Author Archive for John Falcioni



0814MEM_CoverNot too distant from the collection of smiley, sad, angry, and other round-faced emoticons on your smartphone or IM dashboard is an image of the iconic black-and-white-patched soccer ball. But even if you’re one to use these hackneyed little critters in e-mails and texts, chances are you probably never even realized the soccer ball was there, let alone think to use it.

I admit to inserting the ball into text messages a few times in the past weeks as my team, the Albiceleste, kept me on the edge of my seat during the quadrennial FIFA World Cup that ended last month. As it turns out, the real black-and-white soccer ball, with its 32 panels comprising 12 black pentagons and 20 white hexagons stitched together, isn’t as ubiquitous as one might think, at least not in international competition.

The German company Adidas, maker of the official ball of Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) sanctioned tournaments, has designed five different soccer balls for international play—none of them had black pentagons and white hexagons. Remarkably, the traditional soccer ball has not been used in the World Cup since the tournament was played in West Germany in 1974. The search for the optimal soccer ball for use in the highly fêted World Cup has included the Tango, the Azteca, the Questra, and the much maligned Jabulani, which was used four years ago in South Africa. This year, for the World Cup in Brazil, Adidas created Brazuca.

Each new ball is engineered with material advances to make the sphere more aerodynamic, more waterproof, and easier to control. If the goal (no pun intended) of ball technology is to make play more competitive, then the Brazuca can lay claim to being a huge success. Pundits (yours truly included) say this year’s World Cup was one of the best in recent history.

The Brazuca, along with many other soccer balls, it turns out, is made in Sialkot, a town in the northeast region of Pakistan recognized as the soccer ball capital of the world. Before China got involved a few years ago, seven out of 10 soccer balls in the world were made in Sialkot and factories there produced more than 60 million soccer balls a year. Now it’s down to about 40 million. The Brazuca is produced at an Adidas factory where 40 percent of the workforce is comprised of women—no small feat in Pakistan. The ball has six patches that are glued together, not stitched. This makes these soccer balls, according to Adidas, the most aerodynamic ever made.

Testing included smashing it against a wall at 45 mph, dredging it in water to ensure it wouldn’t absorb moisture, and baking it at 130 °F for seven days so that it stood up to the heat of the Amazon, where some of the games were played this year. Wind tunnel tests showed that unlike the Jabulani, which was made in China and tended to change directions in flight when it was kicked, the Brazuca remained stable.

Our cover story this month focuses on advances in material design for different types of applications—nano, meso, micro, and macro scale manufacturing processes. The work is being conducted by the Georgia Institute of Technology’s Multiscale Systems Engineering Research Group.

I’m wondering whether the researchers from Georgia Tech will manufacture a high-end soccer ball for those exciting nano foosball games I like to watch.


words over numbers not an even exchange

0714MEM_JulyCoverFBImagine you’re enjoying hors d’oeuvres and a drink at a cocktail party when the conversation turns to favorite magazines and newspapers, and the person you just met to your left says, “You know, I’ve never been very good at reading.”

That would shock your senses. But what if, instead, the conversation turned to household spending and balancing the checkbook, and the person said: “You know, I’ve never been very good at math”? Somehow, that would seem a lot more acceptable to most of us.

The socially tolerated cognitive double standard is deep. That it’s even acceptable is only because, at least in this country, we’ve come to believe that not having an aptitude for numbers is OK, but being illiterate is a far greater handicap. We’ve drawn a dubious line in the sand, and with a wink and a nod understand that it’s fine to admit the failings of our capacity to learn the fundamentals of mathematics but not the basics of A, B, and C. Holding simultaneous contradictory values is what psychologists call cognitive dissonance.

Sure most of us can add, subtract, and multiply our way through most of life’s arithmetic challenges, but ask us to balance the checkbook without our cell phone’s calculator and many of us are lost. Or ask someone in the sixth grade to tell you how tall he is in inches and see how long it takes him to calculate the answer.

The anecdote about the cocktail party, although I paraphrased, was one of the intriguing notions discussed at the recent live taping of the ASME Decision Point Dialogues event on STEM education—Critical Thinking, Critical Choices: What Really Matters in STEM. The comment came from Pat Wingert, one of 12 Dialogues participants, who is a former Newsweek journalist and Spencer Fellow at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. The focus of her year-long research project at Columbia was STEM education. Wingert now contributes to the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media and has learned a lot about how kids in this country learn—or how poorly they learn STEM subjects in comparison to other countries.

