Tramex Ltd is located at Shankhill Business Centre, Shankhill, Co. Dublin, Ireland. employing seven people, three with electronics experience, and design and manufacture a range of instruments for measurement/detection of moisture in wood, fibre glass, concrete, plaster, roofing and other building materials. The company utilises sub contractors for most of its electronic sub assembly/mechanical detail fabrication and deploys its staff on design/development, coordination of manufacture, final assembly/test, marketing, and overall management.
Objectives and Rationale for the AE
The objective of the AE was to improve the companys competitive position by designing a hand held, battery powered, wood moisture meter/recorder embodying a microcontroller system, a non-volatile memory and a dot matrix liquid crystal display (LCD). The new instrument, which is operated via a 3 x 4 keypad, digitally processes the inputs from an analogue capacitive moisture transducer, digital temperature sensor and stored materials library to provide corrected moisture values which are displayed on an LCD and can be recorded in non-volatile memory. Stored readings and their identification/date/time stamps can be viewed on the LCD or downloaded via an RS232 link to a PC.
Existing Product, its Technology, Functions and Application Areas
Existing wood moisture instruments, manufactured by the company, use two co-planar electrodes (mounted on the base of the instrument) which are lightly pressed onto the wood/material sample. An oscillator creates an alternating electric field between the electrodes causing an AC current flow through the wood sample. This current is amplified, rectified and presented as a wood moisture percentage reading on a moving coil meter. Simple analogue electronics are employed in all current instrument designs, i.e., operational amplifiers, transistors, CMOS logic parts, etc.
The New Adopted Technology and Product Improvement (Functions and application)
Current wood moisture meters are calibrated for a wood specific gravity of 0.5 at 20º C. Readings can only be recorded by writing into a logbook. Moisture percentage is dependent on the specific gravity of the wood species and its temperature (there are several hundred wood species with a wide range of specific gravities). Thus it necessary to provide printed charts listing specific gravity/temperature corrections.
The new product removes the need to refer to printed tables/charts to manually correct readings for temperature and material specific gravity, and write the results into a logbook. The ability to download stored readings to a PC permits more detailed analysis and presentation of moisture data than previously possible.
Cost and Duration of AE, including Start and End Dates
The budget was 50 KECU and the actual duration 14 months (originally planned for 10 months). The AE started 7 April 1997 and ended 9 June 1998.
Benefits of AE including Econmical Benefits and Increment in Capability. ROI and Payback Period.
The advanced features and operational benefits of the new product combined with the flexibility provided by the new technology to address new applications by firmware and PC software alterations, will enable Tramex to establish a lead position for this class of instruments and thus increase the companys market share.
In addition to the 50 KECU FUSE funding, Tramex are investing a further 68 KECU to cover the industrialisation costs of the injection moulded instrument case, PC software and Intellectual Property Rights or IPR. Tramex are generating a patent to protect our IPR.The payback period for the net 118 KECU investment is estimated to be 2.2 years. It is estimated that the new product will contribute an ROI (Return Of Investment) of 250% over a period of 5 years. There will also be an ROI from a number of future planned projects which have been enabled by the new technology.
Lessons Learned (Best Practice)
A major lesson learned was the need to take expert advice and the importance of a feasibility study to break down the barriers to give confidence to Tramex that introducing a new technology was possible. The above highlighted how to choose and source microcontroller information, technical support (largely via the Internet). During the development the value of extensive testing the firmware with hardware ("what if scenarios) was found to be very important. The preparation of a detailed project plan allowed Tramex to estimate more accurately the project timescale and hence development costs. It also allowed project progress to be monitored accurately. The unique and time consuming experience of finding a manufacturers design error in a real time clock IC highlighted that even small companies should not be frightened of questioning data sheets and the operation of ICs of major manufactures. Big companies can be in error.