Author Archive for John Falcioni



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.

 

12
Jan
16

U.S. MANUFACTURING NOT SO LEAN ANYMORE

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!

01
Dec
15

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.

 

 

23
Nov
15

THE ROMANTICISM OF ENGINEERING

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.




The Editor

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

December 2016
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