Author Archive for John Falcioni



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.




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.




0116MEM_Cover_no_boxNot so long ago it was popular to mock U.S. manufacturing.
After all, global manufacturing competitiveness increased greatly as newcomers China, India, and Brazil made a big splash, while in the U.S. danger signs were difficult to ignore. Even as American high-tech manufacturers continued to lead the world in total output, their global share fell from 34 percent in 1998 to 28 percent in 2010. Over that period, the U.S. share of global high-tech exports declined from 22 percent to about 15 percent, according to government statistics.
But the days when manufacturers in other countries hold an advantage over competitors in the U.S. may be coming to an end. In large measure, this is due to a serious commitment by public and private sectors working together to change the trend and with it, they hope, also the public’s perception of American manufacturing, once a source of national pride and optimism.
Americans believe that a high-performing manufacturing sector is imperative if the United States is to prosper in the 21st century. A survey by Deloitte Development LLC and The Manufacturing Institute shows that 85 percent of Americans said manufacturing is important to the country’s standard of living and 77 percent said it is very important to national security. Consistent with this view, 79 percent said that a strong manufacturing base should be a national priority.
The drive to restore American leadership in manufacturing innovation is spurred by engineering and scientific advances that have given birth to cutting-edge materials and new processes. This technology has revolutionized ways to manufacture existing and new products in ways never before possible.
As traditional manufacturing processes continue, and even less traditional ones such as lean manufacturing evolve, advanced manufacturing has taken center stage. (Lean manufacturing is the focus of this month’s cover story, “All-Out Lean,” authored by renowned former General Motors executive Gary Cowger.)
The term advanced manufacturing points to innovation that is occurring in the manufacturing ecosystem, including the digitization of equipment and processes, 3-D printing, and new materials with custom-designed properties.
ASME’s Industry Advisory Board and other representatives from ASME met recently at the Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute (DMDII) in Chicago—one of seven institutes developed under the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation—to begin a conversation on the role ASME might play in helping to support the growth of advanced manufacturing. The six other institutes focus on additive manufacturing, lightweight metals, semiconductors, composites, photonics, and flexible hybrid electronics.
These institutes represent a government initiative linking industry, academia, and government partners to nurture manufacturing innovation and accelerate commercialization. Located throughout the United States, they bring together small manufacturers that could not otherwise afford to invest in advanced manufacturing research and expose them to cutting-edge technology. The Department of Defense supports the institutes because it views their areas of research as core competencies essential for the future of national security, said Adele Ratcliff, the director of manufacturing technology in the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Manufacturing and Industry Base Policy.
But there’s yet another benefit. Government focus on national manufacturing will bring back enthusiasm for science, technology, engineering, and math education, argues Ratcliff. “There’s a relationship between low STEM scores and manufacturing offshoring.” As pride is restored in this country’s manufacturing backbone, she said, scores will go up as more kids will want to be part of the revolution. Viva la revolución!


A World to maintain

1215MEM_COVER_no_boxOn arrival, the scene inside Jorge Chávez International Airport in Lima, Peru, is calm and orderly. The place boasts all the amenities you’d expect from any modern airport, and with Spanish-language signs at the gates and kiosks it feels like any airport in the U.S. Anywhere except maybe New York’s LaGuardia airport, which for years has stood out for being notoriously past its prime. Inside Jorge Chávez, there are few foreshadowing signs of what’s to come once you set foot past the front entrance.

Outside, and throughout the otherwise lovely city of Lima, too many cars screech and inch aggressively into tight openings between vans and other cars, leveraging to squeeze through narrow intersections at velocities that are often too reckless for bottlenecked areas. In the background, horns blare from all directions. Even by Manhattan’s standards of traffic congestion, Lima is surprisingly overcrowded.

“Driving is a sport here,” said one of our hosts, a Bechtel South America executive named Carlos Alarco, who is also the ASME Peru section chair. The horn on an automobile, Alarco added, is so frequently used that it has lost any sort of meaning. “You don’t even notice the sound of it anymore.” Alarco must have been referring to the locals. Trust me, you can hear the honking.

Alarco shepherded a delegation from the ASME Board of Governors, and me, from place to place on a recent visit that included meetings with engineers, local technologists, and engineering students. The trip was part of a three-region focus—the others are India and China—to stimulate greater ASME participation in global opportunities and to open a broader dialogue with international stakeholders and leaders. Already, ASME is an
internationally renowned standards-setting organization with members in more than 150 countries.

Through these trips, the Board led by this year’s president, Julio C. Guerrero, hopes to gain a first-hand understanding of growth opportunities in different Pacific Rim regions of the world.

