Author Archive for John Falcioni



1115MEM_cover-no-boxIn early September, my favorite columnist, the influential David Brooks of The New York Times, made a pitch for more liberal arts majors and a rebirth of romanticism at a time when, he believes, many college-age kids are being force-fed more practical majors and pushed into a “mercenary direction.”

He argues that parents are part of an apparatus that has arisen to make our culture more professional and less poetic. This comes at a time when transactional jobs are declining—as technology now performs many of the tasks previously handled by humans—and relational jobs are expanding.

This discourse—albeit exaggerated as viewed from my perch—serves as a sensible lead-in to a conversation about the responsibility of colleges and universities to mold holistic professionals, regardless of major, who are able to demonstrate the necessary mix of humanistic skills and the cognitive abilities associated with “hard” skills. Theater majors, for instance, need to understand basic science and engineering principles, especially as they interact outside the stage with today’s technology-centric world. Much the same, engineering majors should be exposed to the writings of Bertrand Russell and to the songs of Sondheim so that their curiosities will be stimulated beyond the task of understanding mathematical formulas. When this balance is reached, great personal and professional heights are imaginable.

Successful technology innovators are able to aptly meld machines and systems with the social world. These individuals don’t necessarily set out to develop transformative technologies. According to renowned author and occasional Mechanical Engineering contributor Henry Petroski, the breakthroughs materialize from an innovator’s unique mindset that understands the nuances of multidisciplinary, multinational, and multicultural effects.

In his new book, Applied Minds: How Engineers Think, Guru Madhavan drives home the point that great innovations must pass the test of Petroski’s tenets, as he showcases examples of the force of the engineering mindset.

A biomedical engineer, policy adviser, and researcher at the National Academy of Sciences, Madhavan reflects on Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building; the ketchup squeeze bottle; Microsoft’s Office Suite; and Alfred Hitchcock’s film Rear Window to make the case that these are examples of creations that were spun from an engineer’s mind, crafted with singular purpose, vision, and clarity. He credits engineers for owning a unique vision and the mental tools that foster innovation and deliver creative solutions.

This month, ASME celebrates that very conceptual toolkit, as it pays tribute to those who have distinguished themselves in technology. Some who will be recognized at the Society’s Honors Assembly—held during the 2015 ASME International Mechanical Engineering Congress and Exposition in Houston—are engineers; others are not.

Among the honored is Freeman A. Hrabowski III, whom we also feature in this month’s One-on-One column on page 16. Hrabowski is the president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and a leading U.S. voice in the advocacy of STEM education. He is also an inspiring speaker who encourages an educational environment emphasizing the necessary hard skills along with an appreciation for romanticism. This approach, he offers, maintains an innovative, democratic society. Hrabowski knows “how engineers think” because he works hand-in-hand with many, finding best ways to nurture the minds of the young and the not so young. And that’s something that both liberal arts and STEM-related majors can appreciate.



0915MEM_Cover_no_boxHow can you tell when a chicken isn’t happy?

No, this isn’t the start of a joke; it’s serious business.

A mechanical engineer, Wayne Daley, at the Georgia Institute of Technology is trying to determine when a chicken isn’t happy because, it turns out, a chicken with ruffled feathers doesn’t eat well and won’t fatten up as quickly as a happy and healthy chicken.

Daley and his team have come up with the Sick Chicken Audio Recorder that identifies the clucking and squawking of a chicken that isn’t happy because it’s sick or because it’s too hot in the coop or too cold. Farmers care a great deal about making chickens happy because plump chickens lead to more sales and hefty coffers.

If the chicken is sick and not simply testy about the temperature, the illness will spread quickly to other chickens in the flock. So early detection pays off. Literally.

Of course, chickens aren’t the only ones whose conversations are being monitored. The Justice Department recently has been revealing more about the government’s use of secret cellphone tracking devices. Controversy over the department’s use of these devices heightened when it was discovered that such technology was deployed in airplanes and can scan data from phones of those of us who are not targets of investigations.

The tracking of data, voice and otherwise, is part of the increasingly connected web of everything that everyone does and of what virtually everyone wants.

Soon, you’ll be able to turn on your home dishwasher remotely from work; or if you’re too tired to get to the supermarket, you’ll be able to have your refrigerator automatically reorder from the grocery store the items you’re running low on; and you’ll also be able to get a notification on your cell phone that the pair of pants that you’ve had your eye on is on sale at a shop in your neighborhood.

We call this Internet of Things a “smart” new way of doing things.

Technologists are making things smart by attaching sensors and connecting them to the Internet, which will enable this flurry of connectivity and, presumably, lead us to more productive lives.

In this issue we take a deep dive into the smart environments that are burgeoning around us. From the home to buildings and structures, to complex supply and distribution networks that tie the global economy together. The pace of change is rapid, even as adoption may lag.

Industry appears eager to jump in and connect all things to the Internet. But there are reasons for healthy skepticism. Just two months ago, the New York Stock Exchange had a nearly four-hour shutdown in the middle of the day because of a faulty software upgrade that connects buyers and sellers.

Then the Federal Bureau of Investigation told us that millions—21.5 million—of government background investigation records were stolen by hackers who broke into the Office of Personnel Management’s network. Days later a computer network malfunction caused a temporary grounding of United Airlines’ global fleet. Sometimes, of course, it’s not the network’s technical malfunction that goes awry and causes pandemonium but the user of the network (see Edward Snowden).

The authors of this month’s related feature articles assure us that, as the rate of connectivity grows, our future will be paved with greater productivity, economic growth, and an improved quality of life. I say, let’s not count our chickens before they hatch.



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.”



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.



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.






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.



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.


The Editor

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

November 2015
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