PRISM - American Society for Engineering Education - Logo - SEPTEMBER 2004 - VOLUME 14, NUMBER 1
briefings
Engineering Feat

TREE-MENDOUS ISLANDS Dutch engineering firm Van Oord is finishing the second of two islands—each shaped like palm trees— off the coast of the United Arab Emirates. The trunks are 5 miles long, the fronds, 330 feet long. They'll house shops, hotels, villas, and marinas. Global Positioning System surveys were used to map the islands.


PRISM - BRIEFINGS


INNOVATION - WHERE, OH WHERE, CAN HE BE?

Wozniak. The name still sends chills down the spines of computer geeks. Steve Wozniak was, of course, a cofounder of Apple Computer and the designer of the world's first consumer-friendly PC. Now the 53-year-old inventor is back with a new company, Wheels of Zeus (WoZ, get it?), that's in partnership with Motorola to produce a simple-to-use, cheap-to-buy tracker. The small device could be attached to your kids, your dogs, or your senile Aunt Tilly, and if they go wandering off, it would notify you via PC, cell phone, landline, or PDA. The tracking would be done by the Global Positioning System, linked to a low-power, low-speed radio network akin to one used by cordless phones and designed to complement GPS technology. Wozniak came up with the application after noticing how inexpensive GPS technology had become. Will there be a product later this year? "It's possible," a spokesman says. The company is in "heads-down development mode right now" and doesn't want to say too much, lest it raise expectations to unrealistic levels. "We're not trying to be secretive; we're trying to be credible." Perhaps Wozniak paid attention when consumer demand for the motorized scooter, the Segway invented by his pal Dean Kamen, didn't meet prerelease hype. Still, any product with a Woz factor will be expected to have a wow factor. —Thomas K. Grose


BOOK REPORT - A NEW WAY TO GO TO BAT

High Tech Hot Shots: Careers in Sports Engineering
High Tech Hot Shots: Careers in Sports Engineering - Book cover Author:
Celeste Baine
Publisher: National Society of Professional Engineers; Paperback, $19.99

Celeste Baine, who runs the Engineering Education Service Center in Eugene, Ore., often talks to high school classrooms, so she knows how hard it can be to get and keep the attention of teenagers. To generate some excitement among her audiences, she began talking to them about sports engineering, a burgeoning field. Now she's taken her classroom lessons a step further with the publication of High Tech Hot Shots: Careers in Sports Engineering, which is aimed at middle and high school athletes who may want to combine their avocation with their vocation. Although no U.S. school offers a degree in sports engineering, there's a huge demand within the industry for engineers of all stripes, particularly mechanical, biomedical, chemical, and materials. From running shoes to bowling balls, manufacturers of nearly every type of sports gear need engineers to help design improved models. To purchase a copy, visit Baine's Web site: www.hightechhotshots.com. —TG


ROBOTS - EASY ON THE STARCH, I, ROBOT

From the Jetsons' various robotic helpers to Star Wars' endearing duo, R2D2 and 3CPO, humanoid robots have pretty much remained in the realm of science fiction. But Japan now believes humanoid robots will soon become a big industry. Its Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry has formed a study group, Vision of Robots in the Future, and has made available $28 million this year for robot development. Japanese officials think that consumer-friendly bots will be in mass production by 2010. Robot expert Yiannis Demiris of London's Imperial College applauds Japan's initiative—"It's a noble goal"—but doubts that a machine that can operate among humans can be produced within six years. Safety and the bots' need to "see" and comprehend an unpredictable environment are major hurdles to overcome. The first products will be basic, Demiris predicts, like a robot that can iron shirts. —TG


SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY - HEADING FOR A FALL?

The high-tech bedrock on which the U.S. economy is based remains firm, but increased foreign competition and changing demographics could eventually cause America's science and technology global leadership to crumble. That's the gist of Science and Engineering (S&E) Indicators 2004, a National Science Board (NSB) biennial report. "For many years we have benefited from minimal competition in the global S&E labor market, but attractive and competitive alternatives are now expanding around the world," warns Warren M. Washington, NSB chairman. The paradox is that America's economic success demands more engineers and scientists than the country is producing. VISAS ISSUED, 1998-2003To a great extent, the United States has relied on foreign-born workers to fill those jobs. As of 2000, 17 percent of bachelor's degree holders, 29 percent of master's degree holders, and 38 percent of Ph.D.'s employed in U.S. high-tech jobs were not born in the United States. But since 2001 there's been a decline in the issuing of high-skill-related visas: in part because of higher State Department refusal rates but also because of competition from other countries. Another worrying indicator: Although America-based writers produce the largest share of scientific journal articles, their output has been flat since 1992, while the number of articles from authors based in developing countries is rising.

