Archive for the 'ASME' Category

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.

 

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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.

01
Jun
15

GETTING CLOSE TO WORKING CLOSER

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.

 

 

 

 

15
Aug
14

ADVANCED MATERIALS FOR GAMES OF ALL SIZES

0814MEM_CoverNot too distant from the collection of smiley, sad, angry, and other round-faced emoticons on your smartphone or IM dashboard is an image of the iconic black-and-white-patched soccer ball. But even if you’re one to use these hackneyed little critters in e-mails and texts, chances are you probably never even realized the soccer ball was there, let alone think to use it.

I admit to inserting the ball into text messages a few times in the past weeks as my team, the Albiceleste, kept me on the edge of my seat during the quadrennial FIFA World Cup that ended last month. As it turns out, the real black-and-white soccer ball, with its 32 panels comprising 12 black pentagons and 20 white hexagons stitched together, isn’t as ubiquitous as one might think, at least not in international competition.

The German company Adidas, maker of the official ball of Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) sanctioned tournaments, has designed five different soccer balls for international play—none of them had black pentagons and white hexagons. Remarkably, the traditional soccer ball has not been used in the World Cup since the tournament was played in West Germany in 1974. The search for the optimal soccer ball for use in the highly fêted World Cup has included the Tango, the Azteca, the Questra, and the much maligned Jabulani, which was used four years ago in South Africa. This year, for the World Cup in Brazil, Adidas created Brazuca.

Each new ball is engineered with material advances to make the sphere more aerodynamic, more waterproof, and easier to control. If the goal (no pun intended) of ball technology is to make play more competitive, then the Brazuca can lay claim to being a huge success. Pundits (yours truly included) say this year’s World Cup was one of the best in recent history.

The Brazuca, along with many other soccer balls, it turns out, is made in Sialkot, a town in the northeast region of Pakistan recognized as the soccer ball capital of the world. Before China got involved a few years ago, seven out of 10 soccer balls in the world were made in Sialkot and factories there produced more than 60 million soccer balls a year. Now it’s down to about 40 million. The Brazuca is produced at an Adidas factory where 40 percent of the workforce is comprised of women—no small feat in Pakistan. The ball has six patches that are glued together, not stitched. This makes these soccer balls, according to Adidas, the most aerodynamic ever made.

Testing included smashing it against a wall at 45 mph, dredging it in water to ensure it wouldn’t absorb moisture, and baking it at 130 °F for seven days so that it stood up to the heat of the Amazon, where some of the games were played this year. Wind tunnel tests showed that unlike the Jabulani, which was made in China and tended to change directions in flight when it was kicked, the Brazuca remained stable.

Our cover story this month focuses on advances in material design for different types of applications—nano, meso, micro, and macro scale manufacturing processes. The work is being conducted by the Georgia Institute of Technology’s Multiscale Systems Engineering Research Group.

I’m wondering whether the researchers from Georgia Tech will manufacture a high-end soccer ball for those exciting nano foosball games I like to watch.

02
Jun
14

A EULOGY FOR AMERICAN MANUFACTURING?

0614MEM_Cover.inddI’ve been to towns across the country where they still mourn the demise of local manufacturers that closed years before. It wasn’t an easy thing to see, but it was even harder if you lived there.

Manufacturing in the United States used to dominate the world and these industrial towns served as the backbone. These were the places were icons were born, companies like Ford and Boeing, Maytag, Levi Strauss, and Kodak. They became part of the American fabric that was synonymous with ingenuity.

These towns and cities, especially in the Northeast and North Central states flourished. Jobs grew, the middle class grew, the economy grew, and manufacturers were making money—a lot of money.

Then these towns died. The region, formerly known as the manufacturing belt, became the rust belt. The reasons why this occurred are complex and well documented. Some manufacturers and factories moved to areas in the United States where it was cheaper to do business, namely the South. Increased automation had an impact too. Then globalization and internationalization happened, along with the decline of the U.S. steel and coal industries. Each of these factors chipped away at manufacturing’s underpinnings. It wasn’t long before local economies failed as manufacturers began closing their doors.

But as Mark Twain protested in 1897, when his obituary was mistakenly published in a New York newspaper, that “The report of my death was an exaggeration,” so too was the death knell of manufacturing in the United States presumptuous.

In “The Right Stuff,” this month’s cover story, U.S. manufacturing czar Michael Molnar says he is optimistic. Molnar heads the Advanced Manufacturing Office for the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and is also director of the Interagency Advanced Manufacturing National Program Office. “The United States has added more than 600,000 new manufacturing jobs since early 2010, the first sustained rise in 15 years,” he says. And this is just one of the trends Molnar talks about that give him reason to believe things are looking up for U.S. manufacturing. “Industry’s ‘golden age’ has not come and gone,” he adds.

Some of the cities and towns who were struck hard by the decline in manufacturing aren’t sitting on their hands waiting for Molnar’s prediction to come true. They’re being proactive.

One such city is Rochester, N.Y., home to former photo giant, Kodak. About 25 years ago Kodak employed 60,000 workers from the Rochester area, but by 2014 the number had dropped to 5,000. As associate editor Alan S. Brown reports, Rochester could have been another dying rust belt city. “Instead, led by smaller firms, the city’s optical industry [along with Kodak] reinvented itself and preserved the superb technical training program that was the lifeblood of the industry,” he says.

“Seeing the Light,” isn’t just a feel-good story; it’s a story with a moral. Rochester legislators, in partnership with local industry, used the same sort of manufacturing ingenuity that was being lost to inspire themselves and create an enviable turnaround. Every town that suffered from the downtick in manufacturing can’t expect to have its own Kodak moment, but Rochester’s climb back should give every presumably dying town pause. Sometimes, what you read in the newspapers isn’t always accurate.

