Author Archive for John Falcioni



0613MEM_CoverAccording to the Urban Dictionary, hipsters are a subculture of men and women in their 20s and 30s who value independent thinking and progressive politics. They appreciate art and indie-rock, creativity, intelligence, and witty banter.

Based on that definition, I wonder what the term might be for those who might appreciate some of those same things yet are older than 39. (I, for one, am well past the recognized hipster age yet enjoy a nice glass of Sancerre, a wine that has been called “post-post-modern” by the wine director at a popular wine bar in a neighborhood near the Brooklyn Navy Yard here in New York City—an area considered so hip that even some hipsters may not yet have fully discovered it.)

More on that in a minute, but first it’s interesting to note that social scientists who study these things have found that groups—even those that strive to be different—breed conformity.
It’s no surprise then that as human beings we share a need—on some level or the other—to fit in, even as we try to be different or belong to a subculture.

So I find it most refreshing to discover individuals who are so comfortable with themselves that they fit in among divergent groups, even if it may seem they don’t fit in within any of them.

Take Adam Steltzner, whom we feature in this month’s One-on-One interview on page 20. He’s an example of someone who transcends the different groups he belongs to—he’s been called a hipster, even though he too is well past the defined presumed hipster target age; he’s also a mechanical engineer who doesn’t fit the traditional profile.

Steltzner is one of the lead NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory engineers who designed key elements of the Mars rover Curiosity. He’s also a former rocker who wears an Elvis haircut and has pierced ears.
“Sometimes I think engineers think too much about engineering and not enough about other things: art, politics, sport, geology, anything other than engineering,” he told our associate editor Jean Thilmany. “I think our engineering becomes better when we let it be influenced by outside sources.”

Going by the Urban Dictionary’s definition of “hipster,” I don’t know what to call Steltzner. But he appears to have embraced the formula that defines those who are finding success today: the ability to adapt to change.

What matters most in today’s environment is the wisdom to embrace the instability of the workplace and changing business models. Assumptions of how things work must be replaced by an openness to embrace new ways of doing business, even as they may make us uncomfortable. Today’s most important skill is the ability to acquire new skills.

Those who are entering the workforce today are comfortable with change. In fact, it’s a good time to be an engineer, as this month’s Trending column on page 28, shows.

It’s not good—whether you’re young or not so young—if you have a hard time balancing the pride of personal experience with the new humbling set of business norms. It’s great if the balance comes naturally. Now excuse me as I pour myself a glass of Sancerre.

13 launches new networking features

ASME launched new social networking features on that enable users to register to become Participants, create personal profiles, and network with other engineers in a global community.

The ability to become an Participant is open to anyone and is free to join.  Anyone who is interested in becoming part of an engineering-focused online community and wants to network and engage with like-minded colleagues can become an Participant.

Other changes to the site that will enhance user experience include a revamped homepage, updated site navigation, and the ability to comment on articles (you must be a registered Participant in order to comment).

Implications for existing members:

  • A user does not have to become a Participant in order to purchase a product from ASME; they can continue to access their ASME accounts and use the shopping cart.
  • A user needs to be a registered Participant in order to:
    • Participate in a Group
    • Comment on articles or any other interactive activity on the site
    • Appear in the Directory (Note: only registered participants can view the Participant Directory; the public can view the Group Directory)

The new features are: Participant, Participant Profile, Dashboard, Participant and Group Directory, ASME Groups.  Here is a description of each new feature:

  • Participant: Once you register on the site, you become an Participant.  Registration is free and you do not need to be an ASME member in order to be an Participant.
  • Participant Profile: The Participant Profile is the user’s public identity; the profile lets others see interests, work experience, education, and other credentials such as publications, certifications, patents, and projects.  Creating a profile is easy: simply complete the data fields or import information from a LinkedIn or ASME member account. Creating a  complete profile will help you get the most out of your ASME online experience.
  • Dashboard: The Dashboard is the Participant’s personalized space on Here is where you manage your ASME account, membership, and benefits; send messages; share links and comments; see your ASME group and committee activities; and receive customized alerts for conferences, events, articles, and publications that are based on your interests.
  • Participant and Group Directory: Directory allows you find other Participants to add to your network and search for ASME Groups to join based on your professional interests.
  • ASME Groups:  ASME Groups connects engineers with similar interests. ASME Group members can facilitate official Group business; have private discussions; share information and content.

