Archive for March, 2012


Appreciate your pump

Post from Harry Hutchinson:

I plucked some material from the ether of the Internet and thought I’d better not pass it up. It’s not funny, but it is fun.

ITT Goulds Pumps has set aside April 10 as Pump Appreciation Day, and has even dedicated a website for it, The idea is to raise consciousness of the importance of pumps, which it calls “the heart of industry.”

According to a press release, the company’s extending its appreciation to the pump that keeps everybody going.

This is one of the quotes from the release, attributed to Robert J. Pagano Jr., president of the ITT Industrial Process business, which includes ITT Goulds Pumps: “Pumps are the heart of industries that keep the world running, and there is no better way to illustrate that than by supporting cardiovascular health. We’re taking this opportunity to educate the public about the importance of both human and industrial pumps, by joining the global fight against heart disease and stroke.”

The company is working with the international Emergency Cardiovascular Care Program, supported by the American Heart Association and its global partners. The program teaches first aid, including CPR and defibrillation, aimed at saving the lives of people who have suffered cardiac arrest and stroke.

ITT Goulds says it will make a corporate donation to the care program and will host a demonstration of the recommended method for hands-only CPR.

This isn’t news to everyone. The company says more than 10,000 have visited the website to take part in the World of Pumps Quiz, a test of pump knowledge.

The donation will be made on behalf not only of ITT employees, but also of the quiz takers and another group, winners of the Heart of Industry Award, to be given by ITT Goulds Pumps sales offices and distributors on Pump Appreciation Day. The awards will go to customers in recognition of “excellence in using pump technology to improve processes, satisfy customers, and enhance our modern way of life.”

ITT Goulds Pumps is encouraging all of its locations to commit time and resources for CPR training and heart-health fundraising events after April 10.

So April 10 will remind us that pumps are critical—from the one inside to the countless others working for us outside.


competing in stem

Post from Jean Thilmany:

Teaching more engineering and math classes in U.S. schools won’t be enough to encourage U.S. engineering competitiveness in future years. Increased competitiveness needs to start with hard elementary and secondary educational reforms. 

Calling for such reforms is typically the purview of the educational policy analysts, but engineers need to understand what’s on the table here.

Economist Eric Hanushek has spent many years analyzing United States elementary and secondary school education numbers. Hanushek, a Hoover Institute Fellow at Stanford University, has some sobering things to say about engineering education in this country.

Last August, he teamed with a fellow economist and two education researchers to look at how U.S. students fare when compared to those in other countries. A short summary of the report and a link to a PDF download of the complete report are available.

By comparing U.S. and international test scores using a well-defined methodology, the authors found that U.S. students who graduated in 2011 demonstrated a 32 percent math proficiency rate. With that number, the U.S. came in 32nd among the nations that participated in the Program for International Student Assessment.

“Performance levels among the countries ranked 23rd to 31st are not significantly different from that of the U.S. in a statistical sense, yet 22 countries do significantly outperform the United States in the share of students reaching the proficiency level in math,” according to the report.

“Six countries plus Shanghai and Hong Kong had majorities of students performing at least at the proficiency level, while the United States had less than one-third,” the report states.

For example, 58 percent of Korean students and 56 percent of Finnish students performed at or above a proficient level. Other countries in which a majority—or near majority—of students performed at or above the proficiency level included Switzerland, Japan, Canada, and the Netherlands. Many other nations also had math proficiency rates well above that of the United States, including Germany, 45 percent, Australia, 44 percent, and France, 39 percent.

Hanushek has some ideas about what can be done about these numbers.

“The stakes are large enough we should consider more serious reform than reducing class size by half a student,” he recently told Mechanical Engineering magazine.

Hanushek calls for federal policies to promote more effective teachers in the classroom, citing work he’s done on this topic in the past.

“If you replaced the bottom 5 to 8 percent of our teachers with just an average teacher, our estimates suggest U.S. performance would rise to the top of the world. But that’s a radical change that not many people want to talk about.”

Without such radical reform, students won’t be ready to enter college engineering programs, their performance in those programs will suffer, and the U.S. economic future suffers as well, he said.

Many scientists and engineers have called for an educational emphasis on STEM subjects at the elementary and secondary school level. In doing so, they must also include calls for the type of radical educational reform Hanushek and economists and educational researchers talk about.


Hot Spot

Post from Jeffrey Winters:

Columbia University mechanical engineering professor Vijay Modi and PhD student Bianca Howard recently produced this map of energy use per block—or even per building—in New York City. The map is colored by energy use per square meter, so in some ways it’s nothing more than a rough estimation of how tall of a building occupies a given lot; by necessity, the six-story, 84-unit building in Brooklyn where I live is burning fire-engine red, while the single-family houses down the street are all colored energy-sipping yellow.