02
Apr
14

DECISION POINT on STEM

0414MEM_Cover4There are times when it seems you can’t turn around without hearing about STEM. But tracking the roots of the acronym, which refers to fields related to science, technology, engineering, and math wasn’t easy. Wikipedia hints that STEM may have its origins with the National Science Foundation, and The Winona Daily News, in Minnesota, reported a few years ago that the term was indeed coined by the NSF—well sort of.

Back around 2001 former Winona State University president Judith Ramaley was director of NSF’s Education and Human Resources Directorate and was developing curriculum to improve education in science, math, engineering, and technology. So the acronym for these disciplines became “SMET.” But Ramaley didn’t like the sound of it (and who could blame her?), so she changed it to STEM, and the rest is history. (Interesting enough, there’s some dislike for the STEM moniker as well in some circles, including deep inside the White House, because of the potential confusion with “stem cell.”)

The newspaper in Winona quoted Ramaley suggesting that in STEM, science and math serve as bookends for technology and engineering. Science and math are critical to a basic understanding of the universe, she said, and engineering and technology are means for people to interact with the universe.

For middle schoolers of my generation it was math and science; engineering was a nebulous career destination far into the future and technology was but a burgeoning amorphous term with no clear identity. The educational landscape has changed.

What hasn’t changed is that, generally speaking, engineering students are good at solving problems. Clearly, as a society, we need as many individuals as possible with the types of skills to wrestle down the challenges that exist locally as well as globally. Thus the push toward an emphasis on STEM in K–12—and I would argue especially in middle school—makes sense. The point is not to force-feed STEM over subjects like history, art, and literature, but to even out the level of instruction and ensure that the teachers who are responsible for it have the right tools, and the right skills, motivation, and drive to motivate students.

Seeing firsthand the drive behind the work of engineers, especially the rigor of those who work on building solutions in developing countries, is hugely inspirational. The landscape of problems facing the proliferation of STEM education is complex because it’s inherently difficult to fix problems comprising, in part, elements of human behavior.

Some of these are the issues to be examined at this month’s taping of the ASME Decision Point Dialogues, which will take place on the 23rd. This dialogue is being held prior to the opening of the U.S. News STEM Solutions Conference, in Washington, D.C. STEM Solutions precedes the USA Science and Engineering Festival. John Hockenberry, host of the National Public Radio program “The Takeaway,” will moderate the ASME dialogue. The Decision Point Dialogues will be broadcast on ASME.org beginning in June.

From Winona, Minn., to both coasts of this country and beyond U.S. borders, the conversation over STEM is being heard. It’s time for actions to speak louder than words.

06
Jan
14

THE BENEFITS OF DISADVANTAGE

No one’s better at telling the story of Vivek Ranadivé than author Malcolm Gladwell whose newest book, David and Goliath, offers the premise that there are advantages to having disadvantages. Or as he says, “We misread battles between underdogs and giants. … we underestimate how much freedom there can be in what looks like a disadvantage.”

Gladwell points out that David, who was small but accurate with a slingshot, turned the tables on the much bigger and powerful Goliath, who was slow and blurry-eyed.

On the surface Ranadivé doesn’t really appear disadvantaged at all. He is a smart guy and by all reasonable standards hugely successful. He earned his engineering bachelor’s and master’s degrees from MIT and an MBA from Harvard, and he’s the new owner of the Golden State Warriors NBA franchise. He’s not, seemingly, a “David.”

But Ivy-League-trained engineers don’t fit the usual prototype of NBA team owners, especially Ranadivé who recently became the first Indian-born basketball franchise owner in the U.S. For him, it all began after the unlikely scenario of taking his middle-school daughter’s basketball team to the national finals. At that time, Ranadivé knew no more about basketball’s “hardwood” than he did the hardwood in his living room. He had never even held a basketball in his hands before volunteering to coach his kid’s team and knew nothing of fast breaks, jump shots, or layups. Because he was unencumbered by his lack of basketball know-how, he was able to turn what was the disadvantage of not knowing conventional coaching wisdom into a strategy that turned his unlikely group of basketball novices into a top team.

For him, the established ways of successfully coaching basketball didn’t exist because he was unaware of them.

Gladwell insists that there are lessons to be learned from what are apparent situational shortcomings.

In a recent paper called “Student Demographics and Outcomes in Mechanical Engineering in the U.S.,” which is under review for publication in an engineering education journal, researchers found that there are shortcomings in the profession. Even though mechanical engineering is the largest engineering discipline, awarding 23.2 percent of engineering degrees in the United States and Canada, it lacks diversity when compared to other engineering disciplines.

In the U.S., 18.9 percent of all engineering graduates are women, but only 12.4 percent of mechanical engineering graduates are women, according to the research. In fact, until recently electrical engineering and computer engineering had smaller proportions of women. But now mechanicals hold the dubious distinction.

The “benefits of identity diversity include more innovative groups, engagement in active thinking processes, growth in intellectual engagement and motivation, and growth in intellectual and academic skills,” the researchers say.

So while the disadvantage of the discipline is an underrepresentation of women and other groups, the “slingshot” part of this story is that mechanical engineering is sticky. In other words, students who major in mechanical engineering tend to graduate as mechanical engineers.

As the new year dawns, leading mechanical engineering educators can look at the story of David and Goliath, and that of Vivek Ranadivé, and realize that a disadvantage can quickly be turned into advantage. As long as they don’t underestimate how much freedom there can be in what looks like a disadvantage.




The Editor

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

July 2019
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