Engineering research keeps America’s future competitive

engineering research
Credit: Pedro Piacenza/Columbia Engineering

Robert B Stone and Jordan M Berg, of the Civil, Mechanical and Manufacturing Innovation Division at the U.S. National Science Foundation, chart precisely how engineering research improves people’s lives

What do buildings that fight viruses, plants that grow electronics and robots that work with humans to process fish have in common? They are the future of a technologically competitive nation. They are also a slice of the long-term outcomes of the fundamental, in some cases curiosity-driven, research that begins in the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) Division of Civil, Mechanical and Manufacturing Innovation (CMMI). The convergence of infrastructure resilience, robotics and manufacturing research is necessary to grow a U.S. economy that can be competitive and adapt to change.

With NSF funding, university researchers working in these three areas are addressing societal challenges that directly impact the U.S. and global economy and our well-being. Civil engineers are learning from nature to build structures that are both resilient to natural disasters and adaptive to changing needs of society. Roboticists are joining artificial intelligence with physical manipulators to build those resilient structures and work side-by-side with people. Manufacturing engineers are exploring new ways to create raw goods more efficiently to keep finished goods on the shelves and in the construction site – all while moving to a mixed human-robotic workforce and adaptable manufacturing lines.

Below, we describe some of the burgeoning issues that CMMI researchers are tackling to ensure American competitiveness.

Designing a resilient infrastructure

Infrastructure is all around us: levees and hydroelectric dams, roadways and railways, water and sewer lines, electrical and communications lines, and our homes and workplaces. In addition to normal usage, it has to endure natural hazards from hurricanes to wildfires,

which have become more frequent and ferocious. This past year has introduced the disaster of COVID-19 on infrastructure systems, forcing urban and rural areas to adapt in different ways. As our infrastructure ages and our demands on it change, it’s time to rebuild it back better and invest in a resilient design approach.

Buildings that can be readily remodelled, upgraded, expanded or otherwise adapted embody an important approach to infrastructure resilience. It turns out that obsolescence, not structural failure, is a leading reason for the demolition of existing buildings. An NSF-funded project at Clemson University is examining building projects to identify which physical aspects make them likely to be demolished or adapted. In the future, architects and engineers can use these findings to design buildings that are more adaptable and sustainable from the start.

The built environment has a vital role in the effects of COVID-19, as seen, for example, in densely-packed, highly-centralised physical workspaces compared to decentralised physical workspaces (such as private homes). The pandemic is likely to strain and possibly confound response efforts to tornados, wildfires, or other natural hazards. To prevent natural hazards during a pandemic from becoming societal disasters, researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute are studying how the design of engineered structures and services within the built environment can reduce risks.

Infrastructure resilience research can also benefit from advancements in artificial intelligence (AI). Using data from improved instrumentation, experimentation, and observations, AI can help researchers understand the physical performance of civil infrastructure under extreme loads, such as earthquakes and windstorms, and the interactions among materials, structures, systems, and community needs under such loading. A project at Texas A&M University is leveraging AI and our knowledge of conventional structural components and loading mechanisms to make performance predictions for new structural designs. This can usher in an era of performance-based design while reducing costs associated with experimental testing and mitigate the catastrophic effects of natural disasters on communities.

Robotics for the real world

Imagine if all of the jobs requiring physical exertion, proximity to hazardous environments, repetitive tasks or high cognitive loads had a robot collaborator to assist the human worker – keeping the human safer and more productive. This is the frontier where algorithms and artificial intelligence are going to meet humanity. It will require a very personal connection between robot and human, and it will enable a range of interactions that previously could only be accomplished by a human attendant.

This class of robots that come into contact with humans or are worn on the body is an active area of research. These include robots that safeguard human activity, those that mitigate disability, such as prostheses and orthoses, and those that augment performance, such as exoskeletons. In industrial settings, collaborative robots also make industrial jobs safer; for example, seafood processing workers can remain safe by using robot partners to amplify their physical strength and by automating repetitive tasks. (1) This approach also allows for greater physical distance between workers, a serendipitous benefit during the COVID-19 pandemic. (2)

On the healthcare front, wearable robots are supporting the correction of spinal curvature, such as scoliosis, allowing the application of therapeutic forces with the flexibility for the wearer to accomplish large movements when necessary. (3) The personal mobility pro-vided by experimental robots can promote cognitive stimulation and development in children with physical impairments, assist with upper-body manipulation tasks with the exquisite versatility and range of the human shoulder, and enable people with injured or missing limbs to walk with confidence. (4)

Manufacturing the future

A future with a resilient infrastructure and robots to keep us safe can only happen if these new paradigms can be manufactured. The factory floors that enable this are going to look different than they do today. Rather than set manufacturing lines with large robots bolted to the floors and humans at their stations, the workspace will be a mix of robots and humans collaborating together – in some cases, a robot provides the strength and dexterity to move objects around for the human and in other cases, the human teaches the robot a trick that previously only human intuition allowed. (5)

Two human co-workers may accidentally bump one another on the job without incurring major injuries. However, a robot hitting a person can be extremely dangerous. (6) New materials with the ability to vary the stiffness of their structure from floppy to rigid can help create robots that can adapt to unplanned collisions without interrupting their task. Likewise, a robot needs to be careful about moving its product around or manoeuvring large, irregularly shaped objects like furniture through a series of obstacles that could include humans. Spoken communication between humans is much richer than just the exchange of words, and robots are learning to understand the subtle implications of vocal tone and timbre. (7)

Beyond the factory floor, continued U.S. leadership in advanced manufacturing requires new technologies, processes, and skills, especially in the emerging fields of biomanufacturing, cyber-manufacturing and eco-manufacturing. To address that need, NSF is investing in future manufacturing. Through the convergence of such fields as robotics, artificial intelligence, biotechnology and materials research, future manufacturing will create revolutionary products with unprecedented capabilities, produced sustainably in facilities across the country by a diverse, newly trained workforce.

A University of Chicago project that uses plant-derived ink to print chemical sensors that in turn monitor plant growth is an example of the circular economy that future eco-manufacturing envisions. In a circular economy, where the entire manufacturing life cycle reduces energy consumption, lessens health and environmental impacts, and improves cost-effectiveness. (8) Manufacturing breakthroughs will keep existing resources in use for as long as possible and as efficiently as possible and then provide new ways to recover materials at the end of their service lives.

Wrapping it up

Across all of these areas, CMMI challenges the research community to expand the frontiers of knowledge and grow U.S. technological leadership. Fundamental, disciplinary research is the core of what NSF supports, but framing these use-inspired, larger societal issues encourages the engineering research community to address demanding, urgent, and consequential challenges for advancing America’s prosperity, health and infrastructure. These investments will advance the frontiers of infrastructure, robotics and manufacturing research in order to assure U.S. leadership in the decades to come.


(1) CMMI 1928654

(2) EFMA 2031326

(3) Award Abstract #1527087

(4) Award Abstract #2024950

(5) Award Abstract #1426799

(7) Award Abstract #1925178

(8) CMMI 2037026

Contributor Profile

Program Officer
Division of Civil, Mechanical and Manufacturing Innovation (CMMI) U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF)
Website: Visit Website

Contributor Profile

Division Director
Division of Civil, Mechanical and Manufacturing Innovation (CMMI) U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF)
Website: Visit Website


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