01
Aug
17

SMARTEST CITY

Singapore’s brilliantly bold skyscraper landscape represents a grand stage where the star performers are the mechanical and electrical sensors, instruments, and controls that turn this island city-state into one of the smartest places on earth.

Under an ambitious Smart Nation program that began several years ago, Singapore has become a test bed for the application of Big Data and Internet of Things innovations and an incubator for technologies that are transforming the way our cities will work in the future.

The backbone of Singapore’s increasingly smart infrastructure is a fiber network spanning the 276-square-mile island, bringing high-speed Internet to every home and office. It’s no surprise that today Singaporeans average three mobile devices per person. But that is just the start.

The goal of the Smart Nation program is to turn Singapore into a living laboratory, a place to test smart solutions in crowded urban settings. In one Singapore neighborhood, for example, thousands of sensors were installed on individual apartments to measure energy draw, waste production, and water usage in real time. The neighborhood also has gone green with a vacuum waste-management system, solar panels, and a water-reclamation project.

In transportation, Singapore has been at the forefront of autonomous-vehicle testing. Its streets are open to self-driving cars and buses. Small-scale trials of shuttles began at Nanyang Technological University, and MIT spin-off nuTonomy began testing autonomous taxis on city streets.

Even as testing of self-driving vehicles continues, the family of sensors at the heart of Smart Nation is being used to track Singapore’s bus fleet. The captured data enable the government to identify problems early on and find solutions.

The idea behind the Smart Nation is to meld technology incubated in the private sector with government efforts to ensure resilience amid turmoil linked to rapid urbanization, climate change, public health threats, unaffordability, and other challenges to national harmony.

Why has Singapore become a Smart City model? Singapore lacks the multilevel bureaucracies that stifle other major cities, engineers here told me during a recent visit. There’s also a willingness to spend on infrastructure such as universal high-speed Internet with little or no opposition.

In the context of the IoT, constant connectivity, and complementary infrastructure it all makes sense. But because of Singapore’s reputation as a chewing gum-averse, surveillance-happy state, factors surrounding smart city technology start to take on new gravity. With the prospect of sensors connecting homes, cars, infrastructure, and who knows what else in the name of efficiency and ease of use, cybersecurity and data privacy may be hard to preserve.

The glitter that shines off the majestic skyscrapers here hides the strong-arm of government. But as a social and technology experiment, Singapore is hard to beat. This month’s cover story, “Building a Smart City” beginning on page 32, tells what one U.S. city—San Diego—is doing to get “smarter.”

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13
Jul
17

ROBOT OR NOT HERE THEY COME

When the conversation turned to driverless cars at a recent National Instruments conference I attended in Austin, Texas, a speaker on stage abruptly quipped: “I’m never calling them that anymore. They are ‘carbots’.” He was right, of course.

Call the newest types of robots what you want, but it’s clear that intelligent machines are ever-more ubiquitous at home, at work and everywhere in between. The more we program them to do, the less human interaction there is. After all, that’s the premise behind a lot of what autonomous systems are supposed to offer, isn’t it?

The transformation has touched nearly every part of our lives. From how we listen to music, to how we search for directions, to how we make a restaurant reservation. The disruptions will continue and hit even the newest transformative business models that we just got used to. (Uber, we hardly knew you.)

How these innovations transform the workplace is a topic we’ve hit on before.

Some economists suggest that robots are not taking human jobs away. They insist, instead, that automation is enhancing our access to goods and services at lower prices. In our pockets, for example, sit supercomputers that automate voluminous amounts of activity that humans previously lacked the time or inclination to perform, says John Tammy an economics fellow and contributor to Forbes magazine.

Automation and robotics signal a tremendous spur in human productivity ahead, he said. Predicting what those human jobs will be is the billion dollar question, but those who can see what is presently opaque will reap the fruits of their clairvoyance.

Of course, there is a counterargument, one that is dark and even dystopian. “As soon as you can get a robot for $5,000 instead of $100,000, as soon as you can get AI with better voice recognition, as soon as you can get full contextual AI that can anticipate and answer questions without human intervention—that’s going to throw the labor markets into a tizzy,” said Jeffrey A. Joerres, the former CEO of ManpowerGroup, a multinational human resources consulting firm.

“We must deal with the reality that when full-scale robotics and AI arrive in a broad-based, affordable, easily justifiable way, we’ll see enormous waves of workers put out of work and ill prepared to take on very different jobs,” he told Harvard Business Review recently. “This is going to create challenges that our institutions are not ready for.”

This month’s cover story, “The Proving Grounds,” elegantly written by Alan Brown, serves to prep us for what lies ahead. Warehouses are labs for autonomy, Brown said. “From them will spring the proven technologies that will eventually bring autonomous robots to factories, hospitals, malls, city streets, and eventually high-speed roadways.”

