Engineering and Science [that matters] for Fun and Profit

Joseph Smith,
Senior Vice President
and manager of the Security Engineering
and Applied Sciences Sector
Each year in the month of February, we celebrate Engineers Week in honor of those nerdy geeks who somehow manage to continually design the fiction out of “Sci-Fi.” When you think about the pace of change in our society, today’s mundane was the high-tech of 10 years ago and the magic of 100 years past. Just 100 years ago, powered flight was only a dozen years old, Ford had been operating his model T assembly line for only 2 years, and life expectancy was 3.5 years less than my current age of 56 (mostly due to unclean water and poor sanitation). Even in our short lifetime, smart phones, the internet, personal computers, seat belts, air bags, microwave ovens, GPS and key fobs for our cars, to name a few common items, did not exist. Who would have believed me back in the 70’s or 80’s if I said I could watch color TV, listen to thousands of songs, communicate worldwide by text, voice and video, and access the sum total of all knowledge of all mankind with a device in my pocket called an iPhone by asking a computerized woman named SIRI a question? At the risk of sounding old, I began my science and engineering training with a slide rule, drafted designs by hand and learned to land survey with chains not lasers. High-tech was a hugely expensive mainframe computer that filled a building and was significantly less capable than my $300 Xbox. Advances in medical science, military science, in fact in all scientific disciplines, have become a reality through engineering.

I joined ARA 22 years ago in 1993. At that time, we didn’t have a company website and didn’t have email. In fact, we were just transitioning from the office using one or two centralized computers to each employee having access to a personal computer. As a new employee, I got the newest and best: an IBM XT with a 10 Mb hard drive, 640K of RAM and a CGA color monitor! We even bought a “near letter quality” printer. Well since that time, our engineers and scientists have contributed to a plethora of inventions and engineering marvels that have made ARA the company that government and industry turns to for innovative technologies and solutions to critical human problems that will make our world safer, make us more secure, and make a difference in our daily lives. We have: designed, built and tested new weapons that gave the US a clear technological superiority on the battlefield; developed protective designs that have saved lives and treasures; innovated new ways to simulate the dynamic interaction of complex loadings on structures and people; designed safer bumpers on light rail vehicles to protect vehicle passengers; investigated structural failures induced by natural and man-made disasters; developed methods of predicting loss and mitigating the effects of extreme weather; helped advance the state of the art for designing, building and maintaining our society’s infrastructure; created advanced sensors to remotely detect enemy movements; developed systems to identify, track and respond to incoming rockets and artillery; helped our government create new policies, plans and criteria for numerous technical programs of national importance. In short, we have been living our mission and it has been through our engineers that dreams have become reality. One of my mentors once told me, “Science without engineering is dreaming.” He also said, “The first time you do something you’re a scientist. The second time an engineer. And the third time a technician.” So, engineers are the essential link between the crazy new idea and the practical reliable product. Fortunately, ARA has some of the craziest mad scientists, practical engineers and effective technicians in the world!

It certainly doesn’t feel like 22 years have passed, but the accomplishments made by ARA engineers and scientists in that time could fill volumes. In 2006, I had the privilege of organizing the Engineering & Science Symposium. Our theme that year was “Opportunities Without Boundaries.” It was all together fitting that our speaker, Mr. Burt Rutan, was at that time pushing the edge of science and engineering with a dream of making commercial space a reality. That theme epitomizes our core values of Passion, Freedom, Service and Growth. It spoke to the possible, the future, the yet to be realized potential being unlocked each day by dedicated ARA scientists and engineers working hand in hand to tackle the hard problems. Our future is bright. We are right now on the cusp of developing what was “magic” just a few short years ago into the “technology” of today and the “mundane” of tomorrow. Some of these exciting developments include: a laser induced breakdown spectroscopy device and technique that will revolutionize how we ensure the safety of our food supply; a patented method of upgrading low grade fuels into valuable, usable petroleum products; a method of economically turning various feed stocks into environmentally friendly fuels compatible with normal petroleum without blending; and many more. We have assembled some of the world’s smartest computer scientists and engineers who have made significant, practical advances in augmented reality (AR may be the next big step in how we interact with the virtual world of cyberspace). Imagine that future ARA offices will not be physical places but rather virtual interactive environments where we meet with colleagues located throughout the world, are able to “handle” objects and work on the next new advancement. To be a part of the ARA engineering and science team is exciting as many of these developments will have far reaching influence and a positive effect on society.

You’ve probably heard of the optimist who sees the glass half full, the pessimist who sees the glass half empty, and the engineer who sees a glass that is twice as big as it needs to be. Engineers are indeed a breed apart. We like to fix problems and if there are no problems left to fix, we’ll likely create our own. We tend to see the world in a different light (not always within the visible spectrum). So, here’s to our engineers...
Joseph L. Smith is a Senior Vice President and manager of the Security Engineering and Applied Sciences Sector. On ARA’s board of directors since 2009, he currently chairs the 401k and Deferred Compensation Committee. Joe graduated from the US Air Force Academy with a BS in Civil Engineering. He served in the United States Air Force from 1977 to 1987 with assignments at the Air Force Weapons Laboratory in Albuquerque, NM where he was first introduced to ARA. He also holds a MS in Civil Engineering from Columbia University in NY. Joe joined ARA in 1993 and has held positions of Senior and Principal Engineer, Group Leader, Associate Division Manager, Division Manager and Sector Manager. He also volunteers as the Chairman of the Advisory Board for Excelsior College’s DC Center. Excelsior College provides educational opportunity to adult learners with an emphasis on those historically underrepresented in higher education, such as minority populations and veterans.