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SME Speaks: The Society Then and Now

Richard Shoemaker






In 1932, when the Society of Tool Engineers (now the Society of Manufacturing Engineers) was originally formed, the world was in crisis and living through the Great Depression, where jobs and food were scarce. In 1933, at the worst point in the depression, more than 15 million Americans—one-quarter of the nation's workforce—were unemployed (MSN Encarta, 2009). The 33 members who originally formed SME during this turbulent time were a group of tool engineers and master mechanics who wanted to collaborate on how to build what gave the Motor City its name—the automobile.

In 1932, the automobile served as the keystone of American industry. As Detroit goes, so goes the nation, was the aphorism of the day, but in 1932 Detroit wasn't doing well. By 1932, automobile production had fallen 77% compared to the 1929 high of just over 4 million vehicles; production in 1932 was under 1 million vehicles (The Automotive Lyceum, 2009). From 1929 to 1934, with sales numbers suffering, three luxury automobile manufacturers—Jordan, Stearns-Knight, and Peerless—all ceased production (, 2009). Let's fast forward 77 years. The unemployment rate has risen to 8.9%, and since the recession began in December 2007, 5.1 million jobs have been lost (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2009). Chrysler LLC recently filed for bankruptcy, and General Motors made last-ditch efforts to avoid Chrysler's fate by making deep cuts and implementing a broad restructuring of its operations. Unfortunately, the company recently announced that it too is seeking bankruptcy protection. As in 1932, times in 2009 are tough, and a long road looms before recovery.

Even though there are 77 years between the Great Depression and our current recession, there are notable comparisons in the way Society members collaborate and the fruits of their association. SME was founded during what many would consider one of the worst times in American history; however, throughout the trials and tribulations of the 1930s, the Society slowly gained ground and became a growing, thriving organization. It was a time when our members relied on their sense of camaraderie, common needs, and vision to weather the economic crisis. This crisis did not deter them from continuing to learn or grow, but rather was the environment that necessitated their growth. They still pursued educational opportunities, interacted to disseminate technical knowledge, and found ways to invent better solutions.

Whether it's 1932 or 2009, SME's overall mission still holds true—to acquire and distribute manufacturing knowledge among our members and the broader manufacturing community, and be recognized as the global source for that knowledge. The Society continues to evolve and change to meet the current needs of our members and the manufacturing community at large.

When the Society first began, our members largely interacted on a local level, mainly through technical meetings. The first three chapters were formed in 1935. Today, SME members have the opportunity to interface not only through the more than 200 senior and 200 student chapters worldwide, but through the Technical Community Network (TCN). The TCN currently has eight technical communities and more than 50 technical groups. These tech groups evolve and change as the technologies do. The network was designed to be flexible so SME members can choose areas in which they would like to be involved, and how much involvement they would like to have.

The TCN is also a great place for SME members to learn about new technologies at the forefront of R&D, or practical solutions on the factory floor. Even during the Great Depression, when you'd think that innovation would be at its lowest, technical breakthroughs took place, some of which included abrasive belt grinding, the introduction of the induction-hardening method, and significant technological advances in external broaching. In comparison, in 2009 nanotechnology is at the forefront of technological advancements. In fact, according to the University of Massachusetts Lowell, nanotechnology inventions hit the national and international news almost daily. While nanotechnology may be one of the more well-known emerging technologies, there are others at the forefront that are having an impact on the future of manufacturing, particularly the innovations that were chosen as part of SME's member-driven program, Innovations That Could Change the Way You Manufacture.

The 2009 innovations list highlighted high-speed sintering, buckypaper, synthetic gecko tape, microlaser-assisted machining, wireless power transfer, and personal fabrication. These illustrate how creativity and thinking outside the box can be instrumental in bringing about change. Innovations and innovators also show us that we cannot allow our current economy to deter us from our mission. Let's look at this as a time of opportunity to forge ahead and be instrumental in changing our personal futures and the future of manufacturing. Now is the time to evaluate your processes, technology, and competitiveness, and ask what you can do to improve your bottom line. Obviously, it took several years before the Great Depression ended. It is unknown how long it will take to recover from the current recession we are experiencing. But regardless of this uncertainty, we do know that by working together, as our founding members did, we can come through this recession a stronger, leaner, and more effective nation, Society, and manufacturing community.


2009 Innovation: Synthetic Gecko Tape


By Arif Sirinterlikci
School of Engineering, Mathematics, and Science
Robert Morris University
Moon Township, PA

Conventional adhesive tapes stick on a surface when they are pressed on it, but a newly developed adhesive tape sticks to the surface as it slides on it. This new adhesive tape is based on an attribute of geckos, a lizard species. The inner workings of the tape, and current and possible future applications, make this tape an exciting product. These applications will span a broad range and include nanosurgery, robotics, and aerospace fields. The gecko-inspired adhesive tape is also a good example of biomimicry and nanotechnology working together.

