SME Speaks: Technical Communities Provide Crucial Information
Don't tell Google, but we really can't use the Internet to find information that will solve every problem. When we need information in the real world, it's about precision, not volume.
Let's say you have a specific manufacturing engineering-related question that none of your usual colleagues can answer. Starting a Google search under "engineering" gives you roughly 550 billion links. Looking under "manufacturing engineering" yields you about 75 billion, significantly less, but still too much information to sort through.
Experience tells us that getting to the right answer means asking the right question. So you narrow your question to the latest applications of UV imaging in machine vision. You try another Google search, but this time you get right to the point with the key phrase: "UV imaging applications in machine vision." This time you generate 872,000 results. This is still not good enough, so you refine your inquiry: "What are the latest UV imaging applications in machine vision?" The result: more than 38,000 links.
You may ask: Where am I going with this?
Now let's say you're an SME member with the same information needs. If you still want to search online, you can go to Forums on the SME Web site and post a question on the Machine Vision discussion board, where experts on the subject are quick to answer. If you're a member of your local SME chapter, you have access to others who may be able to help. And if you're also a member of the Machine Vision technical group within SME's Automated Manufacturing & Assembly Community, you can communicate directly with colleagues around the world who share your interests.
Automated Manufacturing & Assembly is one of the seven communities that make up the SME Technical Community Network (TCN). The network offers a flexible framework within which you can meet your information needs. Its seven communities represent key areas within the manufacturing enterprise, and each includes a variety of specialized technical groups through which hundreds of members meet both physically and virtually. Members collaborate regularly to advance both their individual knowledge and their collective knowledge.
The communities and groups within the TCN are self-forming. About 11,000 manufacturing engineers are currently members of the TCN, and the network includes more than 40 separate technical groups. Participation continues to grow, with new members joining and new tech groups coming into existence each day.
Why is the TCN so popular? Well, as chair of the Manufacturing Enterprise Council which oversees the TCN, I know there's more than just one reason.
- Expanding personal network of contacts
First, the TCN helps people expand their networks of contacts. We know that engineers tend to gravitate towards people in their local areas when they are seeking additional technical know-how. Because the TCN is made up of manufacturing practitioners from around the world, access to network resources and individual experts can happen 24/7, and this helps TCN members reach outside their regular channels.
- Fostering cross-pollination of ideas
While the TCN includes seven distinct communities, the network is still fluid. Members can participate in any or all of the communities and technical groups within them; because of this, there is a good deal of "cross-pollination" of ideas across communities. People interested in lean manufacturing can share information with those focused on automation; those interested in machining and material removal can discuss solutions with their colleagues who are focused on forming and fabricating. There are endless opportunities to reach out to experts outside your industry.
- Encouraging out-of-the-box thinking
Membership in the TCN includes manufacturing engineers from a very wide range of industries. Because of this, members often find unexpected, but highly innovative, solutions to their manufacturing challenges.
Recently, one of the members of a technical group asked his TCN colleagues for help. His company makes ceramic tubes used in fuel cells, and coatings would not stick to the tubes. Another engineer—a die expert who works in the foodservice industry developing dies for pasta—shared some of the techniques used to create better adhesion of sauce to pasta. Because the dies used by the foodservice engineer were surprisingly similar to the dies used for the ceramic tubes, several of the pasta-die techniques were applicable to the member's ceramic-tube problems.
Who would have thought that solutions coming out of foodservice manufacturing could apply to fuelcell manufacturing? While most of the innovations coming out of the TCN experience aren't quite as unusual as this one, they are, nonetheless, ideas that might never be born without access to experts across many process technologies.
- Serving as a venue in which to hone leadership skills
The TCN provides an excellent venue for engineers to develop leadership skills outside of their "day jobs." We are all looking to advance our careers, but sometimes it's not easy to test your wings in your current role. Human nature dictates that you may be hesitant to try something new and fail miserably in front of your boss. By taking a leadership role in a technical group or community, however, you can test things out and see if you've got what it takes in a much more forgiving and nurturing environment. SME membership also provides access to events and seminars that offer training in leadership skills.
- Working in collaboration with networks of local people
In addition to the information-sharing benefits of the TCN, similar opportunities are available through SME's local communities: its chapters. When the Society was formed in 1932, its entire focus was on helping engineers share information face-to-face through meetings, local events, plant tours, and more. With 200-plus senior chapters and an additional 200-plus student chapters, that's still a critical focus. As an enhancement to membership, the TCN was formed to round out the opportunities for SME members to get the information and experiences they need.
Most recently, I have been working closely with Dan Armock, the chair of the Member Council, which oversees the SME local chapter communities. Our objective is to coordinate the activities of those SME members who have historically been involved at the chapter level with the TCN. The Society exists to provide its members and the entire manufacturing community with opportunities for knowledge-sharing, so our shared goal is to provide a seamless information-sharing experience for all manufacturing engineers, regardless of their "point of entry."
We are continually looking for ways to provide real value to all members. A recent member survey, an idea from the Forming & Fabricating Community, has given us new insight into what works and what doesn't in the ever-changing manufacturing environment. We thank all of you who participated in the survey. A recent Leadership Boot Camp was an offshoot of this and other inputs from our active members. Other such events are in the works. Keep an eye out for one in your area.
In today's world, it's rare that anyone needs more information to dig through. What we need is quick and convenient access to the right information. SME provides a real solution for manufacturing professionals, and I am proud to be part of our network.
Mark Michalski is responsible for leading SME's Manufacturing Enterprise Council (MEC). The MEC was created in 1999 to guide the development of SME's technology portfolio. It serves SME and the manufacturing community by recommending manufacturing processes and technology areas for development of new services, and by monitoring the health and well-being of the SME TCN.
Manufacturing Leaders Named SME Fellows
Four manufacturing leaders have been elected to the SME College of Fellows for 2006. Recipients are recognized by SME, their peers, and the manufacturing community as key contributors to the social, technical, and educational progress of manufacturing.
Kornel F. Ehmann, PhD, FSME
James N. and Nancy J. Farley Professor in Manufacturing and Entrepreneurship
Department of Mechanical Engineering
Thomas R. Kurfess, PhD, FSME, CMfgT, PE
Professor and BMW Chair of Manufacturing
Department of Mechanical Engineering
Director of the Carroll A. Campbell Jr. Graduate Engineering Center
International Center for Automotive Research
John P. Mistretta, FSME
Chief of Manufacturing Technology Division
United States Air Force Research Laboratory
Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio
Koya Takazawa, FSME, PE
C'EST LA VIE Technical Lab
Kamakura-City, Kanagawa, Japan
This article was first published in the October 2006 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine.