Author Archive for John Falcioni



23
Dec
14

PLANNING YESTERDAY FOR TOMORROW

1214_cov_no-boxMy friend Gary used to come over to my house almost daily when we were kids, but I secretly prized the times he invited me over to his parent’s place. I had more board games than he did and had gained a bit of a reputation for being a killer table-hockey player, so Gary and a lot of other kids always wanted to test me out. But Gary’s house had gadgets—lots of gadgets. By today’s jargon, I’d call Gary’s mom and dad early adopters.

For example, Gary was among the first kids in school to brag about owning a color TV; he was the first to get a cassette player and a movie camera. I also remember that his folks had kitchen appliances that shined—maybe because they went out to eat a lot. Oh, and they had a car, not that this was necessarily a big deal, except for families like mine that didn’t. For me, entering Gary’s house was like walking into Walt Disney’s Carousel of Progress.

Both figuratively and literally Disney has been on the vanguard of innovation since the iconic movie maker opened Disneyland in 1955. Our cover story this month, “What the House of Tomorrow Can Teach Us Today,” opens with a photo spread, across pages 30 and 31, showcasing the Monsanto House of the Future, a popular Disneyland attraction from 1957 to 1967. But the Monsanto house was more than a simple attraction, it was a presumed beacon for how we would live in the future—a future, 1986, that has long passed us. You can see the kitschy promotional video for the house at http://bit.ly/1vC9Cxt.

One of the takeaways from the House of the Future is that, in some ways, technology has far outpaced even the imagination of what the future would hold. But we also see some accurate projections.

The paradox of any archetype that looks ahead in time—a house, a car, a [fill in the blank] of the future—is either that the prototypes are built too many years ago to be considered futuristic today, or those created today are too fundamentally ill-informed to provide realistic projections of tomorrow. Still, they’re valuable as benchmarks of innovation.

Earlier this year, Samsung introduced its own house of the future, the Samsung Smart House. It features a home environment containing technology that’s available today to you and me. You can see Samsung’s promotional video on the house at http://bit.ly/1A29EXl.

Samsung’s and other visions of the house of the future are a showpiece for connectivity. They’re defined by the burgeoning buzz phrase, the Internet of Things (IoT), which delivers the backbone for interconnectivity, be it household devices or industrial chains. In a home environment, the IoT is represented by appliances controlled through voice recognition, or from outside the home through cell phones, tablets, and other mobile devices.

Even as I admired the gadgets in his home, Gary and I preferred to debate the trades of our favorite baseball team more than the future of technology. Not that we didn’t daydream about space stations, visits to Mars, oversize televisions, and wristwatch phones. We didn’t think then that these things would really exist one day. Much like we don’t know today what 2015 will bring, let alone what the home might look like in 2045.

23
Dec
14

making life better through innovation

MEM1114FINALE.inddThe Unisphere at Flushing Meadows-Corona Park in New York City—a park not too distant from where I grew up—was built as the icon of the 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair. It was dedicated to celebrate “man’s achievements on a shrinking globe in an expanding universe.”

This year marks the 50th anniversary of that World’s Fair and the Unisphere remains a part of the city’s recognizable landscape. Many people now probably identify it mostly as a symbol for the annual U.S. Open Tennis Championships, which is held at the park. After a few years of neglect, the Unisphere again shines brightly above the glow of spotlights and, like the old days, water flows from the fountain.

Fittingly, the statement about a “shrinking globe” that defined the Unisphere when it was dedicated keeps getting more relevant by the day. Technologies far more advanced than those showcased in the pavilions of the World’s Fair continue to transform communication, transportation, education, and other areas.

It was nice to visit the park again in September for this year’s Maker Faire, a collection of engineers, tinkerers, and garage inventors who were showcasing and celebrating innovation. It was a fitting location given the park’s legacy with innovation. The maker culture represents a technology-based extension of the do-it-yourself movement. Makers like to tinker in electronics, robotics, and 3-D printing as much as woodworking and metalworking.

I’ve met few mechanical engineers who didn’t work on gadgets in their basements or car engines in their garages growing up, or even now. But the maker movement also has a more serious subtext. The developing world—where resources are often scarce and access to the technology that we take for granted here is limited—is full of makers. Some have become renowned, but others work silently to help build better, safer environments for themselves, their families, and their villages. We might consider some of the things that they create tools or gadgets rather than technology, but to millions of people these locally sourced innovations represent vital instruments of everyday life.

At a forum on engineering for global development at this month’s ASME International Mechanical Engineering Congress and Exposition, a group of influential thinkers, who are most familiar with the nuances of the technology, economics, and politics of the developing world, will debate the ways in which those of us in the First World can help makers in the Third World usher in more sustainable technologies to local areas. The program will be streamed live on asme.org on Nov. 17.

This movement is one push toward the democratization of technology, where greater access to better technology for more people leads to a better life.

Since its formation in 1880, ASME’s mission has been to advance technology and safety. So besides noting the Unisphere’s anniversary, in this issue we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the ASME Boiler and Pressure Vessel Code, which was first published in 1914. The Code is updated regularly to focus on new challenges and extend its growing influence around the world.

The Boiler and Pressure Vessel Code represents one way in which the achievement of men and women—hundreds of ASME volunteers—impact a shrinking world in an expanding universe. Finding more creative solutions to make people’s lives easier is another.

 

 

06
Oct
14

It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s a new flying machine

1014MEM_Cover.inddBy the year 2154, humans will have severely depleted Earth’s natural resources.