As a registered Participant, you can join any open Group by searching the Group Directory and sending a request to join. You can also create your own group based on a topic or industry.



0513MEMCoverConsider for a moment that you’re on a treadmill (even if that notion seems far-fetched, go with it for the sake of the point I’m trying to make). So you’re on this torture device for a half hour sweating, and you’re tired. You grab your smart phone, wave it over your thigh and, lo and behold, it tells you how much fluid to drink to replenish what you’ve lost.

If you don’t like the exercise example, let’s say you’re lying on the beach or by the pool with a cool drink relaxing and soaking up the sunshine. You reach for the smart phone wave it over your arm and it shows you whether the sunscreen you slapped on a few hours ago is still working.

If you think that’s pretty cool, how about I tell you that the same technology could monitor your baby’s temperature and heartbeat while she’s sleeping. Or that the ultimate vision for this sensing technology is that one day a doctor will take a minimally invasive device—if you need it—go in through your femoral artery, up into the atrium or ventricle of your heart, and deploy a thin conformal monitoring device that would give you and your doctor real-time information as to what’s happening inside of you.

None of this is farfetched at all. This particular biometric monitoring technology comes from the labs of MC10, a Cambridge, Mass., company that late last year signed a deal with sports equipment-maker Reebok to work on helmet-impact indicators and other sensing devices for professional athletes and the casual ones, like you and me.

Same technology used for different applications—that’s smart. But the innovation happened when the founders of the company conceived of taking high-performance microchips out of their rigid boxy packages and molded them to conform to the human body—like an electronic tattoo.

Rightfully, David Icke, the CEO at MC10, whom I met at a conference at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology last fall, is inspiring a legion of supporters. He said his company wants to redefine the interface between electronics and the human body to make “humans more superhuman.” The manufacturing process that gives the chip its flexibility is both electrical and mechanical, he said.

MC10 and other innovative companies that drive transformative technologies embrace the concept of being agile and react to market needs. Much like the organizations we spoke with for this month’s cover story (“Medical Starts with ME,” page 30), which are also blending technology and medicine, MC10, said Icke, relies on the diversity and ingenuity that its employees bring to the design process.

Realizing the strength of this diversity and understanding that, for many, creativity is not a linear process keep companies inspired and innovators motivated.

Dean Kamen, for example, who is an inventor and no stranger to the development of mechanical systems for medical applications (“One-On-One” with Dean Kamen, page 22), has been revolutionizing attitudes about the engineering workforce for decades. He has kept himself inspired by a drive no less imposing than that to improve the world.

“I don’t work on a project unless I believe that it will dramatically improve life for a bunch of people,” he once boasted. The likes of Kamen understand that innovation is a driver to change, and that technology is an uncompromising tool.



0413MEMCoverI wouldn’t change a thing about my college years, yet I wonder if I would get even more out of it were I attending school today at my age instead of when I was in my late teens and early 20s. Studying to learn instead of studying to get a diploma changes the learning schema. The growing trend among retirees taking college courses tells me that perhaps the best learning comes when it’s exciting, uplifting, and fulfilling. I’m also thinking that this is part of the recipe that leads to greater overall knowledge.

There’s no telling when the critical tipping point occurs in each of us; the time when what we study seeps in and morphs into learning. There’s also no shortage of theories on how and when learning occurs. Jean Piaget, an early pioneer in this area, believed that simply growing up influences a child’s capacity to learn. The notion of staged learning makes sense.

Piaget reasoned that a child’s development occurs in phases—at a year-and-a-half, at seven, and then at around 12 years old. He believed that no matter how smart a boy or girl may be, he or she is cognitively incapable of understanding certain things before undergoing the natural psychological maturation process brought on by the passage of time.

