In This Issue
Spring Issue of The Bridge on Frontiers of Engineering
March 15, 2012 Volume 42 Issue 1

The Expanding Frontiers of Engineering

Friday, March 30, 2012

Author: Andrew Weiner

Editor’s Note

Every year the U.S. Frontiers of Engineering (FOE) Symposium brings together approximately 100 outstanding young engineers, ages 30 to 45, to share ideas and learn about cutting-edge research on a wide range of engineering topics. 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 provides these emerging engineering leaders with a unique opportunity to learn about exciting research in engineering areas other than their own and to meet and network with promising engineers working in different areas.

The seventeenth U.S. FOE Symposium was held September 19–21, 2011, at Google, Inc., in Mountain View, California. The meeting was organized into independent sessions with the following themes: additive manufacturing, semantic processing, engineering sustainable buildings, and neuroprosthetics. Seven papers based on this year’s presentations are included in this issue of The Bridge.

The session on additive manufacturing, organized by Carolyn Seepersad of the University of Texas at Austin and Michael Siemer of Mydea Technologies Corporation, focused on layer-by-layer fabrication of complex parts directly from CAD files without part-specific tooling. Additive manufacturing has many strategic advantages over traditional manufacturing processes: the production of complex internal and external part geometries that cannot be made in any other way; rapid iteration through design permutations; and the ability to build customized functional parts in small lot sizes to meet end-users’ specifications.

Two presentations from this session are included in this issue of The Bridge. Hod Lipson, of Cornell University, describes the evolution of additive manufacturing technologies as a series of milestones in achieving human control over physical matter. His article covers additive manufacturing from its current, relatively mature technologies (programming of shape) to new frontiers in which the internal composition, structure, and even the function of materials can be realized through programmable printing technologies.

In the second article, Brett Lyons, a researcher at Boeing, describes aerospace applications of additive manufacturing. Because this industry has an especially demanding manufacturing context that blends low-volume economics, acute weight sensitivity, and the need for highly controlled materials and manufacturing processes to ensure high levels of repeatability and reliability, it has focused directly on transitioning additive manufacturing techniques from the laboratory and model shop to the factory floor.

The second FOE session, chaired by Aleksandar Kuzmanovic of Northwestern University and Amarnag Subramanya of Google, featured four presentations on semantic processing. The emergence of the web as a tool for sharing information has led to a massive increase in the size of potential datasets that often include different types of data, such as texts, images, diagrams, music, and others. Recent developments in distributed processing (e.g., cloud computing) have enabled large-scale investigations of statistical machine-learning algorithms to infer meaning from these datasets. Researchers hope to use these algorithms to infer author sentiment from texts, disambiguate references to real-world entities, and perform a variety of other tasks important for web searches and other applications. In “Large-Scale Visual Semantic Extraction,” Samy Bengio, of Google Research, describes an approach to automatic image annotation that can scale to very large, varied datasets of images and labels.

The focus of the session on engineering sustainable buildings, chaired by Annie Pearce of Virginia Tech and John Zhai of the University of Colorado, was on the emerging integration and transformation of the architecture/engineering/construction industry, which is increasingly building sustainable buildings that benefit the social, economic, and natural environments. Modern design concepts for high-performance buildings, coupled with new building materials and advanced mechanical and electrical systems, require a comprehensive understanding of integrated building elements and systems, including the humans who design, operate, and occupy them. Two articles from this session are included in this issue of The Bridge.

In “Challenges and Opportunities for Low-Carbon Buildings,” John Ochsendorf discusses cutting-edge benchmarking for building performance and life-cycle-cost. He presents case studies of ultra low-carbon buildings designed by his team at MIT, summarizes key challenges to the design and implementation of low-carbon buildings in the United States, and describes the consequent new opportunities for engineers, whose role is crucial to the success of this changing market.

In the next article, “Using Information Technology to Transform the Green Building Market,” Christopher Pyke, of the U.S. Green Building Council, approaches the subject from an industry perspective. He describes how location-based services and social networks are driving market transformation for sustainable building. Chris discusses how the development of new tools for identifying, comparing, and rewarding high-achieving projects can drive continuous improvement (e.g., greenhouse gas emissions reductions, water conservation, and public health benefits) in the construction, operation, and life-cycle costs of green buildings.

The final session, on neuroprosthetics, chaired by Timothy Denison, Medtronic, and Justin Williams, University of Wisconsin, Madison, focused on the engineering of technologies that can interface with the human body, both for stimulating the nervous system and for processing and acting on signals from the nervous system.

In “The Evolution of Brain-Computer Interfaces,” Eric Leuthardt, of Washington University, discusses brain-computer interfaces that can acquire brain signals and translate them into machine commands that reflect the intentions of the user. Eric describes emerging technologies that can help severely impaired individuals communicate and participate more in the world around them.

In the final article, “Retinal Prosthetic Systems for the Treatment of Blindness,“ James Weiland and Mark Humayun, of USC, review the history of electrical stimulation of the nervous system and highlight recent clinical advances in retinal implants for the treatment of blindness. Although much remains to be done, some significant advances have been made that can improve quality of life for some blind people. The authors are optimistic that limited improvements in vision will be possible in the foreseeable future.

In addition to the talks, FOE symposia include lively Q&A sessions, panel discussions, and activities that encourage personal discussions and networking. In 2011, a series of five “lightning talks” by researchers from Google, which hosted the meeting, added to the excitement. The dinner speaker, a traditional highlight of FOE programs, was Alfred Spector, Vice President of Research and Special Initiatives at Google, Inc. His remarks centered on the evolution of computer science, how it has influenced the world, and how it will help humankind manage the grand challenges that lie ahead.

It has been my great privilege to serve as chair of the Organizing Committee for the U.S. FOE symposia for the last three years. The interdisciplinary approach of FOE events and the diversity of participants have made these meetings truly stimulating and memorable. I know I will miss participating in them in the future.

In closing, I want to express my gratitude to Janet Hunziker, NAE senior program officer, Elizabeth Weitzmann, program associate, and Lance Davis, NAE Executive Officer, for their contributions to the planning and implementation of this unique series. I also want to thank the sponsors of the 2011 symposium—Google, Inc., The Grainger Foundation, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, the Department of Defense ASDR&E Research Directorate-STEM Development Office, the National Science Foundation, Microsoft Research, and Cummins Inc.