Archive for February, 2012


Intellectual Property on the Barroom Floor

The following is the first post by guest blogger Harry Hutchinson, executive editor at Mechanical Engineering magazine. Look for his posts weekly.

Harry Hutchinson

A friend and I were sitting in Buffalo Billiards on Chestnut Street in Philadelphia. Besides pool tables, it has taps that run some interesting craft beers. We were sampling ales when a young man carrying a highball asked Joanna, and then asked me, if either of us played billiards.

Of course, we told him no because that was the truth and also because, for all she or I could tell, he might be a pool hustler.

There’s a reason that this is on : if this guy was a pool hustler, it apparently wasn’t his day job. The fellow, Tom, told us he is a mechanical engineer who works with nanotechnology. Wow, cutting-edge stuff, right? And in a bar in Philadelphia. But why not?

His card was for a medical research outfit in Cherry Hill, N.J.

We were talking about the eagerness of researchers to share what they do for a living. I don’t know how many times I have phoned professors, for instance, in their offices and received half-hour crash courses on some question of engineering or physics.

He knew what I was talking about. Researchers want to talk about their projects, Tom said. He would love to talk about the work he is doing for what may become his second patent. But of course, he couldn’t do that. Especially after I handed him my Mechanical Engineering card.

I’m a journalist and I’m not supposed to invent, so I can talk about anything. If inventors publicly disclose their work prematurely—in technical papers or maybe even in barroom conversations—they may compromise intellectual property rights, especially rights in jurisdictions outside the United States. It’s not safe for them to talk until they have filed papers with a trademark office.

So we changed the subject. He asked me why I was wearing a tie. Weather permitting, I always wear one. Tom said he was thinking about changing his image and asked me for advice about buying suits.

At one point in his conversation, Tom told Joanna that engineers are almost always shy. Except, he said, when they’re drinking.


Complex Systems in Perspective

My March column in Mechanical Engineering magazine. 

The good news is that complex systems rarely fail. The bad news is that, inevitably, things happen. The unenviable challenge lies in figuring out a way to mitigate the risks of occurrence and the effects of the aftermath.

The consequences of large complex system failures are mostly and undeniably catastrophic, yet we must remind ourselves that most complex systems have a strong record of reliability.

It is not only the celebrated systems like aircraft, energy plants, and large infrastructures that are complex; even seemingly modest designs can prove very complex. But it is when the large systems fail that the public rightly pays the most attention because these are the spectacular cases of failure that bring dire consequences.

One of the complexities about these large systems—beyond the design itself—is that if they fail, the reasons are as multifaceted as the system itself is complicated. Although many things can go wrong with a complex system, usually most things go consistently right. Failure can be traced to engineering, operations, outdated infrastructure, human error, or often a combination of causes.

The mere thought of a complex system failure keeps engineers up at night because engineering is exact, but failure, not so much. Clearing the hurdle to build effective complex systems is an engineering challenge. Designers design for systems to work, not fail. But by nature most complex systems are hazardous.

So how do we make sense of failure? The answers lie as much in engineering books as they do in the annals of philosophy. After all, how does one predict what is unpredictable? Risk and volatility are not linearly tied to engineering performance, and this month we pry deeply into the whys and why-nots.

We’re still learning the lessons from recent examples where complex systems failed or where natural disasters jeopardized their performance. One of the lessons learned is clear: Engineers must remain vigilant over the design, development, and operations of large-scale, complex, dynamic human-engineered systems. This includes assessing the ethical responsibilities associated with process management and maintenance.

ASME has been on the forefront in collaborating with stakeholders to keep engineers actively vigilant in assessing critical factors related to risk from engineered systems. Next month, for example, ASME, along with China’s State Administration of Foreign Experts Affairs and the Chinese Academy of Engineering, will hold a forum on disaster prevention and mitigation in Beijing.

Despite the technology developments, we remain very much at the whim of Mother Nature, as recent disasters in Japan, Haiti, and Chile remind us. Managing the impact of natural disasters on infrastructure is where engineers come in.