Learning theories certainly have not ended with Piaget’s. They abound, and so do disruptive concepts on how to teach more productively and learn more effectively. These challenge traditional views on how, when, and where learning happens.

Nicholas Negroponte, for example—he of One-Laptop-per-Child fame—believes that the future of education is in games. His many disciples support this notion not simply as a childhood learning tool, but as a platform to teach people in the educational pipeline that includes professional development training for adults.

Anant Agarwal, who previously served as the director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, is now president of edX, a serious project founded jointly by Harvard and MIT based on an online-learning model. Besides the focus on teaching, the research from the initiative is used to study how students learn and how technology can transform learning.

Western Governors University is yet another unique example of a learning institution that challenges traditional beliefs. It was founded by governors of 19 U.S. states as an online university aiming to expand access to post-secondary education. Last year, the online, not-for-profit institution became the country’s leading provider of master’s degrees in math education.

Although these projects challenge what was considered the norm, even traditional engineering education is taking on some unconventional means. Our cover story this month, “The Psychology of Insight,” written by the director of Diversity and Inclusion at Stevens Institute of Technology, describes a National Science Foundation program called ENGAGE, now implemented at more than 50 engineering schools. Its focus is on “evidence-based strategies” of engineering education. ENGAGE emphasizes integrating everyday examples into engineering courses, improving the teacher-student interaction, and developing visualization skills among students.

ENGAGE is one attempt at proving that a positive educational experience enhances learning and retention among engineering students. As the brick-and-mortar archetype of what a college should be begins to wear away, we realize that there are always better ways to teach and new ways to learn. The future of the workforce depends on challenging traditional perspectives, as well properly vetting the new ones.

  • 09

    determining our own future

    0313MEM_CoverTo the surprise of some friends who hold the coffee bean as an elixir of religious proportions, on most days I wait to get to the office for my first cup of morning coffee. But on Saturdays I enjoy one of life’s uncomplicated rituals of brewing a pot and easing into the weekend.

    The society most of us live in affords us these simple pleasures as well as some that aren’t so simple. Especially in the U.S., we embrace the right to expect a reward for our hard work and the prizes that come from the fruits of our work. The expectation of this quid pro quo doesn’t exist everywhere, especially in many places outside the U.S.

    But there’s a growing realization that economic prosperity is tied to science, technology, engineering, and innovation. As our newest columnist, Andrew Reynolds—who works at the U.S. State Department and whose first column appears this month—tells us, these dominant forces of prosperity are ones that ”All nations—large and small—aspire to harness.” The global challenges of the 21st century, Reynolds says, “do not respect national boundaries and require cooperation in science and engineering to address them successfully.”

    The magnitude of these global challenges, beginning with population growth, energy, and water, makes the notion of putting even a minor dent in them seem daunting.

    Positive reviews of Abundance—The Future is Better Than You Think, co-written by the founder of the X Prize Foundation, Peter H. Diamandis, last year cited the book for its optimistic vision of our own ability to help improve the world.

    Diamandis and his co-author, Steven Kotler, make the point that we’re now living in a world of information and communication abundance. For example, a Masai warrior with a cell phone, they say, has a better mobile phone than the president of the United States did 25 years ago.

    They write: “In a similar fashion, the advancement of new, transformational technologies—computational systems, networks and sensors, artificial intelligence, robotics, biotechnology, bioinformatics, 3-D printing, nanotechnology, human-machine interfaces, and biomedical engineering—will soon enable the vast majority of humanity to experience what only the affluent have access to today. Even better, these technologies aren’t the only change agents in play.”

    It is encouraging to believe that it is within our own ability to create change. For me, Abundance is not so much inspirational as it is reinforcing. But I’m lucky. I’ve got a first-hand view of our own ability to move the needle on a macro scale. A focus on curating the intellectual capital of engineers, designers, and other important stakeholders has turned ASME into one of those global change agents, and has empowered those of us close to the organization to make a difference.

    Diamandis (who talks about some of his ideas in this issue’s exclusive One-on-One interview) asks us in his book to “Imagine a world of nine billion people with clean water, nutritious food, affordable housing, personalized education, top-tier medical care, and nonpolluting, ubiquitous energy.”

