Open Sesame!

Originally published 2005 in Atomic: Maximum Power Computing
Last modified 03-Dec-2011.


I suspect, for some reason, that many of the people reading this are fairly conversant with the use and handling of the common screwdriver.

Possibly also the spanner, and the hammer.

Maybe even the pop rivet gun.

Fasteners don't take up a whole lot of the average nerd's brain space, though, because they never seem to generate any major news. Incremental improvements, sure, but if you brought an 18th century machinist to the present day and showed him what we use to hold stuff together when we want to be able to take it apart again, he'd recognise all of it.

Screws, nuts and bolts, nails, and rivets. That's it. He had 'em, we have 'em. Ain't much changed. Lock washers, pop-open wall anchors, staple guns and hammer-in T-nuts wouldn't exactly stagger our friend from 1783.

Modern "wire" nails (the kind that aren't made one by one by a blacksmith) are about 300 years old. The screw as a fastener is at least a few centuries old; exactly who came up with the idea's lost in the mists of history, but various of the more behind-the-scenes kinds of empire-builders figured out at least some of the surprisingly complex physics of screws and nuts of different kinds and, more importantly, managed to more or less standardise the darn things. That achievement played a big part in lighting the fuse of the Industrial Revolution (allow me to recommend the book One Good Turn by Witold Rybczynski).

Big news is coming, though. Say hello to "smart fasteners".

The basic idea of the smart fastener is that it can grab, and let go, by itself. You don't have to turn it or hit it or pull a piece of it out.

The first thing J. Random Slashdot Poster always says when he hears this is "wow, so 1337 h4XX0rZ will be able to disassemble your car as you drive by, huh?".

Fortunately, no. Smart fasteners won't do anything unless a tool's applying energy to them. That energy may be magnetic, or it may be electricity or heat, or the fasteners may get power from a bus that's separate from a radio-frequency tool. But even in that last case the fasteners won't be permanently powered up, just waiting to be told to leave you sliding down the freeway holding your steering wheel.

There are lots of variably complex smart fastener actuator designs, but many of them use shape memory alloys that let the fastener engage and/or disengage in response to heat. The heat usually comes from a simple electrical resistance arrangement that warms the shape memory part of the fastener, without making the rest of it very hot.

Current shape memory alloys don't have very high heat thresholds, so things assembled with these fasteners would probably fall apart in the sun - but we're working on that. Magnetic and electric-motor actuators, of course, don't have this problem.

The usual second response to this concept is "well, so what, then? OK, it'll be nice to just touch a screw in an awkward place and have it drop out without a bunch of fiddling, but that's hardly going to revolutionise society."

O ye of little imagination. Just wait until you see what people make with these things.

The early consumer applications for smart fasteners are automotive - simple Bluetooth-based systems that let authorised users remove and install car stereos and airbags, and oddities like roof racks that lock your kayak down when you lock the car. But these things can do so much more.

At the moment, products like cars are spot welded together by robots that each do their little collection of welds as the assembly line passes them. One weld at a time.

A smart-fastenered panel would cost rather more than a simple steel stamping to create, but could just be located and then locked into place in one operation. Every fastener on the panel could lock down simultaneously, click, when a robot or human worker applied power to the outside of the panel. One contact will do it, if the frame of the car is grounded.

The real magic, though, happens when you want to take a panel off again.

If the panel's welded on, this is annoying. If it's riveted or bolted on, it's still fairly annoying - and it may come off all by itself when you least expect it, threadlock or no threadlock. But with smart fasteners, removing parts and panels can be as easy as putting them on. And it should only happen when you want it to happen.

This ain't the half of it, though. Smart fasteners can really be smart; they can have their own little nugget of processing power.

The giant flaming eyes of the big media conglomerates snapped around to stare at smart fasteners as soon as someone mentioned that programmable ones could be used to make cables that can only be unplugged if the manufacturer gives you permission. But crap like that is only ever going to stump those of us who do not own a large slotted screwdriver and/or Dremel.

What's more interesting is that at the moment, designers have to think about how assemblers are going to be able to reach fasteners, and in what order. Rivets that can lock themselves in place when other stuff's already been installed over the top of them, even if it's just on a simple time delay, will be a big step forward in the creation of the ingenious tight-packed assemblies that make the geekly life worthwhile.

If fasteners have onboard processing power, they can be programmed. Something as simple as just sequencing the times when the fasteners on a component activate could make possible some very tricky feats of assembly - consider a component that tacks itself in place with its corner fasteners, waits one second to be pressed into a new shape and then activates its middle fasteners, then lets go on the corners, waits another two seconds for the obliging assembly robot to press it into yet another shape, and then locks itself in place all around the edge. This sort of stuff could make complex assembly processes cost a lot less, by reducing the number of parts and operations that're needed. It'll also let loose all kinds of fancy complex-geometry and stressed-component ideas that were previously impossible, or at least ridiculously time consuming. And once production gets rolling, intelligent fastener promoters promise us that the things won't cost more than five times as much as existing bolts and screws. Maybe only twice as much.

And, of course, smart fasteners may give us the chance to look wizardly. Perhaps even in the way imagined by the Slashdot first-posters.

I remember the last time I was called upon to see what was wrong with someone's VCR. The final diagnosis was "it's toast", but that need not detain us now; the important part was how impressed my friends were when I merely undid the four standard casing screws and bared the machine's guts with a scrape and twang of cheap pressed steel.

It's conceivable that there'll be some specialised smart-fastened systems with a power distribution bus that does allow remote actuation of the fasteners. Perhaps there'll also be fasteners that can be triggered and powered by a non-contact microwave beam in the factory or something.

So what if the 101-hex-bits-set of tomorrow is a pocket computer with a "universal remote" program bearing bootleg codes for a thousand manufacturers' smart fasteners?

Point your magic box at your in-laws' featureless cubic black Sony 3DTV projector, issue the "fastener bus powerup" and then "release all" commands, and the TV will take itself apart like the Bluesmobile.

Can I get an "Aww, yeah"?

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