Archive for the ‘Engineering’ Category

What people need

August 13, 2017

To understand statistics:

I’m beginning to think that mathematical training in many cases is actually damaging; simple and robust metrics, usually drawn from the early days of industrial quality control, are what people need to understand.

Daniel at Crooked Timber.

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Instrumental community of Cyrus C M Mody

January 29, 2012

When I started my PhD in mid-nineties, nano was the in-thing. I remember a reputed electron microscopist whose made a presentation, in which, he pointed out to a particular feature in a transmission electron micrograph and said “Previously, I used to call this a particle; nowadays, we call it a nanoparticle”. That pretty much summed up our attitude towards nano too. Many of us felt that nano was all hype and that there was nothing exciting or intellectually challenging in nano (I do have a friend who calls his blog nono-science!).

A few years into my PhD, I did get exposed to two new viewpoints on nano. One point of view, given by a reputed researcher in nano area, is that nano is a good pedagogical tool which can be used in training a new researcher in materials science and engineering to understand some of the fundamental concepts of materials science; this is because, many a processes and properties of materials, which are generally not considered as important in the typical length scales become important in nano-scale making it an interesting and useful area of study. The other was that nano has some uses in military and medical sciences because these are two areas in which other considerations override cost considerations; otherwise, in actual engineering practice, one might never use nanomaterials at all. Both these points of view are still true to some extent.

Reading Cyrus C M Mody’s Instrumental community: probe microscopy and the path to nanotechnology has given another view point on nano. The first is that nano was a response to “perceived declines in the disciplines”:

Over time, many surface scientists came to believe that nanotechnology provided the best way for them to revive or transform their discipline while retaining much of their knowledge base. As Jun Nagomi puts it

strictly classical surface structure determination is dead as a field. Or extremely mature, and not very fundable. So what I do now I can honestly bill as being related to nanotechnology. But when you look at the actual kinds of materials I’m working with, I’m still working with metals and I’m still working with semiconductors.

The other is that the decline in industrial funding is the reason why nano became popular:

Usually, though, governments created new academic nanotechnology institutions to occupy the niche once held by the big corporate labs. As Jim Murdy puts is

Bell labs is just a shadow of what it once was, and IBM has had to scale back much of its operation as well. So they are not the dominant force they used to be globally across surface science or nano….If they go away, we still have very good people, they just tend to be more in the universities than in an industrial lab. Universities have different strengths. They generally have a harder time getting good equipment. An industrial lab had stuff universities drool over….  That in some sense what IBM and Bell labs did–they brought a bunch of very good people abd put them in a central location at the same lab and equipped them well. To an extent that’s what the [National Nanotechnology] centers are meant to do at the universities.

Finally, Mody also makes the most interesting point about the identification of probe microscopy with nanotechnology and the reasons for it: the short answer — interdisciplinarity.

What is nice about Mody’s book is that he makes these points convincingly and in an extremely readable book. I thoroughly enjoyed the book. If you like anthropology or history of science or science and technology or any combinations thereof, this is the book to read. I strongly recommend it.

One more bonus thing that I learnt from the book is the philosophy of Prof. Virgil Elings on the need for and teaching of instrumentation. As the following quotes indicate they are quite provocative and interesting:

One lesson from the master’s program that Elings carried into DI was that “the areas that students had done undergraduate work in made little difference in their ability to design instruments. Any deficiency, except of knowledge of math, could be repaired by some reading and talking with other students. All those esoteric courses made little difference.”

The MSI program was clearly quite different from a traditional academic degree program. It was, for some students, ” a rude awakening from the spoon-feeding of most undergraduate experiences.”

Elings became convinced that formal academic pedagogy was counterproductive: “[S]chools at all levels, practically down to kindergarten, do almost nothing to foster innovation and invention….[A]cademia can afford to spend some time on innovation since, in my opinion, a lot of what is done now is a waste of time.”

Have fun!

Fostering innovation: some thoughts

October 4, 2011

The illusion of eliminating uncertainty from corporate decision-making is not merely a question of management style or personal preference. In the legal environment that has developed around publicly traded corporations, managers are strongly discouraged from shouldering any risks that they know about—or, in the opinion of some future jury, should have known about—even if they have a hunch that the gamble might pay off in the long run. There is no such thing as “long run” in industries driven by the next quarterly report. The possibility of some innovation making money is just that—a mere possibility that will not have time to materialize before the subpoenas from minority shareholder lawsuits begin to roll in.

Today’s belief in ineluctable certainty is the true innovation-killer of our age. In this environment, the best an audacious manager can do is to develop small improvements to existing systems—climbing the hill, as it were, toward a local maximum, trimming fat, eking out the occasional tiny innovation—like city planners painting bicycle lanes on the streets as a gesture toward solving our energy problems. Any strategy that involves crossing a valley—accepting short-term losses to reach a higher hill in the distance—will soon be brought to a halt by the demands of a system that celebrates short-term gains and tolerates stagnation, but condemns anything else as failure. In short, a world where big stuff can never get done.

Neil Stephenson, here; a nice one; hat tip to Cowen at MR. What Stephenson says is true not just for industry but for research too.

