Highlights from Consumer Electronics Association 2013 Sustainability Report


Early in September, the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) released a report, discussing important elements of technology innovation that will impact markets over the next decade. Below are some highlights covered in the report, which can be downloaded here.

Planning for product end of life.

Consumer electronics companies are making an increasing priority of designing products that are easy to recycle at the end of their useful life. According to the report, the industry is pursuing an aggressive goal to be recycling one billion pounds of electronics per year by 2016. Currently, they are on track for this goal, having recycled 585 million pounds in 2012. The report also cites the example of Dell—and how they are making their PCs easier to dismantle for the purpose of separating different types of recyclable material.

Increased use of recycled plastics.

Plastics are crucial for all electronics, accounting for heavy amounts of the material consumed in the process of manufacturing all manner of consumer products. Producers are constantly developing new manufacturing processes that allow for recycled plastics to be used in place of virgin material. In addition, the report mentions how reducing product size and weight is a top priority.

Green purchasing.

The Electronic Product Environment Assessment Tool® (EPEAT) has grown in industry acceptance since it was first developed in 2006, according to the report. As a result, producers are able to make purchasing decisions that reduce environmental waste. The report states that “…in the United States in 2011 EPEAT purchasing reduced the use of toxic materials by 1,053 metric [tons], and greenhouse gas emissions by more than one billion metric [tons] of carbon equivalent.” The report also says that retailer Best Buy was able to conserve enough energy to power 15,000 homes for a year by purchasing EPEAT products.

Extending product life cycles.

Companies are now looking for ways to extend the usable life of electronic products through refurbishment, repair, and upgrading. Providing extended technical support services will likely continue to be a focus in the years to come. Also, interchangeable modules allow part of a device to be replaced or upgraded. Good parts from broken units can be resold, and this practice is expected to grow in popularity in a number of different markets. “[The] secondary market for used devices…in 2011 was estimated to be worth $13 billion in annual sales.”

Packaging design.

Shipping and delivery are key to reducing environmental impact. Designing packages to be lighter and thinner to consume less input materials is one aspect of the challenge, and the report states that manufacturers are also moving over to bamboo as a natural packaging material to reduce or eliminate the use of toxic chemicals. Finally, packages are being designed not only for small size, but also to reduce the number of shipments needed—thereby reducing fuel consumption.

Reduced energy consumption.

The report highlighted design of residential home appliances, such as TV sets, with an emphasis on reducing power consumption. For example, the Set-Top Box Energy Conservation Agreement (a voluntary agreement created jointly by a number of cable TV providers and device manufacturers), according to the report, is expected to save $1.5 billion in residential energy when it has been fully implemented.

The report covers a number of other topics; this post contains only a short summary. To learn more about what the consumer electronics industry is doing to positively impact sustainability, download the full report from the CEA web site.

Will Smart Elevator Technology Enter a New Phase of Growth?


Smart Elevators were originally designed to reduce the time cost of waiting for elevators in skyscraper buildings at busy hours. They make fewer stops by clustering passengers into specific cars based on their destination floors. If you’ve never seen a smart elevator, it’s a different experience. Instead of pushing an “up” or “down” button as you would with a traditional elevator, you find a single control panel in the middle of the lobby. The panel has buttons allowing you to select a floor in advance, after which you are directed to a specific elevator car.

Customers have been slow to adopt smart elevator technology because it is cost prohibitive to install in smaller buildings. The technology is only feasible in buildings with chronic overcrowding problems in elevators and lobbies. However, skyscraper sizes could double in the near future with the emergence of new carbon-fiber elevator cables. With any size increase this sharp, any system is bound to come up against scalability and performance barriers. Doubling the height of an elevator doubles the amount of time needed to make a round trip to the top floor, and it also doubles the potential number of stops in between. For the next generation of buildings, smart elevator controls are likely to become a necessity.

Since elevator passengers have been long accustomed to pressing an up or down button, then entering the first set of doors to open, a behavior change is required for any intelligent control system to operate. Depending on demand and traffic patterns, additional measures may be needed to mitigate congestion. For example, banks of elevators might be marked as “express” elevators, limited to stopping at certain floors only during high-traffic periods. Or, passengers may need to reserve a spot on an elevator in advance. With a sufficiently sophisticated monitoring system in place, smart elevator control systems will be able to monitor demand in real-time and adjust availability of elevator cars as needed.

