Author Archive for John Falcioni



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.”



0715MEM_Cover FBConsider a world with no technology standards. No codes like the ones ASME publishes to regulate pressure vessels, no rules to secure the safety of cranes or elevators, or any other technology. In the 1880s a group of engineers in the newly formed American Society of Mechanical Engineers began to develop parameters to stem the outburst of boiler explosions that were killing thousands of people every year. Standards developed by ASME would eventually govern how boilers were tested, made, and maintained thus preventing needless damage and saving countless lives.

Creating technology without such rules may seem downright foolish today, yet we may be on our way to exposing ourselves to just such risks.

In my column last month I wrote about robots that work peacefully, side-by-side with humans in assembly plants and some designed as novelty items that mix spirits into cocktails. Underlying all the good news about robotics and other developments, and the explosion of research into artificial intelligence, is the decades-old fear of what happens if our own creations, ungoverned, get away from us.

Hollywood has capitalized on this prospect since the days of D.W. Griffith, titillating us with plots of androids gone bad. This year’s crop of new films is no different, but two films take the special-effects nature of the genre and mix in a dose of real-world ethical quandary to make us pause.

Ex Machina and Tomorrowland, albeit very different films, raise existential themes tied to the development of powerful technologies and their implications on our lives and in the future of the world.

Film critics will talk about the political undertones of these films, but the films raise hard-hitting questions over the governance of artificial intelligence research and of technologies such as nano- and bioengineering, self-driving cars, tracking technologies, smart homes, and others.

There are many who share the viewpoint that tech companies are moving too fast without adding sufficient safeguards to their innovations, and that the potential implications of breakthroughs are lost on the technologists who are emboldened to innovate and create without regard to consequences. Count innovators such as Tesla founder Elon Musk among those who worry. He’s given $10 million to the Future of Life Institute, one of several organizations that, like this group, “support research and initiatives for safeguarding life and developing optimistic visions of the future, including positive ways for humanity to steer its own course considering new technologies and challenges.”

Conversations on the oversight of technology are deep, far more complex than when ASME was founded, increasingly political, and unavoidably divisive. But it is well worth the effort to take them on.

The steady growth of technology progress may well serve as a barometer by which we measure the growth of our species. But even if we don’t live in the apocalyptic worlds that Hollywood creates, it is prudent to be mindful of the benefits of codes and standards, and of rules, and of self-control. This is why it’s important for engineers and other technologists to engage politicians in the difficult dialogue over the rules of innovations.



0615MEM_Cover_no-boxThe immediacy of the web and social networks has turned up the heat on the notoriously brutal big-city tabloid wars. Reporters are fighting harder than ever to be the first to break the news on which nightclub a certain NBA player was seen at last night, or be first to undress a local official who was caught with his hand in the town’s kitty.

But technology magazines like Mechanical Engineering are usually spared such excitement. We certainly aim to be the first to spot technology trends, but not necessarily to break news. Our editors’ unique lens helps them analyze the impact of technology in ways that other publications don’t. Nonetheless, it’s always great to run an article in the magazine and then see a similar story appear a few weeks later in a newspaper, a consumer magazine, or a business-to-business publication. This happens more frequently than you might suspect. Sometimes it’s coincidence, but we prefer to believe that they read it here first.

Then there are instances like what happened with our “Work Buddies” article in this issue. When I was proofreading Alan Brown’s article on collaborative robots that work side-by-side with humans, I spotted a similar article on the front page of the business section of that day’s The New York Times. The newspaper called the article, “A Softer Side of Robotics.” A day later, The Wall Street Journal’s front page had yet another similar article. This one headlined: “Factory Workers Warm Up to Their Mechanical Colleagues.”

My first thought was: We got scooped! Now, as I sit here in front of my keyboard composing this month’s column, I glance over to today’s Wall Street Journal and I see yet another related front-page story. This one is about a robotics competition featuring automatons that don’t just interact with humans; they also mix cocktails. ThinBot, for example, is four feet tall, has flashing lights, and makes 17 tasty drinks.

We’ve been covering developments in robotics technology and the convergence of robots and humans for decades. Other publications have too, and now the general media have realized the importance of covering robots in some depth. Great robotics stories abound and non-technologists should know what’s around the corner—if not the technical details that engineers are interested in.

One of Brown’s inspirations for the article came on a trip he and I took a few months ago to a Caterpillar plant in Clayton, N.C. CAT has been using state-of-the-art robotic systems for some time and it was clear to us that the interaction between robots and humans has gotten tighter and tighter.

Even though much of our visit to the CAT plant was “off-the-record” due to the proprietary nature of the systems they employ, Brown found other companies that would share anecdotes on how their robots mingle with employees. In researching the article, he convinced Universal Robots to bring one of its robots to our offices so we could, literally, shake hands and interact.

Having robots deftly work side-by-side in assembly and manufacturing plants is a major step forward in factory automation. It’s also interesting to observe how comfortable human workers have become working alongside the robots.

But because I don’t work on a shop floor, I’d rather have one of the cocktail-mixing robots greet me when I get home, especially on days we get scooped by another magazine. Maker’s Mark Manhattan up, ThinBot; stirred, not shaken—and don’t forget the bitters.





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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