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Inspecting Gadgets

Author: Nancy Sands Johnson
August, 2013 Issue

Will new technologies revolutionize the North Bay? Or are they just examples of our culture’s high tolerance for hype?

 
 
Calling all futurists, mad scientists and naysayers: Now that the recession’s pall is lifting, you can once again gaze into your crystal ball and make predictions about where technology will take us in the second decade of the 21st century. To get you started, NorthBay biz considers four technologies—nanotech, 3-D printing, wearable tech and robotics—that have been around for decades but have received renewed attention from the media in the past 12 months.
 
Will these technologies revolutionize the North Bay? Or are they just examples of our culture’s high tolerance for hype? Feedback from experts in the North Bay’s business, health care, public safety and education sectors shows the answer lies somewhere in the middle.
 

Nanotech in theory and practice

Nanotechnology involves the manipulation of atoms, molecules and chemical bonds to create machines and systems—like infinitely small robots that could travel inside the body and kill cancer cells. An MIT student coined the term “nanotech” and published his Ph.D. thesis on the concept in 1981. The field gained traction in the 1980s and 1990s with the development of enabling technologies like the atomic microscope, and researchers continue to plot theoretical applications on computers. Oakland-based Kaiser Permanente actively tracks how advances in nanotechnology might best serve its 9.1 million members in nine states and the District of Columbia.
 
“Theoretically, nanotechnology has the potential to improve disease treatment,” says Robert Pearl, M.D., executive director and CEO of Kaiser Permanente, which operates 21 major medical centers in the Northern California, including in San Rafael, Santa Rosa and Vallejo. “At least so far, no one has developed these techniques for widespread application. But we recognize the potential and are closely following the companies pursuing this technology.”
 
Some companies put themselves in the nanotech bucket even if they aren’t actually manipulating atoms and molecules. A nanometer is 1/1,000 of a micron, so any technology that operates in submicrons is said to be “nanoscale.” For comparison, a strand of human hair is about 75 microns, or about 75,000 nanometers, in diameter, and the wires used to connect silicon chips to one another are as small as 12.5 microns in diameter. The tiny tools used in forming those wires together have holes as small as 15 microns, and to manufacture them, Petaluma’s Small Precision Tools (SPT), Inc., deals withfeedstock made from ceramic particles that are less than700 nanometers in size.
 
The intersection of nanotech and materials science holds promise in many fields. Today, Petaluma-based Coval Molecular Coatings, Inc. (See “Poised for Growth,” June 2013) uses nano techniques to create products that repel rust, corrosion and oxidation. Nano materials under development at other companies offer features like tensile strength and ultraviolet light resistance, making them ideal in everything from medical devices to sunscreens to the hydration products made by Petaluma’s CamelBak Products, LLC.
 
“We’re always looking for better performing materials, and nanotech materials might help us make our packs and reservoirs lighter or more durable,” says CamelBak’s Jeremy Galten, vice president, research and development. “It’s an emerging technology we’re keeping an eye on.”
 
 

Prototypes and models—in 3-D

CamelBak’s willingness to embrace technological innovations has paid off before. Two decades ago, the company revolutionized its product development process by introducing 3-D printing as a way to quickly convert a product design on the computer screen into a plastic prototype on a designer’s desk.
 
“3-D printing increased the speed at which CamelBak innovates,” says Galten. “Our in-house 3-D printer gives designers the courage to prototype through several iterations until they get it right.”
 
Benicia-based land surveying service provider F3 & Associates, Inc.—which has a satellite office in Petaluma where two of its three co-founders (Gene Feickert and Fred Feickert) work part-time—discovered 3-D printing in 2011 when the company created three-dimensional models of massive boulders surveyed for a high-profile art installation. F3 was so impressed by the results, it began to incorporate the technology into its core business surveying for construction projects in the oil refinery, aerospace and satellite industries.
 
“Before, we had to flip through two-dimensional drawings on paper or computer screens to present our recommendations,” says Sean Finn, a founder and principal at F3. “Now we gather everyone from the ironworker to the CEO and put a three-dimensional exhibit in front of them. It helps us identify problems quickly and resolve them earlier in the process.”
 
F3 owns two 3-D printers and offers services both for model and exhibit making and for rapid prototyping of parts and inventions. It also has a patent-pending workflow for integrating 3-D printing into surveying and laser scanning processes. Some of its clients have their own 3-D printers but continue to use F3 for overflow projects or because of certification requirements in product development.
 
F3 doesn’t plan to give up its “day job” of surveying and measurement anytime soon. Still, Finn is enthusiastic about 3-D printing’s future—not just for businesses but also for consumers and for the planet.
 
