Resource Magazine — September/October 2012
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to the editor

Dear Editor,

Regarding the article by Jeong-Yeol Yoon in the May/June 2012 issue of Resource (“Who We Are and What We Can Do”), much of what he writes is right on the mark. ASABE has a very strong history of dealing with biological systems. As agricultural engineers, we have been educated to view the entire system of inputs and outputs, mostly biological in nature, but not always. We had courses in machinery, but those courses were different from the machinery courses taken by mechanical engineering students; they included mechanical properties of plants and animals. We had courses on soil and water topics, but these were different from the water courses taken by civil engineering students; they included water needs of plants growing in soils. We took courses in structures and environment, but these courses were different from the structures and environmental courses taken by mechanical engineers or civil engineers; they included environmental interactions between plants, animals, and physical conditions.

There is need for a society—some society—to represent the field of engineering related to biological systems at all levels. The best positioned society to fill this need is ASABE. We have people who are experts in plant modeling, animal modeling, and insect modeling, all related to environmental conditions of the real world. There is no other society that has as large a concentration of expertise in engineering of the complete system of biology as ASABE.

There are three other primary societies with the words “biology” and “engineering” in their names (not counting AIMBE, which is a secondary society). The first is the Institute of Biological Engineering (IBE). IBE was formed as a community of ASAE (as was its name at the time), but differences arose between the ASAE Board of Directors and the IBE Council, so IBE split from ASAE. Some hope that IBE could one day reconcile with ASABE, but that is not going to be possible. Despite having foundational statements that it serves biological engineering in the broadest possible sense, the strength of IBE papers and publications is in biological engineering at the cellular and tissue level, areas that do not significantly overlap those of ASABE, and certainly not the engineering of biological systems of interest in ASABE.

The society with interests closest to IBE, and the second society with the words “biological engineering” in its name, is the Society for Biological Engineering (SBE), a society formed by chemical engineers with interests in biomolecular, cellular, and tissue engineering. It is federated with the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) as a technical community. Despite the name of SBE, its interests do not include the engineering of biological systems at all hierarchical biological levels, as they do in ASABE.

The third society is the Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society (EMBS), part of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE). EMBS is federated very closely with IEEE and is almost exclusively concerned with engineering related to human medicine. EMBS does not represent the broad perspectives that are found within ASABE.

Of all the societies with engineering related to biology, the only one representing a broad, all-encompassing perspective of engineering related to biological systems at multiple biological levels is ASABE. That is our strength, and that is what we should promote.

At one time, engineering in agriculture was the keystone of our society, and we did it well. Times have changed, however, and agricultural research has metamorphosed into biological systems research. Funding sources reflect this change. At the same time, ASABE has changed, our students have changed, and the word “agriculture” is no longer attractive. It certainly is not as attractive as “biology” or “medicine.” If we are honest about it, it wasn’t even as attractive as a field of employment to us. The late Fred Wheaton, our former department chair, who grew up on a dairy farm on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, used to tell me, “I’ve had good days as department chair, and I’ve had bad days, but I’ve never had a day so bad that I wanted to put up hay.”

Our problem in ASABE is letting go of “traditional interests” and positioning ourselves for a future that attracts the new breed of student, that feeds on the strengths that we have built over the years, and that positions us as the go-to society for understanding the interconnectedness of biological systems, the environment, and human activities. We have promised our students that they will learn about engineering, learn about biology, and be able to deal with interesting challenges when the two are put together. They don’t want to be labeled as agricultural engineers, and they see little reason to associate with agricultural engineers. If ASABE is to have a strong future, which it most certainly can have, it needs to begin to seriously attract graduates of the new academic programs and give them what they need. There is no reason to abandon the traditional interests of ASABE, but they need to be de-emphasized and made subordinate to the more inclusive term of “biological engineering.”

As to whether we should permanently banish biomedical engineering from the interests of ASABE, the response needs to be nuanced. Let the engineering of diagnosis, prognosis, and treatment of human medical needs be recognized as the purview of EMBS and BMES. But we cannot abandon human interests entirely. Let us embrace human safety, preventive health measures, and human interests in environmental preservation. The human being was, is, and always will be the motivation for much of what we do. Besides, looking at biology as a whole means that we cannot ignore the human as an important source of biological research information. It is appropriate that we recognize the human element in engineering related to biological systems.

This country and the world need a professional group with expertise concentrated at the overall, global, systems level. Someone needs to understand how everything fits together. This is an exciting prospect for ASABE; it could be exciting for its present and future members, for funding agencies, and for society as a whole. We have this strength, and it is time. As Dr. Yoon said, “What are we waiting for?”

