July 17, 2003 – Vol. 22 No. 19

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    SmartSignal collaboration an example of ‘technology-transfer process at work’

    By Steve Koppes
    News Office

    Smart technology that Argonne National Laboratory scientists developed to predict pump failures at a nuclear reactor in Idaho is helping power companies all over North America prepare for a possible summer heat wave.

    But without the University’s Office of Technology and Intellectual Property, the technology probably never would have reached the marketplace, and a company called SmartSignal would not exist.

    “SmartSignal is a perfect example of what can be achieved in our collaboration between the University and Argonne and a perfect example of the technology-transfer process at work,” said Alan Thomas, Director of the University’s Office of Technology and Intellectual Property.

    The Technology Office assesses the commercial potential of new ideas developed at the University and Argonne that could benefit the public while also generating revenue for research and education. The technology now marketed by SmartSignal was one of the office’s shrewdest assessments. When the University formed SmartSignal in 1995, the company consisted of two employees, eight patents and a card table. Based in Lisle, Ill., the company now has 35 employees and a client list that includes Delta Airlines, Caterpillar and General Motors as well as a variety of power companies.

    “It’s gone from a gleam in our eye in the mid-1990s to a very impressive company with a lot of blue-chip customers these days,” Thomas said.

    SmartSignal’s software technology, called Equipment Condition Monitoring™, anticipates machinery failure long before it happens.

    “One of the powerful features of the technology is that it is broadly applicable,” Thomas said. “It works through a statistical technique that models the normal operation of whatever the system is and then is able to, in real time, detect very small departures from normal operation, which often are early warnings of failure.”

    SmartSignal now has power-generation customers, ranging from Arizona Public Service, which operates the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station near Phoenix, to Hydro-Québec, a hydroelectric power plant in Canada.

    “It’s all about fixing the small problems at three in the morning instead of having a forced outage at three in the afternoon when you’ve contracted to deliver a whole bunch of electricity,” said SmartSignal spokesman John Kerastas.

    Kerastas said a common problem in the power-generation industry is aging equipment that is not being used as it was designed to be used. The plants were designed to power up once and maintain maximum-load operation for a certain period of time. But the plants are instead fluctuating regularly under nonmaximum loads.

    Plant managers currently lack the software that would give them insight into the performance of their equipment during that stage.

    “That’s one of the things we do,” Kerastas said. “We give real-time insight into what’s going on during those non-full-load operating conditions, which are becoming more and more frequent, to give them an earlier understanding of potential problems.”

    The government as well as industry has turned to SmartSignal. At the invitation of the National Transportation Safety Board, the company recently took part in the Society of Automotive Engineers Technical Conference on Vehicle Recorder Data in Arlington, Va.

    Part of the conference was devoted to the proactive use of recorder data in commercial vehicle operations that range from rail transportation to aerospace. “Typically, recorders have been used primarily in a ‘postmortem’ fashion for accident investigation or root-cause analysis after equipment failure,” Kerastas said.

    The U.S. Department of Defense’s central research and development organization, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, also has funded a project at SmartSignal to analyze test data from a helicopter gearbox that contains microscopic cracks. “The Navy gathered the data some time ago to test methods for prognostication of time to failure or useful remaining life as the crack propagates,” Kerastas said.

    Such broad applications come as no surprise to the University’s technology transfer officials.

    “We were out singing SmartSignal’s praises for the longest time, and in the early days we were just voices in the wilderness,” Thomas said. “Our vision from the start has been that it has the ability to change the way all machinery, manufacturing and transportation is done in the world. That’s a big vision.”