I hope this message finds you safe and well. It has been an extraordinary year, one that has underscored the grit, resolve, and dedication of our entire community — our faculty, staff, students, and alumni alike. As chair of the University of Michigan Department of Mechanical Engineering (U-M ME), I have been privileged to witness their remarkable commitment and resilience in so many ways.
Prior to the emergence of the novel coronavirus and pandemic, we had begun the reflective and forward-looking (and fun) process of updating our department’s branding. Given the direct impact our work as mechanical engineers has on the world around us, the new branding focuses on how we “Make the world work better” by transforming futures, improving lives, and realizing breakthroughs.
Implicit in these taglines is an important question mechanical engineers and mechanical engineering researchers are always asking: How will I make a difference?
Nowhere is the role and impact of mechanical engineering more evident than in the way our community quickly mobilized and pivoted to ensure our teaching, research, and service initiatives not only continued but would help address the global pandemic. Together, we quickly developed new approaches to and practices for remote instruction, the safe operation and return to our research labs, maintaining our internal and external collaborations, and supporting one another.
The efforts have been nothing less than remarkable.
On the research front, our faculty have made important contributions. One group of researchers has created models of air and aerosol flow inside buses that have led to recommendations and practices for campus and other types of school buses to reduce the spread of COVID-19 infection. (These include shorter routes, open windows, masks, and reduced capacity.) As you might expect, the research team drew on the talent and expertise of investigators College-wide.
To address resource limitations and transmission risks in emergency rooms and intensive care units globally, faculty have developed a portable negative pressure helmet system that can be mass-produced to protect caregivers and, in many cases, keep patients from needing mechanical ventilation. Other research has looked at the impact of COVID-19 on supply chains and U.S. manufacturing, finding that nearly 75% of U.S. companies have experienced major disruptions. The work can be used to inform policy recommendations for manufacturing competitiveness. A startup company, co-founded by one of our faculty, has been piloting the use of autonomous robots for restaurant take-out delivery. Currently, eight robots are delivering four times as many orders to Ann Arbor customers as they were pre-pandemic.
In our courses, faculty and instructional staff adapted materials and assignments to ensure learning objectives and milestones could be met virtually. This was a particularly tall order in our project-based courses, where students otherwise would have built physical prototypes. The shift to virtual tools has taught students, and graduate student instructors, different, but no less important, skills as they work toward their degrees and shape their careers.
Our work continues as we adjust to a “new normal.” Every day we ask ourselves the question that drives our research, our teaching, our service, our discoveries, and our impact: How will we make a difference?
I sincerely hope you’re as inspired as I am by reading about the work of our ME community, work that answers that important and especially relevant question. Thank you for your time and interest.
Tim Manganello/BorgWarner Department Chair and
Maria Comninou Collegiate Professor of Mechanical Engineering