Since the days of Manifest Destiny when as a country we held the strong belief that our mission was to spread our virtues and institutions across the continent, we’ve been proud of our educational system (and to a large measure we should be), so the fact that the STEM-related test scores of our kids pale in comparison with those of youngsters from such global powerhouses as Finland and Singapore really stings.

Momentum has gained in the Obama administration to get kids in the U.S. to be more inspired by science and math and to score higher on tests. But it hasn’t been easy. The conflict points are huge and they have less to do with our kids’ aptitude than with pure economics.

In this issue we include a roundup of the Decision Point Dialogues discussion among STEM thought leaders and moderator John Hockenberry, of public radio’s program The Takeaway. To view the provocative broadcast visit

It may be a cultural uniqueness that we place more emphasis on words than numbers in this country, but the consequences run much deeper than our children’s test scores—and this is no cocktail party joke.



0614MEM_Cover.inddI’ve been to towns across the country where they still mourn the demise of local manufacturers that closed years before. It wasn’t an easy thing to see, but it was even harder if you lived there.

Manufacturing in the United States used to dominate the world and these industrial towns served as the backbone. These were the places were icons were born, companies like Ford and Boeing, Maytag, Levi Strauss, and Kodak. They became part of the American fabric that was synonymous with ingenuity.

These towns and cities, especially in the Northeast and North Central states flourished. Jobs grew, the middle class grew, the economy grew, and manufacturers were making money—a lot of money.

Then these towns died. The region, formerly known as the manufacturing belt, became the rust belt. The reasons why this occurred are complex and well documented. Some manufacturers and factories moved to areas in the United States where it was cheaper to do business, namely the South. Increased automation had an impact too. Then globalization and internationalization happened, along with the decline of the U.S. steel and coal industries. Each of these factors chipped away at manufacturing’s underpinnings. It wasn’t long before local economies failed as manufacturers began closing their doors.

But as Mark Twain protested in 1897, when his obituary was mistakenly published in a New York newspaper, that “The report of my death was an exaggeration,” so too was the death knell of manufacturing in the United States presumptuous.

In “The Right Stuff,” this month’s cover story, U.S. manufacturing czar Michael Molnar says he is optimistic. Molnar heads the Advanced Manufacturing Office for the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and is also director of the Interagency Advanced Manufacturing National Program Office. “The United States has added more than 600,000 new manufacturing jobs since early 2010, the first sustained rise in 15 years,” he says. And this is just one of the trends Molnar talks about that give him reason to believe things are looking up for U.S. manufacturing. “Industry’s ‘golden age’ has not come and gone,” he adds.

Some of the cities and towns who were struck hard by the decline in manufacturing aren’t sitting on their hands waiting for Molnar’s prediction to come true. They’re being proactive.

One such city is Rochester, N.Y., home to former photo giant, Kodak. About 25 years ago Kodak employed 60,000 workers from the Rochester area, but by 2014 the number had dropped to 5,000. As associate editor Alan S. Brown reports, Rochester could have been another dying rust belt city. “Instead, led by smaller firms, the city’s optical industry [along with Kodak] reinvented itself and preserved the superb technical training program that was the lifeblood of the industry,” he says.

“Seeing the Light,” isn’t just a feel-good story; it’s a story with a moral. Rochester legislators, in partnership with local industry, used the same sort of manufacturing ingenuity that was being lost to inspire themselves and create an enviable turnaround. Every town that suffered from the downtick in manufacturing can’t expect to have its own Kodak moment, but Rochester’s climb back should give every presumably dying town pause. Sometimes, what you read in the newspapers isn’t always accurate.


commemorating nuclear codes and standards

0514MEM_MayCoverFBI’d be lying if I said I didn’t have preconceived notions of the word “nuclear” when I started at ASME, oh so many years ago. And I’m willing to bet that as you read this you can’t help but have a visceral sentiment or two yourself about the word. Let’s face it, “nuclear” packs a punch.

But I’ve always been one to believe that few things in life are black or white, so while I may have been inclined to fall on one side of the discussion back in the day, few things for me are absolute. In my way of thinking, points of view surrounding nuclear power are too often on the fringes and that’s lamentable because conversations on the fringes bring out heightened and sometimes ruffled feelings instead of salient and respectful exchanges of perspectives.

Because I’ve always probed—even my own beliefs—my perspectives on nuclear power have never been overt. Biases aside, however, the significant role of ASME in the development of safety codes and standards is undeniable. ASME’s Board on Nuclear Codes and Standards oversees eight committees that have issued 22 nuclear codes and standards. At the heart of these committees are almost 1,300 dedicated volunteers who spend hours working on these activities.

