Author Archive for John Falcioni



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.



No one’s better at telling the story of Vivek Ranadivé than author Malcolm Gladwell whose newest book, David and Goliath, offers the premise that there are advantages to having disadvantages. Or as he says, “We misread battles between underdogs and giants. … we underestimate how much freedom there can be in what looks like a disadvantage.”

Gladwell points out that David, who was small but accurate with a slingshot, turned the tables on the much bigger and powerful Goliath, who was slow and blurry-eyed.

On the surface Ranadivé doesn’t really appear disadvantaged at all. He is a smart guy and by all reasonable standards hugely successful. He earned his engineering bachelor’s and master’s degrees from MIT and an MBA from Harvard, and he’s the new owner of the Golden State Warriors NBA franchise. He’s not, seemingly, a “David.”

But Ivy-League-trained engineers don’t fit the usual prototype of NBA team owners, especially Ranadivé who recently became the first Indian-born basketball franchise owner in the U.S. For him, it all began after the unlikely scenario of taking his middle-school daughter’s basketball team to the national finals. At that time, Ranadivé knew no more about basketball’s “hardwood” than he did the hardwood in his living room. He had never even held a basketball in his hands before volunteering to coach his kid’s team and knew nothing of fast breaks, jump shots, or layups. Because he was unencumbered by his lack of basketball know-how, he was able to turn what was the disadvantage of not knowing conventional coaching wisdom into a strategy that turned his unlikely group of basketball novices into a top team.

For him, the established ways of successfully coaching basketball didn’t exist because he was unaware of them.

Gladwell insists that there are lessons to be learned from what are apparent situational shortcomings.

In a recent paper called “Student Demographics and Outcomes in Mechanical Engineering in the U.S.,” which is under review for publication in an engineering education journal, researchers found that there are shortcomings in the profession. Even though mechanical engineering is the largest engineering discipline, awarding 23.2 percent of engineering degrees in the United States and Canada, it lacks diversity when compared to other engineering disciplines.

In the U.S., 18.9 percent of all engineering graduates are women, but only 12.4 percent of mechanical engineering graduates are women, according to the research. In fact, until recently electrical engineering and computer engineering had smaller proportions of women. But now mechanicals hold the dubious distinction.

The “benefits of identity diversity include more innovative groups, engagement in active thinking processes, growth in intellectual engagement and motivation, and growth in intellectual and academic skills,” the researchers say.

So while the disadvantage of the discipline is an underrepresentation of women and other groups, the “slingshot” part of this story is that mechanical engineering is sticky. In other words, students who major in mechanical engineering tend to graduate as mechanical engineers.

As the new year dawns, leading mechanical engineering educators can look at the story of David and Goliath, and that of Vivek Ranadivé, and realize that a disadvantage can quickly be turned into advantage. As long as they don’t underestimate how much freedom there can be in what looks like a disadvantage.


DEAD COW IN lively search for oil

1213MEM_CoverThere’s a lot about the Magellanic Penguins living in Patagonia that is fascinating. Part of it is their cool designation; they’re named after Ferdinand Magellan who first spotted the little critters in 1519. Another has to do with their happy feet. These penguins have been known to wander from the southern coast of Argentina all the way to southern Brazil.

When one of my cousins was over from Argentina a few weeks ago, we began to plan our visit to these penguins and other native wildlife. Recently, there’s been a lot of interest in Patagonia, if not to ogle the spectacular natural landscape, then to put a stake—or drilling pipe—in the ground
and dig for oil.

According to a report this year from the Energy Information Administration, the statistical arm of the U.S. Department of Energy, Argentina’s Vaca Muerta shale oil and shale gas field in the Neuquén region is one of the largest of its kind in the world. It might turn out that Vaca Muerta—which translates to dead cow—may well replace Argentina’s vast beef production as the country’s main source of economic strength. Of course that’s contingent on overcoming major political obstacles, since President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner hasn’t exactly been kind to foreign investors. Nonetheless, Chevron, viewing the region’s immense bounty, is pushing on and making some headway with Queen Cristina, as the president’s detractors have nicknamed her.

Besides the politics, hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, remains as controversial among critics in Argentina as in the U.S. Concerns range from contaminated groundwater to the atmospheric impact of the equipment that’s used in the process, which occurs when chemical-laced water and sand are blasted underground to break apart rock and release gas.

