Hail the Nation’s Top Mechanical Engineers
The next time you’re riding in a plane, train or automobile, the next time you’re popping in a piece of toast, microwaving a pizza or brewing coffee, the next time you fire up a laptop, gas grill or lawnmower, thank a mechanical engineer.
We rely on the problem-solving skills mechanical engineers in almost every facet of our modern daily lives.
Engineers apply the principles of science and math to develop low-cost solutions to technical problems. Their work is the link between scientific discoveries and the commercial applications that meet societal and consumer needs.
And they’re often the most closely associated with traditional notions of inventing.
This month, as part of our quarterly celebration of innovators in selected fields, we’re honoring six mechanical engineers for their contributions to civilization.
We reviewed candidates from corporations, universities and garages and from diverse industries including automotive, consumer products, green technologies, infrastructure, marine and nanotechnology.
We selected these six based on peer recognition, societal impact of their work and commitment to the craft.
Dr. Redwan Alqasemi
Bona Fides: Leading researcher in the field of robotics to assist people with disabilities. Developed wheelchair-mounted robotic arm or WMRA systems. Recently incorporated a technology allowing users to control the systems using brain activity – gives greater freedom for those with ALS and others with “locked-in” condition.
Alma Mater: University of South Florida
Area of Study: Mechanical Engineering – Robotics
Employer: University of South Florida, Tampa.
Trophies: The Engineering Honor Society Tau-Beta-Pi; The Honor Society of Kappa-Phi-Kappa; Boeing Best Project Award for Aircraft Maintenance, Wichita, Kansas, 2001; Raytheon Aircraft Best Project Award for Aircraft Maintenance, Wichita, 2001; Best Showcase Award for FCRAR 2006, Miami, 2006; Center for Rehabilitation Engineering and Technology Award for Promoting Research and Services for Individuals with Disabilities, Tampa, Fla., 2006; Best Application Paper Award, ASME-IMECE, Seattle, 2007.
What got him interested: The satisfaction knowing your research can be used by people who need it most. Conducting research in robotics benefits everyone and can advance the state of knowledge. But implementing that research on physical projects for people with physical disabilities can have an immediate impact on an underrepresented and sometimes ignored population. That gives me an instant reward and satisfaction.
Advice for aspiring engineers: Having an “engineering” mind can give you the power to change the world. Give yourself the chance to polish your interests and make a positive difference.
Most satisfying project: The integration of a brain-computer interface with the wheelchair-mounted robotic arm to assist people with severe disabilities. Having the most sophisticated piece of technology can be useless if the user can’t control it. People with severe disabilities are unable to communicate with their surroundings or ask for assistance. This technology can give these people renewed freedom.
Current project: A sensory and vision-based intelligent interface for the WMRA to assist in doing semi-autonomous tasks with minimum user input. Users see a camera view divided into selectable dynamic grids. Objects can be selected and recognized to create task options. These tasks can be done autonomously using the user’s cognitive abilities and the WMRA’s sensory intelligence.
Dream project: To have a human brain remotely connected to a human-like robot to do what the human wants without any complications.
Humankind’s greatest engineering feat: The Internet. We are doing things that we didn’t dream of 15 years or so ago. It revolutionized and changed the way we live and conduct our daily lives.
Photos courtesy of the University of South Florida
Preston P. Blay
Bona Fides: Engineer at Baltimore Aircoil Co. for 8+ years. Designed new products, acquired new business lines and manages a team of mechanical engineers in the industrial refrigeration line. For fun, studied and passed his LEED AP exam – the only one at the company to have this environmental engineering certification. Spent nights/weekends to study for his Professional Engineering exam.
Alma Mater: Rochester Institute of Technology and St. Edwards University
Area of Study: Mechanical Engineering and MBA
Degree(s): BSME, MBA
Employer: Baltimore Aircoil Co., Jessup, Maryland
Trophies: Professional engineer; LEED AP (USGBC Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Accredited Professional); St. Edwards’ University MBA Academic Achievement Award; various papers and national/international public technical presentations; past director of the Refrigeration Engineers and Technicians Association; nominated for the Chicago School of Business.
What got him interested: In a word, creativity. Or more correctly put, the opportunity to create. Aside from the arts, what other professionals are trained to apply principles to create new applications, parts, machines or processes more than engineering? I have always been the tinkerer – a type of person who can take duct tape and bailing wire and fix the space shuttle a la MacGyver.
Advice for aspiring engineers: Most engineers, especially the mechanical types, have this utopian ideal that when we all graduate with our degrees a cool job designing toys for Hasbro or rockets for NASA awaits. Sadly, besides the one friend I have who designs the controls systems for Disneyland’s explosion powered entertainment, I think most of us will quickly find that we are out of luck.
