Author Archive for John Falcioni

01
Aug
15

FLIPPING TO NEW WAYS

0815MEM_Cover_no_box.inddI was driving out to the North Fork of Long Island with an old friend who was visiting from Palm Desert a couple of weeks ago when his cell phone rings. He dives deep into his pocket and pulls out a familiar relic that I hadn’t seen in some time: a flip phone.

After several minutes of severe ribbing, which included showing off my ultra-smart personal iPhone 6 and work Windows cell phones, he says nonapologetically, “Haven’t you heard, flip phones are cool again.”

I laughed. But not all that long ago, the flip phone was as uber-cool as, well, Uber is today. And while my friend, Joe, may not feel the need to be connected all-ways-cyber in the way that I do, his cell phone makes and receives calls with no less precision than mine do.

It was clear how out of place the iconography of the flip phone was amidst my mobile gadgetry. In its day, the flip was cutting edge, however, and its design evidently sound enough to withstand years of use. But, as I told Joe, sometimes you have to keep up with the times.

Today, especially in the U.S., old rules of all kinds are transforming—from Constitutional interpretations and laws, to culture and technology. It’s not clear how transformative all of the current social and technology disruptions will become, but when it comes to advanced manufacturing, and especially 3-D printing—our editorial focus this month—it won’t be long before it’s a game changer in certain applications, especially biotechnology, aerospace, defense, and power generation.

One of the most noteworthy examples of transformative innovations is the Model T, circa 1908. It was understood that its design was revolutionary, like the flip phone in its day, but how bravely transformative Henry Ford would be could not have been predicted at first. It wasn’t simply about design, but also his manufacturing processes that made Ford unique. The assembly line he shepherded in 1913 was pivotal in mass producing affordably priced cars.

I bring up Ford because he left us three lessons that are valid in today’s changing environment. First, design with your customers in mind. Ford grew up on a farm and wanted to make the Model T nimble enough to handle well even on bumpy dirt roads where some of his customers resided. He designed a suspension system with a triangular configuration that allowed the front and rear axles to flex without damaging the engine.

Second, don’t overlook what’s going on behind the scenes. Even as the assembly line was adopted in other industries, Ford took advantage of this concept and became the first automobile manufacturer to combine precision components with continuously moving assembly to build cars. By 1914 Ford was producing far more cars than any other competitor.

Third, don’t be afraid to go against the grain. Having the steering wheel on the left side, as we’re used to now, was not standard in the U.S. It was a design decision that changed the entire auto industry. Today’s innovators are taking a cue from Ford and are not afraid to do things their way. Those involved in 3-D printing are an example.

With no disrespect intended to the retro movement, or to the 18 percent of millennials who told the Pew Research Internet Project recently that they don’t use a smartphone, the flip phone never hit the high notes of innovation of the Model T. And the flip phone is no longer cool, even if using one today goes “against the grain.”

08
Jul
15

THE RULES OF INNOVATION

0715MEM_Cover FBConsider a world with no technology standards. No codes like the ones ASME publishes to regulate pressure vessels, no rules to secure the safety of cranes or elevators, or any other technology. In the 1880s a group of engineers in the newly formed American Society of Mechanical Engineers began to develop parameters to stem the outburst of boiler explosions that were killing thousands of people every year. Standards developed by ASME would eventually govern how boilers were tested, made, and maintained thus preventing needless damage and saving countless lives.

Creating technology without such rules may seem downright foolish today, yet we may be on our way to exposing ourselves to just such risks.

In my column last month I wrote about robots that work peacefully, side-by-side with humans in assembly plants and some designed as novelty items that mix spirits into cocktails. Underlying all the good news about robotics and other developments, and the explosion of research into artificial intelligence, is the decades-old fear of what happens if our own creations, ungoverned, get away from us.

Hollywood has capitalized on this prospect since the days of D.W. Griffith, titillating us with plots of androids gone bad. This year’s crop of new films is no different, but two films take the special-effects nature of the genre and mix in a dose of real-world ethical quandary to make us pause.

Ex Machina and Tomorrowland, albeit very different films, raise existential themes tied to the development of powerful technologies and their implications on our lives and in the future of the world.

Film critics will talk about the political undertones of these films, but the films raise hard-hitting questions over the governance of artificial intelligence research and of technologies such as nano- and bioengineering, self-driving cars, tracking technologies, smart homes, and others.

There are many who share the viewpoint that tech companies are moving too fast without adding sufficient safeguards to their innovations, and that the potential implications of breakthroughs are lost on the technologists who are emboldened to innovate and create without regard to consequences. Count innovators such as Tesla founder Elon Musk among those who worry. He’s given $10 million to the Future of Life Institute, one of several organizations that, like this group, “support research and initiatives for safeguarding life and developing optimistic visions of the future, including positive ways for humanity to steer its own course considering new technologies and challenges.”

