Blue Marble helps Ford find a better way

Photo courtesy: Michigan Technological University
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HOUGHTON, Mich. (WLUC) - A casual conversation in a Michigan Technological University hallway led to a discovery that will save Ford Motor Company hundreds of thousands of dollars.

A couple years ago, Glen Archer, interim chair of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, bumped into Paul Sanders, the Patrick Horvath Endowed Professor of Material Science and Engineering. Sanders had a question for Archer — “Is Blue Marble looking for a project?”

Blue Marble Security, born out of the Michigan Tech Enterprise program, is a virtual company comprised of American and international undergraduate students focused on securing the future through thoughtful use of technology. Archer is the group’s advisor.

The project Sanders proposed to Archer was straightforward enough — make something old new again. Sanders came upon the challenge through a former colleague at Ford Motor Company, James Boileau. Like Sanders, Boileau is a metallurgist who routinely submits proposals to the Poling Prize, funded by the family of former Ford president, the late Harold Arthur “Red” Poling. The goal of the prize is to fund as many students as possible to solve important problems. And Boileau had a doozy.

Boileau ran the materials characterization lab at Ford’s Research and Innovation Center. An important piece of analytical equipment was in an older-model JEOL 6300 scanning electron microscope (SEM), which is similar to the JEOL 6400 at Michigan Tech. These SEMs use monitors with cathode ray tubes (CRT), essentially old-school TV tubes. CRTs are expensive, becoming hard to find and environmentally hazardous to dispose. Because JEOL was running out of spare monitors for its 6300, Ford’s 6300 SEM would become useless without new displays.

Sanders pitched the problem to Archer, and Blue Marble went to work. The company’s goal was to replace the CRT monitors with off-the-shelf LED displays, similar to what you would find in most office computers. Success didn’t come early or easy. In fact, the project spanned two academic years. “The first year’s attempt produced some partial success in the sense that the students diligently uncovered a number of solutions that wouldn’t work very well,” Archer said with a smile.

He said those first attempts involved an examination of the CRT’s video signals. “I ruled this effort unsafe because of the high voltages involved and told the students to look deeper into the system to find the video signals while they are still at safe levels. The student's examination of the schematics was nothing if not heroic," Archer added.

Archer said the second year brought new insights, new leadership and eventually complete success.

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