One thing that was clear on the trip to South America is that Peruvians are proud of their country. Its majestic Pacific coast and natural treasures justify the local perspective. Another thing clear is that its aging infrastructure bogs down Peru’s capital city of Lima. This is a big problem, according to engineers, business leaders, and even some U.S. officials we spoke with, because about 70 percent of the country’s population lives in and around Lima.

There is some work being done to try and alleviate the congestion. We visited a construction site in the middle of the city where a much-needed bridge is half completed. A foreman on the job told us proudly that many relevant ASME codes are being used in the construction and that, when completed, the bridge would help ease some of the traffic in an especially dense part of downtown.

A more ambitious project is a subway system that few in this city of more than 8 million people believe will ever be built. In Lima, as in many cities of both developing and First World countries, infrastructure health is at the core of economic health. Yet in Lima, as in most of the rest of the world—including LaGuardia—triage has been the most common approach to repair what ails it. Through its global outreach, ASME wants to be part of the team helping to dispense long-term solutions.





1115MEM_cover-no-boxIn early September, my favorite columnist, the influential David Brooks of The New York Times, made a pitch for more liberal arts majors and a rebirth of romanticism at a time when, he believes, many college-age kids are being force-fed more practical majors and pushed into a “mercenary direction.”

He argues that parents are part of an apparatus that has arisen to make our culture more professional and less poetic. This comes at a time when transactional jobs are declining—as technology now performs many of the tasks previously handled by humans—and relational jobs are expanding.

This discourse—albeit exaggerated as viewed from my perch—serves as a sensible lead-in to a conversation about the responsibility of colleges and universities to mold holistic professionals, regardless of major, who are able to demonstrate the necessary mix of humanistic skills and the cognitive abilities associated with “hard” skills. Theater majors, for instance, need to understand basic science and engineering principles, especially as they interact outside the stage with today’s technology-centric world. Much the same, engineering majors should be exposed to the writings of Bertrand Russell and to the songs of Sondheim so that their curiosities will be stimulated beyond the task of understanding mathematical formulas. When this balance is reached, great personal and professional heights are imaginable.

Successful technology innovators are able to aptly meld machines and systems with the social world. These individuals don’t necessarily set out to develop transformative technologies. According to renowned author and occasional Mechanical Engineering contributor Henry Petroski, the breakthroughs materialize from an innovator’s unique mindset that understands the nuances of multidisciplinary, multinational, and multicultural effects.

In his new book, Applied Minds: How Engineers Think, Guru Madhavan drives home the point that great innovations must pass the test of Petroski’s tenets, as he showcases examples of the force of the engineering mindset.

A biomedical engineer, policy adviser, and researcher at the National Academy of Sciences, Madhavan reflects on Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building; the ketchup squeeze bottle; Microsoft’s Office Suite; and Alfred Hitchcock’s film Rear Window to make the case that these are examples of creations that were spun from an engineer’s mind, crafted with singular purpose, vision, and clarity. He credits engineers for owning a unique vision and the mental tools that foster innovation and deliver creative solutions.

This month, ASME celebrates that very conceptual toolkit, as it pays tribute to those who have distinguished themselves in technology. Some who will be recognized at the Society’s Honors Assembly—held during the 2015 ASME International Mechanical Engineering Congress and Exposition in Houston—are engineers; others are not.

Among the honored is Freeman A. Hrabowski III, whom we also feature in this month’s One-on-One column on page 16. Hrabowski is the president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and a leading U.S. voice in the advocacy of STEM education. He is also an inspiring speaker who encourages an educational environment emphasizing the necessary hard skills along with an appreciation for romanticism. This approach, he offers, maintains an innovative, democratic society. Hrabowski knows “how engineers think” because he works hand-in-hand with many, finding best ways to nurture the minds of the young and the not so young. And that’s something that both liberal arts and STEM-related majors can appreciate.



0915MEM_Cover_no_boxHow can you tell when a chicken isn’t happy?

No, this isn’t the start of a joke; it’s serious business.

A mechanical engineer, Wayne Daley, at the Georgia Institute of Technology is trying to determine when a chicken isn’t happy because, it turns out, a chicken with ruffled feathers doesn’t eat well and won’t fatten up as quickly as a happy and healthy chicken.

Daley and his team have come up with the Sick Chicken Audio Recorder that identifies the clucking and squawking of a chicken that isn’t happy because it’s sick or because it’s too hot in the coop or too cold. Farmers care a great deal about making chickens happy because plump chickens lead to more sales and hefty coffers.

If the chicken is sick and not simply testy about the temperature, the illness will spread quickly to other chickens in the flock. So early detection pays off. Literally.

Of course, chickens aren’t the only ones whose conversations are being monitored. The Justice Department recently has been revealing more about the government’s use of secret cellphone tracking devices. Controversy over the department’s use of these devices heightened when it was discovered that such technology was deployed in airplanes and can scan data from phones of those of us who are not targets of investigations.