Conversations on the oversight of technology are deep, far more complex than when ASME was founded, increasingly political, and unavoidably divisive. But it is well worth the effort to take them on.

The steady growth of technology progress may well serve as a barometer by which we measure the growth of our species. But even if we don’t live in the apocalyptic worlds that Hollywood creates, it is prudent to be mindful of the benefits of codes and standards, and of rules, and of self-control. This is why it’s important for engineers and other technologists to engage politicians in the difficult dialogue over the rules of innovations.

01
Jun
15

GETTING CLOSE TO WORKING CLOSER

0615MEM_Cover_no-boxThe immediacy of the web and social networks has turned up the heat on the notoriously brutal big-city tabloid wars. Reporters are fighting harder than ever to be the first to break the news on which nightclub a certain NBA player was seen at last night, or be first to undress a local official who was caught with his hand in the town’s kitty.

But technology magazines like Mechanical Engineering are usually spared such excitement. We certainly aim to be the first to spot technology trends, but not necessarily to break news. Our editors’ unique lens helps them analyze the impact of technology in ways that other publications don’t. Nonetheless, it’s always great to run an article in the magazine and then see a similar story appear a few weeks later in a newspaper, a consumer magazine, or a business-to-business publication. This happens more frequently than you might suspect. Sometimes it’s coincidence, but we prefer to believe that they read it here first.

Then there are instances like what happened with our “Work Buddies” article in this issue. When I was proofreading Alan Brown’s article on collaborative robots that work side-by-side with humans, I spotted a similar article on the front page of the business section of that day’s The New York Times. The newspaper called the article, “A Softer Side of Robotics.” A day later, The Wall Street Journal’s front page had yet another similar article. This one headlined: “Factory Workers Warm Up to Their Mechanical Colleagues.”

My first thought was: We got scooped! Now, as I sit here in front of my keyboard composing this month’s column, I glance over to today’s Wall Street Journal and I see yet another related front-page story. This one is about a robotics competition featuring automatons that don’t just interact with humans; they also mix cocktails. ThinBot, for example, is four feet tall, has flashing lights, and makes 17 tasty drinks.

We’ve been covering developments in robotics technology and the convergence of robots and humans for decades. Other publications have too, and now the general media have realized the importance of covering robots in some depth. Great robotics stories abound and non-technologists should know what’s around the corner—if not the technical details that engineers are interested in.

One of Brown’s inspirations for the article came on a trip he and I took a few months ago to a Caterpillar plant in Clayton, N.C. CAT has been using state-of-the-art robotic systems for some time and it was clear to us that the interaction between robots and humans has gotten tighter and tighter.

Even though much of our visit to the CAT plant was “off-the-record” due to the proprietary nature of the systems they employ, Brown found other companies that would share anecdotes on how their robots mingle with employees. In researching the article, he convinced Universal Robots to bring one of its robots to our offices so we could, literally, shake hands and interact.

Having robots deftly work side-by-side in assembly and manufacturing plants is a major step forward in factory automation. It’s also interesting to observe how comfortable human workers have become working alongside the robots.

But because I don’t work on a shop floor, I’d rather have one of the cocktail-mixing robots greet me when I get home, especially on days we get scooped by another magazine. Maker’s Mark Manhattan up, ThinBot; stirred, not shaken—and don’t forget the bitters.

 

 

 

 

01
May
15

Role Models, Innovators, and their Peccadillos

0515MEM_cover-no boxHaving had the opportunity to get to know many Apple Inc. executives during the early and often tumultuous years of the Macintosh, it was with some anticipation that I downloaded to my iPad the new book, Becoming Steve Jobs, as soon as it became available.

This newest book on the Apple co-founder comes across as the antithesis to the celebrated 2001 book, Steve Jobs, written by Walter Isaacson, who cast the Apple guru as a mercurial and cantankerous genius. The new book, written by Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli, two journalists who have long covered Apple and have access to many company insiders, paints a different psychological profile of Jobs. While they admit to some early bouts of combustion, the authors focus on a more mature leader who was open to the talents of others. It comes as no surprise that Apple wholly embraced this book’s version of Jobs.

The brilliance of Jobs is undeniable and has never been in question. At least not since those early days when the relationship between Jobs and then-CEO John Scully was at the boiling point. The turmoil surrounding Jobs’s penchant for doing his own thing eventually drove him out from the company that he had helped create. His return, years later, led to Apple’s incredible renaissance and to its current position among the world’s top companies.

But the new book’s preoccupation with hallowing Jobs disturbs me. Jobs is one of the great innovative minds and transformative figures of our time and will be revered as a great technology visionary. There is no reason to try and remold his personal peccadillos posthumously. Calling attention to Jobs’s evolving maturity rings defensive and diminishes him.