But I will caution that based on the energy consumption I know about (I’m on the co-op board and take a small matter of satisfaction in my own frugal energy use), the data embedded on this map should be taken with a grain of salt. According to Dr. Modi’s website, “The data comes from a mathematical model based on statistics, not private information from utilities, to estimate the annual energy consumption values of buildings throughout the five boroughs.” So while a typical prewar co-op might see a lot of energy use due to its inefficient fuel-oil boiler, I’m pretty sure that my building, which replaced its boiler with one that can run on either oil or natural gas, uses less.

Though cautions aside, it’s an interesting data visualization. One further note of interest: Data for Three Park Avenue was not provided, so there’s no way to know whether or not ASME’s mothership is an energy hog.


Flashbacks at the Airport

Post from Harry Hutchinson:

That Florida trip I mentioned in an earlier post began with a bout of deja vu. The plane was almost an hour and a half late getting out of Newark because there were 20 planes in line ahead of us. Rain and fog were to blame, so we sat in the plane as it inched forward.

I was headed for Sarasota, and you can’t get there from here. You have to go someplace else first. The place else for me that day was Atlanta. My schedule called for a three-hour window to connect with the plane to Florida.

This was no real inconvenience, aside from having to stay in my seat during the extra time. But it put me in mind of many things. One of those things is how much more efficient technology has made air travel over the years. Back in the mid-70s I used to fly in and out of Chicago once or twice every January. I can’t remember how many times overcast and a little snow would keep planes from landing, so there were no planes to go out.

Here I was—older, maybe wiser, and certainly more spoiled—in the rain and fog moving in a plane toward take-off. Sure, things were slower, but they were still moving. I am always amazed by the ability of people and technology to control these huge complex systems—not only individual airplanes, but airports and the entire air traffic system. And to do it with such a sterling record of safety.

Even without GPS or the Wide Area Augmentation System, the delays at Ohare back in the disco era were matters of hours, rather than days.

So my first real travel delay, at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam, was in December 2010 when Europe was enjoying a kind of winter weather that it hadn’t seen for some time.

Forget Hans Brinker and his silver skates. It was international news when Amsterdam’s canals froze solid enough this past February to support anybody’s weight. The Dutch, like many other people in Europe, aren’t used to a deep freeze. Or to four inches of snow.

It was surprising to see the X-ray machine spit my laptop back out. That’s exactly what happened at the security check when the airport shut down. People who lived locally were advised to go home.

I wound up staying a little more than 24 hours at Schiphol. Much of the time was spent standing in lines trying to rebook my flight. There were several rebooking desks but only one for international flights. People came now and then to hand us muffins and bottles of water. I got to sleep on a cot in a vacant section of the airport. It was like camping out.

At one point I was watching a couple of Bobcat-size snowplows working on the field. They were piling the snow under a parked airplane. I understand that I was only a tourist observing from a distance, but it made me wonder if they could have used a little more planning on this project.

I had been in Amsterdam for a week. I was really mellow, so this wasn’t bothering me much. It was frustrating that the airline couldn’t adjust its rebooking operation to handle the large numbers of stranded people. But that gripe could be unfair. After all, I don’t run an airline.

In the final analysis I was lucky. I got another story to tell, and it only cost me a day’s travel.

I met two Czech ladies who lived in the U.K. and were on their way to Prague for the Christmas holidays. This was their third straight day at Schiphol because Prague had been socked in all that time.

In April that year, the volcano with the forbidding name, Eyjafjallajökull, blew its top in Iceland. It shut airports in Western Europe and affected air travel around the world. Jets have enhanced air safety, but can’t fly through volcanic ash. Lee Langston, who was caught in the volcanic mess, wrote an article, “Asking for Trouble,” that covered the subject in Mechanical Engineering’s July 2010 issue.

Technology is great when it works. We can complete in a handful of hours a journey that used to take weeks. As recently as a hundred years ago, the Titanic was trying to set a record for the crossing and the ship was making 21 or 22 knots—less than 25 mph. (There’s more on the Titanic in the April issue.)

As wonderful as our transportation system is, it is part of a larger system. And when the big system acts up, there’s nothing left to do but stay mellow and see what happens. You may get to brag to people that you slept on a cot at Schiphol.