Brown’s isn’t the only robotics article in this issue. Tom Gibson takes us on a tour of how an engineer at Harvard uses soft robotics to create a powered exosuit that’s being tested by the U.S. Army; and Kayte Sukel tells us about a brain-machine interface that is helping those who are paralyzed navigate the world.

There are other robot stories as well in this special issue. But you don’t have to call them robots—call them what you want. Just know that they’re on their way.

01
May
17

ADVANCING BIOMEDICAL ENGINEERING

It was wild fantasy back in 1973 to believe we could build a bionic person with artificially enhanced vision and the strength and speed of Steve Austin, the title character of The Six Million Dollar Man. According to the TV show, Austin’s prosthetic eye could zoom on command and possessed infrared vision. His bionic arm was capable of bending steel bars, and his legs allowed him to chase down (and catch!) speeding vehicles.

Looking back, the biggest fantasy is that we could get all that for just $6 million.

Today, bionics and prosthetics are transforming the real world in ways unimaginable in the ’70s. For example, artificial hearts are keeping patients alive until transplants become available; cochlear implants are restoring hearing to the impaired; bionic eyes are beginning to restore sight to the blind; and numerous prosthetic hands, arms, and legs are restoring mobility to thousands around the world.

Yet there still are more than 90,000 people waiting for kidney transplants, more than 16,000 waiting for livers, and more than 1,500 waiting for hearts. “The shortage of organs for transplantation is a public health crisis. The gap between the current state of the art and the technology needed for cryopreservation is one that an orchestrated effort between cryobiologists and mechanical engineers can bridge,” writes Yoed Rabin, a professor of mechanical and biomedical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, and Jedediah Lewis, chief executive at the Organ Preservation Alliance.

Their article in this month’s issue, “Organ Banking,” tells how mechanical engineers are pushing the boundaries of cryopreservation of human tissues. Researchers are tapping heat transfer, solid mechanics, materials science, nanotechnology, computer modeling, and other engineering disciplines to better preserve donated tissues and organs. In August, ASME and the Organ Preservation Alliance are co-organizing a summit in Boston to address those challenges.

Bioengineers and biomedical engineers are broad fields that comprise areas of biology and engineering. The two are amalgams of each other. Biomedical engineers solve medical and biological problems and design health-care technologies, including medical devices and implants, diagnostic procedures and therapeutic approaches. Bioengineers focus on pharmaceutical, medical devices and implants, biotechnology and tissue engineering.

ASME has been involved in these areas for years. The Society’s Bioengineering Division, for example, has focused on the application of mechanical engineering principles to the design, development, analysis, and operation of biomechanical systems. The ASME Journal of Medical Devices publishes papers focusing on medical devices that improve diagnostic interventional and therapeutic treatments.

Now, ASME has developed the Alliance of Advanced BioMedical Engineering, an online content-delivery platform that bridges the gap between research and industry. As the platform grows it will include professional and networking resources aimed at helping engineers be better positioned to work in this burgeoning area.

In sharing industry best practices and trends among life scientists, engineers and medical doctors—as well as by showcasing the advanced work of researchers—AABME will support and advance the industry by helping stakeholders stay on top of emerging technologies. Ultimately, the goal is to positively impact the patients who rely on the expertise of biomedical professionals.

And who knows, this alliance may even help create the first bionic person.

 

01
Apr
17

PARTY LIKE AN ENGINEER

The dominant narrative about STEM education in the United States is that other countries do a better job than we do at teaching youngsters about science, technology, engineering, and math. My own opinion on this differs, but that’s a column for another day. What’s curious is that while we denigrate our K-12 STEM education, we take pride that our college and university engineering programs are highly touted and the envy of students around the world.

ASME has had a strong and clear voice in the ongoing discussion about building competence in all stages of the engineering workforce pipeline. The Society’s initiatives in this area have been significant, extending from in-classroom programs meant to inspire youngsters in middle school and high school to others at the college level. ASME also works with a network of university engineering department heads and with ABET, the post-secondary engineering accreditation board, to ensure rigor in engineering curricula.

This year, ASME introduced a novel program for college students called E-Fests, short for Engineering Festivals.

The marketing tagline for E-Fests is, “Party like an engineer.” Engineers may be recognized more for how well they solve problems than for how well they party, but at E-Fests they get to do both. E-Fests bring together students from around the world to college campuses for a weekend of music, fun activities, giveaways, networking opportunities, career development, and competitions. Two programs were scheduled in March—one at the LNM Institute of Information Technology in Jaipur, India, and the other at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. A third event will be hosted by Tennessee Tech University in Cookeville later this month.

