Author Archive for John Falcioni

02
Aug
16

ENABLING TECHNOLOGY FOR A BETTER FIT

0816MEM_CoverWith the trepidation of an old dog in a new home, I strapped a Fitbit on my wrist a few months ago hoping I’d find its religion. I haven’t looked back since.

Mind you, it’s not like the activity-monitoring device has turned me into a triathlete. I’m no more an avid runner or cyclist today than I was at the beginning of the year, but I’ve certainly become more aware of my activity. My Fitbit tells me how many steps I take, how many miles I walk, how many stairs I climb, how often my heart beats, and how long and how well I sleep. It also counts the calories I burn and tells me when I’m slacking off from my daily routine so I can get back to my personal peak performance level.

With the sensing device on my wrist I’m more motivated to opt to walk up and down stairs instead of taking the escalator; I go for more frequent and longer walks than I used to; and try to get up from behind my desk now and do a little stretching every hour or so.

I won’t say that the goal of 10,000 steps daily, recommended by the American Heart Association, has become an obsession, but it’s now an objective I care about.

My Fitbit is essentially my personal Internet of Things.

Like a Fitbit for the factory floor, the industrial IoT, with its network of Internet sensors and tracking technologies, monitors the health of machines and manufacturing equipment. It detects malfunctions, deviations, and malnutrition when supplies are low.

But unlike personal devices that will track a person’s activity regardless of age or fitness level, it’s not always easy to connect or retrofit plant equipment in a way for it to embrace and engage the IoT. Connecting a Fitbit or other similar health tracking device to its enabling software is a lot easier than connecting a milling machine to the cloud.

In some cases, it isn’t even that the equipment is too old to connect to sensors. Some equipment as young as 20 or even 10 years old can’t easily be hooked up to monitoring sensors and connect it to the Internet. Some manufacturers also fear that sensors can occasionally be finicky and make plant equipment difficult to troubleshoot.

That said, a recent IC Market Drivers report projected that worldwide systems revenues for applications connecting to the IoT will nearly double between 2015 and 2019, and could be more than $124 billion by 2020.

The report, which is published by IC Insights, a semiconductor market research company, said that during that same time period, new connections to the IoT could grow from about 1.7 billion in 2015 to nearly 3.1 billion in 2019.

Ultimately, the business case for the IoT is there: Reduce manufacturing costs and improve ROI, and that’s true even in cases when investments are necessary to retrofit equipment.

I’ve lost 10 pounds since I’ve been wearing my tracking device, so I’ve seen the ROI of being connected. But like some manufacturing equipment, I too get a little finicky, especially on those days when my Fitbit is telling me something I don’t want to know.

07
Jul
16

Where’s the Beef?

0716MEM_CoverThe last time I remember my son wanting to stop at a McDonald’s, he was mostly interested in the Happy Meal toy—he just graduated college, so it’s been a while. But we were in the car together a few weeks ago when we got hungry and pulled up to the first restaurant we saw, the one with the golden arches.

To our surprise, that McDonald’s had gone high-tech. I’m late to the party on this, but I subsequently learned that McDonald’s Create-Your-Taste has been around for a couple of years, mainly in Southern California and before that in global test markets Australia and New Zealand. About 2,000 U.S. locations have kiosks that give customers the option to create their own burger by selecting the kind of beef patties they want, and then choosing among the trademark special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions, plus others: freshly roasted tomatoes, avocado, grilled mushrooms, and more.

Creating a made-to-order burger from a kiosk in a McDonald’s, then having it delivered to your table by a friendly server, isn’t just a novelty. It is part of the giant fast-food chain’s surge to capitalize on a growing global food culture that includes fresher ingredients and healthier options.

The most recent change in how we grow what we eat and how we consume it evolved with the trend toward organic products and through television food shows and chefs who helped celebritize the art of cooking and eating.

The evolution of food, well before Emeril Lagasse and Rachel Ray, goes back to the development of the first commercially successful steel plow by John Deere in 1837, and to the invention of pasteurization in 1864. What has been described as the second food epoch, or Food 2.0, occurred in the 1900s when the agricultural revolution ushered in mechanization, chemical fertilizers, plant breeding, and hybrid crops.

Today’s wave of agricultural advancements, some of which are described in Senior Editor Dan Ferber’s article, “Watching the Crops Grow,” on page 28, may be the bellwether of Food 3.0. The use of sophisticated robotics and drones for certain crop-breeding processes is helping the farming industry pave the way to serve a growing population on Earth, expected to reach 9 billion by 2050.

But farmers alone are not the only ones concerned with whether there will be enough food to go around.