I started my career chasing the almighty dollar looking for creative satisfaction. It wasn’t until later that I learned the skills that make a good engineer also apply to many types of jobs that don’t necessary fall into the “typical” engineer category.
Engineering skills can be applied to a host of careers. Engineering schools teach the ability to take complex problems and organize them down to bite-sized parts that can be solved. These skills can readily be applied to positions in marketing, sales or anywhere that problem-solving and quick application of learned concepts are required.
Most satisfying project: The creation of a new product for my company based on a design that had its origins on a napkin. Cliché? Sure, but true.
It was a design for a major Internet company looking to provide cooling for its data centers in a non-traditional method. After entering a sales meeting with the customer and promising something to solve their problem, eight months later we were shipping in bulk a product that I created on the ride home from their office.
The unit was essentially a heavy-duty, air-cooled glycol heat exchanger that we thought up from scratch specifically for this customer’s application and something that my company had never done before.
Being able to go from concept to production starting from scratch and then seeing the product bringing in millions was extremely satisfying. Having sole responsibility for the success, or failure, gets the juices flowing and is the ultimate test of your concepts, designs and fortitude.
Current project: Evaluating future technologies in the industrial refrigeration market with a particular focus on energy savings and green practices. I hope cold storage warehouses around the country will eventually adopt more green practices. I want to position my company to be able to at first promote and then take advantage of this eventual shift in philosophy and technology.
On the home front, after designing, gutting and constructing three bathrooms and a kitchen including all the plumbing and electrical, I am remaking my workshop. I’ve always enjoyed pulling machines apart and rebuilding them in new ways. My project list includes: a possible way to generate power from waves that I haven’t seen before; experimenting with hacking my beer fridge to a magnetocaloric cycle; and an outdoor water feature for my deck that also spews fire. Time permitting, of course.
Dream project: Provide clean water to remote parts of Africa using cheap and interesting technology or small refrigeration units powered by solar to poor countries. Geek alert: Since I was a kid I always wanted to create mechanized battle armor. The military has the same dream and I expect to see some in the next few decades.
Humankind’s greatest engineering feat: Like a good engineer, I feel that it is only appropriate to state my assumptions first and pick something in the last hundred years or so. Given that restraint and at the risk of sounding like I’m plugging my chosen field, I will have to pick the creation and commercialization of refrigeration. Before commercial, industrial, and home refrigeration systems existed, supermarkets, transport and storage of food, storage of medicine, and air conditioning didn’t. The availability and variety of fruits, vegetable and meats would be either seasonal or non-existent. The mass movement of families from the farm to the industrial work centers and cities couldn’t have happened. And just think how much time as a society we save because we don’t have to worry about shopping daily for our dinners or keeping a root cellar full of our home made preserves.
Photo courtesy of Baltimore Aircoil Co.
Bona Fides: Race car engineer named president of Penske Performance Inc. in 2005. Manages Penske’s racing operations including NASCAR and IZOD IndyCar Series teams. Previously team manager of Team Rahal; named 1998 and 1999 “CART Team Manager of the Year” by peers. Worked as interim general manager and design engineer for TrueSports Co. in the CART Series, 1991-92.
Alma Mater: Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, Terre Haute, Ind.
Area of Study: Mechanical Engineering
Degree: Bachelor’s of Science
Employer: Penske Performance Inc., Mooresville, N.C.
Trophies: Led Penske’s Indy car program to 54 wins, including five Indianapolis 500 victories – four times since 2001 and a record-tying three wins in a row from 2001-03. Overseen nine NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victories, including 2008 Daytona 500; 26 NASCAR pole positions, nine Nationwide Series wins and the organization’s first NASCAR championship in 2010. Oversaw 24 wins for Penske Racing’s American Le Mans Series Porsche program, including an overall victory at the 12 Hours of Sebring, three LMP2 titles and 27 pole positions. Inducted into Rose-Hulman’s Athletic Hall of Fame in 2001 for basketball; recognized as a member of the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame’s prestigious Silver Anniversary team for his career at Pike High School in Indianapolis. Awarded the inaugural Herb Porter Memorial Award in 2002, which recognizes the person who through innovation, technical advancement or other accomplishments has enhanced the philosophies and goals of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
What got him interested? My father was an Indy car engine builder. He worked out of the Indy Motor Speedway and they rebuilt Indy car engines year-round. He started his own business and I got a job washing parts and working in the dynamometer room where they’d test the engines. I grew up around race car engines. After high school, I just wanted to be a race car mechanic. But my dad understood my horizons were bigger. He said I’d never find a job in this industry beyond mechanic if I didn’t go to college. He was right. There’s no way I’d be in the position I am now.
