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issue: September 2006 APPLIANCE Magazine

Appliance Line
Future Engineers at Play

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One of the most sophisticated consumer devices on the market is engaging the interest of kids who could become the next generation of engineers.

It is unknown if AlphaRex or Spike have the capability to clean a kid’s room or match socks, but trying to come up with a robot configuration that can do those jobs may help stir up engineering interest in a new generation young people.

The APPLIANCE magazine annual report on laundry appliance trends and technology is in this issue, highlighting not just the substantial efforts of the industry to create more efficient appliances, but their efforts to make the act of doing the laundry less of a chore.
But there is only so much that can be done with traditional laundry appliances. The basic fact is that consumers still must collect the dirty clothes themselves, sort the laundry, load the washer, transfer the load to the dryer, remove it, fold it, and put it away. Combination washer/dryers will only remove one or two human steps from the laundry process, and it is interesting to speculate if and when the other steps could be automated. Some sort of robotics would likely be needed to handle tasks such as moving laundry into and out of appliances, let alone fold them. It will take some truly innovative engineers to bring this capability to the home in a practical way, and in America there is a widespread shortage of such engineers.

Training Tomorrow’s Engineers

Dr. Ben Streetman, dean of Engineering at the University of Texas, spoke during on the Academic Experts Panel during NIWeek, the 12th Annual Worldwide Virtual Instrumentation Conference and Exhibition in August 2006 in Austin, Texas, U.S. He describes how students in America do well in math only until about the fifth or sixth grade, and then fall to a ranking near the bottom 20 of industrialized nations.
Part of the answer comes from creating strong, early interest in math, science and engineering in the kids who have the potential to choose an engineering career path. NIWeek sponsor National Instruments Corporation (NI) is heavily involved in a project that is geared toward engaging kids in engineering activities. NI partnered with toy maker The LEGO Group (Billund, Denmark) to create the Lego® Mindstorms® NXT robotics toolset, launched just days prior to the exhibition. The unit is intended for kids 10 and up, as well as for grown-up armchair inventors and robotics fanatics.
The toolset lets users build a working robot in a half-hour, and all kinds of configurations are possible. An NXT brick at the heart of the system has an autonomous 32-bit Lego microprocessor, programmable by home computer. Users build a robot, then create sophisticated instruction sets using an application driven by NI’s LabVIEW software. The robot is Bluetooth-enabled to transfer programming wirelessly, and it lets the user control the robot with a PDA or even a mobile phone. This “toy” has three interactive servomotors with rotation sensors to align their speed, an ultrasonic sensor to “see” and respond to movement, and audio sensors that enable the robot to react to sound commands, including sound pattern recognition and tone recognition. Light sensors differentiate colors and intensity of light; touch sensors react to touch or release and give the unit the capability to “feel.”
These robots are designed for future third-party enhancements, and developer kits are online. The unit is just U.S. $250.

But Will It Fold Shirts?

With all these capabilities, what physical activity can this unit actually carry out? Probably not enough to clean a kid’s room—but don’t tell the kid that. Results from a survey conducted 2 months ago by Leflein Associates, Inc. showed that most young people today believe they can build and program robots that will do what they want. Only one in five adults believe it.
Most young people in the survey want a robot to help them do homework or chores at home. Boys want a robot to guard their room from intruders. From the perspective of the kids in the survey, Mom is the household member who could use the most help from a robot.
The top activity on the wish list of kids in the survey: 22 percent want their robot to clean their room for them. You had better believe there will be hundreds or thousands of kids out there trying to make it happen using the Mindstorms system—maybe stimulating engineering interest in the process.
My own son may be one of them. Alex already loves making radios and fans and burglar alarms with his Snap Circuits electronics kit—a toy that lets kids assemble experiments using real electronic parts. Alex is only seven, and he doesn’t know what an integrated circuit or a resistor is, but he has figured out that when he replaces the 100Ω resistor with the 1KΩ resistor, it changes the Music IC output. The higher the Ω, the slower it plays “Happy Birthday.” Kids like Alex get satisfaction out of the creating, inventing, engineering. Toys like Snap Circuits and Mindstorms are undoubtedly fostering interest that should not be allowed to go untapped.
As for the home robotic laundering appliance—don’t think it won’t happen. Linens and shirt-folding equipment already exists for commercial laundries. There are young people out there right now with the can-build-it attitude and the smarts to one day bring this device into being. Let’s hope they get the educational support they need to open the door to an engineering future.


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