There are nuances to the entire gas exploration and production process that even those in the midst of the debate often confuse the facts. In our cover story, “Fracturing Rocks to Unlock New Oil,” on page 24, we sort out how the process works and bring some clarity. An adjoining article, “Home on the Shales” reported by Bridget Mintz Testa, places us in Texas—one of the most robust states for hydraulic fracturing in the U.S.—and in the middle of a storm over the technology.

But no matter which side of the hydraulic fracturing frenzy you’re on, the industry is becoming more efficient as technology is getting better and companies more adept at using it. In March, ASME will try to unlock the answers to some of the questions surrounding hydraulic fracturing and related well drilling when it launches its first Energy Forum Live event, “Shale Development and Hydraulic Fracturing—Capturing Unconventional Opportunities.”

The conference is scheduled for California, far from Patagonia and any penguin sightings. It’s not likely I’ll be visiting the Magellanics before March, but it won’t be for lack of prodding from frequent contributor Lee Langston. (Langston’s article this month on the Blackbird, a supersonic reconnaissance aircraft and its revolutionary engine, takes us behind the scenes of the acclaimed Lockheed Skunk Works division, which developed it.)

Besides his passion and knowledge of gas turbines, Langston is an accomplished traveler who has visited the southernmost tip of South America several times. When we chat, he always leaves me craving to hear the bellows of the charismatic penguins of Patagonia. Much as those searching the shale hunger after the sight of oil.


TOILING IN NEW approaches to change the status quo

1113MEM_CoverTalk of U.S. manufacturing being in the toilet is shifting—figuratively and, well, also literally.

I never would have realized how fiercely competitive the toilet-making industry is were it not for a report I read in The Wall Street Journal a few weeks ago. Apparently U.S. manufacturing of toilets is surging, though for the most part under foreign ownership of brands as apple pie as American Standard. Nonetheless, this is a positive manufacturing headline amidst years of gloom.

“The toilet turnaround is a microcosm of U.S. manufacturing trends,” the Journal touted; and others agree that manufacturing in this country is on the uptick. The evidence, especially during the past few months, is pointing to it.

Output from factories is rising and there are strong gains in manufacturing production. Lower labor costs are also making American workers more attractive. Add to that a natural gas boom that many hope will lower energy costs for manufacturers and the picture gets rosy. But others say that those indicators are fool’s gold, since these signs may be more a virtue of an overall economic recovery than a manufacturing revival. Time will tell.

In this special issue of Mechanical Engineering we talk a lot about U.S. manufacturing, but we aim to celebrate manufacturing globally since new technologies are eliminating many obstacles to doing business across borders. Specifically, we want to give a nod to those who are finding new ways to manufacture existing products and those who are manufacturing new products using advanced technologies. These processes come under the burgeoning term, “advanced manufacturing”—which is also the theme of this month’s ASME International Mechanical Engineering Congress and Exposition in San Diego, Calif.

In this issue—one of the largest in terms of pages we’ve had in some time—we also celebrate some of the heroes of engineering who will be saluted at the 2013 Honors Assembly, which will also be held at the ASME Congress. These are individuals whose drive to change the world is consistent and noteworthy. Among them is G. Wayne Clough, the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and Arun Majumdar, who is driving’s energy sector and is the former founding director of ARPA-E, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency. There, Majumdar evaluated high-risk, high-reward technologies including advanced manufacturing methods that offer a different approach to traditional technologies. A full listing of the past year’s honors recipients begins on page 49.

We also pay tribute this month to the 140 ASME members who have been newly named Fellows of ASME. To learn more about them, see page 65.

Also this month we bring you something different, the premier issue of DEMAND, ASME’s global development review. DEMAND was developed through ASME’s Engineering for Global Development initiative in collaboration with Mechanical Engineering. This publication showcases the work of individuals and organizations working at the intersection of technology and global development.

DEMAND includes carefully selected case studies written by social innovators who aim to stimulate the search for solutions that are in demand on the ground in developing countries.

Today’s practitioners in the developing world toil in untraditional approaches, as do those who use advanced technologies to push the boundaries of manufacturing. At the heart of it is a drive to change the status quo—and improve how people live.


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.

The Editor

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

December 2014
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