In her captivating article, “Re-Engineering What We Eat,” on page 34, contributor Sara Goudarzi reports that scientists and other researchers fear that Earth itself may prove incapable of sourcing all the food we’ll need to feed ourselves, especially as the population grows in the next 35 years. Without sufficient land and water to produce beef, the alternative may be to engineer in vitro meat in the lab from precursor cells. Extensive research is also being conducted to genetically grow other meats and fish, as well as plants, in laboratory environments. A large amount of research is also being conducted on food printing, a process similar to the burgeoning 3-D printing we have become familiar with.

Even as I fancy myself a foodie, McDonald’s—high-tech or not—remains a guilty pleasure, even when there is no one around hankering for a Happy Meal. But as the notion of ordering a “high-tech burger” grows, I can’t help but feel nostalgic over the old McDonald’s jingle and fearful of what one featuring a synthetic meat burger and fries might sound like.

01
Jun
16

AUTOMATION HELPS BREAK OLD STEREOTYPES

0616MEM_cover_no_boxThe April cover didn’t turn out quite as we intended. In fact, for some of you, it had a connotation quite the opposite from what we envisioned—that’s on us.

In hindsight, our headline should have read: “Robots at Work—Automation Helps Break Old Stereotypes.” That’s what we intended with our provocative cover.

Some readers, and even others who saw the cover but—by their admission—did not read the full story, wrote to me. Another 1,000 signed a letter of complaint, which appears in our Letters to the Editor section in this issue. One of those who signed the petition, Kim Allen, the chief executive officer of Engineers Canada, also wrote to me directly. He said, “As much as we try to avoid ‘judging a book by its cover,’ it does still happen, and I find it unfortunate that the cover image projects a gendered view of the engineering profession that distracts from the important message of the article.”

Unless you publish a New York City tabloid newspaper, no one in publishing likes to offend. That’s especially true in this instance since we regularly focus on women in engineering. Because that’s so, it was good to see that the three doctoral candidates from Stanford University who started the petition protesting old stereotypes were able to galvanize so many influential technologists, students, and proponents to sign the letter.

The conversation over women and other underrepresented minorities in engineering is essential. So much so, that three years ago the magazine, in cooperation with the ASME Foundation, developed and hosted the first program in the ASME Decision Point Dialogues series. The program was called, “Will Engineers Be True Global Problem Solvers?” That discussion was an important Socratic dialogue among thought leaders, in part, on the need for more diversity in the profession. Our second program, “Critical Thinking, Critical Choices: What Really Matters in STEM,” was another deep-dive exploration into the fundamental issues related to underrepresented groups in engineering. You can view both programs by visiting go.asme.org/dialogues.

Women and minority engineers contribute greatly to the fiber of the profession. One of our feature articles in this issue, for example, was coauthored by ASME Fellow Karen A. Thole. We regularly highlight engineers who are women or minorities, and will continue to do so. To determine strictly by gender or ethnicity who leads important engineering projects, or who a magazine highlights, would be offensive. Therefore, it is critical that the profession reaches a point where there is so much equal representation that it will laud successful engineers on the basis of the quality of their work, regardless of gender or ethnicity.

Until then, we have to lead the conversation to ensure that every student, regardless of who they are, has the opportunities to pursue a fulfilling and successful engineering career.

ASME is a leader on many fronts. The most recent is working as part of the 50K Coalition, an alliance of the Society of Women Engineers, the National Society of Black Engineers, the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, and the American Indian Science and Engineering Society. The goal is to graduate 50,000 engineering students who are women and underrepresented minorities by 2025.

Engineers of all races and genders are making technology breakthroughs and helping to reshape the way we live and work. Associate Editor Alan Brown brought that point home in the April cover story on the implications of automation. The article is insightful and leading.

The expectations you, the reader, have of this magazine are high, but no higher than those which we have of ourselves. I invite you to continue this conversation with us in the pages of this magazine.

02
May
16

GROWING STEM BY BUSTING MYTHS

0516MEM_Cover_no_boxThe moment I knew for sure that Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage had some serious chops was about 10 years ago, when I spotted a long line of engineers waiting for their autographs after they spoke at an engineering software conference. They had arrived.

This happened a few years after Hyneman and Savage had already established themselves as televisions stars, and it turns out that there was much more to their show, MythBusters, than strong ratings. MythBusters began on the Discovery Channel in 2003 and was a quick hit. But the pseudo reality show—and the special effects specialists who hosted it—hit a sweet spot among engineers as well.

In each episode, Hyneman and Savage would try to expose or confirm an urban legend, such as: Can a penny dropped from the top of a skyscraper kill a person standing on the ground? Can chatting on a cell phone while pumping gas cause the pump to blow up? Will launching a chicken at an airplane disrupt its flight, or will the bird be blown away? (You’ll have to catch the re-runs for answers.)