Environmental research: the social and the technical

August 19, 2011

Today I heard Prof. Sharachchandra Lele on Interdisciplinarity in environmental research: How the social is intertwined with the Technical (pdf).

Here is my three line summary of the talk. Environmental phenomena are caused by humans; and they affect human welfare. So, inherently, there are value judgements in discussions, which are hidden, and what is worse, refused to be acknowledged. Further, different approaches (political ecology, economics, conservation biologist, …) lead to different solutions — because the end goal is different for each.

Prof. Lele also made a reference to a paper by Max-Neef called Foundations of transdisciplinarity, which is available here (pdf); I think I should read it some time.

A very though provoking lecture, all in all.

Sustainability and engineering: some thoughts

February 8, 2011

Today I heard a talk by Prof. A W Date on Sustainability and engineering (with specific reference to Mechanical Engineering). As engineers, do we also worry about how the things that we construct will be broken down? As engineers, do we have to refuse working on solutions which, a priori, we know are not sustainable? Prof. Date posed some of these questions, indicated why we may have to take hard stands and push for policies which will result in engineering solutions that do not deplete resources, and deplete them fast. An enjoyable and thought-provoking talk!

PS: I will update this post with a link to Prof. Date’s presentation as and when I get it; of course, going through the presentation by oneself is no substitute of listening to the talk; but, it will at least give a flavour of things that were discussed.

Magnetic manipulations for microelectronic fabrication

March 17, 2010

An interesting piece from the latest PNAS:

Magnetically driven three-dimensional manipulation and inductive heating of magnetic-dispersion containing metal alloys

J D Calabro et al

Fundamental to the development of three-dimensional microelectronic fabrication is a material that enables vertical geometries. Here we show low-melting-point metal alloys containing iron dispersions that can be remotely manipulated by magnetic fields to create vertical geometries and thus enable novel three-dimensional assemblies. These iron dispersions enhance the mechanical properties needed for strong, reliable interconnects without significantly altering the electrical properties of the alloys. Additionally, these iron dispersions act as susceptors for magnetic induction heating, allowing the rapid melting of these novel alloys at temperatures lower than those usually reported for conventional metal alloys. By localizing high temperatures and by reducing temperature excursions, the materials and methods described have potential in a variety of device fabrication applications

What can microfluidics do for stem-cell research

February 12, 2010

An interesting Q&A.

Women in Engineering Award

September 16, 2009

From Google (Hat tip to Abi for sharing the info on Google Reader):

As part of Google’s ongoing commitment to encouraging women to excel in computing and technology, we are pleased to announce the 2010 Google India Women in Engineering Award, to recognize and reward deserving women students in Computer Science and related majors, and inspire them to become active participants and leaders in creating technology. The awards are based on the candidates’ academic background and demonstrated leadership. A group of female undergraduate, graduate and PhD student finalists will be chosen from the applicant pool. The award recipients will receive a cash prize of INR 100000.

Paul Graham tells when it is not good to have a smooth going

July 31, 2009

In his latest piece, here:

Someone riding a motorcycle isn’t working any harder. But because he’s sitting astride it, he seems to be making an effort. When you’re riding a Segway you’re just standing there. And someone who’s being whisked along while seeming to do no work—someone in a sedan chair, for example—can’t help but look smug.

Try this thought experiment and it becomes clear: imagine something that worked like the Segway, but that you rode with one foot in front of the other, like a skateboard. That wouldn’t seem nearly as uncool.

So there may be a way to capture more of the market Segway hoped to reach: make a version that doesn’t look so easy for the rider. It would also be helpful if the styling was in the tradition of skateboards or bicycles rather than medical devices.

Curiously enough, what got Segway into this problem was that the company was itself a kind of Segway. It was too easy for them; they were too successful raising money. If they’d had to grow the company gradually, by iterating through several versions they sold to real users, they’d have learned pretty quickly that people looked stupid riding them. Instead they had enough to work in secret. They had focus groups aplenty, I’m sure, but they didn’t have the people yelling insults out of cars. So they never realized they were zooming confidently down a blind alley.

Take a look!

Science versus engineering

June 22, 2009

Eric Drexler talks about at least two important differences between science and engineering, in spite of their sharing the same language:

The information flows that link these levels are antiparallel: In scientific inquiry, physical systems shape their descriptions through measurement, and the results constrain and shape general, abstract models (theories) by testing them. In engineering design, by contrast, descriptions (specifications) shape physical systems through fabrication, and general, abstract models (system concepts) shape descriptions through design.

While science aims (ideally) to produce exact descriptions of all parameters of all members of a general class of physical systems, engineering aims to manufacture instances of a single kind of system, making choices to ensure that itsfunctional parameters will equal or exceed those specified by a design description.

Likewise, while science aims to formulate a single theory that exactly fits all parameters of every description, engineering aims to design at least one description of a system having functional parameters that equal or exceed those required by one of a potential multiplicity of system concepts.

In this connection, is a proliferation of possible ways of satisfying a constraint good, or bad? In science, finding more possibilities creates greater uncertainty; in engineering, finding more possibilities provides greater freedom of design. This is a basic question with opposite answers — and there are many more.