According to the Biomimicry Institute (Missoula, MT), biomimicry is a relatively new discipline that studies nature's best designs and imitates them to solve human problems in efficient, simple, and sustainable ways that may also be harmonious with our environment. Applying biomimicry in engineering design can be done in two ways—either proceeding from design to nature or going from nature to design.

  • Design to nature works by identifying a design problem and turning to nature for the solution, as in the case of Japan's Shinkansen Bullet Train (designboom®.com, 2009). The loud banging noise problem of the train coming out of a tunnel was resolved by modeling the locomotive after the beak of the kingfisher bird.

  • Nature to design works by taking a natural design and implementing it through engineering. Velcro was invented by Swiss engineer George de Mestra in this way (Freeman and Goldman, 1997). The idea came to de Mestra after returning from a hunting trip with his dog, when he realized that the seeds of burdock plants were sticking to his clothes and his dog's fur. He studied the seeds under a microscope, and saw hundreds of hooks catching on anything with loops.

The gecko-inspired tape sticks only to the surface as it slides on it, just like a gecko foot does while climbing on a vertical surface. According to Kellar Autumn, a biologist at Lewis and Clark College (Portland, OR), 1100 different species of geckos populate the earth. Their name comes from the Indonesian/Javanese word gekok for their cry, since these lizards communicate with others by making chirping sounds (, 2009). Geckos' feet are covered with millions of tiny hairs called setae, and each hair branches out into billions of nanoscale spatulae (see Figure 1). In 2002, a research team led by Autumn and UC Berkeley engineer Ronald Fearing found that the network of gecko foot hairs form intermolecular bonds with the surface they interact through van der Waals forces (Autumn et al., 2002). The team also provided the first experimental verification of the van der Waals mechanism for this adhesion phenomenon. The bond was determined to be a thousand times stronger than what geckos need to stay on a wall.


Gecko feet at mesoscale (B), gecko seta at nanoscale (C), and gecko spatulae at nanoscale (D and E).


The new gecko-inspired adhesive tape employs nonsticking hard plastic microfiber arrays. Polypropylene was chosen by the researchers as a nontacky and wear-resistant material for the microfibers. Millions of microscopic contacts are needed for this frictional adhesion to occur. The microfibers adhere when they are bent over by sliding as little as 20 µm. The adhesive force increases with sliding distance and sliding (shear) force. A tape piece with a surface area of 2 cm2 can support a 400-g mass. In contact areas, the synthetic tape achieves onesixth of the adhesion value of the gecko's foot on smooth glass. The 42 million fibers populating each square centimeter are 15–20 micrometers long (which is one-fifth of the thickness of a sheet of paper) and 0.6 µm in diameter (1/100th the diameter of a human hair). Each fiber can support a load of 200 nanonewtons. Contact area also increases with higher shear loading, and disappears when shear load is removed, allowing controlled attachment and detachment.

Microfiber array adhesion is a reworkable phenomenon—contact is revived as long as the tape patch slides back on the surface, even after detachment. Another advantage of this tape over conventional ones is that there is no adhesive residue left after use. The gecko-inspired adhesive also gets stronger the more it is used (UC Berkeley, 2008). Adhesive nanostructures relying on van der Waals forces for hard elastic materials should have the ability to rejoin for self-repair following fracture. With joint design based on directionality of geckoinspired adhesives, self-disassembly and recycling can be reality as well. Because of a newly developed self-cleaning feature (UC Berkeley, 2008), adhesive nanostructures can greatly influence our dependence on cleaning chemicals and surface preparation, reducing cost and environmental impact. Due to their structure, the gecko adhesive microfibers have a tendency to push off dirt when adhesive is not in contact. When touching a smooth surface like glass, the microfibers have less contact area with the dirt particles than the glass, allowing particles to stick to the glass in place of the microfibers.

While the current microfiber array can only work on smooth surfaces, according to Professor Autumn, future versions could be employed for a wide variety of applications. "I think it is a useful lesson that the study of a lizard can have such broad and numerous applications ranging from nanosurgery to aerospace," he says. He continues to speculate on detailed use including microelectrical interconnects, wafer alignments, micromanipulation, robotics, and replacing ordinary screws, glues, and interlocking tabs in automotive dashboard or cell-phone assembly. He also indicates that using nontoxic and nonirritating materials to fabricate synthetic setae may affect biomedical applications such as endoscopy and tissue adhesives. Sporting goods or climbing robots may prove to be other alternative uses. With improvements in topography independence allowing sticking to rough surfaces, and self-cleaning, the uses of this innovative product can be expanded in many ways.



The author would like to thank Kellar Autumn and Ronald Fearing for their help and permission to use their materials.

This article was first published in the July 2009 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine. 


Published Date : 7/1/2009

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