But it was more than simple amusement that made the show noteworthy. For engineers and other technologists, MythBusters—which ended its run earlier this year after 248 episodes that covered 2,950 experiments, explored 1,050 myths, and created 900 explosions—elevated public interest in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) and helped usher in the so-called Maker movement.

The show also hit home because at their core, engineers are tinkerers who elevated their passion with a university degree.

The two hosts, an odd couple of sorts (one was the straight man to the other’s gags) were not engineers—though Hyneman received an honorary doctorate, in 2011, for his role in popularizing science and technology—but they took a engineering and scientific approach to their experiments. Because they were tinkerers, things didn’t always go right. That was part of the appeal.

Like some others before them—Bill Nye the Science Guy for one—Hyneman and Savage will be remembered for exposing science and engineering through the public forum of television. When news broke that MythBusters would be canceled after 14 seasons, Twitter was flooded with users crediting the show for their interest in science and technology. Many college students sent messages of thanks for inspiring them to study engineering.

MythBusters didn’t pretend to be more than it was when it came to the engineering and scientific rigor of its experiments. But the program was fascinating because it toiled in finding answers through engineering and science—and because it was good television.

To find theses answers, the hosts built the contraptions they used to test the myths. While they’re not credited with creating the Maker or the Do It Yourself movements, their garage tinkering reinforced those movements. It bolstered those who like to build, who like to fix, and who are curious.

MythBusters stimulated the young and the old… and the engineer.

01
Apr
16

Coming to a galaxy not far, far away

0416MEM_Cover_no_boxLet’s face it, many of us would rather have root canal surgery than shop for a new car. Navigating the art of the deal on the showroom floor leaves even the best of us (maybe not you, Mr. Trump) ready for a cup of chamomile tea, if not an adult beverage.

Dealerships understand this and are undertaking efforts to make the process seem less contrived and the customer experience more pleasant. Sales people are being trained to make more eye-to-eye contact so they seem genuine. They smile more and pat little children on the head. Unfortunately, even the most savvy car makers and their dealers still give car buyers the impression they are being taken for a ride.

Wouldn’t it be a better experience to negotiate the purchase of that shiny red coupe you’ve always had your eye on with an automaton instead of a sales person?

Algorithms running on interconnected computers could reshape auto sales the way they have other industries. Look at where the brick-and-mortar travel agencies and video stores of yesterday are today: almost exclusively online.

In his revealing cover story this month, associate editor Alan S. Brown reminds us that automatic systems are depopulating professional offices as well as retailers. In some cases, Brown says, software has replaced loan officers, attorneys, and even writers and journalists; and engineers are relying on expert systems to evaluate designs and simulations. Even the investment community is adopting automated transactions. Robo financial advisers, which offer automated investment services and advice, often outperform human advisers who may be occasionally unscrupulous, on top of being unable to beat the market. (Nothing personal guys.)

What we’re talking about here is deep learning, and networks that think like brains. These are artificial intelligence (AI) systems that go beyond following hard and fast algorithmic rules like some robot on a factory floor. IBM, for example, is advancing its Watson to diagnose diseases and to read medical images. Companies such as Google, Facebook, and Microsoft have collectively spent billions to fund the development of neural networks that can understand human speech and recognize faces in photos. In the next decade, AI could well power thousands of machines and gadgets through cloud services.

Of course, robots come in all shapes and sizes, so the time is nearing—probably before the final chapter in the seemingly endless Star Wars saga is ever written—when droids like C-3PO become run-of-the-mill companions in this galaxy, not in the one that is far, far away. DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is investing millions of dollars on projects to develop a kind of smart robot that is stronger and braver than C-3PO. In the DARPA Robotics Challenge, an Olympiad for robots, teams from Boston Dynamics, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and other organizations competed to develop autonomous robots with dexterity matching our own human deftness, but that can survive and work in extremely hazardous conditions, perhaps even the automobile showroom floor.

Come to think of it, maybe Damari, the sales guy I met last week at the Volvo dealer, wasn’t so bad after all.

01
Mar
16

MASTERING THE FOURTH INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION

0316MEM_cover_no_boxOnce again, I didn’t make it to Davos this year. But the gusts from the snow-banked Switzerland streets could be felt all the way to where I’m sitting in New York. Davos refers to what the cognoscenti call the World Economic Forum, a yearly gathering of pols and plutocrats—an influential list of celebrities, wealthy financiers, and leaders of countries and multinational corporations. Some of the attendee names are instantly recognizable: Vladimir V. Putin, Bill Gates, and Joseph R. Biden Jr.

I couldn’t tell you what happens behind closed doors during the mid-January forum, but there are always a lot of open discussions on an array of not-so-light topics, such as balancing the world’s nuclear arsenal, climate change, geopolitics, and the world economy. The conversations provide great fodder for headline writers, as things occasionally go unscripted and often get testy in Davos. This year, the headline we’re mostly interested in has to do with “The Fourth Industrial Revolution.”