In this issue, we help celebrate the 50th anniversary of Section III of the ASME Boiler and Pressure Vessel Code. The Code represents one of the most notable ways that ASME makes its mark on global safety. It is—and ought to be—a point of pride.

Besides celebrating the anniversary of the ASME safety codes program, in this issue we also showcase an article more than a year in the making. Senior Editor Jeff Winters worked with Ken Balkey—whom I’ve gotten to know well over the course of many years—on a forward facing article looking at the future of nuclear power. Balkey is a consulting engineer at Westinghouse Electric Co. and he’s also senior vice president for ASME Standards and Certification. Balkey and Winters, working with co-authors Barbara Snyder and Theodore Meyer, have come up with an insightful article, “Nuclear’s Next 40 Years,” that I encourage you to read.

You might imagine that publishing an article like this can be challenging. First because we want to make sure we get it right, and then because the authors work at Westinghouse, and working on an article with a large multinational can often be tricky, as the vetting process can be difficult. But Winters tells me the experience was positive overall, and because he’s our resident energy expert—and resident skeptic—I believe him.

Each day brings new nourishment to our perspectives on different matters. We hope this issue of Mechanical Engineering provides more nutrients for your own perspectives on a critical element in the discourse over global energy—whichever way your preconceived notions might otherwise sway you.



0414MEM_Cover4There are times when it seems you can’t turn around without hearing about STEM. But tracking the roots of the acronym, which refers to fields related to science, technology, engineering, and math wasn’t easy. Wikipedia hints that STEM may have its origins with the National Science Foundation, and The Winona Daily News, in Minnesota, reported a few years ago that the term was indeed coined by the NSF—well sort of.

Back around 2001 former Winona State University president Judith Ramaley was director of NSF’s Education and Human Resources Directorate and was developing curriculum to improve education in science, math, engineering, and technology. So the acronym for these disciplines became “SMET.” But Ramaley didn’t like the sound of it (and who could blame her?), so she changed it to STEM, and the rest is history. (Interesting enough, there’s some dislike for the STEM moniker as well in some circles, including deep inside the White House, because of the potential confusion with “stem cell.”)

The newspaper in Winona quoted Ramaley suggesting that in STEM, science and math serve as bookends for technology and engineering. Science and math are critical to a basic understanding of the universe, she said, and engineering and technology are means for people to interact with the universe.

For middle schoolers of my generation it was math and science; engineering was a nebulous career destination far into the future and technology was but a burgeoning amorphous term with no clear identity. The educational landscape has changed.

What hasn’t changed is that, generally speaking, engineering students are good at solving problems. Clearly, as a society, we need as many individuals as possible with the types of skills to wrestle down the challenges that exist locally as well as globally. Thus the push toward an emphasis on STEM in K–12—and I would argue especially in middle school—makes sense. The point is not to force-feed STEM over subjects like history, art, and literature, but to even out the level of instruction and ensure that the teachers who are responsible for it have the right tools, and the right skills, motivation, and drive to motivate students.

Seeing firsthand the drive behind the work of engineers, especially the rigor of those who work on building solutions in developing countries, is hugely inspirational. The landscape of problems facing the proliferation of STEM education is complex because it’s inherently difficult to fix problems comprising, in part, elements of human behavior.

Some of these are the issues to be examined at this month’s taping of the ASME Decision Point Dialogues, which will take place on the 23rd. This dialogue is being held prior to the opening of the U.S. News STEM Solutions Conference, in Washington, D.C. STEM Solutions precedes the USA Science and Engineering Festival. John Hockenberry, host of the National Public Radio program “The Takeaway,” will moderate the ASME dialogue. The Decision Point Dialogues will be broadcast on beginning in June.

From Winona, Minn., to both coasts of this country and beyond U.S. borders, the conversation over STEM is being heard. It’s time for actions to speak louder than words.



0314MEM_CoverMy friends tell me that it’s called a midlife crisis. I tell them they’re nuts. After all, I’ve been hankering for a Vespa since I was in my early 30s, and that’s hardly considered midlife, except maybe if you’re under the age of 15. Besides if it was really a midlife crisis you’d think I’d opt for the much faster and muscular Harley than a Vespa.

Well, maybe that’s not entirely so. I love the way the Vespa looks, and I like the way it makes me feel. The sleek lines, the shiny paint—of course, it has to be red. The more retro the model, the more I’m attracted to it.

