CITRIS Chief Scientist Paul Wright elected to the National Academy of Engineering

The National Academy of Engineering announced in its press release on February 9th the election of Paul Wright as well as of 63 new members and nine foreign associates. Election to the National Academy of Engineering is among the highest professional distinctions accorded to an engineer.

An Interview with Paul Wright

Yvette Subramanian interviewed Paul Wright about his role in CITRIS and the NAE citation “For the invention of the first open architecture control of manufacturing systems and for development of Internet Based CAD/CAM systems”.

YS: Congratulations Professor Wright, you must be very pleased?

PW: Yes I am thrilled to be elected, and I am very grateful to the many colleagues that I have worked with over the years in the research work that applies IT and sensors to product design, prototyping, CAD/CAM and manufacturing systems.

YS: Can you tell us more specifically about the first part of the citation “invention of the first open architecture control of manufacturing systems?”

PW: In the late 1980s, I was a Professor in the Courant Institute of New York University (coincidentally with our good CITRIS friend Jim Demmel) and yet also maintained an Adjunct position from my many years as a Professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburg, PA. In both places we had been funded by NSF, DARPA and the Air Force, to create “Intelligent Manufacturing Systems, Machine Tools, and Robots” so that US manufacturing could become more cost effective and also create high-precision products. The individual machine tools and robots at that time were often criticized for being “isolated islands of automation” rather than being easily orchestrated into a fully integrated autonomous system. As a result, we set about re-designing the inner controller architecture of the machines so that they could share design files, sensor information, and scheduling constraints.

YS: What was an example of the new capability?

PW: One afternoon we sat in Pittsburgh and used AutoCAD to design a fairly simple mechanical part made from aluminum. We then sent the design file over the “then Arpanet” to a machine tool controller at NYU. We then successfully machined the part with standard fixtures and tooling without any need for human-intervention. The machine tool software recognized the part features, generated simple fixture locations, executed the cutting paths, and then checked the part dimensions with a touch-probe that we also integrated into the machine’s controller. It was the “open-ness” of the new controller that allowed the interaction between the design and manufacturing software and also allowed the integration of the sensors, the fixtures, and a simple robotic hand to load and unload the aluminum parts to and from the machine.

YS: How has that developed in industry?

PW: The example above seems very obvious now as we look back on the growth and use of CAD/CAM over the “now Internet.” All large industries in the US and EU — from aerospace, to cars, to humble vacuum cleaners ‘ carry out their creative work in local design studios but then ship manufacturing files over the Internet to prototyping and manufacturing operations where labor costs are much lower.

YS: So does that mean you put US workers out of a job?

PW: No quite the opposite; we created an environment where highly skilled organizations in the US and EU can maximize their best human skills — in finance, market analysis, ethnography, industrial design, and operations research — to orchestrate large scale commerce and manufacturing, But then, to get their lowest cost machining and assembly done by collaborators and services “out there on the Internet.”

YS: What about the second part of the citation “development of Internet Based CAD/CAM systems.”

PW: This grew out of the open architecture work but was much more a Berkeley project that took off when I joined the Mechanical Engineering faculty in July 1991. I was lucky to recruit some outstanding PhD students: Sanjay Sarma, Steve Schofield, Frank Wang, Jamie Stori, Robert Hillaire and V. Sundararajan. Then, throughout the 1990s with my close friends David Dornfeld (ME) and Carlo Sequin (CS) we created a project on Internet-based CAD/CAM with substantial NSF funds and a large commitment from Ford Motor Company. Ford helped us create the extensive laboratory complex for rapid prototyping on the 2nd floor of Etcheverry Hall (the home of Berkeley’s Mechanical Engineering Department). We coined the phrases CyberCut and CyberBuild for our project to emphasize the connection between designers “out there on the Internet” obtaining manufacturing services at another node (our labs in this case). By the late-1990s we expanded the basic machining work on the open architecture milling machines to Carlo’s rapid prototyping software on a Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) machine, and Dave’s precision manufacturing software for highly accurate and burr-free components.

YS: How does this relate to CITRIS?

PW: I was honored to be a part of the CITRIS proposal in the year 2000 where we recognized that these ME/Etcheverry labs sponsored by Ford Motor Company could be used to enhance education for all 4 CITRIS campuses. In addition, it was clear that we now had a phenomenal “design and prototyping studio environment” where graduate students in particular could quickly “fab” prototypes for CITRIS projects in (say) energy and the environment, fire-fighting, security devices, and IT-based medical products.

YS: How is this being used today for CITRIS?

PW: My favorite example is a very large CITRIS project funded by the Public Interest Energy Research (PIER) program of the California Energy Commission (CEC). I was very fortunate in 1999 to obtain an NSF award with Ed Arens in Architecture, Jan Rabaey in EECS and Kris Pister in EECS. Simply put, we began to use wireless sensor networks to create “smart buildings” and improve energy use for heating and cooling. My own role was to design and prototype the individual wireless nodes and (with another very gifted PhD student Shad Roundy) power them with ambient vibrations from the building itself – hence eliminating the need for replaceable batteries. From there, the four of us developed — with our colleagues David Auslander (ME), Dick White (EECS), Seth Sanders (EECS), more recently Jim Evans and Tom Devine (MSE) and Ron Hofmann and Gaymond Yee (CEC/CIEE) — a larger collaboration with PIER/CEC on Demand Response. In this project we are creating the enabling technology and prototypes for wireless systems that will allow price signals to be sent into CA residences. Then, especially during those hot sweltering months of July through October in California, a new system of price-responsive energy usage will encourage all residents to use less electricity at critical times (for AC, clothes washing/drying, and other large loads). This will prevent rolling black/brown-outs and actually reduce the near term need for more power plants hence saving costs and improving the impact on the environment.

YS: And so what is next?

PW: The use of these design and prototyping facilities in Etcheverry Hall will obviously continue for many CITRIS projects in healthcare, services, and intelligent infrastructures (such as energy, water, earthquake safety and sustainability). At the same time of course we will work with many colleagues and students to offer similar “fab” and “prototyping” spaces for creative work in the new CITRIS building. Together with the Nano-Lab prototyping facilities (a brand new and modernized version of the Cory Hall Micro-Lab), CITRIS will be home to a broad array of creative facilities for faculty and student projects/products in the service of society!