Just when we were beginning to understand the “Internet of Things,” poof, along comes this new revolution. (We hardly knew you, IoT.) But in fact, the IoT is part of a suite of new technologies that includes smart machines, artificial intelligence, robotics, 3-D printing, material science, nanotechnology, and energy storage. Those technologies will synthesize with new business models to produce a new industrial revolution—an epoch more disruptive than the first three industrial revolutions.

The First Industrial Revolution mechanized production; the second one used electric power for mass production; and the third one used information technology to automate production. This fourth revolution will blur the lines between the physical, the digital, and biological realms.

As for the overall impact of the fourth revolution, opinions vary. Some at Davos worried publicly over the cooling off of the tech boom, as a recent drop in public and private valuations of technology firms suggests. But the evangelists look at technology innovation and the emerging revolution as means to secure long-term gains in efficiency and productivity and more effective supply chains, as well as bigger profit potentials. That will impact the workforce in different, if yet undetermined, ways. Certainly, it will usher in an even greater need than we have now for a knowledgeable and informed engineering workforce.

In a recent essay, Klaus Schwab, the founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, said, “The Fourth Industrial Revolution has the potential to empower individuals and communities, as it creates new opportunities for economic, social, and personal development. But it also could lead to the marginalization of some groups, exacerbate inequality, create new security risks, and undermine human relationships.”

This is a sobering reminder of the heavy weight of responsibility borne on the shoulders of today’s engineers and other technologists who have created this upheaval. The obligation doesn’t stop with building robust new tools and processes. It also includes engaging and working with public and private sectors to manage the technologies.

To that end, Davos served as an appropriate platform to begin the conversation, at least broadly, about the implications of the Fourth Industrial Revolution on economic, social and political systems. While the ensuing debates, probably in less prominent locations, aren’t likely to produce the headlines that Davos does, they are the discussions that will move the world toward a progressive and sustainable future.

01
Feb
16

GETTING IT RIGHT

0216MEM_cover_no_box

It may not have been the seminal engineering moment that was Apollo 11’s landing on the moon, but a few weeks ago—just before last year ticked away—SpaceX gently and safely landed a Falcon 9 rocket back on the ground.

Even if you’re not a fan of space of travel, that was a remarkable moment and a dazzling engineering feat. Only through the prism of science fiction had a rocket ever landed safely back on Earth. Several previous attempts at a safe landing had turned into fiery explosions.

The Falcon 9 is no bottle rocket. It’s a 15-story, nine-engine missile that produces 1.5 million pounds of thrust and can lug a heavy payload. In this case, it was carrying 11 small data-relay satellites for low-Earth orbit.

Just a few weeks before the successful touchdown, I met Lars Blackmore, the principal rocket landing engineer at SpaceX, which is owned by the innovator Elon Musk. Blackmore is responsible for entry, descent, and landing of the Falcon 9, yet he had no qualms talking about the spectacular failures. He stood firm on the conviction that it was only a matter of time before he and his team would get it right.

Blackmore spoke eloquently about the commitment to excellence that Musk preaches to his team and the dedication that is necessary to make sure that even the minor details of each of his algorithms are exact.

As I write this month’s column, Blackmore’s comments on attention to detail resonate strongly. For the past 17 years I have been privileged to work with an individual who, above all else, has always placed a priority on “getting it right.” Harry Hutchinson, the magazine’s executive editor, is retiring, and to say the magazine will never be the same is an understatement.

Anyone who ever contributed to the magazine with a letter or personal note, or who may have pitched a story, has most likely interacted with Harry. If you’re a regular reader, you’ve interacted with him, too. Harry sprinkles his editorial deft in every piece of copy he touches—he’s a master at his craft.

Harry’s also a colorful character the likes of which you’re not likely to find around much anymore. He possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of Old and Middle English and is eager to delve into the private lives of people you’re not likely to have ever heard of, let alone know anything about. He’s rarely seen without a tie and Fedora, even on his travels to Southeast Asia. He’s also a kind and humble man who befriends the needy on the streets of New York with friendship and assistance. And when he sold his New Jersey house last year, at closing he gave the buyers a check, “just in case they need to fix the place up a bit.” But if you’re one of his writers, and he thinks you’re not getting it right, he’ll let you know it, in no uncertain terms.

On a relative scale, the impact Harry has made on the magazine when he landed here, is no less brilliant than Blackmore landing Falcon 9. Harry’s kept his eye focused steadfastly on you, the reader: Always understanding what you need to know, and lobbying to publish what you want to read.

Thanks for getting it right all these years, Harry.

 




The Editor

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

August 2016
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