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.

 

01
Dec
16

FLIPPING THE SWITCH ON RENEWABLES

1216mem_cover_no-boxImagine flipping on the light switch at home and wondering: Will the lights come on? Those of us lucky enough to live in parts of the world where the electric grid is robust rarely consider that question unless a strong storm or unusual circumstances cause a blackout.

But we can’t take the grid for granted. It’s the world’s largest supply chain with zero inventory, says Don Sadoway, the professor of materials science and engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has been called the Socrates of Batteries.

I met the dapper Sadoway a few weeks back at the MIT Technology Review EmTech conference in Cambridge, Mass., but he’s no newcomer to the energy space (you can view both his EmTech presentation and his 2012 TED talk online). His lab invented a liquid metal battery that some—including investor Bill Gates—think will revolutionize the way energy is stored and pave the way to broadening the use of renewable energy. Sadoway’s company, Ambri, promises to deliver electricity where and when it’s needed at low cost.

Storage is one of the hurdles renewables such as wind and solar have to overcome in order to become mainstream.

Just as energy storage may be the key enabler to promoting the diversity of our energy sources, technologies that increase the connection between electricity producers and end users are at the heart of the smart grid—a combination of sensors and controllers plus a process for using information and communication technologies to integrate the components across the electric system.

Those technological advances will contribute to what is expected to be the most fundamental change to the U.S. power system since its inception a century ago. Engineers will be on the forefront of developing the new products to improve the efficiency and resiliency in the evolving grid.

Some of the products that make the grid more interconnected and responsive include advanced meters, automated feeder switches, voltage regulators, and other controls technology intended to give the grid stability and resilience.

“By increasing the analytic data available to grid operators and energy users, smart technologies create an information bridge linking generation, transmission, and distribution with consumers,” concluded a report this year from the Pew Charitable Trusts, an independent, non-partisan organization. “These capabilities allow grid managers and end users to make more informed decisions about how and when to use energy, based on grid requirements and price signals. And the additional information helps utilities manage their increasingly diverse generation portfolios.”

Improving the efficiency and robustness of the grid—and enhancing the capabilities of renewable energy sources that connect to it—is important, but even more critical is safeguarding it. Grid and security experts agree that the grid is becoming increasingly and dangerously susceptible to cyber and physical threats.

A few months ago, Senior Editor Dan Ferber took on the challenge to coordinate and serve as lead editor for a package of related articles addressing these important energy topics. This month’s comprehensive special focus on the grid is the culmination of Ferber’s hard work.

Our coverage provides a glimpse of what the electric grid of tomorrow might look like, even if we haven’t yet fully flipped on the switch on renewable energy.

 

02
Nov
16

A Machine That Thinks For You

1116mempc1_no-boxI was visiting a friend a few weeks ago when he started bragging about how he set up an Amazon Echo in his home office. “Alexa, what is the weather outside,” he volunteered unfettered—even as I could see the sun shining brightly out his window. In a few seconds, a rather pleasant computerized woman’s voice filled the room confirming my observation.

“Listen to this,” he continued. “Alexa, play Elton John’s ‘Candle in the Wind’.” A few moments later, the song came on.

It was getting irritating, so I decided to have a little fun. Before my friend could stop me, I commanded Alexa to place an order for a brown, four-shelf bookshelf. “Your order has been placed,” Alexa responded.

The next five minutes were frantic. My friend desperately fluttered on his keyboard trying to find customer support, but the answer was obvious. “Alexa,” I said sternly, “cancel the bookshelf order.” She confirmed.

Google’s co-founder, Larry Page, once described the perfect search engine as a machine that “understands exactly what you mean and gives you back exactly what you want.”

If he’s right, then the intersection of artificial intelligence and voice recognition is the pivot point. Google, the largest purveyor of search results on the Internet, has invested heavily—both dollars and engineering prowess—in data mining and artificial intelligence. The result is a technology likened to the talking computer on Star Trek, or a souped-up Siri, Apple’s voice-controlled virtual assistant. But Google claims its Google Assistant will be ever-more powerful than Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana, or Amazon’s Alexa.

Sundar Pichai, Google’s chief executive, says that machine learning is at a point where a virtual assistant is all we need to solve all our information-related needs. Google Assistant will learn our habits, our likes and dislikes, and have access to just about all our confidential information. It will have the processing strength to understand and contextualize what we want and how we want it. It will book a trip, buy a coat, order a pizza, and make an appointment with a favorite hairdresser.

Building something better than Alexa, Siri, and Cortana is ambitious, but as Henry Lieberman, a pioneer of human-computer interaction at MIT’s Media Lab, told Associate Editor Alan Brown in this month’s cover story, “Language will become a means—not to help users understand a product more easily, but to have the product understand its users.”

The impact of harnessing the power of voice—and cognitive—recognition on product and systems design is still unclear. But we’ve seen significant strides in deep neural networks, referred to as deep learning. These are software constructs that enable machines to teach themselves how to recognize complex patterns. They have also greatly improved speech recognition.

Responding to public concern over the impact of machine learning on robots and intelligent systems, including factory automation and self-driving cars, a consortium of technology companies, including Amazon, Facebook, Google, IBM, and Microsoft, recently formed the Partnership on Artificial Intelligence to Benefit People and Society. Its focus is on ways to protect humans in the face of rapid advances in AI, and the potential for government regulation of the technology.

Sure, Alexa understood my command to cancel my joke order for the bookcase—that was trivial. But it’s critical that the engineering community recognizes the importance of building AI into the design of technologies in a way that doesn’t violate ethical mores. That’s no laughing matter.




The Editor

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

May 2017
M T W T F S S
« Apr    
1234567
891011121314
15161718192021
22232425262728
293031  

Twitter from John Falcioni

Twitter from Engineering for Change