This isn’t a prognostication or a personal political proclamation, it’s the premise on which the hugely successful 2009 film Avatar is based.

If the notion of Earth’s depleted natural resources weren’t enough, the plot gets unimaginably more intriguing from there. Those who saw the movie know what I’m talking about, but even if you didn’t see it, you might remember watching some of the spectacular footage from the film in ads showing aerial battles waged in futuristic helicopters over the varied, extraterrestrial terrains. The film’s creative team was rewarded for its imagination and imagery by winning Oscars for best art direction, best cinematography, and best visual effects.

These images stirred the imagination. Blog posts following the movie’s release marveled at the mighty looking mechanical systems that lift vertically and whip around with power and might. Some bloggers speculated whether elements of these helicopters already existed and wondered whether such high-powered vehicles could ever be manufactured.

The U.S. Army wondered the same thing, but its concerns are, obviously, much more serious than those of bloggers or movie producers. Current military helicopters are based on designs of the 1970s and 1980s, while faster and durable civilian rotorcraft have been ushered by advances in engines and other technologies.

In 2008, the U.S. Department of Defense began defining the scope of a project to replace the legacy helicopter fleet with next generation vertical lift aircraft. The initiative, called Future Vertical Lift (FVL), represents a family of platforms across all of the U.S. defense departments. The DOD brass believes that some of the technology developed under FVL will also help civilian industry in the form of advances in rotating machinery and operating efficiencies.

Two years ago, the Army funded a program called Joint Multi-Role (JMR) Technology Demonstration “to inform future acquisition programs that fulfill the FVL initiative,” said retired Lt. Col. Dan Bailey at a keynote session a few weeks ago during ASME’s Design and Manufacturing Impact Forum. Bailey is the program director for JMR and FVL and, having logged more than 325 hours of combat duty in Apache and Black Hawk helicopters, certainly knows a thing or two about the topic. He said the goals of the program are air vehicle demonstration and mission systems architecture demonstration.

Around the same time as Bailey’s speech, the Army selected two industry teams to develop this new type of helicopter. The Bell unit of Textron Co. in partnership with Lockheed Martin Corp. represents one team; the other is a team of Boeing Co. and Sikorsky Aircraft Co. Analysts say that, by creating a competition, the Pentagon is testing a new way to develop and purchase weapon systems.

If development of these advanced aircraft ultimately gets the green light, we won’t have to wait until the Avatar year of 2154 before they’re flying around, but it won’t be before the mid-2030s either. By then, Earth’s natural resources won’t likely be depleted (this month’s power and energy articles provide some insight on that), but there’s no word yet from the DOD if the Avatar brain link project will have gotten the go-ahead.

 

 

03
Sep
14

SETTING THE STAGE for a leading role

0914MEM_CoverFBRosie the robot had a mind of her own. She held a prominent role in The Jetsons, the futuristic and animated family television sitcom. She spent her days being part-time housekeeper, part-time babysitter and—more often than not—a prominent family sage. The Jetsons was set in the Space Age world of 2062, when robots serve as servants, flight is the preferred means of transportation, and people use video chatting to communicate. Imagine that.

Some said the show, which first aired in 1962, was ahead of its time. It went off the air after one season but returned to a more successful run from 1984 to 1987. Hollywood’s fascination with robots, however, predates Rosie and the Jetsons. Since the early days of B movies there has been an allure in giving mechanical objects the ability to think for themselves and act autonomously. In most of these obscure and often dark films, chaos occurs, predictably, when the machine, armed with the power to act under its own volition, wreaks havoc, turns on humans, and occasionally kills innocent women and children. In essence, it gets ugly.

Sans all the death and destruction, the fascination to give robots something akin to cognitive aptitude has not been lost on a long list of researchers throughout the years. They’ve been at work trying to promote robots from the assembly line and into useful aides that can interact with humans in positive and helpful ways. One of the many intriguing examples we have written about in the past is the work to turn robots into caregivers to help the elderly.

Because much of yesterday’s science fiction has become today’s technology, our editors have relied on the likes of technologists such as Ahmed Noor to keep us honest about the line between science fiction and reality. In his articles over the past decade or so, Noor has taken us inside technologies that are burgeoning and others so advanced you wouldn’t be surprised to see them on The Jetsons. We’ve closely monitored Noor’s work and we’ve kept a keen eye on the Center for Advanced Engineering Environments that he runs at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va.

“Game Changers,” the article Noor penned for us this month (plus a related article, “Robot See, Robot Do,” written by a group from the University of Maryland) leads us on a path showing that machines are approaching the age of reason. Noor tells us about some serious explorations conducted here at home in places such as the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, commonly known as DARPA, and others farther away, such as the Neurorobotics Research Lab of Humboldt University in Germany, where an early generation cognitive robot called Myon is learning to respond to human emotion. Myon is so advanced, in fact, that it will play the lead in Berlin’s Komische Oper production of “My Square Lady,” a take on Frederick Loewe’s musical, My Fair Lady. (No, I’m not kidding.)

The unique production will probe the question of what makes a person a person, and whether an object such as a robot can be transformed into one.

In spirit—figuratively speaking of course—Myon is more Rosie the robot than its distant relatives who play the menacing machines of modern warfare in Transformers: Age of Extinction. Just the same, I’m glad we’ve got the likes of Ahmed Noor to tell us just how long we have until technology fully catches up with science fiction.

15
Aug
14

ADVANCED MATERIALS FOR GAMES OF ALL SIZES

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.

23
Jul
14

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 go.asme.org/dialogues.

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.

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.




The Editor

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

July 2015
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