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March 2011

February 2011

On 3D printing

The Economist recently put a violin manufactured using 3D printing on its cover - one of the few times where engineering made the front page - and discussed the technology in that issue's "leaders" and "briefing" sections. Here are some highlights:

  • 3D printing is an additive (as opposed to subtractive) manufacturing technology where you build a product layer by layer - for instance, "depositing material from a nozzle" - rather than removing unneeded material.
  • 3D printing enables the production of items in very small quantities; you might create one spare part for your car or, say, one lampshade. In fact, the technology has been used for years for prototypes - what is new is that the finished product is now made using 3D printing too.
  • For now, the process only works with certain materials and 3D printers remain expensive, but costs have been falling. According to The Economist: "It is already competitive with plastic injection-moulding for runs of around [up to] 1,000 items." The technology, which allows for mass customization, gives people a say in the design of their favorite products - The Economist uses the example of cellphone cases, customized by a company named Digital Forming. The briefing has many other examples of companies using 3D printing.
  • Two quotes I found interesting: "Some in the industry believe that the effect of 3D printing on manufacturing will be analogous to that of the inkjet printer on document printing" and "The threat to [DHL]'s business is clear: why would a company airfreight an urgently needed spare part from abroad when it could print one where it is required?"
  • The articles also make very interesting points regarding intellectual property and what 3D printers will mean for imitators.

Another excellent article is "3D printing spurs a manufacturing revolution" in the New York Times back in September - using prosthetic body parts as its main example.

John Hunter at the Curious Cat blog posted a fun video about a ten-year-old discussing 3D printers. He also has several posts discussing the technology, especially "3D printing is here". In addition, YouTube has many videos demonstrating the 3D printing process. You can also skim through Wikipedia's 3D printing page. Now might be a good time for all of us to learn AutoCAD.

Engineers Week 2011

Did you know this week is National Engineers Week? Many fascinating events are planned, including the Future City Competition Finals for 6th, 7th and 8th graders - I wrote about the competition in December 2007; you can read my old post here. From the competition website: "The National Engineers Week Future® City Competition is an example of problem based learning with computer simulation.  It is an integrated, multidisciplinary, holistic approach to relevant issues and is a strong example of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, & Mathematics) education that addresses national and state academic content standards."

Quite amazingly, Engineers Week was founded in 1951 by the National Society of Professional Engineers and is "[d]edicated to raising public awareness of engineers' positive contributions to quality of life" (source). While I wish it a happy anniversary, I did not know this push to raise awareness had begun far before the Sputnik years. I wonder if it means engineers 60 years already felt they struggled with interesting others in their profession, especially schoolchildren expected to follow in their footsteps. Sadly, it probably does. But today's kids, whether they choose to pursue engineering as a college major (let alone a career path) in the end or not, benefit from activities such as the Future City competition, which uses the amazing SimCity software and emphasizes skills, such as teamwork and problem-solving, that are critical in many fields outside engineering.

My favorite nonprofit First Book, which is dedicated to bringing books to underprivileged children, will post a series of blog posts about engineers this week. Chandler Arnold, First Book's executive vice-president and director of First Book Marketplace, points out: "Not long ago, First Book introduced a Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) section on the First Book Marketplace, our award-winning online bookstore for programs serving kids in need. This special STEM section is made possible through our partnership with Lockheed Martin, a global security company, and its K-12 education initiative, Engineers in the Classroom." In these times where many companies are cutting back on philanthropic giving and non-essential spending, Lockheed Martin's commitment to helping disadvantaged children succeed in STEM fields is truly refreshing. You can read the whole blog post here.

The first Lockheed Martin engineer profiled on the First Book blog this week is a young woman named Amanda Tippey, who works in the Dallas office. Here is an excerpt of her post, directed at young students: "For me, it was the creative aspect of engineering that appealed the most; for others, it’s the practical, the technological or, believe it or not, the analytical side of the work that most fascinates. It’s this amazing variety within the field that draws so many of us to engineering – and makes it so difficult to narrowly define."

I am looking forward to the other engineering-related posts this week!

Entrepreneurship at Lehigh and the @dockem example

Lehigh University was recently named 16th in the country for its undergraduate entrepreneurship program, thanks to its Dexter F Baker Institute for Entrepreneurship, Creativity and Innovation. (Dexter Baker, Lehigh '50, '57G, retired from Air Products as chairman of the board and chief executive officer in 1992 and is a Trustee Emeritus of the Lehigh Board of Trustees. You can read more about the gift made by the Dexter and Dorothy Baker foundation to create the institute here. Baker Hall at Zoellner Arts Center is also named after the Bakers due to their generous contribution in the arts center' $33-million capital campaign.) The institute runs the entrepreneurship minor for undergraduates and the MBA concentration in corporate entrepreneurship.