Advice for aspiring engineers: Racing is very difficult business to get into at the entry level. You have to be very persistent and make a lot of sacrifices relative to time and income. You have to have the passion to do it. Don’t be discouraged if in the beginning there’s not an obvious path to get there. It’s very hard to get in, but it’s a small industry and your reputation can take you to the next level. Don’t take ‘no’ for an answer the first time. Continue to knock on the doors. They’ll open with the right type of people.
Most satisfying project: Winning the Indy 500. When you win at Indy, you become part of a different club. I’ve had that opportunity to ride on that platform five times.
Current project: I’m going to the Daytona 500 this weekend.
Dream project: I’m living it.
Humankind’s greatest engineering feat: The invention or harnessing of electricity continues to be the thing behind everything. It’s hard to think of the world without electricity.
Photo courtesy of Penske Performance Inc.
Dr. Frank Fisher
Bona Fides: Associate professor of mechanical engineering and co-director of the Nanotechnology Graduate Program at the Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, N.J. National Science Foundation, Air Force Office of Scientific Research and the U.S. Army have funded his research. Into vibration energy harvesting.
Alma Mater: Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mathematics degrees from the University of Pittsburgh. Masters degrees in Mechanical Engineering and Learning Sciences, as well as doctorate in Mechanical Engineering from Northwestern University.
Area of Study: Mechanical Engineering and Nanotechnology
Employer: Stevens Institute of Technology
Trophies: National Science Foundation’s CAREER award; American Society of Engineering Education (ASEE) Mechanics Division Ferdinand P. Beer and E. Russell Johnson Jr. Outstanding New Educator Award; 2009 Outstanding Teacher Award from the Stevens Alumni Association.
What got him interested: I liked math and physics in high school. My guidance counselor suggested I strongly consider mechanical engineering because of its breadth and the variety of fields in which mechanical engineers work. I had an opportunity to do a summer internship at a Westinghouse facility outside Pittsburgh and saw the challenge and satisfaction of applying engineering to solve real world problems. I was hooked!
Advice for aspiring engineers: I recommend younger students follow their passion and try to get involved with hands-on engineering as soon as possible. I’ve had the pleasure of working with a number of really talented undergraduate researchers at Stevens and am always amazed by how quickly they can learn and contribute to my projects. It’s not always how much you know, but how willing you are to work hard, ask questions and learn.
Most satisfying project: That’s like asking to select your favorite child! But my most satisfying work has been in the area of vibration energy harvesting, where we are developing techniques to convert mechanical vibration energy present in an environment to low, but useful, levels of electrical energy. It is a relatively new area of research, but with a lot of potential as a means to power individual nodes of a wireless sensor network. Other researchers are citing our first research paper on the subject, which is something for which we are quite proud.
Current project: My research group continues to be quite active in the area of polymer nanocomposites, where we are trying to leverage nanotechnology to create ultra-high performance multifunctional plastic materials. I am also active in several large educational and outreach projects at Stevens that are funded by the National Science Foundation and which seek to encourage and better prepare K-12 students to consider science and engineering-related studies in college.
Dream project: Be part of a large multidisciplinary team working on a very difficult but very important problem – something like energy, water or the environment and climate change where success would really have an impact on peoples’ lives. The team would have lots of enthusiastic and energetic students and researchers – undergraduate, graduate, post-docs and faculty – working together and learning from each other.
Humankind’s greatest engineering feat: Putting a man on the moon – and being able to bring him back to Earth. Can you imagine what someone in 1900 would have said if you had told them that?
Photo courtesy of Stevens Institute of Technology
Bona Fides: Worked with Dean Kamen at DEKA Research and Development as lead control engineer on the IBOT, a wheelchair that could climb stairs and raise to eye-level. Director of Systems Engineering for DEKA’s Segway Human Transporter, worked on control architectures and algorithms and their implementation into production software.
Alma Mater: Yale University, University of Washington, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Area of Study: Mechanical Engineering
Degree(s): Bachelor’s, Master’s and Ph.D.
Employer: Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering, Yale University, New Haven, Conn.
Trophies: Holder of some 37 patents, many related to the Segway; Tau Beta Pi (Yale, 1986); McCrosky Prize for Outstanding Senior in Mechanical Engineering (Yale, 1986); Stewart Award for Contributions to Undergraduate Life (MIT Cycling Team, 1990).
What got him interested: I get satisfaction from understanding how things are supposed to work and then making sure they do work. As a kid, I used to take apart engines, make new bicycles out of old bicycles, build models and fix stuff around the house. My relatives in Maine were incredible do-it-yourselfers – I guess I inherited a lot of it. I also like sports involving balance – skiing, cycling, rowing, canoeing, sailing. My love of watercraft and moving on water also moved me toward engineering. Boats are a challenging mechanical engineering design problem – there is great diversity in designs even today, and no one design is right for everything.