Finding richness online

Post by Jean Thilmany:

In the early days of the Internet (so about 15 years or so ago), it seemed that all universities, libraries, and museums were rushing to digitize their collections. By spending money on making their artifacts available on the web they gave museumgoers a way to browse interesting collections of interest without the need to travel.

Digital collections make museums of many types around the world accessible to all, the same way that libraries make books available to everyone, regardless of income. But times, especially regarding copyright, are still in flux, according to the Digital Library Federation.

“In the digital library, collections are transformed through the integration of new formats, licensed content and third-party information over which the library has little or no direct curatorial control. Collection strategies and practices are not yet fully developed to take account of these changing circumstances, nor are their legal, organizational, and business implications fully understood,” a DLF statement reads.

Nevertheless, collections continue to move online.

The April issue of Mechanical Engineering magazine includes an article about advances in reverse engineering, which includes references to the Kinematic Models for Design Digital Library, or K-MODDL, an online repository of kinematic mechanisms designed by Franz Reuleaux more than 130 years ago.

The Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., owns 220 of the more than 300 Reuleaux models manufactured. Cornell librarians recently digitized the collection to make it available for all users, whether they have the time and means to stop by the engineering school or not.

The cool thing about digital collections is that—like the K-MODDL mechanisms—they frequently include capabilities to home in on the artifact for an up-close view. The Cornell online mechanisms can even be printed in three dimensions by viewers who want a hands-on view (this comes thanks to reverse-engineering technology).

A quick web search for digital collections show those for Duke University and their women’s travel diaries—photographs of early Soviet Russia, and R.C. Maxwell Company records from 1904 to the 1990s. Cornell also houses online its collection of 715 digitized pamphlets documenting a century of Bolivian literate culture, beginning in 1848. Another Cornell collection boasts 21 different versions of the Bible in English.

In a time when we can instantly “YouTube” a commercial jingle from the 1950s, it’s nice to keep in mind that the vastness of the Internet includes the richness of these collections—check out the John Mazza Historic Surfboard Collection, made available online at the Pepperdine University web site, today.


Human Rights and Engineering

Jessica Wyndham, associate director of the Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights, and Law Program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), spoke with David Walsh, editor of, about the changing role of engineers in the 21st century and the growing opportunities to work in the field of human rights. Read this article here.

Ms. Wyndham’s has agreed to author an article on the thought-provoking topic of the intersection between human rights and engineering. Look for it in the SEPTEMBER issue of MECHANICAL ENGINEERING magazine.


Birdman Confesses: Flight a Hoax

Post from Alan Brown:

I guess I (and a large segment of the world’s media) wanted to believe there is still room for a garage tinkerer who can set the world on fire with some completely unexpected breakthrough.

The news is out: Jarno Smeets, who claimed to he could fly in a motorized set of birdlike wings, is really Floris Kaayak, a Dutch filmmaker, digital special effects expert, and artist. One of his films, The Origin of Creatures, was even up for an Academy Award this year.

It turns out video of his 60-second flight was a fake, and a very good one at that. Wired’s Rhett Allain did a very thorough analysis of the Kaayak’s video and could not really tell if it was a fake or not.

Then two other reporters, Dave Mosher and Daniela Hernandez, checked out his story by calling his purported employers and the school he said he graduated from and no one had heard of him. When they called and e-mailed about the discrepancies, he did not reply. That is never a good sign.

The two reporters quoted a researcher “Smeets” had apparently visited, who summed it up best: “He wanted to chase a dream, as most artists do. He wanted to inspire people and I think he succeeded,” said neuromechanics scientist Bert Otten of the University of Groningen. “As an artist he has succeeded, but he has fooled most of us. We all want to fly, don’t we?”


birdman soars with human-powered wings

Post from Alan Brown:

Dutch mechanical engineer Jarno Smeets has broken new ground by flying like a bird—not inside a vehicle, of course, but with flapping wings attached to a power pack on his body.

Yes, this is for real. Smeets accomplished the feat this past Sunday in a park in The Hague (view the video).

Smeets soared 10 to 15 meters above the ground for about 60 seconds. That is roughly five times longer than the Wright Brothers’ first flight at Kitty Hawk 99 years ago (and about as long as their concluding flight that first day).

This is not the first ornithopter, a vehicle that flies by flapping its wings like a bird. The first human-powered one I can find dates back to 1929, though some question whether it flew or was actually towed by a car on the ground. More recently, in August 2010, a team at the University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies flew 145 meters, though it was also towed until it took off. Smeets’ flight differed in two ways: First, he took off by running; second, it was not human-powered flight.