    He believes that the world’s growing population will have the power to solve many of the problems in front of them, and that everyone deserves to expect the fruits of their work—now that’s inspirational.



    MEM0113pCV1We’re going to start treating you a little differently this year. We’re not changing the place we’re taking you to, but we are revamping how we’re getting you there.

    As far back as 1878, two years before ASME was incorporated in 1880, the Society’s founding fathers—along with the first of my six predecessors as editor—conceived and began publishing what later, in 1919, became Mechanical Engineering magazine. Published for ASME’s illustrious membership, the magazine through the years was read by technology giants such as Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, to name only two. The focus then was on mechanical engineering and allied technologies. It still is.

    But mechanical engineering is changing. It is stretching its traditional boundaries. It is becoming interdisciplinary and gaining influence. This is apparent in the broad reach and influential global role ASME has taken on. Today, ASME and its members focus on areas ranging from defining sustainable energy solutions to enhancing the engineering workforce pipeline; and ASME’s influence in the standards world remains largely unsurpassed.

    Grounded on the authority we derive from being published by one of the pre-eminent engineering organizations in the world, Mechanical Engineering will begin placing a greater focus on trends and on general engineering and technology content, but as seen through a “mechanical” lens.

    To that end, our talented and knowledgeable staff will continue to generate and curate content that is relevant and also thought provoking, but we’re adding a few new twists. We hope to be aspirational as we provide you context for leading edge technologies, and we believe that our new graphic design you are seeing with this issue indicates that.

    We’re adding new voices to the magazine through monthly columnists who are leading thinkers in their respective areas; and we’re giving you a platform so others can hear your own voices too, as we now invite you to send your comments for publication as well as your letters.

    Our new One-on-One section will spotlight some of the technologists we think you should get to know a little better. This month we feature Dan Mote, who is president nominee of the National Academy of Engineering. Trending, which takes a numerical approach to telling a story, is another new section that we believe will become part of our signature and that you’ll look forward to each month. I’ll let you discover the rest of what’s new on your own.

    We’re also rededicating ourselves as a strong complement to we give you more long-form journalism, to our part-ners’ more short form on the cyber side. Together, along with, we are becoming a prominent digital content platform committed to helping lead the global engineering conversation.

    We value the trust you place in us to help guide you through the exciting evolution of technology and its growing influence on government and on the world’s economy. Join us on the ride as we discover new technologies, new ways to positively impact the world, and as we look in on some of those who are leading the way. The time has never been more exciting to be an engineer. We hope that your re-imagined magazine reflects it..

    John G. Falcioni



    Time for Good Stuff

    Post from Harry Hutchinson:

    Harry Hutchinson

    Harry Hutchinson

    I got to meet two men who have a bold scheme that is full of entertaining fun and of serious practicality at the same time.

    Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg, the president and CEO respectively of Solar Impulse SA, were in New York the other day to publicize their latest plan—to fly their solar-powered airplane on a trip across the United States. (I wrote about the plane for this blog last July.)

    They are building another solar-powered aircraft back home in Switzerland, and they intend to fly that one around the world in 2015.

    Piccard has made unusual trips before. He and Brian Jones were first to circumnavigate the globe non-stop in a balloon more than a dozen years ago. Now he and Borschberg plan to share the piloting across the U.S. and later all the way around the world.

    When I first heard of their circumnavigating intentions a few years ago, I had thought they were talking about a non-stop solar-powered flight. But no, apparently that kind of thing was just for the balloon ride. As Piccard explained it, many people on the ground were probably disappointed that they never got a chance to see the record-breaking balloon.

    The Solar Impulse plane will make frequent stops, at least one on each continent it crosses, Piccard said.

    The phrase “around the world in 20 days” came up at one point in their presentation during a reception at the residence of the Swiss consul-general.

    The aircraft is very lightweight and uses little energy to fly. Piccard talks about “zero fuel,” and sustainability, and will point out that nothing quite like this has existed before. He says, too, that many of the design ideas for efficiency and economy could be applied in homes and vehicles today.

