Wednesday, November 4, 2009

SMMA Fall Technical Conference - Day 2

Day 2 at the SMMA Fall Technical Conference.

Today was the first day of the conference proceedings. That meant tabletop sessions and parallel presentation sessions from 8AM to 7PM, followed by a nice dinner. The tabletops were very interesting. I didn't get a chance to wonder around much because I had to man my table, but I was right next to the bearing guys:

Bearing sea.

So one of life's mysteries (How do you assemble a ball bearing?) has been answered for me. The answer, it turns out, is far less magical than I thought. Anyway, that was fun. Proto Laminations also had a tabletop across the way with a very flashy poster. Here's a fun picture of our matching tables:

How is it standing up?

That, by the way, is Wally Rippel from AC Propulsion. He was also responsible for the Great Transcontinental Electric Car Race between Caltech and 1968. Yes, 1968. Long before Tesla or the EV1, they raced electric cars across the country in 210 hours, recharging from the grid along the way. Caltech won by 30 minutes, but both cars finished the 1968. So what exaclty have we been doing since then? (Besides landing on the moon and inventing the internet.) Well, batteries are a lot better these days. As are power electronics. Maybe time for another race?

One observation I got from today was that the motor manufacturing industry, as a whole, is relatively conservative. (They describe themselves this doesn't have the same connotation as it does back in's more a deliberate, careful way of doing business, not a political/social position.) But since the economic downturn, things are being shaken up and the big shaker-uppers are energy and transportation. So a lot of the manufacturers need to decide whether they want to take big risks by heading into these markets.

One big deal topic was permanent magnets. Some went as far as to say that they are avoiding permanent magnets altogether as too risky an investment for motors. The logic, which eludes my own sense of the workings of a global economy, is as follows:
  1. China has all the rare earth ore.
  2. They want to make magnets instead of exporting ore.
  3. More value added = more profit for China, less for the US.
Okay, but doesn't that just mean that you get your finished, ready-to-install motor magnets from China instead of from the US? They would probably be cheaper, if anything! It's not like oil...there is no impending shortage. Maybe I just don't understand the market. But here's the next step in the logic I've heard that is the real interesting part to me:
  • If China wants to make magents instead of exporting ore, then they will eventually want to make motors instead of magnets.
Well now I can see why that would be a problem for the motor manufacturers. But I still can't see how that justifies moving away from PM if it is clearly the better design choice for certain types of motors. Isn't the end result there that China makes better motors and we still lose market share? Wouldn't be the first time we've gone down that road.

Interesting, interesting stuff. But a bit outside my expertise, so I'll stick to the technical stuff.

Day 3 coming up.

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