Smeets calculated that his arms could provide less than 10 percent of the continuous power needed to lift his 180 pound body into the sky. This meant he needed to build a power system.

What he came up with—scavenged from Wii game systems and Android smartphones—would delight any garage mechanic.

Let’s start with the wings. They consist of 185 square feet of lightweight fabric stretched taut over carbon-reinforced windsurfing masts. Each wing weighs just 37 ounces and has a hinge about halfway down its length.

The power pack weighs 40 pounds. It starts with four 5,000 mAh batteries, which power two Turnigy motors. The motors have 1:25 planetary gearboxes, and eccentric shafts that connect to the wing mast and produce up-and-forward thrust.

So how does he fly? The secret lies in some scavenged electronics. This starts with two Wii accelerometers, one on the wing and the other in the back. The first measures the acceleration of his arm, the second the acceleration of the wing.

An Android phone processor calculates the difference between the two in order to determine motor output. There is also a Wii gyroscope to measure pitch, yaw, and roll. The data is used to help stabilize the system.

The system enables Smeets to move his arms freely without any risk of breaking them. The wings mimic an albatross.

“Ever since I was a little boy I have been inspired by pioneers like Otto Lilienthal, Leonardo da Vinci and also my own grandfather,” Smeets said.

What happens next? Smeets says this is an open source technology, and credits the bird flight community with many useful suggestions. He plans to share his bird wing concept with others through his blogs and YouTube channel.

It is an amazing story and I certainly want to learn more. I imagine what it would feel like to soar over the ground, even for 60 seconds. It gives me the chills. Isn’t that what great engineering should do?


Exporting Trouble

Post from Jeffrey Winters:

I don’t watch a lot of TV, so I run across memes secondhand. Recently I’ve heard several people independently question why the U.S. is exporting oil when the price of gas here is so high. On the surface—and my guess is that’s how certain news channels present this factoid—that does seem to be a conundrum.

But oil industry operations aren’t superficial. And if you dig into the data from the Energy Information Agency you discover some facts that put the import/export puzzle into better light. The first is that almost all of the “oil” exports is in finished products, and the vast majority of that is in petroleum coke (useful as solid fuel or as an industrial product but worthless in your car), distillates such as diesel, and heating oil. As of December—the most recent month for which the EIA has published data—less than 20 percent of the exports by volume is gasoline.

As for why we’re exporting any petroleum products, a look at the utilization of refinery capacity suggests an answer. Unlike the late 1990s and early 2000s, when refinery utilization was routinely above 95 percent, refineries today have a lot of excess capacity thanks to some of the lowest gasoline sales figures in 30 years. Rather than idling some refineries, oil companies are importing oil that wouldn’t be used in the domestic market, adding value to it, and selling the refined product to countries such as Canada, Mexico, and the Netherlands at a profit.

So, yes, we’re exporting petroleum products at a time of high gas prices. But if we weren’t, that by itself would do little to bring down prices at the pump—and it would put some people in the refinery industry out of work.


sam florman and the wiseguys he’s put up buildings with

Back in late January, I received a very gracious personal letter from Samuel C. Florman. Sam is chairman of the Kreisler Borg Florman General Construction Co., and he’s widely known for authoring six books on the relationship between technology and general culture. His most popular is The Existential Pleasures of Engineering—many of you have probably read it.

In his letter, Sam recalled the time, many years ago, when I became editor of Mechanical Engineering and he spoke of the time, in 1982, when he received the Ralph Coats Roe Medal. He spoke of how much technology—and the world, for that matter—has changed since then. Of course, he’s right. Sam has seen many changes since his youth.

He grew up in New York City during the Depression and earned degrees from Dartmouth and then Columbia, with a stint in the Navy Seabees in between. His work in construction began during a vibrant time of growth in the city where it seemed that the skyline changed almost weekly.

With his letter, Sam was also kind enough to send me a preview version of his latest book, Good Guys, Wiseguys, and Putting Up Buildings and promised to send me a final version when it came out this week. He also told me this will probably be his last book, but I have some doubts. He’s still got a lot to contribute—he’s a regular columnist for Harper’s and Technology Review.

The final version of Sam’s book arrived last week and this past Tuesday, The Wall Street Journal ran a review of it. Personally, I think the book is great. Even though the publisher made it out to be about the mob’s influence on the construction industry, it really is more about a slice in time, Sam Florman’s time. It was a time that defined this city’s landscape and its imprint on this country.

At the moment I’m trying to convince Sam to let us excerpt the book in Mechanical Engineering. I hope he does. I’ll let you know.

The Editor

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

March 2012

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