I’m all for celebrating innovators—for what they do more than for who they are. Here at ASME, we honor technologists every year who have contributed to the profession and to humankind. We even created an exhibit, some years ago, called “Heroes of Engineering,” which featured a collection of famous engineers who contributed to some of the greatest achievements of the 20th century. They included Michael Owens, who owns the patent for the automatic bottle-making machine; the Wright brothers; Garrett Morgan, who invented the gas mask; and renowned inventor Dean Kamen.

In this issue we focus on the work of innovators rather than on the individuals themselves, and we found our inspiration for two of our feature articles from Mother Nature’s gifts of air and water.

In “Shape Shifting Target,” Michael Friswell details how researchers working to optimize commercial aircraft efficiencies are watching the morphing wings of birds for lessons on how the wings of aircraft can be optimized for better performance. In “Go Fast With the Flow,” we move to water flow, from air flow, as John Martin tells us how world-class swimmers shave precious seconds off their race times with the help of an engineering software program that’s typically used in industrial applications.

The unsung heroes may well be the engineers who work behind the scenes with great technology, and also the role models and mentors who go unnoticed, but setting your sights on becoming Steve Jobs is not so bad either.

02
Apr
15

MENDING A BROKEN HEART

0415MEM_cover-l-rLife has a way of breaking our hearts from time to time. Mine’s been broken plenty and I’m sure yours has too.

Some researchers believe that, besides bringing on a lot of misery, in extreme cases a broken heart can have decidedly deadly consequences. Psychologists and medical doctors continue to study whether people can actually die from a so-called broken heart and while there are no definitive answers, there is an ailment known as “broken heart syndrome”—also called stress cardiomyopathy—that can lead to severe cardiac problems and even death.

Deep sorrow brought on, say, by the passing of a loved one is believed to cause such tremendous stress in some cases that it triggers mechanical failures of the body. This syndrome can also be elicited by trauma such as a car accident or by indignities or deep distress. When these types of emotional peaks occur, our bodies unleash chemicals, including adrenaline, that can stun the heart muscle and disrupt its pumping mechanism.

While cases of death by heartbreak are rare, the latest research from the World Health Organization shows that 17.5 million people died from cardiovascular diseases globally in 2012; this represents 31 percent of all deaths. In the United States alone the total medical costs of cardiovascular disease will reach $818.1 billion over the next three decades, according to a report called “Forecasting the Future of Cardiovascular Disease,” published by the American Heart Association.

To help stem the tide of cardiovascular disease, a multidisciplinary team of heart experts has launched the Living Heart project, which represents the next frontier in diagnosing, treating, and preventing heart conditions with the use of personalized, three-dimensional virtual models.

In our cover story this month, associate editor Alan Brown takes us on an interesting journey examining the fascinating way this project originated. At the core of the project is Dassault Systèmes’ Simulia software, which is used to render a 3-D model that captures the electrical and mechanical behavior of the heart in a realistic manner.

By using input from echocardiograms, MRIs, and CT scans, along with other cardiac data, the Living Heart project has created in virtual reality a representation of chambers, movements, and sounds reflecting the behavior of a human heart. Doctors can maneuver this simulation to reveal detailed behavior of the heart without resorting to invasive diagnostics.

Even though the developers working on the Living Heart make no promise that they will be able to mend a “broken heart,” this simulation tool does have the potential to open the door for more research on cardiovascular illnesses, as well as to accelerate regulatory approval cycles for personalized devices and improve patient diagnoses and care.

Besides focusing on the heart in this issue, we also feature a fascinating essay by renowned biomedical and nanotechnology expert—and mechanical engineer—Mauro Ferrari, who discusses how nanomechanics is opening new avenues in the treatment war against metastatic cancer.

 

02
Mar
15

NEW WAYS TO SKIN A CAT

0315_cover_no-boxWith apologies to cat lovers everywhere, time and again we see proof that there is more than one way to skin a cat. One example is in the innovative way new technologies have redefined oil production and the entire industry.

Until recently, the price of oil was controlled by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, which gave a handful of oil-producing nations geopolitical leverage over the rest of the world. But several new occurrences, including the shale oil revolution in the United States, have dramatically altered the global energy landscape. For now, there is a “new oil order” spurred by technologies that have proven to be transformational. Horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing have pushed U.S. oil output to its highest level since the 1980s.

OPEC now is afraid that demand for its crude will keep falling as North American supply grows and makes its way to the global markets as U.S. export barriers fall.

Hydraulic fracturing is one reason for the shift—and some of the leading experts on the technology will convene at ASME’s Hydraulic Fracturing 2015 conference in Houston this month (visit asme.org for details)—but the process of extracting oil this way has not been met with universal endorsement.