On that sobering note, here's some good news from the report. Federal funding for academic research and development, adjusted for inflation, has grown by 66 percent since 1990. Corporate R&D spending peaked at $180 billion in 2000, but despite an economic slowdown, R&D spending didn't drop by much. It was at $177 billion in 2002, or two thirds of the total amount spent: $276 billion. A surge in R&D spending by U.S. service-sector industries helped keep corporate numbers high. Between 1997 and 2000, the service sector's share of industrial R&D spending jumped from around 20 percent to about 35 percent. And that's certainly providing a great service to the American economy. —TG


WORKPLACE - POPULARITY = PRODUCTIVITY

The most popular employees are the most productive. According to a study by Columbia University business professor Francis Flynn, workers who consistently give help to and receive help from colleagues are the most productive. Flynn's subjects were 161 engineers at a California telecom. The engineers rated themselves and one another for helpfulness. Flynn then matched the results to company productivity data. Why did he choose engineers as his guinea pigs? "Their performance metrics are highly objective." Overly generous employees who don't receive much reciprocal help from coworkers aren't productive: They're too busy helping everyone else. Says Flynn: "That's a zero-sum gain." The worst performers, however, are lone wolves who neither seek nor give help. Productivity blossoms, he says, when there's a mutual sharing of expertise and experiences. —TG


BIOTECH - A LEG UP

It may look like a conventional artificial leg, but a new prosthetic created by a Canadian engineering firm is set to become the first commercially available bionic leg. Developed by a team of 60 biomechanical, electrical, software, and mechanical engineers, Victhom Human Bionics' prosthetic features sensors in the amputee's shoes that send signals to an artificial memory, which reacts in real time to mimic the movement of a normal leg. "Current models are devices that just absorb the mechanical energy at the joints," explains Benoit Côte, Victhom's chairman and CEO. "But when you walk there are times when you need to absorb energy and times when you need to expend energy. Our prosthetic can do both."

Currently there are 20 amputees putting the leg through its paces before the device is released this fall to the public. "They all report that they can do a lot of things that were impossible before, " Côte says, "like walking fast, walking on a steep slope, climbing stairs, and even just sitting down and standing much more naturally." The prosthesis is powered by a rechargeable battery and weighs exactly what a normal human leg weighs—for a man 5 feet 9 inches tall, about 10 pounds. —TG

QUOTED -

GLOBALIZATION - WALKING OFF WITH U.S. JOBS

Tech workers already know that some of their U.S. jobs have been outsourced to India, which has a large, well-educated workforce with relatively low salary expectations. But if Indian payrolls are a bargain, U.S. companies pay a very high cost for broadband connections there. That, however, is about to change. India recently completed a three-year investment in international submarine cable connections, and its capacity to handle online data will soon increase 17 fold. Market liberalization and access to capital let companies like Tata Indicom, Bharti Group, and Reliance Infocomm finance the boom. For the time being, according to research company TeleGeography, U.S. companies will still pay a premium for high-speed Internet links to India: A U.S.-India link costs five to 10 times more than a comparable U.S.-Hong Kong link. But as the new capacity kicks in, prices will plummet. A connection capable of handling a call center now costs about $100,000 a month. That price should drop to around $60,000 by year's end. TeleGeography estimates that broadband costs will likely decline by 60 percent within a few years. That's obviously good news for India's developing economy, but not for American tech workers worried about their jobs going overseas. —TG