The tracking of data, voice and otherwise, is part of the increasingly connected web of everything that everyone does and of what virtually everyone wants.

Soon, you’ll be able to turn on your home dishwasher remotely from work; or if you’re too tired to get to the supermarket, you’ll be able to have your refrigerator automatically reorder from the grocery store the items you’re running low on; and you’ll also be able to get a notification on your cell phone that the pair of pants that you’ve had your eye on is on sale at a shop in your neighborhood.

We call this Internet of Things a “smart” new way of doing things.

Technologists are making things smart by attaching sensors and connecting them to the Internet, which will enable this flurry of connectivity and, presumably, lead us to more productive lives.

In this issue we take a deep dive into the smart environments that are burgeoning around us. From the home to buildings and structures, to complex supply and distribution networks that tie the global economy together. The pace of change is rapid, even as adoption may lag.

Industry appears eager to jump in and connect all things to the Internet. But there are reasons for healthy skepticism. Just two months ago, the New York Stock Exchange had a nearly four-hour shutdown in the middle of the day because of a faulty software upgrade that connects buyers and sellers.

Then the Federal Bureau of Investigation told us that millions—21.5 million—of government background investigation records were stolen by hackers who broke into the Office of Personnel Management’s network. Days later a computer network malfunction caused a temporary grounding of United Airlines’ global fleet. Sometimes, of course, it’s not the network’s technical malfunction that goes awry and causes pandemonium but the user of the network (see Edward Snowden).

The authors of this month’s related feature articles assure us that, as the rate of connectivity grows, our future will be paved with greater productivity, economic growth, and an improved quality of life. I say, let’s not count our chickens before they hatch.



0815MEM_Cover_no_box.inddI was driving out to the North Fork of Long Island with an old friend who was visiting from Palm Desert a couple of weeks ago when his cell phone rings. He dives deep into his pocket and pulls out a familiar relic that I hadn’t seen in some time: a flip phone.

After several minutes of severe ribbing, which included showing off my ultra-smart personal iPhone 6 and work Windows cell phones, he says nonapologetically, “Haven’t you heard, flip phones are cool again.”

I laughed. But not all that long ago, the flip phone was as uber-cool as, well, Uber is today. And while my friend, Joe, may not feel the need to be connected all-ways-cyber in the way that I do, his cell phone makes and receives calls with no less precision than mine do.

It was clear how out of place the iconography of the flip phone was amidst my mobile gadgetry. In its day, the flip was cutting edge, however, and its design evidently sound enough to withstand years of use. But, as I told Joe, sometimes you have to keep up with the times.

Today, especially in the U.S., old rules of all kinds are transforming—from Constitutional interpretations and laws, to culture and technology. It’s not clear how transformative all of the current social and technology disruptions will become, but when it comes to advanced manufacturing, and especially 3-D printing—our editorial focus this month—it won’t be long before it’s a game changer in certain applications, especially biotechnology, aerospace, defense, and power generation.

One of the most noteworthy examples of transformative innovations is the Model T, circa 1908. It was understood that its design was revolutionary, like the flip phone in its day, but how bravely transformative Henry Ford would be could not have been predicted at first. It wasn’t simply about design, but also his manufacturing processes that made Ford unique. The assembly line he shepherded in 1913 was pivotal in mass producing affordably priced cars.

I bring up Ford because he left us three lessons that are valid in today’s changing environment. First, design with your customers in mind. Ford grew up on a farm and wanted to make the Model T nimble enough to handle well even on bumpy dirt roads where some of his customers resided. He designed a suspension system with a triangular configuration that allowed the front and rear axles to flex without damaging the engine.

Second, don’t overlook what’s going on behind the scenes. Even as the assembly line was adopted in other industries, Ford took advantage of this concept and became the first automobile manufacturer to combine precision components with continuously moving assembly to build cars. By 1914 Ford was producing far more cars than any other competitor.

Third, don’t be afraid to go against the grain. Having the steering wheel on the left side, as we’re used to now, was not standard in the U.S. It was a design decision that changed the entire auto industry. Today’s innovators are taking a cue from Ford and are not afraid to do things their way. Those involved in 3-D printing are an example.

With no disrespect intended to the retro movement, or to the 18 percent of millennials who told the Pew Research Internet Project recently that they don’t use a smartphone, the flip phone never hit the high notes of innovation of the Model T. And the flip phone is no longer cool, even if using one today goes “against the grain.”

The Editor

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

October 2016
« Sep    

Twitter from John Falcioni

Twitter from Engineering for Change

Friend us on Facebook

Friend ASME

Friend Engineering for Change

Friend ASME Nanotechnology Institute