Professor Ernesto Blanco: A Lesson in Creative Engineering by Melis A. '08
"Science and engineering are like two sides of a coin, where the value of the coin is progress." -Professor Ernesto Blanco
Design and Manufacturing I (2.007 in nerd-speak) involves two lectures and one 4-hour lab a week. During the lectures, Professor Slocum teaches us about the FUNdaMENTALs of design and we have guest speakers share their real-world experience with the design process. These speakers have included the Chief Engineer of General Motors and an engineer from Texas Instruments who designed a sensor that detects the weight of a passenger and decides whether the air bag should deploy. Professor Ernesto Blanco, who has developed numerous ingenious inventions throughout his career, gave some of my favorite guest lectures. I thought I’d share his background and some of his inventions, since I came to MIT to learn from creative engineering gurus like Blanco and Slocum.
Professor Blanco was born and raised in Havana, Cuba. He studied Engineering at the University of Havana before coming to the US in 1949 to get his BS in Mechanical Engineering from Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI). After graduation he returned to Cuba to found the Mechanical Engineering lab at Havana’s Universidad de Villanueva and become the Department Chair in 1957. Even the lab space was innovative, it was completely prefabricated and post-tensioned and was constructed in only two months. However, he returned to the US in 1960 because of the Cuban Revolution. Before becoming a adjunct Full Professor, he consulted with the Universal Textile Corp, making textile inventions like a faulty needle sensor for knitting machines, and then he started his own business.
Blanco’s inventions include biomedical devices, solar devices, aids for the handicapped, industrial systems, and textile systems. His office is home to many of these devices and it’s pretty amazing to stand in the middle and look around. Against one corner rests space-suit like football armor that protects the seven cervical vertebrae that give structure to your neck and can be destroyed by the hit of a hand. Traditional football padding provides absolutely no protection to this area, though you can die instantly from such an injury.
On a desk lies a model of a stair-climbing wheelchair. Professor Blanco actually share the design process that lead to this invention in 2.007. In 1959, the National Inventors Council offered $5,000 to anyone who could develop a plan for a stair-climbing wheelchair. Blanco submitted a design in 1962 but did not receive a prize (interesting enough, none of the partial prize winners’ designs worked when commercially developed.) To test his design, he built a 1/4 scale model that moves using an electric motor and found that it could, in fact, climb stairs, and he demonstrated the model in class. “The approach consisted of a reclinable-seat wheelchair provided with retractable, spring-loaded spokes that comes out of the rims when the chair is tilted for climbing. The spokes in essence behave as compliant pinions against the stairs as a rack. As a result the wheels adapt to any type of stairs and will not slip because the static reactions are always vertical and have no tendency to slip, besides that, they are rubber-tipped at the spokes. The tilting frames are also provided with an additional fixed spokes wheel at the back side to facilitate climbing.” Professor Blanco is looking for some students to build a full-scale functioning wheelchair based on his design.
He opened his desk drawer and pulled out some of his biomedical devices. First, he showed a micro-stapler for eye operations. The staples are only 1 mm x 300 um, so small that that they have to produced using etching. The micro-stapler is very fast and easy to use, so it cuts down significantly on suturing time and trauma. He also showed a trocar used for endoscopic surgery that uses an ingenious guard design to pretty much eliminate the possibility of accidentally cutting internal organs when penetrating the skin. On the wall hung a picture of a robotic arm for focused ultrasonic transducers, which he developed for the Dana Farber Cancer Institute.
One invention that could not fit in his office is the backseat of the SRX, Cadillac’s new luxury mid-size SUV Cadillac. The Lear Corporation, the largest automotive seating manufacturer was approached by Cadillac to design backseats that could disappear with the push of a button. Lear came to Prof. Blanco and he worked with them for about 9 hours (!) to create a design that met their specifications. The mock-up was built in a month and it took two years to design the production machinery. The car hit the market in 2004 and was a complete success, since it can nearly instantly transform from a 7-seater to a 2-seat carry wagon.
Professor Blanco has over a dozen patented inventions, but spends much of his time teaching Mechanical Engineering classes at MIT. He teaches The Elements of Mechanical Design (2.72), where students work in groups of three or four working to solve a problem that is presented by a member of the industry. Each class has yielded a patent, leading to a total of seven patents in seven years (almost a Guinness record!)
“Elements of Mechanical Design” embodies Prof. Blanco’s mantra: engineering should serve society. He sees engineering as a challenge that can always be met. In his lectures, he starts with a problem that he was given and steps through his thinking. He makes sure to always share his “fear, anxiety, insecurity” but also his success. Even if we start analyzing a problem and it seems impossible, he pushes us to just get our ideas down on paper and become our own critics. The situation is never desperate, he assured us.
He says that at MIT, students are taught beautifully how to analyze everything, but says that analysis is only a tool. His goal is for students to learn the process of engineering synthesis and also the critical dependence of engineering on experimentation. “Science and engineering are like two sides of a coin, where the value of the coin is progress,” he said. The responsibility of educators, he says, is to tell their students to think out of the box and also enforce the importance of experimentation.
I’ll end with a story that he shared, based on the experiment of a behavioral psychologist, which explains the behavior of extremely intelligent people in comparison to their disorganized counterparts. In the experiment, bees and flies were trapped in a bottle with a flat bottom. After a few minutes, the lid was removed so the insects now had a way to escape. The flies, which have a very disorganized flight path, all found the escape route and left the bottle within two minutes. However, the bees stayed near the bottom and consumed all their energy until they died. He says that teachers must educate their students on how to get out of the bottle, otherwise very intelligent beings (like bees) can fail to survive.
Picture from: http://web.mit.edu/invent/iow/blanco.html