Author Archive for John Falcioni


Smarter Factories, Smarter Engineers

1013MEMpCV1Sometimes I think of Big Data as Big Brother: Consumer intelligence being captured in massive databases and crunched at high-speed by algorithms that track everything from the websites we visit to what size café lattes we order at 8:45 in the morning when the weather is cloudy and the temperature reaches the freezing mark—on Tuesdays. So if Big Data is making you big scared, I don’t blame you.

At the rate by which data is being collected, no one should be surprised that it will transform manufacturing much the same way as Big Data is influencing how retail marketers are pushing their products on us. Retailers are learning our tastes and our purchasing trends, and the data they collect through various means makes them savvy marketers. Analyzing the data means they can produce more of what consumers like to buy, reduce surplus inventory, and improve margins.

Big Data is now supposed to make manufacturing “smarter” (that’s if you consider non-human intervention as smarter). Ahmed Noor, the author of this month’s cover story, “Putting Big Data to Work,” is someone who has studied the changing landscape extensively. He believes smart manufacturing will fundamentally change how products are designed, how they’re mass-produced, and how they are shipped and sold. In large part, this has to do with automated data analytics technologies that extract value and knowledge from large and diverse data streams, Noor says.

Using the automobile as an example, Noor says data such as an individual’s driving habits and the vehicle’s wear and tear on parts is collected and sent to communication modules that aggregate the data in order to gain customer insights. This information is later used for product development and enhancements.

That’s not all. Smart manufacturing will evolve into a new archetype focusing on cognitive manufacturing. However, cognitive thinkers like you and me need not apply. Manufacturing systems will operate the manufacturing process autonomously, which will result in fewer workers on the factory floor.

The good news is that engineers will not be bystanders in the process. After all, robots need supervisors too.
Today, managers supervise processes and people. But as automation reduces the workforce, engineers will be ever more responsible for increased expectations on productivity and performance.

In the end, as things get more complex, smart manufacturing will present different and greater challenges to engineers than those from the past. It will necessitate an expansion of the skillset. Besides overseeing highly technical processes, more creative data will require engineers to have stronger analytical and problem-solving skills to interpret the numbers. Big Data will also require the engineer to expand the soft skills necessary to successfully navigate the vagaries of a smaller workforce and more demanding upper managers.

So consider the new paradigm as engineer-turned-accountant-turned-human resources manager. Fortunately, you won’t have to be a barista as well, since autonomous coffee-dispensing systems in the office will whip up your latte in no time, prepared just the way you like it, simply by recognizing your retina.


Human Interaction One robot at a time

ASME_Cover_SEPT2013_P2Not many of us live in Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average. The rest of us are left to deal
with the imperfections of humanity—our own and that of others.

Our self-consciousness and our—often dubious—intelligence are factors that set us apart from dogs, cows, sheep, and robots. But hold on there, R2-D2, those days may be coming to an end.

If it wasn’t enough that robots and their ilk are outperforming many traditionally human functions on the factory floor, now they are engaging us emotionally, making eye contact, and tracking our motion. They’re also deciphering how we feel. Their faces show emotion and their voices now mimic that of a listener who is actually interested in what we have to say. So what’s next, will they rear our children and take care of the elderly? Possibly.

Sherry Turkle, a psychologist who heads the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Initiative on Technology and Self, believes that we have embarked on a voyage toward forgetting the importance of human interactions, reports Alan Brown in the fascinating cover story, “The Robotic Moment,” he penned for this issue (page 32). According to Turkle, technology is producing the illusion of companionship that we can turn on and off at will without any mutuality.

“People used to buy pets to teach children about life, death, and loss,” Turkle said. “[But] the artificial offers attachment without risk.” Sometimes, those attachments are poignant.

She recounted a story about visiting a nursing home to observe an elderly woman who had lost her children. The woman was talking to Paro, a sociable robot that is shaped like a baby seal. “It looked in her eyes, and seemed to be comforting her,” Turkle said of Paro. “This woman was trying to make sense of her life with a machine that had no experience of the arc of a human life.”

Robots may one day be able to do even more than listen sympathetically. They are being wired to help dispense appropriate doses of medications to patients, help the elderly into bed, reach for objects that may be difficult for some to grasp, and more.

It may already be happening to you, as it is to me: technology is seducing us into a world where human interaction has become seemingly less central to our interpersonal communication—as enigmatic as that may sound.

Robots haven’t yet fully taken over the role of fulfilling our need to interact with one another. But Turkle is sounding the alarm that now is the time to have the conversation before we begin believing that all we need to coexist is our robot friend, and our iPhone.



0813MEM_CoverWhen he was a young man in Italy, my dad and his family risked their own safety to help protect the lives of three American POWs who had escaped confinement during the tail end of World War II. This led to a commendation by the U.S. government and a series of intricate events over two decades and across three continents that ultimately landed my father in the United States and hence placed me here, today, in front of my computer writing this column.

