Sunday, July 1, 2007

SDM fuels engineer’s move to technical management

By William Taylor, chief engineer for engine integration at Eaton Corporation and SDM alumnus

I graduated from MIT’s System Design and Management Program in 2002. Since that time, my career has taken me to Eaton Corporation in Southfield, Michigan, where I'm chief engineer for engine integration in Eaton's truck division. Although my job and responsibilities have changed a lot over the years, I still use lessons from the SDM program every day.

Before SDM, I was working as an engineer in the Advanced Technologies Group at ArvinMeritor, performing CFD and FEA simulations for advanced products. At that time I was a capable engineer, but I had never been a manager of people. When I returned to the company after the SDM program, I was given oversight of a new R&D program with six to seven engineers.

After a couple years, I moved up to become a director of R&D at ArvinMeritor’s emissions technology group, overseeing the work of around 20 people in our controls group. That was a challenging role, navigating the development of new technologies under the pressure of product deadlines. It really required me to put my MIT education into practice.

In research and development, sometimes the best ideas are hiding in the shadows. There were two engineers with a great product idea—a concept for an emission-control system that they had developed on the side. It was given the green light by top management, and my team was charged with making it into a product.

At first, the two originators were involved in every aspect of the design—it was their baby. But as the team grew, it became clear that these two people couldn't make every decision. I had to increase the team, to 10-15 engineers. And I had to transfer decision-making away from the original two-man team and into a structured teamwide process.

I decomposed the full system down into four key subsystems, using the DSM tool as taught in SDM. Because the system was so new, it required many judgment calls about which components to lump together into subsystems. Here, I relied heavily on principles from MIT's System Architecture course. In the end, the system was broken down into four key subsystems: combustor, air subsystem, fuel subsystem and controls.

Each subsystem had an owner, and each owner had design authority over his piece. With this structure in place, the experts called the shots, and my job became focused on integration. For example, conflicts would arise between the air systems team (who wanted a small, inexpensive air source) and the combustor team (who wanted more air for more complete combustion). My job was to help them work together—and sometimes, to force them to work together.

My SDM experience ultimately taught me how to manage the people and the technology successfully. We were able to create a viable product from the technology, and systems thinking made it happen.

Engineering R&D isn’t the only part of my job that I do better thanks to the SDM program. Tools from SDM also help me interact with customers during the product design process. In my current role at Eaton, we take a strategic view of product design. This means developing a deeper understanding of our customer and tuning our value proposition precisely to their needs.

Ultimately, what's most important is for our engineers to make decisions that drive value for our customers. When my team members understand the customer, they can design and develop products accordingly; I get involved only where necessary. MIT gave me the insights and education to lead a systems-oriented team.

Systems approach helps team win Soldier Design prize

By Arthur Mak, SDM ’07

Over the past several months, I have found my SDM learnings invaluable for navigating the complex technical and managerial challenges of designing a new product: a portable mission planner that allows individual soldiers to rehearse missions in a virtual environment.

SDM fellow Arthur Mak, second from left, poses with his prize-winning team. They are (from left) Aseem Kishore, Jeremy Richardson, SDM fellow Nathan Minami, Jason Vuu, Brian Wong and Albert Park.
Photo by Forrest Liau

This work was done for MIT’s Soldier Design Competition (SDC), whose goal is to generate new products and systems that will enhance soldier survivability and combat effectiveness. Sponsored by MIT’s Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies, the competition is open to teams from MIT and from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

Two talented undergrads, Brian Wong and Albert Park, generated the core idea—a spherical, surrounding computer environment to replace computer monitors, which are so limited in scope. They presented the concept for this complex system of integrated hardware and software to SDC judges, and the Atmosphere Systems team advanced to the finals.

With only five months to take the project from concept to working prototype, Wong and Park needed more resources. They asked Major Nathan Minami, a 14-year Army veteran and SDM ’06 student, to be the team’s mentor and lead user. Undergrads Jeremy Richardson, Aseem Kishore and Jason Vuu were recruited to develop hardware and software components. I was brought onboard to help with overall technology and IP development, using my system design background.

The key ingredient of the display system is its carefully conceived system architecture, which is built around the core display technology. The architecture allows the system to be portable, affordable, communication capable and quick to assemble and disassemble.

The initial design called for an 8-foot-diameter spherical screen to provide a 360-degree panoramic experience. In order to create a truly realistic battlefield environment, we used a computer with high performance graphics cards and relied on projectors to display the large imagery on the curved screen. Multiple projectors were required, so we needed to split the imagery signal from the computer into each projector to form one coherent image.

As the core of our technology offering, the display medium went through more than 10 physical iterations in terms of shape, size, material and support structure. Its form varied from an eggshell-like plaster constructed using an 8-foot inflatable balloon to an inflatable parachute. The final form is a cylindrical display built of metal frames and translucent plastic sheets, which can be assembled and disassembled within minutes.

On the software side, Minami’s advice ensured that our application met the military customer’s needs. We created a simple yet powerful set of mission coordination tools and used a 3D interactive device to allow users to "fly" through a realistic battlefield scenario to coordinate missions.

Unfortunately, when we integrated the system, interfaces became problematic—the short distance between the projector and the curved screen created distortions. We chose to fix this through optical and physical adjustments to the focus and concentrate the computer processor on generating high-resolution graphics.

Our most daunting challenges involved developing the system’s core technology in just a few months. We had to create complicated applications in an unfamiliar military domain and integrate the system components to generate a virtual application. I frequently found myself relying on my SDM education. Learnings from the Product Design Process class helped our team understand and utilize the lead user process. The System Architecture course formed the backbone of our system innovation and helped us to file a strong patent application. Coursework in Technology Strategy guided us in making rational choices throughout the development of our technology.

We also benefited from a core value of the program, the willingness of SDM students (like Minami, who patiently educated us about his military experience) to share their unique skills.

We learned many important systems engineering lessons during the process. The human operator, for example, is often a system’s most neglected component. In our case, safety concerns about air ventilation inside the display system forced us to open up the enclosed sphere design and use a cylinder instead.

On April 10, we exhibited our display to almost 30 Army judges at the SDC Final. Our team placed third, winning the $3,000 Lockheed Martin Award. The monetary prize is not nearly as important to us as the Army experts’ stamp of approval on our product feasibility.

Subsequently, we exhibited our first commercial prototype during MIT’s Science Showcase on April 28. Team Atmosphere is continuing to develop its virtual mission planner and had plans to incorporate in June.