Critics mostly worry about water. Contributor Mark Crawford points out in this month’s cover story, beginning on page 30, that a typical hydraulic fracturing job requires between 2 million and 5 million gallons of water per well. The problem that emerges from this is twofold. First there’s the issue of depleting groundwater resources, and then there is the fear that the chemical alchemy that is poured into the water to reduce friction and the growth of bacteria and corrosion will pollute local aquifers.

A solution may be in sight as some companies have found ways to “frack” with less water or no water at all. But Crawford reports that less than 3 percent of the fracturing jobs in the U.S. are waterless. That could change if U.S. companies take a page out of Canada’s playbook, where about 25 percent of the fracturing jobs use waterless processes.

Technologies such as hydraulic fracturing are evolving as engineers continue to search for better ways to extract oil, build up supply, and reduce reliance on OPEC. To me that’s an example of using technology innovation to re-skin a timeworn economic model.

A sad note…

Robert E. Nickell, the long-time chair of the Mechanical Engineering Magazine Editorial Advisory Board, an ASME past president, a devoted and engaged volunteer of the Society, and a friend, passed away due to complications related to a recent battle with cancer.

Nickell’s contributions to ASME and to global safety standards cannot be overstated. He was a man whose intellect was matched only by his leadership, his wisdom, and his passions. He was passionate about his family and his friends, as well as his beloved profession and ASME.

It is often a cliché to say that one individual truly touched many lives. In the case of Bob Nickell, the statement could not be more fitting. Those of us who knew him feel a deep personal loss. To read more about Bob visit asme.org.

01
Feb
15

THE NONFICTION OF SCIENCE FICTION

0215MEM_cover_no-boxWhen viewed through an engineering lens, science fiction deals in dubious possibilities that become conceivable when reason and know-how are applied. Science fiction emboldens the aspirations of innovators and of dreamers, and it drives the pursuit of tools that will reach the far ends of the world and beyond.

Science fiction has been coined “the literature of ideas” because it feeds the process of ideating the future. It does not predict it, however. It simply contemplates it.

Last year, two professors at the famed MIT Media Lab, who believe that current students don’t read as much science fiction as they did in the past and, therefore, have lost some of the benefits that come from it, began teaching a course called “Science Fiction to Science Fabrication.” The focus was on developing physical prototypes and code-based interpretations of technology based on classic science fiction—films, books, television, and even comics. Among other selections, the class studied urban surveillance as depicted in DC Comics’ late-1990s Transmetropolitan and also the 1974 short story, “The Day Before the Revolution,” which tackled aging, death and grief, and even sexual conduct.

As groundbreaking as it was, there are many examples of technology imitating science fiction outside of the Media Lab. In his 1865 novel, From the Earth to the Moon, for example, Jules Verne proposed the notion of light-propelled spaceships. Not surprisingly, technologists today are actively working on solar sails. If you’re a fan of Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 epic science fiction film 2001: A Space Odyssey, you felt a tinge of nostalgia when a robotic probe launched by the European Space Agency’s mission control in Germany landed on a comet last November. Consider also the symbiosis of science fiction and IBM’s recent $3 billion R&D investment in technologies like non-silicone computer chips, quantum computing research, and computers that mimic the cognitive function of the human brain.

At the rapid rate of technology innovation, some of what is considered science fiction today will become reality in the next 50 years. Soon enough, replacement organs could grow in labs, and drones might fly over our cities and towns delivering packages. To many of us, the prospect of these types of emerging technologies sounds exciting, but a recent study by the Pew Research Center shows that even while recognizing the benefits of sci-fi technologies, many in the United States do not embrace these advances.

The study shows that 59 percent of Americans are optimistic that scientific and technological changes will improve quality of life, but 30 percent are afraid the changes will make life worse. In the findings, 81 percent of respondents think that it will be possible to grow organs in labs, and 51 percent think computers will be able to create artwork just as well as humans. But fewer than 40 percent expect that teleportation will be possible in the next 50 years and only 33 percent say they expect that humans will be colonizing other planets.

In this month’s cover story, associate editor Alan Brown and contributor Brittany Logan talk with several innovators who tell us how science fiction informed their work. For them, the future represents an open canvas where they can paint their vision of reality inspired by the unrestraint of fiction.




The Editor

John G. Falcioni is Editor-in-Chief of Mechanical Engineering magazine, the flagship publication of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

August 2015
M T W T F S S
« Jul    
 12
3456789
10111213141516
17181920212223
24252627282930
31  

Twitter from John Falcioni

Twitter from Engineering for Change

Friend us on Facebook

Friend ASME

Friend Engineering for Change

Friend ASME Nanotechnology Institute


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 38 other followers