Daily Archives: November 12, 2015

The future for IT technicians

This blog accompanies the British Computer Society’s launch of RITTech, a new standard for IT technicians. For more info look at:

http://www.bcs.org/content/conWebDoc/55343 and

http://www.bcs.org/category/18031

It is a great time to be in IT. Companies are fragmenting and reconstructing and new business models are emerging every year. Everything is becoming smart, bringing IT to pole position in the sector race. Everyone has multiple mobile devices – smart phones, tablets, readers and laptops, even smart watches and wristbands. The opportunities to add electronic control are abundant, but they all need to be developed, software written and circuits fabricated and tested. Engineers have never had more core technologies to play with to create new products and services, and they rely on technicians to make it happen.

One of the most important things for anyone in a globalised world, where potential customers or employers will often never have met you or even seen you, is to be certificated. Having a respected industry body confirm that you have reached a given level of ability makes decisions  safer. Knowing that a person has the skills required to do the job takes away the biggest risk in employing them for a project. Global companies such as Microsoft offer such certification, but so can professional bodies such as the British Computer Society. The important factor is that the body is known, respected and their certification trusted.

Trust is absolutely key in a networked world. Anyone can pretend to be anyone, and can act across borders via the net from anywhere. Dangers lurk everywhere. People need to know they can trust appliances they use, the websites they visit. They need to be confident that their details will not end up in the hands of criminals, especially anything related to their finances. They also need to be confident that code won’t crash their machines or leave them open to hackers. Few people have the ability to look after all the IT themselves, so they rely on others to make it safe for them. They trust a corporate brand, so they trust their website, so that means that company has to be able to trust those who write it and maintain it to be able to do their work competently and reliably.

That is all getting more and more difficult in a miniaturizing world. The internet of things is already bringing us into the early stages of digital jewellery. From there, it is only a small step further before IT devices will often be dust sized, well below a millimetre, and then they could easily fit through the holes in an office machine, or sit on keys on a keyboard. Add that to security holes in a smart light bulb that nobody thought of as a security risk, but which opens a back door into a home LAN, and it becomes obvious just how tricky it will be to make things secure.

Security will remain a background problem no matter what is being built, but that doesn’t take away the excitement of making something new. Every wave of new core technology opens up new doors to new gadgets or network capability. Artificial intelligence also adds capability in parallel. A huge gap has opened over recent years between what has become possible and what has been done. There just aren’t enough engineers and technicians to do everything. That means it has never been easier to invent things, to find something exciting that nobody has done yet. That next big thing could be invented by you.

You might think it won’t be because your boss has you working on another project, but new tech opens up potential in every area. There is probably something right next to your project waiting to be discovered or developed. Showing creativity or innovative capability will fast track you to your next promotion and when your colleagues learn you have done something special, you will feel the warm glow of recognition too. Few things feel better than peer recognition. Nobody is too junior to come up with a new idea, or a new way of looking at something, or spotting a feature that would increase customer satisfaction without increasing cost. Some of my best ideas have happened in areas I have just started work in. If you’re new, you might not have all the finely honed skills of someone who’s been working in it for years, but you also don’t have their prejudices, you don’t know why you can’t do something, so you just do it anyway. The barriers they thought they knew about may have been rendered irrelevant by technology progress but their prejudice hasn’t kept up with change. You might be surprised how often that is the case.

In short, as a technician going for certification, you are laying down a solid foundation for secure and fruitful employment in exciting fields. That same desire to take control, push yourself to your limits and make life work for you will also make you exactly the sort of person that is likely to do something  special. A technician is an important person already, making dreams happen, but ahead lies a career full of opportunity for further development, excitement and fulfilment.

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How to make a Spiderman-style graphene silk thrower for emergency services

I quite like Spiderman movies, and having the ability to fire a web at a distant object or villain has its appeal. Since he fires web from his forearm, it must be lightweight to withstand the recoil, and to fire enough to hold his weight while he swings, it would need to have extremely strong fibers. It is therefore pretty obvious that the material of choice when we build such a thing will be graphene, which is even stronger than spider silk (though I suppose a chemical ejection device making spider silk might work too). A thin graphene thread is sufficient to hold him as he swings so it could fit inside a manageable capsule.

So how to eject it?

One way I suggested for making graphene threads is to 3D print the graphene, using print nozzles made of carbon nanotubes and using a very high-speed modulation to spread the atoms at precise spacing so they emerge in the right physical patterns and attach appropriate positive or negative charge to each atom as they emerge from the nozzles so that they are thrown together to make them bond into graphene. This illustration tries to show the idea looking at the nozzles end on, but shows only a part of the array:printing graphene filamentsIt doesn’t show properly that the nozzles are at angles to each other and the atoms are ejected in precise phased patterns, but they need to be, since the atoms are too far apart to form graphene otherwise so they need to eject at the right speed in the right directions with the right charges at the right times and if all that is done correctly then a graphene filament would result. The nozzle arrangements, geometry and carbon atom sizes dictate that only narrow filaments of graphene can be produced by each nozzle, but as the threads from many nozzles are intertwined as they emerge from the spinneret, so a graphene thread would be produced made from many filaments. Nevertheless, it is possible to arrange carbon nanotubes in such a way and at the right angle, so provided we can get the high-speed modulation and spacing right, it ought to be feasible. Not easy, but possible. Then again, Spiderman isn’t real yet either.

The ejection device would therefore be a specially fabricated 3D print head maybe a square centimeter in area, backed by a capsule containing finely powdered graphite that could be vaporized to make the carbon atom stream through the nozzles. Some nice lasers might be good there, and some cool looking electronic add-ons to do the phasing and charging. You could make this into one heck of a cool gun.

How thick a thread do we need?

Assuming a 70kg (154lb) man and 2g acceleration during the swing, we need at least 150kg breaking strain to have a small safety margin, bearing in mind that if it breaks, you can fire a new thread. Steel can achieve that with 1.5mm thick wire, but graphene’s tensile strength is 300 times better than steel so 0.06mm is thick enough. 60 microns, or to put it another way, roughly 140 denier, although that is a very quick guess. That means roughly the same sort of graphene thread thickness is needed to support our Spiderman as the nylon used to make your backpack. It also means you could eject well over 10km of thread from a 200g capsule, plenty. Happy to revise my numbers if you have better ones. Google can be a pain!

How fast could the thread be ejected?

Let’s face it. If it can only manage 5cm/s, it is as much use as a chocolate flamethrower. Each bond in graphene is 1.4 angstroms long, so a graphene hexagon is about 0.2nm wide. We would want our graphene filament to eject at around 100m/s, about the speed of a crossbow bolt. 100m/s = 5 x 10^11 carbon atoms ejected per second from each nozzle, in staggered phasing. So, half a terahertz. Easy! That’s well within everyday electronics domains. Phew! If we can do better, we can shoot even faster.

We could therefore soon have a graphene filament ejection device that behaves much like Spiderman’s silk throwers. It needs some better engineers than me to build it, but there are plenty of them around.

Having such a device would be fun for sports, allowing climbers to climb vertical rock faces and overhangs quickly, or to make daring leaps and hope the device works to save them from certain death. It would also have military and police uses. It might even have uses in road accident prevention, yanking pedestrians away from danger or tethering cars instantly to slow them extra quickly. In fact, all the emergency services would have uses for such devices and it could reduce accidents and deaths. I feel confident that Spiderman would think of many more exciting uses too.

Producing graphene silk at 100m/s might also be pretty useful in just about every other manufacturing industry. With ultra-fine yarns with high strength produced at those speeds, it could revolutionize the fashion industry too.