An example of idea that originated in the Lehigh entrepreneurship program is that of the Dockem, which is a simple yet efficient accessory to mount on walls iPads, iPhones, Droids, or just about anything less than 5lbs in weight and 20mm in thickness. It is the invention of Christopher Moyer, Lehigh '10, a Thalheimer Fellow in the 2009-2010 Eureka! Ventures Competition Series, who first designed it for his own use and is now looking for financing through the Kickstarter funding platform. He has already raised close to $6,500 in a little over 5 weeks and needs to raise about $3,500 more by March 10 for his project to get funded; otherwise, the Dockem will not be manufactured. A pledge of $15 amounts to pre-ordering 1 Dockem. Another popular pledging amount is $65, or 5 Dockems at a steep discount.

Christopher has uploaded several great videos demonstrating the use of his product (also see this page) and the strength of the removable command strips that hold the Dockem (the Dockem itself is made of ABS plastic and manufactured via injection molding, which requires custom steel molds, hence the $10,000 threshold to get the project started).

You can learn more about the Kickstarter funding platform on its Wikipedia page; the key idea is that people interested in backing a project pledge money but no money changes hands if a funding threshold is not met by a deadline. Kickstarter is an example of "crowdfunding" and was thrown into the spotlight through the success of the iPod nano watch kit, which brought in almost $950,000 in 30 days, far exceeding the funding threshold of $15,000. Hopefully the Dockem will soon be another example of a successful product launched through the Kickstarter platform.

More resources:

Pricing Live Music

The Economist recently published an article on pricing trends in the live concert business (Pricing the Piper, January 2011) - a fascinating application of revenue management.

According to the head of Live Nation Entertainment (owner of Live Nation and Ticketmaster), 40% of seats are regularly left unsold. This represents a significant improvement opportunity, in "one of the few businesses in which second-hand goods often sell for more than new ones." Ticket providers on the primary market, such as Ticketmaster, "have tried to capture some of this huge secondary market by setting up ticket exchanges", but the strategy might backfire with consumers viewing Ticketmaster as only a primary-market outfit, according to the article.

Some of the new strategies come straight from the revenue management playbook. For instance, price segmentation, which offers different prices for a product with different features, takes advantage of the varying willingness to pay of consumers. In the airline industry, travelers who need a refundable ticket are willing to pay quite a bit more for the extra option. In the field of events management, this translates into premium or platinum seats, typically closer to the stage and thus more expensive. Because the people willing to buy such seats self-identify as individuals for whom the concert means a lot, those seats also end up in high demand (at an even higher premium) in the secondary market.

Another traditional revenue management technique that is gaining ground in the music industry is early-bird pricing. This is particularly relevant for live concerts since failure to sell enough tickets early will often lead to the event's cancelation; early buys can also help generate "buzz" among fans.

Here is the paragraph that most caught my attention (part of my research focuses on pricing, especially dynamic pricing): "American sports teams such as the San Francisco Giants are [already] moving to allow the prices of all individual tickets to float according to demand... [T]he potential for dynamic pricing is much greater in pop music because there are no season-ticket holders."

The author points out is that live concerts involve many more players than in traditional revenue management applications ("an artist, a promoter, a ticket-seller and a venue [owner]"), which complicates any attempt at optimization, but revenue-sharing schemes have also been studied in the academic literature, for instance in the context of airline codesharing, as well as in supply chain management. Maybe an idea or two in there would benefit the music industry. If academics can't become rock stars, at least they can help them.


Sorry for not updating the blog over the past couple of weeks! I am currently working on a number of projects that are demanding quite a bit of attention, but am now finding time to return to the blog. Here are a couple of quick updates:

  • I have become the chairwoman of the Public Information Committee at INFORMS. The goal of the committee is to raise visibility and increase understanding of operations research and management science in the general public and corporate management. More information about the committee's plans coming soon!
  • My (former) doctoral student Mike Dziecichowicz was awarded his PhD last month and is starting his new job as Senior (Adviser) in the Advisory Services Practice within the Financial Services Group at Ernst & Young next week. He will be based in New York City. Good luck to him in that next stage of his career!
  • My doctoral student Ruken Duzgun passed her general exam and is now officially a PhD candidate. She is applying for positions starting in September. You can find more information on Ruken here.
  • This semester, I am working with two undergraduate students (seniors), two Master's students, and three doctoral students. I will share more about their work as the semester progresses. In addition, I am teaching financial optimization (a Master's level course), supervising the financial engineering projects and sitting on a number of committees. I am also excited about a couple of opportunities for the fall semester and beyond.
  • I received my teaching evaluations and the summary statement for the senior elective I taught in the fall, on operations research models and applications. (Dear anonymous commenters who suggested modifications for next year: I liked your suggestions a lot and plan to implement them or something very close to them. Dear anonymous commenters who said they liked the course etc: Thank you. It means more than you'll ever know.) The job has its challenges, but Lehigh students are what makes it all worthwhile.
  • (Added February 15) Congratulations to my student Ruken Duzgun for being selected as one of the six graduate students representing the
    Engineering College at the university-wide Academic Symposium on March 29! She will present a poster about our research.