The iconic design takes me back to when I was seven years old and visited my Italian relatives for the first time, in the small town of Penna San Giovanni, situated in the Adriatic-hugging region of Le Marche. My uncle Leo (for some reason they called him Ennio) had an old, light blue Vespa. It was beat up but served as the primary transport to town, which was a few miles away from the farmhouse that he, my aunt Gina, and my cousins lived in growing up—and boy, could uncle Ennio slaughter a pig with his bare hands to make insane prosciutto.

Product designs become iconic for many reasons. For me, the Vespa takes me back to my days as an innocent kid when an uncle I barely knew and who spoke a language I barely recognized would lift me on the back of his scooter and take me for a ride. I still remember hugging hard at uncle Ennio’s waist and hanging on for dear life as he would whiz through the dirt roads of Penna, seemingly oblivious to the skinny little kid sitting behind him. I see a Vespa today and it tugs at the strings of my heritage.

Our cover story this month, a series of vignettes written by top industrial designers and compiled by associate editor Alan Brown, looks at six product designs that fall into the iconic category. Some of the products are more publicly recognizable as icons than others, but all, as Brown says, perfectly match form with function. “They not only make a promise; they deliver.”

Industrial design is art that, like the works of master painters and other artists, moves us and transports us to places we’ve been or experiences we’ve had. Contemporary industrial design wows us with functionality, making our lives easier and our tasks more pleasant. Sometimes we don’t recognize a product as anything special, and what turns a design iconic is the passing of time.

I’m too young to have used the black Western Electric Model 302 phone, but I’m old enough to remember the equally iconic, old pink Princess telephone that was still in use in my house to make those overseas calls to Zio Ennio and Zia Gina when I was a kid. Nobody thought that the pink phone was anything really special back then, unless you were a teenage girl who yearned to have one on her nightstand. Others, like the iPhone, become icons the minute they appear.

This may just be the year when I finally get my (red) Vespa to zoom around town myself. As for butchering a pig, I might need a little more encouragement.




Is innovation—the concept and the buzzword—becoming old hat? A friend and I had a recent conversation about the present and future of innovation, and what it might mean if all the best ideas have already been invented.

The conversation was spurred by the Jade Rabbit. While that might sound like a bauble from a Dashiell Hammett story, the Jade Rabbit is a Chinese space probe that made the first soft landing of a manmade object on the lunar surface in almost four decades. The Chinese government hailed it as a great accomplishment, and it was a national achievement, for sure. But was the Jade Rabbit innovation? To me, it felt more like, been there, done that.

Some heralded innovations seem like nothing of the sort. For the holidays, I got my son an iPhone 5S. It’s a great phone. But take the “5S” off the logo and what have you got? Or take Jeff, another friend, who writes about new Microsoft technologies and gadgets. He’s been noodling around with the new Surface for weeks. He loves it. I tell him I’ve had an iPad for a couple of years. The Surface? Really?

Innovation was Neil and Buzz making their soft landing on the Moon, my grandfather’s Ford, and the eight-track tape player my parents got me when I was a kid.

Are we facing a glut of copycat inventions and a dearth of original innovation today? Is every new development just a souped-up version of something tried and true? Is every new book, every new song simply a re-imagined version of something that already exists?

In the 19th and 20th centuries, innovation came from tinkerers—look at James Watt’s steam engine and the Wright Brothers’ flyers. In those days, ambitious inventors could change the world. Perhaps that’s a reason the maker movement is making a comeback today and taking a page from the past. Information technology is also enabling today’s makers and tinkerers; and the burgeoning 3-D printing craze may shepherd new thinking and open the minds of those able to reconceive the mousetrap.

The notion of innovation pessimism has elicited many theories and a lot of research, especially among economists who often view technological innovation as a means to an end. Some are convinced that the world’s economic turmoil exists because of a technological famine.

The theories are encapsulated in an interesting essay in the January 2013 issue of The Economist (online at The article points to different perspectives, some optimistic and others deeply pessimistic. One noted pessimist is Robert Gordon, a Northwestern University economist who believes “that there were only a few truly fundamental innovations—the ability to use power on a large scale, to keep houses comfortable regardless of outside temperature, to get from any A to any B, to talk to anyone you need to—and that they have mostly been made. There will be more innovation—but it will not change the way the world works in the way electricity, internal-combustion engines, plumbing, petrochemicals and the telephone have.”

If Gordon is right and innovators continue falling “down, down, down” into the rabbit hole, then at least we should keep in mind the lesson of Alice’s adventures: It’s not about finding the rabbit, but about the things that we’ll learn along the way.

The Editor

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

March 2015
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