Cloud-Enabled Elevators

This is just another application for the “internet of things.” As devices become more intelligent and more interconnected, they will become able to perform at their core functions more effectively and seamlessly. For example, an employee who works in a large building might be able to drive to work in a cloud-enabled car and guided right to an available parking space based on his or her work location. The car might also be able to communicate live with the building’s parking deck and elevator control system to let the elevator know approximately when the employee will need to travel to the 40th floor. Aggregating and compiling this kind of data could allow systems to increase their capacity significantly without the need for any more physical hardware.

Data Sharing

As multiple elevators are installed in different cities and countries, real-time elevator traffic data could be shared between different buildings for the purpose of identifying patterns in traffic and finding new ways to reduce demand at critical time periods. For example, businesses could adjust meeting times or employee start and end times. Commercial landlords might begin to charge fees for use of the elevators. Elevator traffic data and behavior patterns could be analyzed to determine best practices.

Smart elevators may experience a resurgence if and when kilometer-high buildings begin popping up. In any event, it’s a near certainty that this type of cloud-based traffic control technology will be employed in city planning systems.


Causes of Common Electronic System Failures

Causes of Common Electronic System Failures

There are nearly an infinite number of things that can cause any electrical system or subsystem to fail. The more moving parts there are, the more things that can go wrong! However, the vast majority electrical failures are fairly common ones that are easiest to spot. Many times, what appears to be a catastrophic failure is really just a simple problem that is easily resolved. If you are trying to troubleshoot a circuit board or control system that has just suddenly stopped working, here are a few things you can quickly check.

Dirt, Dust, Moisture and Oil

Anytime dirt gets inside a system, there is the potential for short circuits or noise. One simple and easy thing you can do is clean out the inside of an electrical cabinet. If you use pressurized air, be careful to choose the right kind. Select pressurized air that is made especially for electronic equipment, because other kinds can cause static buildup and discharge, which can further damage the components inside. Clean the edges of gold connectors if they are dirty, and use a proper cleaning solution. Rubbing alcohol can clean a connector, but attract more dirt. If moisture or water has gotten into your electronic component, turn it off and let it dry completely. Also be careful of machine oils and lubricants as these can damage electrical circuits as well.

Loose Cables

Many times, problems that appear to be severe only occur because a cable worked its way loose. If you have cables that are hanging from the side of a machine or piece of electronic equipment, this can occur as the result of the cable weight on the plug. Many times, plugs are used to hold up the weight of a cable when they were not designed for this. If a cable works its way loose, try using some plastic wire ties to secure the cable to a post, chassis, or some other part of the system to hold up the weight of the cable. This is especially important if there is vibration or movement in the area as this is one of the main reasons why cables will work themselves loose.

Metal Shavings

As any electrical technician in an industrial environment can tell you, tiny metal shavings are disastrous for circuit boards. This is truer than ever before, due to the fact that newer circuit boards nearly all use surface mount technology. Surface mount circuit boards allow for smaller microchips, and a greater number of components on a smaller surface. Also—and here’s where the problem comes in—surface mount chips have skinnier leads that are much closer together. That means that it doesn’t take much to short two leads on a chip. With older through-hole boards, it took something the size of a staple or a paper clip to cause a short, but not any more. If you are drilling a hole in a metal cabinet, take care to cover all electronics as completely as possible. If you can remove circuit boards from the area while drilling, that’s even better.

With most electrical problems, you might be surprised just how often a quick visual inspection will reveal the source of a problem. While not every electronic problem is simple and easy to fix, it is easy to spend hours looking for the problem in complicated places, only to find that something simple was overlooked all along. Whenever there is an electronic problem, just start by taking a cursory look over the obvious areas of the equipment and see what you can find.




You Are the Alpha Tester


The software development life cycle, as well as the hardware product life cycle, is getting shorter and shorter. The GE 90-70 Series PLC had a good 30-year run before it became officially obsolete, but that kind of phenomenon is non-existent today. From consumer products to industrial products, customers are upgrading and replacing systems more and more frequently. This shift in the marketplace has changed the nature of how products are developed and tested.

The economics of conventional alpha and beta testing simply do not work any longer. Back in the days when OEM’s could engineer a component and know that they’d be able to continue selling it for 10 years or more, it made sense to rigorously test that system and create a solid, robust foundation before hitting the marketplace. A bad product release under those conditions could cost a company a huge amount of market share and revenue opportunity for years. But today, the opposite is true. Being slow to release a product is the fatal mistake in the marketplace of the twenty-first century. By the time you’ve done alpha and beta testing the old way, the market will have already moved on to the next thing.