I bring this up because we never know how the choices we make will affect our lives one day and others’ the next. On the other hand, sometimes our choices are part of a long-term plan. Jim McKeown, for example, whom we profile in this month’s One-on-One column, is a Columbia University engineer turned investment banker turned humanitarian.

He co-founded a not-for-profit organization in South Africa called Masinyusane—which is isiXhosa for “let us raise each other up”—aimed at educating children in slums so that they can help themselves escape the cycle of poverty and improve their lives.

According to McKeown, he made conscious choices at Columbia that led him to a high-paying job and then to the city of Port Elizabeth and to his current work.

The more informed we are about the choices that lie in front of us in life, the better we are able to control the consequences of those decisions, even if we don’t know what the future holds. It doesn’t always work that way, that’s for sure. But the odds get better when we talk about engineering and science—generally, the more that is known, the lower the risk of failure.

Engineering relies on sophisticated tools to reduce the subjective human element so that processes can be replicated with fewest failures.

In her article, “Reach Out and Touch,” in this issue, ASME Fellow Judy Vance predicts that, one day, virtual reality tools will play a dependable role for all engineers. She says that when that day arrives better products will be produced at lower costs because today’s still burgeoning technology will bolster the decision-making process.

Tools help of course, but much like human behavior, engineering and science are multifarious. “Because science is increasingly complex and compartmentalized, it is increasingly difficult for an average person to understand, even if one is motivated to do so,” said G. Wayne Clough, the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, at ASME’s Annual Meeting, where he was recognized as the 2013 recipient of the prestigious Ralph Coats Roe award.

“As scientists and engineers understand more and more about smaller pieces of our universe, they have less ability to communicate to the public about how the world works. This is a major problem,” Clough said, adding that recent surveys show that countries like the United States are still not doing enough to ensure a scientifically literate society. “We must commit ourselves as a nation to bring science back into the public dialogue.”

Clough, along with the many others who are pushing hard to enhance the engineering and scientific knowledge base in K-12 and beyond, understands well that the more we know today, the better qualified we become to make the right choices for a better tomorrow. As for my father, he was fortunate to live long enough to see the impact of his decisions on his family.



0713MEM_JulyCoverA rather sardonic—yet thoughtful—recent post on the online news site Mashable traces the history of the term “thought leader.” It begins by citing Wikipedia, which claims that it was the editor of a publication from the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton Inc. who first coined the term in a 1994 article in which some notably influential people were quoted.

Then again, says Mashable, it could have been McKinsey Quarterly. In 1964 it earned the rep as a go-to journal for the business elite and thought leader. If you ask me, the term probably sprang up years earlier when someone was identified as leadingly thoughtful. Seriously, you don’t think that a Philadelphian must have at some point said, “That Hancock fellow is quite the leading thinker, don’t you think, Benjamin?”

However the term may have originated, what’s important is how it’s defined and, mostly, how it is perceived today. More from the Mashable post, which quotes a web entrepreneur: “ ‘If I haven’t heard of you and you’re claiming to be a thought leader, I’m instantly skeptical. … But as soon as someone I’ve heard of, such as a Seth Godin… mentions someone, I’m instantly thinking that I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt.’ ”

Personally, I don’t think “thought leader” should be anointed or claimed. It’s about earning your chops by moving critical conversations forward.

For decades, in fact for more than a hundred years, ASME has earned those chops by convening people who move engineering and technology conversations forward through technical committee meetings, publications, and conferences, and by breakthrough work in the standards and certification arena. Last month, the Society began a new series—more of a movement actually—called ASME Decision Point Dialogues designed to challenge leaders from industry, government, academia, and NGOs to grapple with a series of complex questions facing engineers and technologists. The aim is to raise awareness of existing conflict points and stimulate the kind of debate that leads to bold decisions and disruptive learning.

This movement started with a unique conversation—videotaped in April and accessible now on—among leading subject matter experts who tackle the question of how to prepare and inspire generations of engineers to solve the most pressing global challenges. As you’ll see, they’re steered by a Columbia Law School professor who leads the discussion around the question: Will engineers be true global problem solvers? (This month’s cover story on page 32, written by associate editor Alan Brown, looks at the scenario that was the basis of the first dialogue.) The vision for the initiative includes virtual and face-to-face events, so stay tuned. In the meantime, the online dialogue begins now with your participation. Visit the Dialogues page at

ASME’s Decision Point Dialogues live event was modeled after the Fred Friendly Seminars, a series of dialogues and public television programs that explored complex, vital issues using the Socratic dialogue format. Friendly was president of CBS News back in the days of the legendary journalist Edward R. Murrow. You may be most familiar with Friendly through George Clooney, who played the role of Friendly in the 2005 film, Good Night, and Good Luck.

From behind the camera, Friendly was an authoritative figure who influenced the nation’s perspective during challenging times. He was a thought leader. Clooney is the leading man who brought Friendly in front of the camera for everyone to notice.



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


    The Editor

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

    August 2014
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