As layers of technology defenses are being developed as safeguards, the same thought must be given to address cognitive issues associated with human factors. Active training and refining the skill sets of those working on complex systems is as important a piece of the puzzle. A conversation about complex system failures cannot occur if both areas are not given the same priority.


Open Source Tractor featured on NPR

The following is the first post by guest blogger Jeffrey Winters, associate editor at Mechanical Engineering magazine. Look for his posts weekly.


Jeffrey Winters

Last June, we brought you the story of Marcin Jakubowski, who with the help of an international team of collaborators was designing and building basic, open source machinery for use on farms or small-scale manufacturing. (See “Steam Punks,” June 2011.) On Sunday, Jakubowski’s story was updated on NPR’s Weekend Edition.

In the nine months since we’ve featured it, the Open Source Ecology group has hired on a number of project developers to design and build more pieces of its tool kit, and the Jakubowski and his colleagues have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to fund their work. It’s fun to see this scruffy bunch of amateur engineers actually succeed in, what a few years ago, seemed like a wild-eyed endeavor.

You can follow their progress at the Open Source Ecology blog.


Tinkerers and Innovators

My February column in Mechanical Engineering magazine.

There are those who tinker, and then there are tinkerers.

Those who putter around the garage on weekends fixing the lawn mower, changing a spark plug, or getting their hands dirty on other do-it-yourself projects are tinkering. Most engineers are known to have a tinkering gene or two. But those who take it to a higher level, those whose tinkering leads to creative revolutions, are the innovators who redefine the status quo in everything from culture to business to technology. Many times, they too are engineers.

These latter kinds of tinkerers have always been around. But the rate of change these individuals can influence is far greater today because the ability to communicate globally is much easier than ever before.

Interestingly, there’s not a distinctive demarcation between those who tinker lightly and those tinkerers who are on the forefront of large-scale impact.

Creative thinking exists in all of us. What often defines breakthrough creativity propelling major change is the unswerving drive to bring an idea forward. To carry these out—and also to lead what author Seth Godin describes as “tribes” of people who support these creative ideas and foster their development despite the influence of naysayers—they need confidence and courage. A thick skin also helps.

There are many examples of creative ideas and concepts as well as of individuals who are evangelists of change.

In this month’s cover story, “The Revolution May Well be Gasified,” on page 24, we look at individuals who proselytize the use of gasification by powering their homes with virtually no emissions using wood pellets, corn, and other biomass. We highlight this movement not because it is a perfect replacement for fossil fuels, but because it represents a group of tinkerers who believe they can make an imprint on our energy and power needs, as well as on the environment. It’s an example of grassroots innovation.

Ann Marie Sastry is another example of a creative thinker in the energy area (listen to an interview with Sastry at She is the president and CEO of Sakti3 (, a promising next-generation electric-vehicle battery startup company that is backed by the likes of Khosla Ventures and GM Ventures. It is a Michigan-based company developing an advanced solid-state rechargeable lithium-ion battery for electric vehicles. Her goal is to develop a battery that will enable a hybrid-electric vehicle to get over 100 miles per gallon, and she’s got the right financiers to back her aspiration.

Sastry, who last year received ASME’s Frank Kreith Energy Award, said that tinkering in the labs of the University of Michigan, where she is the Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Mechanical, Biomedical and Materials Science and Engineering, was not enough. She wanted to implement what she knows to be a sound concept to impact the world’s reliance on fossil fuels. Sastry is an innovator who has the inspiration to successfully lead a “tribe,” as she spearheads a creative revolution.

Each of us holds the creativity to lead change, as long as we are not afraid to innovate and revolutionize.


Find Us on ASME.ORG

My January column in Mechanical Engineering magazine.

Fifteen years ago we jumped into the still-burgeoning Internet age with, our website. Since the day we turned the switch on, back in 1996, we’ve hosted hundreds of thousands of visitors on the site and even received a few awards for content, navigation, and design.