Advice for aspiring engineers: The hardest part about engineering is balancing thinking and doing. Many people can think and talk about making things work – analytical work. Others can make them work without a lot of thinking or analysis – intuitive work. Some have great facility with their hands and others not so much. The best engineers balance doing with thinking, intuition with analysis.
Most satisfying project: Working on the Segway Human Transporter. The technical accomplishment of balancing was actually small when compared to the challenges of turning it into a consumer product. I worked with a once-in-a-career team of very smart, very fun people. It was a high-pressure and high-personal reward. It will take another 20 years to decide what the commercial issues are with two-wheeled balancing machines, but I’ll treasure the time on that team forever.
Current project: It feels like computer controlled machines and humans seem to tolerate one another rather than really work with each other. The scene of the future in Wall-E, where humans float on couches and interact primarily with the eyes, mouth and ears, seems near and it depresses me. So I want to put the physical interaction back into user interfaces. I call it the “Renaissance User Interface.” Like the Renaissance ideal, the Renaissance User Interface will make the fullest use of mind and body.
My projects right now are modest – create a chair that coaches you into a good seat posture the way a therapist would. Another is a car seat that lets a driver feel a car in the blind spot through the sense of touch on their back. I’m trying to get a better understanding of how we process information from our sense of touch and whole body senses.
Dream project: 1) I’m pretty close to that, being an engineering professor. Engineering is still being taught according to the traditional disciplines, yet many of the biggest problems are integration problems. I’d like to catalyze a new way of teaching engineering that creates depth in the traditional disciplines, but teaches the importance of teamwork and breadth.
Too many engineers push analysis to the 99% confidence level in their discipline, when the real leverage is getting the system architected correctly. Suboptimal modules in a great system architecture are a better approach than optimal modules in a poor system architecture.
With all the interdisciplinary systems we build today, the action is in getting the system dependencies aligned. I’d also make every student get back in touch with the physical matter of their field, rather than simulating everything.
2) On the small side, I want to advance the sculling hydrofoil project and set a world record on water with a national caliber rower. It’s not likely to change the world, but it’s a boat, has interesting user interface issues and cool dynamics.
3) Almost any project with the original Segway Engineering Team.
Humankind’s greatest engineering feat: Wow – that’s hard. The invention of the wheel stands out for its impact on humanity throughout time. Getting to the moon was the most significant engineering feat in my lifetime – technology and human triumph at its best. The Duomo in Milan stands out for me as well (and other great cathedrals for that matter): technical knowledge, practical competence and incredible persistence.
Photo courtesy of Yale University
Dr. Tom Nosker
Bona Fides: Pioneer of recycled plastic for 20 years. Invented/discovered way to build bridges out of discarded milk jugs and the like. The Army Corps of Engineers used his material to build bridges capable of supporting M-1 tanks and locomotives. Now being used to make erosion-resistant railroad beams, pilings, planks and bulkheads.
Alma Mater: Georgia Tech, Rutgers University
Area of Study: Mechanical Engineering
Degree(s): Master’s of Science in Material Science; Ph.D. in Polymer Physics
Employer: Rutgers, New Jersey
Trophies: 1998 Federal Laboratory Consortium award recipient for work with U.S. Army Corps. of Engineers and ASTM on the development of test methods and standards for recycled plastic lumber materials; 2000 Civil Engineering Research Foundation Pankow Award Finalist for successfully developing composite railroad ties; 2000 Rainforest Relief Rainforest Star Award for successfully developing recycled plastic composite railroad ties; 2001 Thomas Alva Edison award from R&D Council of New Jersey; 2003 Excellence in Recycling Award from New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.
What got him interested: I love machines. I also love materials science and saw a great opportunity to develop recycling technologies in the 1980s because plastics packaging had taken lots of market share from other packaging materials and there were no real viable technologies.
Advice for aspiring engineers: Engineers make and/or design nearly all manufactured things. They change the world on a daily basis. I think if graduate school is in your plans, consider also adding a slightly different undergraduate degree to the mix.
Most satisfying project: High load military bridges with a 34:1 return on investment for them made from recycled plastic. No maintenance and a lower installed cost than any other material.
Current project: A new aircraft composite, more and larger bridges, and expanding manufacturing plants.
Dream project: Build a recycled plastic bridge as large as the Brooklyn Bridge.
Humankind’s greatest engineering feat: The communication systems – phone/Internet/computer – that we all use every day.
Photo by Carl Blesch
Editor’s note: This article appears in the April 2011 print edition.
Tags: Baltimore Aircoil Co., Engineers, Georgia Tech, Modern Marvels, Rochester Institute of Technology, Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, St. Edwards University, Stevens Institute of Technology, University of South Florida, Yale