    When it comes to flying something so light, there are considerations about winds and weather. Piccard makes another point: You can do a lot if you’re not in a hurry.

    The cruising speed for the plane is about 70 kilometers an hour, so speed records are out of the question anyway.

    If you are taking your time, and burning no fuel, you can afford to fly south to find better conditions to fly east. Piccard did something like that on a recent flight from Rabat, Morocco, to Madrid, Spain.

    The plane was to land in Madrid around midnight so it wouldn’t interfere with airport traffic. Had he flown directly from one city to the other, he says, he would have arrived too early. So to kill time he headed west over Iberia toward Portugal. For a time, the speed of the headwind was greater than that of the plane, so he flew backwards across Spain toward Madrid.

    Yes, you can do cool stuff if you don’t have to hurry.


    the all-too-human factor

    Post from Harry Hutchinson:

    Harry Hutchinson

    Harry Hutchinson

    Cars are safer now than they have ever been before. They are designed to protect the driver and passengers. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration records show a significant decline in traffic deaths beginning in 1988.

    Traffic fatalities increased by about 1 percent in the first half of 2012 to 16,290 people. If the trend continues through the end of this month, there will be many people lost on the road this year, but that contrasts with a grimmer toll. Until late in the last decade, it was considered a good year if fewer than 40,000 people died in traffic accidents.

    Many of you probably have an idea of all this already, but I want to go over it first so nobody thinks I’m a pessimist whining about the end of civilization as we know it.

    The point I want to make is that the human factor has a way of competing with the best plans of engineers.

    A telephone survey polling 5,500 teenage drivers and parents found habits among both groups that lead to high levels of distraction when driving. The study was conducted for Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A. Inc. by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute. Toyota issued a press release summarizing preliminary findings.

    I spend a lot of time on the road, as a driver and as a pedestrian, so studies of driving habits interest me. There are quite a few interesting points in the results, but the one thing that really caught my attention is the inability to turn off the smart phone.

    According to Toyota’s release, “More than half of teens (54 percent) report that they use a hand-held cell phone while driving, similar to the six in ten parents (61 percent) who report that they do so.”

    And then there’s this: “A quarter of teens (24 percent) respond to a text message once or more every time they drive. Nearly one in three teens (30 percent) read a text or email once or more every time they drive.”

    And OK, take some of that “every time they drive” as kids bragging: “Wow, I’m so popular I get texted all the time and everywhere, even when get into the car.” But if the true rate is as low as one in ten, that puts your kneecaps in unusual danger every time you cross the street.

    So, I’m passing this along to remind everybody who’s about to cross an intersection: Put down your phone and make sure the driver coming up is paying attention before you head into the open. Or not. It’s your risk.

    You can see the rest of the Toyota press release.


    at the mercy of sandy

    December 2012This was a big moment for me

    I realized that technology is a strong sparring partner to Mother Nature, but little more than that. For a while it was beginning to look like engineering had managed to sew up all the creases in Mother Nature’s fold. Not so.

    Hurricane Sandy, which swept through here the last week in October, crippled parts of the Northeast, especially much of what we call the tri-state area—New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. ASME’s Manhattan headquarters was forced to close for a week. Personally, I was without electricity, heat, and hot water for six days—and I was, truly, one of the lucky ones.

    When some of us were finally able to access the Internet—the fury of the storm interrupted even our now most basic form of communication—a colleague wrote the following:

    It has been a rough week to say the least. I live on a barrier island and I am close to the beach. There is extensive damage where I live. The streets are covered with between 1 and 4 feet of sand and a lot of debris. There are wrecked cars everywhere. Two cars floated in front of my house and landed there. There is no power, water or sewers. There is nowhere to buy food, gas or other essentials. Aid from the authorities was slow in coming, but it is now starting to fall into place. There is a 7 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew in place. The National Guard and state police are patrolling the streets. So it is not livable there right now. My wife and I are staying with relatives for now.

    Believe it or not, my colleague was one of the lucky ones as well. Others lost even more; some even their lives. The vastness of the damage caused by Hurricane Sandy was remarkable. This area has never seen anything like it. Based on the age of the infrastructure and topography of this region, the fact that I was without what I’ve gotten used to considering as essential rights—electricity, heat, and hot water—for only a week is akin to a technological marvel.

