Excellence in Product Design and Development
Intermec Technologies Corporation develops inventory systems for companies such as Wal-Mart. In late 2004 Intermec announced it's IP3-FC/750 RFID, a radio-frequency identification tag reader that is the world's first handheld commercial product powered by a fuel cell. IDE was instrumental in the design and development of this breakthrough alternative energy product.
Fuel cells have long been touted as superior to batteries as a power source for portable electronic devices. Batteries are heavy, expensive, and toxic, making disposal difficult and expensive. Fuel cells have greater power-to-volume ratio, last exponentially longer, and can be replenished instantly, simply by adding more fuel (in this case, methanol). However, until the introduction of the IP3-FC/750, no one has been able to effectively miniaturize them in a commercially available product.
The IP3-FC/750 is a RFID reader that can be used for warehousing and inventory control in environments that may not have AC power readily available. It is powered by MTI Micro's Fuel Cell's Mobion methanol fuel cell technology, in which a methanol fuel cell converts liquid methanol into electrical current to power the device. The methanol is supplied in the form of a disposable methanol fuel cartridge which the user slides into place in a manner similar to a printer cartridge. The micro fuel cell provides up to 3 times the power to volume ratio of comparable Lithium Ion batteries, extending runtime. The spent fuel cartridges are non-toxic and disposable (cartridge materials are recycleable), and the fuel cell instantly provides full power output upon installation of a fresh fuel cartridge (no recharging time is required).
IDE provided its unique combination of industrial design and design engineering services to MTI Micro Fuel Cells for the IP3-FC/750 power pack, specifically to address the problems of fuel cell integration and fuel replenishment. IDE's extensive experience in the design and development of handheld electronics, from PDAs to cell phones, and it's background in ergonomics and user interface design, made IDE an ideal development partner for MTI Micro.
The initial challenge facing the design team was to find the best solution for supplying and replacing methanol fuel into a handheld RFID device. We needed to find an intuitive, user-centered method that allowed safe handling and refilling of the methanol, without the use of special tools or system equipment. The other challenge was to integrate MTI's Mobion fuel cell technology and the replaceable cartridge into the Intermec radio/handle, and minimize the impact on size and weight.
The solution to the first challenge was to design a replaceable (disposable) methanol fuel cartridge that is supplied in a foil sealed wrapper (similar to a replaceable ink cartridge). The methanol fuel cartridge is simply inserted into a slot and, once in place, self seals to the fuel cell engine providing the required fuel to the fuel cell. The cartridge also had to achieve approval by UL laboratories for a newly emerging category of methanol fuel devices.
To solve the packaging integration challenge, IDE designed light weight die-cast Magnesium parts that could provide precision mounting features for MTI's Mobion fuel cell engine and provide critical thermal stability which is essential for optimum fuel cell engine performance. The Magnesium housings also support the custom designed track guides and springs that allow the user to simply slide the fuel cartridges into place creating a seal between the cartidge and fuel cell engine. A pivoting tab is used to pull the spent cartridge from its slot and a flexible, tethered plastic door covers the opening once a cartridge has been installed.
With IDE, no small detail is left unattended. For example, the development of the user controls on the NOMAD, which to a user may seem simple and straight forward, encompassed an array of usability and mechanical issues. A plastic model was developed and used by IDE to evaluate the ergonomic function of the keys. The relative height of each key was then tested and evaluated by adjusting their heights by four thousandth of an inch increments. Similarly, a second model allowed the IDE team to measure and evaluate the actuation force of each key to insure that all keys had a similar feel to the user. Creating prototypes that are both analytical and empirical in their function allows IDE to associate a quantitative value to a subjective response. Human factors research and engineering models are essential ingredients to successful product design.
For IDE Inc. the success of the NOMAD design lies in a balanced approach to each of their contributing disciplines. The form of the NOMAD could have taken any shape, but was respectful to Creative’s initial concept, a form reminiscent of a portable CD player. Factors that were involved in the packaging of the NOMAD included manufacturing’s desire for a single PC design with the hard drive mounted to the PC board, and, of course the intelligent facilitation of all technology and function. Ergonomic considerations were paramount and each user control was analyzed for maximum user satisfaction. IDE’s design sketches and eventually their final design concepts (computer generated using sophisticated 3D NURBS modeling) were directed toward a softer more integrated look that evoked elegance with an emphasis on surface transitions.
The Intermec IP3-FC/750 is the world's first commercially available methanol fuel cell powered hand held device and as such has already received international exposure and recongnition for its manufacturers, Intermec Technologies Corporation and MTI Micro Fuel Cells Mobion fuel cell technology. This has placed both companies at the forefront of the emerging, clean, renewable energy industries, which will ultimately reduce pollution of the earth and its atmosphere.
MTI's Mobion Technology, used in the Intermec IP3-FC/750, received the "Best Of What's New" Grand Award in the General Innovations category, which is given by Popular Science magazine in recognition of products that represent a leap over existing technologies.
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