Author Archive for John Falcioni



02
Jun
14

A EULOGY FOR AMERICAN MANUFACTURING?

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.

01
May
14

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.

02
Apr
14

DECISION POINT on STEM

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 ASME.org 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.

13
Mar
14

DESIGNS THAT GO BEYOND THE LOOK

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.

21
Feb
14

DOWN, DOWN, DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE

0214MEM_CoverFB

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 http://econ.st/1cbY8dg). 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.

06
Jan
14

THE BENEFITS OF DISADVANTAGE

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.

03
Dec
13

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.




The Editor

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

January 2015
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