    Yet, as I write this—and the cleanup is still in progress—some politicians, pundits, and even my own neighbors are beginning to blame local utility companies for not being ready for such a storm, for not reacting fast enough, for not having the technology infrastructure in place to withstand the strong winds, for not restoring electricity fast enough.

    Human nature, much like Mother Nature, often eludes the realities of technology that is stretched and not infallible. We can’t regulate what is beyond our control—like the weather. We can only work to improve the technology that mitigates the aftermath of storms like Sandy and her kind.

    Even if we are not affected personally, intellectually we comprehend the saga of helpless victims of natural disasters in remote areas of the world, or disasters that occur in our own countries. As never before, I now appreciate the technology that I’ve grown to take for granted. It was a big moment.


    Unsung Heroes Recognized

    My November column in Mechanical Engineering magazine.

    When those we love are ill there is nothing we want more than a magic pill to cure what ails them. We’ve all known the feeling, whether it’s to cure a young child or an aging parent.

    Such a pill—at least for some of the deadliest of illnesses—is not yet available, but many in the biomedical field are working hand-in-hand with engineers to turn this science fiction notion into reality. And they’re getting closer. When they get there, nanotechnology will have achieved its ultimate promise.

    Until then, the chapters in the story of nanotechnology are still being written. In this month’s cover story, “Nanotech Unbound,” we see some of the progress—which is by no means trivial.

    “Over the last decade, everybody was asking, ‘Where is it?’” Steve Waite, a former Wall Street nanotechnology analyst told associate editor Alan Brown. “We’re just at the stage now where [nanotechnology is] going to start seeping into everything.”

    If our story is the first you hear of the progress being made, blame the engineers. They and their colleagues working on nanotech are the unsung heroes who work without much fanfare and without many headlines making progress in the labs.

    But that should come as little surprise. Engineers are typically not ones to pat themselves on the back when they achieve a milestone. This month, we’re taking the liberty of doing that for them.

    We’re proud to praise some of the engineers who are being recognized by ASME for having made great strides in the profession. Formally, their awards will be celebrated this month during the ASME 2012 International Mechanical Engineering Congress and Exposition in Houston. These awards recipients are not the only ones who have achieved success in their profession, but it is they whose work has come to light.

    Among the recipients this year, are eleven whose work deserves special recognition. They are: Jan D. Achenbach, currently Distinguished McCormick School Professor Emeritus in Service, who founded the Center for Quality Engineering and Failure Prevention at Northwestern University; Yildiz Bayazitoglu for outstanding contributions in transforming fundamental research to engineering applications such as photo-thermal cancer therapy, space waste-heat recovery, and nano-composite materials processing; Zdeněk P. Bažant for his seminal work on solid mechanics and structures; Jane H. Davidson for shaping solar energy research and policies at the national and international level; Vijay K. Dhir for his leadership at UCLA engineering, which has become a hub for interdisciplinary research and education; Goshi Hosono for tackling the Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima-Daiichi Nuclear Power Station accident since its outset in March 2011, initially as special advisor to Prime Minister Naoto Kan, and then by rapidly increasing personal involvement and political appointments; Yogesh Jaluria for his work on flows, including those related to environmental phenomena and building fires; Mohinder L. Nayyar for his role as a globally recognized specialist in the areas of piping, valves, materials, and codes and standards; Anita Rebarachak for continuous dedication and service to ASME and remarkable technical and professional achievements and for mentoring students and early career engineers; Edith Stern for developing novel applications of new technologies, which have yielded 110 U.S. patents; Subra Suresh for his work as the director of the National Science Foundation, a $7 billion federal agency.

    As we continue to strive for the Fountain of Youth in our medicine cabinet, there are those whose life’s work it is to improve our world so that we can live long, stay healthy, and be happy.

    The Editor

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

    April 2014
    M T W T F S S
    « Mar    

    Twitter from John Falcioni

    Twitter from Engineering for Change


    Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

    Join 33 other followers