What does this mean to you, as the end user? It means, quite simply, that you are the alpha tester. That’s not going to change. You can expect that when you buy new software products, they will have undergone minimal testing. In fact, you will be one of the guinea pigs. That’s not an entirely bad thing. Software systems are moving to the cloud, allowing for continual updates, live feedback, and fluidity of user experience. Instead of buying a CD-ROM at the store and running an installer program, you simply are assigned a login and password. Some software products don’t even require you to install anything. If they do, it is delivered via download with no physical exchange of product. Why is this significant? It allows software companies to make changes on the fly without having to disrupt your use of their products.

This phenomenon isn’t really all that new. Unix-based operating systems have been this way for decades.  In fact, that’s how they’ve been able to stick around. Unix originally was an operating system for engineers and geeks only. The community was able to provide a strong testing environment that made open-source development feasible. Rather than simulating a set of conditions or having paid users go through a series of pre-determined interaction sequences, the Unix community simply put the code into its real operating and environment and found bugs quickly. Since the user community consisted of expert users, each user could find and fix a programming bug rather than waiting for a single company to release a fix. The Unix model doesn’t work for everything, but it’s one example of how being an end user while alpha testing a product is not a bad thing.

As new technologies continue to roll out, formalized testing is likely to disappear altogether for many product types. Expect to be the one who finds the bug more often.


Three Bad Habits of Electrical Technicians


Let’s face it; there are technicians who know how to diagnose and troubleshoot system faults, and then there are technicians who only know how to make guesses. Anyone who has ever worked in an industrial setting for any length of time has seen the difference. Anyone can blindly go through the motions and do the things that usually fix most problems—like rebooting a computer. But when the common solutions fail, you need a real technician who knows the art of troubleshooting. Here are some bad habits to avoid if you want to learn how to troubleshoot and do it well.


“I wonder if it’s the power supply. Let’s try replacing the power supply. No? What about the servo encoder? Have we replaced that yet? We have? Ok, what about the PLC? Sometimes those go bad.” And so on. The pseudo-technician’s typical strategy for fixing problems is to just try replacing one part after another until something fixes the problem. The sad part is that this often works; after all, parts fail. But if you don’t know why the part failed, you might not have addressed the underlying problem. It is not uncommon in these situations to find the same thing occurring again—and finding that a second expensive component has now been fried.


If you put a voltmeter on a terminal block, you should know what reading you expect to see. If you’ve actually diagnosed a problem and you have a working theory of where the problem is located, your meter should confirm or break your hypothesis. Some technicians—especially ones who don’t have much electrical experience, have a tendency to start poking around in cabinets, putting a meter here and there just to see what reading they get. It’s hard to say exactly why anyone finds this useful. The key to using a meter correctly is to first do the critical thinking about what reading would show up at which test points if the fault is where you think it might be.

Download it Again

Technicians who fail to understand how PLC’s and control units actually work have a tendency to look at them as mysterious black boxes. Sometimes, PLC programs become corrupt and need to be re-downloaded through a serial interface on a laptop. However, this is generally pretty rare. There are those, though, who develop a quick trigger finger for re-downloading PLC programs or firmware simply for lack of anything better to try. Sometimes, it’s a stalling tactic to buy more time to think. (In the field, when the customer is watching, sometimes it helps to be seen taking something apart or plugging a cable into a port just to ease their nervousness—even if you aren’t actually accomplishing anything). If you think that a PLC or PLC program is bad, first ask yourself: what output doesn’t make sense given the inputs applied to it? If you can’t answer that question, there’s probably nothing wrong with the PLC.

Being a technician is about critical thinking and observation. It’s not about blindly applying fixes that work a percentage of the time. You can get away with being a board swapper a lot of the time, but sooner or later you will find yourself in a situation where being a hack doesn’t cut it.


What to Do Instead of Tying Commons Together


If you’re a field service technician, you might find yourself often in the position of having to engineer a solution on the fly. If you find yourself needing to add a subsystem or secondary control cabinet, perhaps for a peripheral piece of equipment such as a printer or bar code scanner, you may not receive a set of electrical prints. In a perfect world, every electrical design modification should be reviewed by an engineer. But in the real world, that doesn’t always happen. Sometimes, you’re on your own to figure it out.