“Talk about green,” says Finn. “Imagine if every household had a 3-D printer that could create dishes or garden tools. When those objects got worn out, you could melt the materials down and make something completely different.”
 
If 3-D printers become as ubiquitous as laser jet printers, will manufacturers become obsolete?
 
No, says Galten. Smart manufacturers will find ways to utilize 3-D printing to benefit both themselves and their customers.
 
“Most products require a certain level of expertise, so there will always be a need for companies that are leaders in what they do,” he explains. “Do I see people making their own products with a 3-D printer? Absolutely. Do I worry about it? No. We’d use our close relationship with customers to turn a potential conflict into an opportunity to innovate. Maybe instead of sending customers a replacement part, we’d send them a file and they’d print out the part on a 3-D printer.”
 
 

Wearable tech

Last spring, mainstream news outlets reported that three surgeons in Ohio had saved a toddler’s life with an airway tube fabricated on their 3-D printer. Will the next generation of stents and pacemakers be made with a 3-D printer at the doctor’s office?
 
“If we could use 3-D printing technology to save a life, of course we would,” responds Kaiser Permanente’s Dr. Pearl. “But those situations happen so rarely, they have very little impact on the overall health of our member population.”
 
Pearl and other North Bay health care leaders see greater and more immediate potential in the medical applications of wearable tech—a new buzzword that describes everything from devices that monitor every move you make and every bite you take (Garmin FitBit) to tiny, mountable video cameras (GoPro) to computer screens worn like a pair of eyeglasses (Google Glass).
 
The clunky pedometers and blood pressure monitors of yesteryear have evolved into highly accurate (and fashionable) consumer products. Many of today’s wearable tech devices integrate sensor technologies, and Becky Oh, CEO/president of Santa Rosa’s PNI Sensor Corporation, predicts further refinement in wearable tech thanks in part to the advanced technology her company offers.
 
“Wearable technologies are in their infancy,” says Oh. “Most of today’s devices measure only gross movement and motion, but our sensors and algorithms can detect even small motions like breathing. As the technology measures and monitors information we previously weren’t able to, we’ll see some very interesting applications that provide valuable feedback.”
 
Bill Russell is senior VP/chief information officer for IT services at St. Joseph Health, which includes Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, Petaluma Valley Hospital and Napa’s Queen of the Valley Medical Center. Russell says he’s “immersed” in the health care applications of wearable tech right now and points to widespread consumer adoption and rapid technological innovation as spurring St. Joseph Health to action.
 
“Wearable tech is very much in our sights,” says Russell. “In the future, we envision systems that will take input from the various wearable devices and place that data next to clinical data.”
 
The potential for wearable tech to improve preventive care—and even manage chronic diseases like diabetes—seems limitless. It might be able to help you track body changes that could signal a heart attack, alert you to a spike in body temperature or tell you if your elderly parents have taken their medications properly.
 
The challenge, then, isn’t finding ways to use the technology or even developing the technology itself. It’s in balancing the potential rewards of wearable technologies against the expense of implementing them (in addition to taking the monetary outlay into consideration, health care providers must also comply with federal safety and patient privacy regulations when introducing new technologies).
 
Explains Dr. Pearl, "Many consumers use iPhones or other devices to measure their pulse when they exercise. One of the challenges today is that as soon as a doctor gives the device to a patient, the FDA regulates it, which drives up the cost dramatically. We could broadly improve health if we treated these basic monitoring tools as personal, not medical, devices. In that way, patients could have data about their personal health risks on their smart phones and consult their personal physician when they’re concerned."
 
Another question to ask: Is the information being captured actually useful?
 
“If rhythm strips help us monitor heart patients, why would we only want to have one or two strips done instead of 3,000?” asks Pearl. “To answer that question, we need to determine if 3,000 strips will help us more than one or two.”
 

Making sense of big data

And then there’s the problem of “big data,” which comes up every time information-generating technologies land in the marketplace. Even large companies that have people and dollars dedicated to information management struggle in their efforts to interpret the millions of data points they collect. Average consumers are at a real disadvantage: They might be tracking food intake with a smartphone, calories expended with a FitBit and brain waves with a sleep monitor, but they still must integrate that data and then put it together in a way that says something.
 
North Bay entrepreneur Chris Frothinger, a fitness nut who also happens to be a skilled analytics developer, is trying to solve that problem. His new company, FurtherFit, will enable consumers to maximize the value of their wearable devices through data integration and reporting hosted on a members-only website.
 