These events are anchored around regional ASME student competitions: the Human Powered Vehicle Challenge, the Student Design Competition, the Innovative Additive Manufacturing 3D Challenge, and the Old Guard Competitions.

“E-Fests is an ambitious program built to benefit hundreds of student engineers, said ASME President Keith Roe. “We want to help motivate these young men and women. They are the future technology leaders, the ones who will drive innovation.”

Support for E-Fests comes from the ASME Foundation and from industry. “We are very appreciative of the support we have received from many participating sponsors,” Roe said.

“To support the development of a strong, well-trained design, engineering, and manufacturing workforce, it’s important for industry to partner with academia and organizations like ASME in events like E-Fests,” said John Miller, senior vice president of mainstream engineering software for Siemens PLM Software, a business unit of the Siemens Digital Factory Division. “We are very excited to be part of these events and to continue to motivate students in engineering excellence.” Siemens is the platinum sponsor of the inaugural events.

The party at E-Fests is just the beginning. The real celebration happens when the students graduate and start on their career paths. Arguably, there’s never been a better time to be an engineer. We’re reminded of this every time we look up and notice the remarkable footprint the profession is having on the world.

07
Mar
17

LOOKING DOWN THE ROAD AT AUTONOMOUS VEHICLES

It’s an exciting time of change for the auto industry, for car buffs, and for many engineers who’ve had a lifelong love affair with their vehicles—both behind the wheel and under the hood.

New technologies are bringing the utopian vision of self-driving cars cruising through smart cities into sharper focus. As work on that front continues, technology integrators are making today’s vehicles more efficient and safer.

Drivers are already benefitting from advances in entertainment systems and safety and breakdown-rescue equipment. Some new cars sport automatic maintenance reminders; navigation systems that display real-time maps, weather, and road alerts; and security systems that include theft-alert and automobile-tracking mechanisms. There have also been significant breakthroughs in vehicle efficiency, with features such as fuel-management instruments and tachographs.

Just as we relate differently to our smartphones than we did to the rotary telephones of decades past, we relate differently to today’s computerized and connected cars. For one, the ability for home mechanics to tinker with their cars is severely limited. But automakers and consumers have shown excitement over the new bells and whistles, and the market for services, devices, and connectivity in vehicles could exceed $39 billion by next year.

As makers of autonomous vehicles enter the market, however, they threaten to further redefine the relationship between car and driver.

Big-name players in this burgeoning space, such as Google, aren’t the only ones getting into the act. Startups such as nuTonomy are advancing the self-driving vehicle landscape in quiet but exponential ways.

The MIT spin-off partnered with Uber’s competitor Grab and began publicly testing self-driving cars last August on a 2.5 km square business district in Singapore.

NuTonomy’s cofounder and CEO Karl Iagnemma, who also directs MIT’s Robotic Mobility Group, said the new technology behind self-driving cars is not automotive but robotics-based, as it uses formal mathematical logic to design and verify its software. From an engineering perspective, he said, what matters are the interfaces that make a passenger interact with the car.

“How I tell the car to nudge forward a couple of feet because there’s a puddle there and I don’t want to get my feet wet is important,” Iagnemma said. That’s part of the robotics-like artificial intelligence process that his company is focusing on.

We can only speculate what the world will look like and how society will change if—or dare I say when—autonomous vehicles proliferate. So we decided to commission Brian David Johnson, a former Intel futurist and now futurist and fellow at the consulting firm Frost & Sullivan, to write our cover story this month and provide some learned context. His article, “Brave New Road,” begins on page 30.

Of course, if you’re Stefano Domenicali, the CEO of Automobili Lamborghini, who I met at the same MIT EmTech conference that Iagnemma attended, you don’t worry about the future of driverless cars. “My customers want to feel the road,” he told me. “The driving experience itself is as important as the destination. I am not worried about cars with no drivers.”

01
Feb
17

trash isn’t just garbage

0217mem_cover_no_boxWhat we dump into our trash cans can deliver an endless supply of energy, but it hasn’t always been popular to take advantage of it.

Waste-to-energy plants have a controversial history in the United States. The first plant was built in the mid-1970s in Saugus, Mass., and is still active today. But in the 1980s, residents in suburban towns across the United States where trash-to-energy plants were being proposed debated vigorously whether the financial benefits to the municipality outweighed environmental risks.

Even though these waste management facilities were quite different from the trash incinerators commonly used until a few decades earlier, the stigma of those old pollution-emitting burners would not die easily. Add to that the rumors that organized-crime-backed trash haulers were getting into the business and the technology faced a steep hurdle to gain acceptance.

Even today, despite significant technology advances, and rules that qualify some waste-to-energy plants as renewable energy, there is still some skepticism.

