste. The method is largely confined to thermoplastic resin type composites. They can be recycled directly by re-melting and re-moulding into high value materials. For thermoset resin type composites such as carbon fiber, two categories of process exists : those that involve mechanical reduction techniques to reduce the size of the scrap and those that use thermal or chemical process to separate fiber and reclaim energy.

Mechanical comminution techniques lead to recyclate with vastly downgraded mechanical properties. These can only be used as fillers in sheet moulded and bulk moulded compounds. Combustion, fluidized bed and pyrolysis constitute the key  thermal processes and are able to reclaim high value fiber with properties only slightly lower than virgin material (17).

The author displayed in his presentation one case study involving Milled Carbon Ltd in UK which is a key player in the recycling of composite wastes. It offers a disposal service for both cured and uncured composites. Composite fabricators sending in their manufacturing waste, mainly comprising thin sheet offcuts, ends of rolls and structural parts.

Generally, the proper identification of the waste is in the fabricator’s scope. This know ledge helps determine process suitability and parameters. An initial operation is to reduce incoming cured composite scrap to manageable pieces. This is labour intensive and is undertaken by operators with various grinders, band saws and cutters. Carbon blunts cutting tools rapidly and transitioning to diamond cutters, while being a significant investment, has been worthwhile.

Figure 16 : Strategies to repair thermoset composite materials

Central to Milled Carbon's operations is pyrolysis, a thermal process for separating carbon fibers from resin. Heating input material to a high temperature in a reduced-oxygen atmosphere melts the resin, which drops away from the fibers along with any filler and other associated materials.

Tests by Boeing and other organizations have established that the recycled fibers retain 80-90% of the mechanical properties of the original virgin material. The recycled fibers are also reported to be clean and free of binder and even the sizing applied by the original fiber manufacturer.

Carbon fibers recycled via the pyrolysis process can be supplied as tow, or they can be chopped and then in a further optional stage, reduced to smaller particle sizes still by milling. For the chopping-only option, a chopping machine is set to produce fiber lengths of 3-158 mm; 3 mm, 6 mm and 12 mm are standard lengths. Where a much finer particulate end product is wanted, chopped carbon is fed to a hammer mill, which grinds the material down to provide milled fiber lengths of 100-500 μm.

Chopped product can be reused in non-structural applications such as aircraft and vehicle interiors. Reclaimed fiber can be reused in place of or along with virgin fiber to reduce the cost of the composite.

Some images are shown below of milled and chopped fiber along with properties comparison with respect to virgin carbon fiber.

Figure 17 : Properties of recycled carbon fiber (rCF) vs virgin carbon fiber (vCF) for chemical recycling methods

Figure 18 : Milled and chooped reclaimed carbon fiber


Composites are a relatively new class of materials that are broad in type and application. The penetration of composites into aviation, automotive and the sports markets have been rapid. This raises the question of what strategies to adopt for end of life waste, particularly in context of legislations that are now in effect to minimize landfill waste.

The main idea of the paper is to look at design with composites from a Lifecycle Engineering viewpoint in order to prepare the design for repair, disassembly, reuse and recycling. Furthermore, the philosophy aids in resource maximization and promotes sustainability. A crade to cradle approach was employed whereby the designer would seek to optimize the amount of composites used in the design, properly select production methods, integrate or minimize part count with particular emphasis on its implications for recycling, repair and reuse. 

Many potential recycling technologies are in the research phase but the the onset of legislation and other competitive market forces mean that the future will drive to bring these technologies out to market.


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