“Most of the technology that measures health and fitness levels operate in silos,” says Frothinger. “I’m creating a platform that brings all the data and offers a rich picture of what people are trying to accomplish.”
 
Customers will pay a monthly membership fee to access the company website. There, they’ll be able to download data from a wide range of devices and then run reports to uncover patterns about how all the inputs might be influencing performance, weight, mood and overall health. The service initially will be focused on data collection and reporting and then eventually expand into two-way communication: If you’ve input a specific goal and spend the day on the couch, the service might send a text advising you to go for a walk.
 
Frothinger’s target customers will be athletes first, then families. “I put a fitness device on my 11-year-old and was amazed at how much energy she burned just running around,” he says. “I think parents could use the site to understand how diet and exercise patterns might be helping or harming their kids.”
 

Wearable ways to protect the public

Public safety officers have a long history of wearing radios and recording devices. Until recently, these technologies were exclusive to cops and firefighters. But now, wearable tech devices often hit the consumer market first, leaving those agencies scrambling to keep up with a tech-enabled public.
 
Shrinking budgets are one factor in this technology lag among public agencies, but so are federal regulations, privacy laws and organizational bureaucracies that by their nature change slowly. There’s also the matter of relevance: Any wearable tech device that’s incorporated into a public agency must offer a clear benefit to public safety—otherwise, it’s just a gadget.
 
Sergeant Fred Marziano manages the technology services unit at Marin County Sheriff’s Department. Having worked as a field officer and detective, Marziano knows that appropriate technologies can make a life-and-death difference for officers and public citizens. Some of the wearable tech used by sheriff’s deputies—night vision goggles, forward-looking infrared devices and tiny video and audio recorders—is designed especially for law enforcement applications. Other, more widely distributed technologies like GPS have let members of the public and safety officers work together more effectively.
 
Marziano is excited about two new “crossover” technologies just hitting the consumer market. The Pebble watch is worn on the wrist like other watches, but it does more than tell time; it also lets wearers receive text messages by connecting with an iOS device—like an iPad or iPhone—through Bluetooth technology. Pebble could be particularly valuable in undercover operations, letting field officers view critical information from their team with an inconspicuous glance at their wrist.
 
Public safety officers could use Google Glass to access graphic images and text-based documents—ranging from satellite images to Lexis-Nexis reports—in real time from a computer screen mounted on their face like a pair of eyeglasses. Marziano imagines scenarios where deputies could use Google Glass to view floor plans in real time while navigating buildings or to retrieve a criminal’s history more quickly and without having that information broadcast over the radio.
 
“Google Glass could be an absolute game changer if it’s developed properly,” says Marziano, adding, “The faster we get the information we need, the better we can do our jobs.”
 
 

Meet Officer Robbie

Sometimes, in the interest of everyone’s safety, the best person to do that job isn’t a person at all. It’s a robot.
 
Enter the sheriff’s 10-inch-tall, three-foot-wide robotic safety officer, nicknamed Robbie. Robbie is equipped with four cameras, two-way communications devices and a number of other capabilities that make it equally useful on city streets or rocky hillsides. It can be deployed to help officers defuse bombs, clean up hazardous materials and even deliver food to hostages—any situation that could be dangerous to a human officer.
 
Marziano says Robbie is underutilized and, though only five years old, is already outdated. San Rafael Police Department’s new robot has articulated arms, which Robbie doesn’t have. The most cutting-edge robots—geared to the military and large departments like NYPD—feature a virtual reality-type environment and highly sensitive manipulation capabilities that let the human user open a backpack with the robot’s “fingers.”
 
To keep up with advancements and ensure better use of robotic technologies, public safety agencies are moving to a model of increased inter-agency cooperation and shared resources. It’s possible Marziano’s department will focus on different skill sets—communications technologies or hostage negotiation skills, for example—and let another agency be the robotics experts in Marin.
 
This strategy of specialization and partnership has been used successfully in health care delivery. For example, if St. Joseph Health’s North Bay members need access to robotic technologies, they can travel to Napa’s Queen of the Valley Medical Center, which has a robot that lets surgeons perform minimally invasive gynecologic, urologic and cardiothoracic procedures and surgeries. The device uses a mini video camera, the width of a pencil, as well as tiny instruments that mimic the surgeon’s maneuvers. These tools are attached to robotic arms, which are operated via remote control by a highly trained surgeon who monitors his or her own work on a video screen with 10x magnification.
 
“Investing in robotic technology doesn’t make sense for all of our hospitals because of the costs and the training involved,” says Russell. “That’s where partnerships come into play. Each one of our facilities can specialize in certain fields and invest in appropriate technologies, then share those resources across the entire region.”
 