MECHANICS - NO MORE NOISY BRAKES

Consumers make a lot of noise about squealing brakes. Though brakes that squeak pose no safety risk, they're an annoyance and they cost automakers $100 million a year in warranty work. It's a "perceived problem with the quality of the car," says Kenneth A. Cunefare, a mechanical engineer and acoustics researcher at Georgia Tech who has devised a possible, low-cost solution to the problem. Brakes squeal when their pads touch the rotors at low speeds. That results in a vibration that creates high-pitched squeals. Fixes such as putting in damping materials and replacing the pads often don't work, or don't last. Cunefare's solution is a piezoceramic actuator that slots into the brake piston. It's made from stacks of piezoelectric materials that expand or contract when an electric current passes through the layers. Every time the brakes are applied, the actuator injects a burst of a "dithering" frequency to the pads, which suppresses the squeal. Test devices haven't been affected by brake wear, or extremes in temperature, or humidity. The test model costs $130, but Cunefare thinks mass production would get that figure down to around $30. A small price to pay for a bit of motoring peace and quiet.—TG


ENVIRONMENT - LITHIUM, LITHIUM EVERYWHERE

TOKYO—Heavily dependent on imported raw materials, Japan has consistently sought ways of synthesizing or producing inputs at home. The latest chapter in Japan's drive for self-sufficiency is being written at Saga University, where researchers are perfecting techniques for extracting commercial quantities of lithium from seawater. Lithium is used widely by industry, consumers, and in medicine. It powers electric cars and laptops, is used in telescopes and ceramics, and to treat manic-depressive disorders. The versatile substance is extracted from igneous rocks, which Japan imports from countries such as Australia and China.

Lithium "is very promising as a next-generation energy source," notes Kazuharu Yoshizuka, a professor of environmental engineering at the University of Kitakyushu, who is collaborating on the project. "When you consider that two thirds of the Earth is seawater, the amount of [available] lithium is immense."

The Japanese have been thwarted so far by the fact that lithium concentrations in seawater are extremely low, requiring vast quantities of seawater to be processed to harvest even minute quantities. Saga University's lithium chloride haul, obtained from forcing seawater through manganese dioxide crystals which adsorb the lithium, has been a mere gram a day. Still, Yoshizuka reckons technology to efficiently recover lithium from seawater is not far off. —Lucy Craft


ACADEMIA - $ALARIES RISE, BUT NOT MUCH

The latest survey of faculty salaries is out. For engineering academics, here's the good news: Only law professors earn more. The bad news: Overall faculty salary increases in the 2003-04 academic year were miserly, thanks mainly to tight budgets at public schools. On average, engineering faculty earned $84,784 annually, according the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources survey of 793 institutions of higher learning. The average for law profs: $109,478. Coming in third: business faculty at $79,931. Bringing up the rear, liberal arts professors at $52,234. Overall, salaries last year rose just 2.1 percent, a full point lower than the previous year's average. Public school salaries increased a mere 1.4 percent; private school salaries jumped 3.3 percent. For engineering faculty, the biggest raises went to instructors, whose salaries increased an average 3.1 percent; full profs received the most meager raises, averaging just 1.9 percent. Engineering faculty at private schools on average earn more than their public-school brethren: $86,245 versus $84,208, a difference of 2.36 percent. Law schools also employ the highest average number of full professors: 60.7 percent. The percentage for engineering: 46.2 percent. The average across all disciplines is 33 percent. —TG


Building - The library at the Eberswalde Technical School in Eberswalde Germany, uses photoengraved concrete. Photograph by Margherita Spiluttini


Although one of the most widely used materials on Earth, concrete doesn't generate much excitement. It's the stuff of sidewalks, roads, and parking garages. Most people take it for granted. But in a new exhibit at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., concrete finally gets the respect it deserves. The show, called "Liquid Stone", starts out more than 2,000 years ago when the Romans created the first true concrete and moves quickly into modern times and some truly spectacular projects that force us to look at the centuries-old substance in a new way. The surfaces inside the grid on a new dorm at MIT constructed of perforated concrete are painted various colors indicating where the building's stresses are the greatest and the least. Engineering students can easily "read" the building. Rapid advances in hybrid concrete have lead to a new bridge in France with remarkably slender concrete structural elements. Another astonishing technique allows photographic images to be engraved directly onto concrete panels. But the "holy grail" of new technologies has to be translucent concrete that involves reinforcing concrete panels with small amounts of chopped fiberglass. Concrete that transmits light could have all sorts of applications, including allowing occupants to safely exit the "translucent" stairwell of a building that has lost electricity. —Jo Ann Tooley

 

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