Archive for September, 2011


the design issue

My September column in Mechanical Engineering magazine.

This month Mechanical Engineering is all about design, with a bend toward the human side.

The true essence of design is, after all, rooted in the human element, as it is meant to stimulate the senses. Aesthetics is a big part of it, as is functionality and ease of use. But the complexities of design are broad.

In consumer products, for example, design focuses on how it touches the user—from product to packaging, to market, to how it makes the customer feel when he takes it home and uses it. It is a long-term engagement. It is the human factor.

From an organizational perspective, design is driven from the top. Successful industry executives understand the importance of engaging in a strong relationship with the creative side of the business. They nurture creativity and innovation and also the success of cross-function teams, such as marketing and engineering.

From a designer’s perspective, it’s about understanding that failure is part of the process. It is through refining and redefining an original design that a designer can meet the highest standards and achieve the greatest success.

In the shadows of the bright lights cast by big-ticket consumer product designers lies another kind of designer, one who works without much ballyhoo. He’s the one that designs for people living in developing countries.

For this issue, we called on nine designers from different fields—among them are engineers, architects, and even a physicist—who are working on devices and systems developed locally and aimed at consumers who live on less than $4 a day. Every designer, regardless of her customer, is inspired by inherent creative forces—those who focus on the developing world are also inspiring, in their own right.

Amos Winter, one of those designers we talked with, says in his introduction to our special section that a key to working in developing countries is designing with local stakeholders, not just for them. “People have an intimate knowledge of their own environments and their needs as consumers, and the challenge for us is how to connect with them.”

What Winter points to is a fundamental lesson successful designers have long ago learned: A design, regardless of its aesthetic appeal, is worthless unless it successfully responds to a need. James Skakoon and Michael Wiklund explore this concept further in their article, “The Human Touch.”

We bring you a number of other design perspectives as well: David Prawel talks about the paradoxes of CAD; Kazuhiro Saitou discusses designs that recognize their inevitable demise and disassembly; and Harry Cheng and his collaborators tell us about robots that can adapt to conditions. Fittingly, we are also including a supplement from ASME’s Design Engineering Division.

When we set out to plan this issue of Mechanical Engineering we hoped to piece together a mosaic of different voices that would combine to tell a story, the story of design… in the real world. Let me know if we’ve succeeded.


i don’t want to remember 9/11

I don’t want to remember 9/11. Why would anyone? It was one of the worst days this country has witnessed in modern history.

Many of us have tried to put that day behind us and move on. Some of us are still in therapy trying to move forward, without looking back. But for the past few days 9/11 has been inescapable. The media hounds us with tributes, and remembrances of the soot-soiled swarms of people running away from the befallen Twin Towers—running for their lives.

What’s so special about 10 years, anyway? What makes the 10th anniversary any more special than the 8th, or the 9th, or the 12th?

Every day we live with a heavy heart because of the powerless lives lost that day. Every day we realize the equality of the human being. It didn’t matter whether it was the waiter working Windows on the World that perished, or the power broker, master of the universe, he was waiting on. At the end of the day, at the end of 9/11, they were both just helpless human beings, as they were the day they were born.

Everyone wants me to remember 9/11, as if I have ever forgotten it.

I was in Houston at a conference learning about the latest advances in sensors and instrumentation. My son, then 7, was back home in New York with my ex-wife, who worked at Tower Two.

It wasn’t until 6 in the afternoon that I found out my son was OK, and that my ex was too. It turns out our babysitter was late and Kathy made it to her building just as it was collapsing, right before her eyes. My kid was OK too, though who knows what long-lasting impact that day may have on him, or, for that matter, on the rest of us.

My colleagues and I didn’t get home until days later. One of them took the first bus out. He arrived back even after I did. I’ve kept the ticket to a baseball game I was scheduled to go to that day. It reads: Enron Field, Houston Astros vs. San Francisco Giants, Tuesday, September 11, 2001. My how things have changed.

Spectacularly, the people of Houston, the same as others throughout the country, lined the city’s streets to donate blood. The coming together on 9/11 was a byproduct of the crime that the terrorists couldn’t have foreseen.

As tributes to those who died on 9/11, some fire engines in New York remain inscribed with the words, “We will never forget.” I see them all the time. I don’t want to remember 9/11, but how can I ever forget?

If you’d like to share your thoughts, I invite you to do so.

The Editor

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

September 2011

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