Robots in the factory

In industrial settings, robotic technologies are valued for their capacity to improve quality while controlling costs. Truth is, humans are inconsistent, messy and not good with repetitive tasks. Robots can do the same job thousands of times in exactly the same way, without compromising material quality with a wayward fingernail or an unexpected sneeze.
 
CamelBak incorporated robots into its manufacturing processes about 10 years ago. The resulting cost savings and quality improvements have let the company bring many of its overseas manufacturing operations back to North America. That’s good for the U.S. economy and for CamelBak’s American customers, since shorter supply chains and transit times mean steady inventory across its various North American distribution channels.
 
“Our customers expect us to deliver the products they want, when they want them,” says Jeremy. “The robots on our factory floor are an important part of meeting those expectations.”
 
Other manufacturers—not just in the United States but worldwide—also recognize that, as an extension of automation, robots are here to stay.
 
“Even in countries where labor costs are next to zero, companies have figured out you can’t be a manufacturing center with armies of people,” says George Linscott, CEO and president of Napa’s Visicon Technologies, Inc., which sells robot-enabled manufacturing systems to the medical device industry. “To compete in the next manufacturing boom, you have to eliminate the excess cost and error associated with humans doing things they shouldn’t do. That’s where robots come in.”
 
PNI understands the value of robotics from two perspectives: The company supplies its sensor technologies to robotics manufacturers and also uses robots as part of an overall automation strategy in its own production process.
 
Until recently, PNI used lower-skilled assembly personnel overseas to build its sensors. The company identified that automation—that is, robots—would reduce cost, improve product quality and let PNI adjust more quickly as orders scaled up or down. The capital investment would be significant, but PNI knew it had the volume needed to justify the cost. It has an internal culture, too, that’s willing to take risks with new technologies—particularly those with the potential to enhance the company’s core competency of sensor development.
 
As part of the decision to automate, PNI brought manufacturing in-house and moved it from China to the North Bay. The results have exceeded PNI’s expectations, according to Oh.
 
“When we brought manufacturing in house, we achieved benefits in product development, as well,” she says. “Now we learn more about our products than when we just designed them and outsourced the manufacturing.”
 

Why humans matter

Not surprisingly, Oh is bullish on the future of robotics.
 
“Automation usually means machines performing one function efficiently. However, today’s robots can be reprogrammed and trained to learn new tasks,” she explains. “Each robot also can perform smaller tasks that are part of the larger automation line. This will allow for much more flexibility in manufacturing and will make it more cost effective.”
 
Which leads us to our last question: Will nano or human-sized robots use implantable devices and three-dimensional printers to take over the world in the future?
 
That question is probably more appropriately explored in a sci-fi novel. But it does hint at the ethical and philosophical uncertainties we humans face when we explore technological frontiers.
 
Take the example of robotic technology: Since being introduced to manufacturing in the mid-1980s, robots have displaced unskilled workers here and abroad, and they’ll continue to do so. Yet the field of robotics inspires young and old to apply important concepts of math, science and also philosophy to improve health, the environment and many other aspects of human life.
 
Humans still matter.
 
“Nothing can replace the human brain and the human optical abilities for rapid analysis and decision making,” says Visicon’s Linscott. “We’re not made to do the same thing 1,000 times per day. We’re made to apply logic, analysis and understanding to the world around us.”
 
North Bay employers express frustration in their ability to find people who can tap these uniquely human qualities. Manufacturers, in particular, see a gap between the skills needed and what able-bodied workers, particularly those who aren’t college-bound, offer today.
 
Educators recognize the problem and are trying to fix it. California schools have adopted a new curriculum focused on teaching kids to collaborate and solve problems rather than to regurgitate content. In the North Bay, this curriculum is part of special programs like the “Maker” spaces at El Molino High School and Comstock Middle School in Sonoma County, where students apply their science and math skills to create projects with a 3-D printer or build a robot with a laser cutter.
 
“Today’s educators need to teach kids how to be a lifelong learner, how to adapt,” says Matt O’Donnell, 21st century technology innovation specialist with the Sonoma County Office of Education. “It’s not about a specific technology. Odds are, what we think of as high tech today will be obsolete in 10 years.”
 
The fun, then, isn’t just gazing into a crystal ball, but in waiting long enough to see if you were wrong or right.
 
Says Kaiser Permanente’s Dr. Pearl, “As a culture, we often underestimate how long a technology will take to come from concept to practice. But we also significantly underestimate the impact it’s going to have once that technology has actually been developed.”

 

 

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