But the case in favor of waste-to-energy plants can be compelling. Few make a better argument than John (Bucky) Kitto—an ASME Fellow and a former member of the Board of Governors—and Larry Hiner, who co-authored this month’s cover story, “Clean Power from Burning Trash,” on page 32. Kitto was the Babcock and Wilcox development manager for the Palm Beach Waste-to-Energy Project they describe and Hiner is the project developer for industrial steam generation at B&W.

The facility generates enough electricity to power 44,000 homes in Palm Beach County, Fla., and reduces the volume of waste to be landfilled by 90 percent. All the while, earning millions of dollars annually from the sale of electric power to the local power company and reclaiming metals left in municipal waste after recycling. From an environmental perspective, the plant helps eliminate the burial of problematic wastes that emit volatile organic compounds and chemicals. Plus the emissions are as low, or lower, than the cleanest gas-fired turbine generators.

It is the “cleanest, most efficient plant of its kind in the world,” Kitto and Hiner boast.

Unlike the U.S., where fewer than 80 facilities are in operation, communities in Europe short on landfill space have turned to waste-to-energy plants. Nearly a quarter of all municipal solid waste in Europe is burned in nearly 500 facilities across the continent. Countries with the highest rates of garbage incineration—Denmark, Norway, and Sweden incinerate at least half their waste—also have high rates of recycling and composting of organic materials and food waste.

The Palm Beach Renewable Energy Facility No. 2 is the first greenfield waste-to-energy plant for municipal solid waste built in the United States in two decades. I’ve yet to visit the facility, but from conversations with Kitto, and photos he showed me that didn’t make the final layout, it’s clear that this architecturally beautiful plant is nothing like the ones I toured years ago.

But even as the design of this facility is the envy of many modern office buildings, it pales in comparison to a waste-to- energy plant in Copenhagen, Denmark. It features a roof-wide artificial ski slope open to the public. If that doesn’t change the perception of incineration plants, then maybe the renewable energy efficiency will.

 

02
Jan
17

SEARCHING FOR CLUES ON THE FUTURE OF TECH

0117mem_cover_no-box

January is normally a month of change—new calendars, new resolutions. But this month, after a hard-fought presidential race, the inauguration of Donald J. Trump as the 45th President of the United States seems like a step into the unknown. Even Trump’s supporters feel largely uncertain about an administration led by a businessman who has never before held public office.

Predicting the positions of a Trump administration, including matters relating to technology, is challenging because the only cues have been often-conflicting comments during the campaign. There are, however, clues to the future of the tech landscape under the new administration found in the early positions on five key areas: manufacturing and related jobs, space exploration, infrastructure, research and development, and the Internet of Things.

For example, Trump’s call for the return of manufacturing jobs to the U.S. found widespread support. But the genie may be out of the bottle. As this magazine and others have written, machines are learning to perform jobs previously held by factory workers. The Washington Post recently reported on a Boston Consulting Group prediction that, by 2025, the operating cost of a welding robot will be less than $2 per hour, compared to the $25 per hour that a human welder earns today in the U.S. Advanced manufacturing is transforming factory automation and there’s no going back.

One technology area where Trump has been specific has been his support for space exploration. Last October, he told a rally in Sanford, Fla., “Human exploration of our entire solar system by the end of this century should be NASA’s focus and goal.” Trump has supported private-public partnerships to increase space activity and economic growth. A robust space initiative could spur national pride and boost interest in engineering and science careers, much as it did 50 years ago.

A much-discussed infrastructure improvement measure has received general bipartisan support from lawmakers and the public. Infrastructure spending would spur tech and blue-collar jobs. But Trump’s trillion-dollar ten-year plan has some lawmakers concerned because the funding model is sketchy and leans on enticing the private sector with tax credits.

Early comments by the new administration on federal funding for R&D portends possible reexamination of government research priorities. Initiatives such as Manufacturing USA, which brings together industry, academia, and federal partners through a network of advanced manufacturing institutes, will be under a microscope. Trump has been on record supporting U.S. manufacturing, so Manufacturing USA’s $70 million budget should be safe. Funding for research in other areas, especially those supported by the Department of Energy, may experience a different fate based on the new president’s comments on the energy sector.

The fifth area I will be watching is how Trump and his team deal with the complexities of applying the Internet of Things to U.S. industry. Companies such as GE are trying to shed their old, industrial image, becoming instead global IoT providers focusing on delivering software, networks, and artificial intelligence. (GE has become a major proponent of high-tech jobs training. Read about its plans in this month’s cover story, “Filling the Talent Gap,” beginning on page 28.)

Most candidates who gain elected office trade much of the rhetoric of the campaign for pragmatism imposed by the restrictions of the office they win. Maybe they also discover that the words that got them elected don’t make as much sense after Election Day. That’s human nature—and also the game of politics.

 




The Editor

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

September 2017
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