Since those early days, websites have evolved, along with the way we relate to them. Our reading habits and our behaviors have changed. From the mid-90s on, the Internet has revolutionized culture and commerce, politics and government. It has redefined how we see ourselves and how others view us, literally as well as figuratively.

What began in a DARPA lab in the late 1960s as the kernel of an idea has changed our world, at least for those of us who remember growing up without something called “Internet.” Those too young to know what it’s like not to have e-mail can’t imagine its impact, just as the rest of us can’t conceive a world without a telephone. It is a tool with no bounds.

It is estimated that in 1993 the Internet carried 1 percent of the information flowing through two-way telecommunication; by 2000 the estimate grew to 51 percent, and by 2007 to more than 97 percent, according to a report last year from the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

When we write articles about the world shrinking, or how teams are designing products and systems remotely, or about physicians conducting surgical procedures miles away from a patient, we are talking about the power of the Internet in the hands of engineers.

For the second straight year, the so-called Cyber Monday, the Monday after Thanksgiving when online retailers offer discounts to capture holiday shoppers, was the biggest sales day of the year, totaling about $1.25 billion and overshadowing brick-and-mortar shops that held their own sales on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving.

ASME recognizes that you’re spending a lot of time online, searching for news, shopping for shoes, and even evaluating your health care. Because of this shift to  online, the Society has made a significant leap by redesigning ASME.ORG into an online destination that better reflects the society and who we represent: engineers.

Soon, Mechanical Engineering is moving to the “Knowledge Base” section of ASME.ORG. This enables you to benefit from the extended resources that ASME’s website offers, including new content and access to thousands of products and services.

We’re also making your magazine reading experience online more enjoyable with a slick digital infrastructure that will allow you to navigate the magazine in ways you’ve never been able to do before.

And this is only the beginning. In the next few months we will convert our current online magazine archive into this same digital format, and bring you tablet and iPad versions as well as a mobile app so that you can access Mechanical Engineering when you want it and how you want it—print, digital, or mobile.

We are also evaluating how we are serving you from an editorial perspective. We’ve conducted a readership survey and in the coming months you’ll see some graphic and content changes to the magazine.

Complementing the strength of ASME.ORG’s new content wealth, Mechanical Engineering will continue to provide unique perspectives on critically important topics and present the musings of innovators who believe that, like the Internet of 1996, we’re constantly redrafting our future.


Next Generation Technology

My December column in Mechanical Engineering magazine.

Here’s what you need to know about me. I’m not a tall man. I’ve never been one. I like basketball, but I knew from the very first time I held a basketball in my hands that I would not be joining the NBA. I’m not a good ball handler, or a shooter, and certainly, I’ve never even dreamt of soaring high into the air to dunk a ball into the net. I always lacked the essentials.

Oscar Pistorius is a 25-year-old world-class sprinter from South Africa who has a good chance at qualifying for the 2012 London Olympics. Like me, he too lacks the essentials for his sport. His legs end just below his knees.

Pistorius was born without a fibula in both legs and after consulting with specialists from around the world, his parents made the impossible decisions to amputate their son’s legs before he would learn to walk. Doctors advised the couple that this would be less traumatic for the youngster.

Pistorius has lived an active and athletic life, playing several sports competitively. Fitted with a pair of spring-like carbon-fiber prosthetic limbs, he has become a world-class sprinter, known as “the fastest man on no legs,” or simply as the “Blade Runner.”

As he was for the last Olympics, he is again on the cusp of qualifying for next year’s Olympics—not to be confused with the Paralympic Games, which are for athletes with disabilities.

The story of Oscar Pistorius has many angles. It is an inspirational story of one young man’s drive to beat incredible personal obstacles; it is a sports story; it is a technology story. Pistorius has also been entangled in ethical and legal issues from some who don’t think he should compete against other world-class athletes in the Olympics because of his use of prosthetics.

It’s too soon to tell if Pistorius is a once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon, and if he embodies a new generation of professional athletes, but what is certain, as we turn the page on 2011, is that he represents the next generation of technology. (To learn more about this amazing athlete, visit

What will come next, according to Juan Enriquez, a venture capitalist and founding director of the Life Sciences Project at the Harvard Business School, is the proliferation of three world-altering research trends involving engineering cells, tissues, and robots.

