Views from the Front Lines of Engineering

Editor’s Note

The annual US Frontiers of Engineering (FOE) Symposium brings together outstanding young engineers, ages 30 to 45, to share ideas and learn about cutting-edge research on a wide range of engineering topics. Approximately 100 of us gather for a few days each year and spend our time networking, learning, and discussing. A unique characteristic of the symposium series is that participants are competitively selected from researchers working across the spectrum of engineering disciplines in academia, industry, and government. FOE is a gem among NAE activities and provides these emerging engineering leaders with a rare opportunity to learn about the latest research in engineering areas other than their own and to meet with promising engineers working in different fields. The symposium is truly memorable, and I encourage you to nominate your eligible colleagues. I attended my first US FOE symposium in 1998 as a new assistant professor, and it is now my great privilege to serve as chair of the organizing committee and meeting.

The nineteenth US FOE Symposium, hosted by DuPont, was held September 19–21, 2013, at the Hotel du Pont in Wilmington, Delaware. The meeting was organized into four sessions with the following themes: designing and analyzing societal networks, cognitive manufacturing, energy: reducing our dependence on fossil fuels, and flexible electronics. Six papers, representing the highly engaging topics covered by this year’s presentations, are included in this issue of the Bridge. Below is a brief summary of this event (for additional detail, see the write-up and photo on page 63).

The session on designing and analyzing societal networks was organized by Tanzeem Choudhury of Cornell University and Scott Klemmer of the University of California, San Diego. Speakers addressed opportunities and challenges posed by the massive-scale adoption of social technologies such as social networks, smart mobile devices, digital health, and online education. In this issue Duncan Watts of Microsoft discusses progress and challenges in computational social science, which covers the study of complex social systems through computational modeling and related techniques. He notes that despite significant developments, progress in research related to the “big” questions (e.g., systemic risk in financial systems, problem solving in complex organizations) has been more limited. He describes reasons for this, and the need for new platforms and institutions for collecting and conducting this research.

The second session, chaired by Elizabeth Hoegeman of Cummins Inc. and Rhett Mayor of the Georgia Institute of Technology, was on cognitive manufacturing. Here, the term refers to production systems that utilize cognitive reasoning engines or distributed intelligence agents and are thereby capable of autonomous operation that requires only high-level supervisory control. We learned about systems that perceive changes in processes and then respond to stay within target ranges of metrics such as production cost, rate, and energy consumption. In “The Rise of Computer-Enabled Supply Chain Design,” Steve Ellet of Chainalytics reviews the deployment of computer-enabled decision making at the production system logistics level, exploring approaches to global logistics optimization and supply chain design. Steven Skerlos of the University of Michigan discusses the importance of integrating sustainability objectives into product design and describes areas where cognitive manufacturing techniques may enable mass sustainability.

Presentations in the third session, chaired by Halil Berberoglu of the University of Texas at Austin and Stuart Thomas of DuPont, related to energy and efforts to reduce dependence on fossil fuels and find technical solutions for diversifying the fuel production infrastructure to meet energy needs. The session talks addressed technical, economic, environmental, social, and political issues associated with dependence on fossil fuels, as well as challenges in biofuel production and incorporation of nonfossil fuels in the infrastructure. In “Artificial Solar Fuel Generators,” Miguel Modestino and Rachel Segalman1 of the University of California, Berkeley, review artificial photosynthesis research on harvesting solar energy for fuel production, and in particular the development of an integrated solar hydrogen generator that consists of integrally connected photovoltaic and catalytic units.

The final session of the meeting, chaired by Lynn Loo of Princeton University and Tina Ng of the Palo Alto Research Center, covered advances in flexible electronics. Here, we learned that conventional fabrication processes are being transformed to incorporate electronic control and power sources into any object, including surfaces that are soft, pliant, and often easily damaged (such as human tissue). Applications ranged from energy-efficient, stretchable lighting to lightweight photovoltaics, smart-sensing wallpaper, and dissolvable electronic implants. Nanshu Lu from the University of Texas at Austin explains the mechanics, materials, and biointegration of tissue-like electronics that can conform to and deform with living organisms for physiological sensing and stimulation. Polina Anikeeva of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology describes next-generation flexible electrode arrays and optoelectronic neural probes that minimize tissue damage and maintain high-quality neural recordings over longer time scales.

In addition to the oral presentations, the FOE symposia provide lively Q&A sessions, panel discussions, and other activities that encourage conversation and networking. At this year’s meeting, these activities included a variety of technical tours at DuPont’s Experimental Station and Chestnut Run Plaza.

The dinner speaker, a traditional highlight of FOE programs, was Doug Muzyka, senior vice president and chief science and technology officer at DuPont. He presented an engaging perspective on DuPont over its 211-year history, which provided insight into the company’s current emphasis on integrated science and engineering to develop solutions to global challenges. Dr. Muzyka concluded his talk by noting that the collective impact of collaboration provides one of the best opportunities for engineering innovation, and he encouraged attendees to challenge traditional boundaries and ways of thinking. Ellen Kullman, DuPont chair and CEO, spoke by video about engineering as creative problem solving and the important role of engineers in finding solutions to pressing needs.

Finally, I would like to note that it was my sincere pleasure to serve as chair of the Organizing Committee for this year’s US FOE Symposium. I always leave the program invigorated and excited about the future of our profession. I also want to express my sincere gratitude and thanks to the NAE staff with their boundless energy and enthusiasm that truly make this program a timeless success. Specifically, I appreciate the tireless contributions of Janet Hunziker, NAE senior program officer, Vanessa Lester, program associate, and Lance Davis, NAE executive officer, to the planning and implementation of the Frontiers of Engineering symposia. I also thank the sponsors of the 2013 symposium: DuPont, The Grainger Foundation, National Science Foundation, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Microsoft Research, Cummins Inc., and the Greater Wilmington Convention and Visitors Bureau.


1 Rachel Segalman presented the paper at the symposium.

About the Author: Kristi S. Anseth (NAE) is Distinguished Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering, professor of surgery, and HHMI assistant investigator in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering at the University of Colorado Boulder.