Multiple Grounds

When you’re interfacing two pieces of equipment that communicate via electrical signals and that are powered by separate power supplies, each will have its own ground. While most electrical cabinets are tied to Earth ground, there is also sometimes a chassis ground or a “common” bus that is tied to terminal blocks. For example, if you have a machine that tapes boxes shut and you need to install a label applicator right next to it, the label applicator might need to receive a signal from the PLC inside the taping machine to let it know when the tape has been applied and the label can go on. Suppose both control systems run on 24 volts, and each box has its own common

One really bad practice that is sometimes used in low-voltage applications is tying commons together. In this instance, for example, you might decide to tie the taping machine’s common to the label applicator’s common so that their 24 volts will be based off of the same reference voltage. This might appear to work fine, but it’s an invitation for trouble down the road. When you daisy chain two power supplies together, you effectively ensure that if one power supply fails, they both fail. If any noise is introduced into either system, that noise will be carried into both systems because they are electrically tied together.


An optocoupler, also called an optoisolator, is a component designed to solve this problem. It’s basically an LED next to a photo sensor. Optocouplers are made for situations where digital signals need to be passed between two different electrical systems on separate power supplies. The signal is passed by way of a beam of light that activates the sensor. That way, the signal can be “coupled” between the two systems without needing to connect them together electrically. This removes any risk of needlessly damaging or interfering with the operation of two power supplies at the same time.


Relays can also be used to couple a signal between two different systems. One system can be used to activate the relay coil, which closes the switch on the other side. Again, no direct electrical connection is made between the two systems. Relays are sometimes less ideal than optocouplers due to characteristics like noise, switch bounce, and frequency limitations.

Tying commons together might seem to be a quick and easy solution, but it’s the kind of thing that can lead to a phone call in the middle of the night when a system suddenly fails. It’s better to err on the safe side.

The Isolation Method of Troubleshooting

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Electrical technicians who have to troubleshoot large or multifaceted systems are only able to do their jobs effectively if they can quickly isolate a problem to a single subsystem. You may have heard the story of the mechanic who was called to fix a car that wouldn’t start. He turned one single screw and the car started right up. He handed the customer a bill for $100.10. The customer wanted to know why the bill was so high, when the mechanic hadn’t done anything other than turning a single screw. The mechanic replied that $0.10 was the charge for turning the screw, and $100 was for knowing which screw to turn.

Technicians who know how to fix systems effectively do so by the process of elimination. Let’s say, for example, that you have a group of electrical cabinets connected together by computer network communication cables. Suppose there are 100 of these cabinets, and somewhere along the line, there is a break in the signal. You might go to the 50th cabinet and see if the signal has made it that far. If it has, then you have eliminated the first 50 cabinets and cut the problem in half. If the signal has not made it that far, then you know that the problem exists in the first 50 cabinets and not the last half. You can then go to the 25th or 75th cabinet, as appropriate, and repeat the process all over again.

Eliminating Suspects

Unfortunately, the example above is not a typical example of a fault. In reality, it’s much more complex than that. In electromechanical systems, such as copying machines or car washes, there are moving parts and electrical control systems that work together in tandem. It’s not always easy to isolate the fault to a single place. This is where the art of troubleshooting comes in. It’s all about creating conditions that reveal the true nature of a problem.

In a copying machine, for example, you might have a situation where the copies all come out blank. In older analog copying machines—unlike today’s copying machines, which are basically scanners attached to laser printers—there was a set of mirrors that directed a beam of light onto a photographic “drum” which would attract toner to the exposed areas. A blank copy might mean a broken or misaligned mirror—or it might mean that the “transfer” (an electrical charge designed to pull toner off of the drum) was not working. A technician might start making a copy and open the side of the machine partway. If there is toner on the drum in the shape of the image, that would eliminate the mirror optics as a suspect.

The more different subsystems there are, the more difficult it can be to trace and identify the nature of a problem. However, if you get in the habit of asking yourself the question, “How can I eliminate a subsystem as a suspect,” you will find the problem of electrical troubleshooting becoming both simpler and easier.

GE IC693CPU374 vs IC693CPU364: Not the same!


You may have heard that the GE IC693CPU374 is a replacement for its older equivalent, the IC693CPU364. Well—sort of. Here’s the catch. The CPU374 PLC is SIMILAR to the CPU364 in all respects but one: it’s incompatible with the DOS-based version of the PLC programming software. In other words, if you created your ladder program using the old DOS-based software LOGIMASTER 90 on a CPU364 and you buy a CPU374 to replace it, you’re out of luck unless you upgrade your software to the Windows version—which carries a $1,000 license fee.

The good news: if you need to replace an IC693CPU364 PLC, you can still get one in like-new condition! Give us a call today and we’ll get one out to you. And remember: “compatible” part numbers are not always 100% interchangeable.