Taken together, they are “game changing,” he said at this year’s Emerging Technology Conference at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In five to 10 years, those who are deaf today may be able to hear better than those of us who are not, and 10 years after that, blind people may be able to see with greater definition than those of us who are not blind. The day may come when only the deaf are permitted to join a symphony orchestra because of their outstanding sensitivity to musical tones, he said. As for advances in robotic dexterity and mobility, he noted Boston Dynamics and its Big Dog project as an example of how far we’ve come from fixed robots. (To see Big Dog, visit

Emerging technologies in robotics, computing, nanotechnology, and life sciences are transformative. We will keep tabs on them, and on the engineers and scientists who every day are challenging our notion of reality and designing a brave new world. Now if I could only develop a jump shot.


Inspiration to Innovate

My November column in Mechanical Engineering magazine.

Nature is often what delivers the inspiration to innovate. We see cocoons turning into butterflies in the spring and leaves turning brown and dying in autumn. We adapt to the changing cycles of nature and this encourages us creatively—whether it is to write an article or to design the next mobile device.

There is symmetry between nature’s work and an engineer’s creation. This month, we salute some of the individuals who have contributed in significant ways to improve our lives. The men and women we showcase in this issue are recipients of different ASME honors—Honorary Membership, awards, medals, and the status of Fellow. Eleven will receive their honors this month at the Society’s International Mechanical Engineering Congress and Exposition in Denver. In the case of some of the recipients, the impact of their work on our lives has been direct, and in the case of others it is subtle, but the common thread among these award recipients is that they all have embraced the possibilities of technology to advance our living conditions. (For more on these honorees click here.)

The work of these individuals underscores the accidental bond between engineers and Mother Nature—both focusing on the complex systems of the world. Nature’s ecosystem is the classic example of a complex adaptive system.

Our cover story this month highlights the relationship of Nature’s system and the way engineers work to sustain it. Designing for sustainability is an important aspect of managing a complex adaptive system. The cover touts a story that reveals the results of our third annual survey on sustainable practices in manufacturing.

When we asked many of you for your views, you told us that you feel a heightened awareness that designing and using sustainable processes in the workplace both help preserve our environment and can also be good for business. We are delighted by how many of you felt it was important to respond to the survey and be heard on this topic.

Any discussion of complex adaptive systems would not be complete without checking in with Ahmed K. Noor, who is a frequent contributor to the magazine. This month, in his article, “The World Is More Than Complicated,” Noor tells us about future complex systems and the approaches that will be necessary in order to engineer them. His always interesting and futuristic article begins on page 30.

Also this month, we are excited to be among the first publications to excerpt the newest book from celebrated writer and educator Henry Petroski. The book, An Engineer’s Alphabet: Gleanings from the Softer Side of a Profession, is being released this month.

Petroski is the author of numerous books, including some of my favorites, The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance; Invention by Design: How Engineers Get From Thought to Thing; The Toothpick: Technology and Culture; and last year’s book,  The Essential Engineer: Why Science Alone Will Not Solve Our Global Problems. In his latest book, Petroski reflects on the “state of the art” of engineering through a collection of snippets arranged in alphabetical order. Under “S,” symbols of engineering, Petroski lists ASME’s original logo. He says of it: “There is no equally universal and deeply rooted symbol of the engineering profession.”

The lasting image of Archimedes’ lever moving the Earth is a fitting reminder of the relationship between engineers and nature, and about the power of the profession to impact the world.


Back from break…

If you’ve been a visitor to this blog, you haven’t seen too much new activity lately. But the best is yet to come. In addition to my own posts—which will resurface here!!!—I’ll be inviting guest bloggers to bring new voices and new perspectives.

In the meantime, I’m posting my last few columns from Mechanical Engineering magazine.

Also remember to visit for articles of interest. Soon, a digital version of Mechanical Engineering magazine will reside on, replacing .


The Editor

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

February 2012

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