Editor’s note: Sarah Luther, a member of the University of Florida team, reflects on the 2012 International 1/4-Scale Tractor Student Design Competition, held in Peoria, Ill., May 31 to June 3. Although the University of Kentucky took top honors at the 15th annual competition —nearly sweeping the judging categories and collecting sixteen trophies for their efforts, Luther—as a good Florida Gator—proves that winning isn’t every thing.

Through involvement in the competition, students gain practical experience in the design of drive train systems, tractor performance, and manufacturing processes. In addition, they develop skills in communication, leadership, teamwork, and fundraising.

The competition is unique among student engineering-design contests in that it provides a realistic 360-degree workplace experience. Teams of students are given a 16 hp Briggs & Stratton engine and a set of Titan tires. The design of their tractor is up to them. A panel of industry experts judges each design for innovation, manufacturability, serviceability, maneuverability, safety, sound level, and ergonomics. Teams also submit a written design report in advance of the competition, and they must sell their design in a formal, face-to-face presentation to the experts, who play the role of a corporate management team. Finally, the machines are put to the test in a performance demonstration comprised of four tractor pulls.

Dear Editor,

As a first year team, we had no clue what we were getting into when we arrived in Peoria. We had scoured every bit of information given to us and prepared as best we could, but we couldn’t have foreseen the challenges that awaited us. For example, we met the Saskatchewan team in the parking lot, and as competition veterans, they enlightened us about the tech inspection process and warned us about the cone that’s used to check exhaust safety. Good and much appreciated advice. It seemed we were in for a number of surprises that weekend.

Right before we left for Illinois, Florida had endured tropical storm Beryl, and we had been stuck inside the shop trying to paint with a leaky roof and rain blowing in sideways through the doors. We spent most of the night of our arrival (Wednesday) painting and fixing some of our wiring—things that should have been done prior to arriving.

Thursday brought rain and freezing temperatures—at least it felt like freezing to us Floridians. The technical inspections required us to fix a few more things, in addition to faulty wiring and inadequate brakes. Luckily, Saskatchewan’s electrical genius was there to help us. I spent the whole day fussing with our tractor. It seemed that about half the teams sailed through the tech inspections with flying colors. At least we know what to expect next year!

Thursday evening we met the Université Laval team and were bewildered that they had to cut so much off of their tractor to meet the weight requirement. They were all very nice, and we had a long chat about their team and their trip to the competition. We were quite impressed by the efforts that some of the teams make just to get to the competition. Our measly 18-hour drive was nothing compared to the 42-hour drive by Cal Poly or the flights Laval had to take.

Friday morning, we again spent hours fixing the tractor and were almost late to design judging. Our brakes couldn’t hold up to the rigorous test at the competition, so we had to J. B. Weld new automotive pads onto the old Cub Cadet plates. Some of the Kansas guys had been walking around that morning checking out the other tractors, and they were kind enough to help us put the wheels back on our tractor and push it over to the design judging barn, as our brakes were still unhooked. Design judging made us realize how far behind we were compared to the veteran teams. I never thought about making an owner’s manual for our tractor, and we were so impressed with how polished some of the other teams’ designs were.

Later that day, the teams competed in the maneuverability competition, but we completely missed out because of our brakes. Thankfully, though, by the end of the day we had passed all of our tech inspections and had received our dinosaur sticker. We got a sticker for each tech inspection test we passed, and the dinosaur signified final weigh in. I have never been so excited about receiving stickers in my whole life!

On Saturday, my team finally got to relax a little. We gave our design presentation in the morning at a Caterpillar facility and got to play around a bit with all of the interactive exhibits on display. Later that afternoon, we faced our first performance test: the tractor pulls. Our clutch slipped in the first practice pull, but with the help of Saskatchewan, we put some more pressure on the spring and completed both of the lightweight pulls.

Sunday, during the practice pull and first heavyweight pull, we busted both the original differential gear carrier and the only spare we brought with us. The University of Tennessee-Martin helped us change out our carrier and even tore apart their spare transaxle to let us borrow a bearing cup. Satisfied with our first-year performance, we packed up our things and headed to lunch while the other teams finished their last pull.

The competition was a huge learning experience and quite stressful at times, but we had an absolute blast. I was amazed to see how helpful everyone was, and I remain incredibly impressed with how sophisticated all of the teams’ tractors looked. We definitely learned that we need a lot more money and teammates to be competitive, as there are a lot of components to the competition. It is extremely challenging, but in a very good way. You can easily see how much heart and soul the competition planning committee puts into coordinating all of the competition events. I don’t know how we would have been able to compete without the help of so many teams, who eventually just told us to “go into our trailer and get whatever you need.” We can’t thank them enough, and we are so glad to have been able to meet so many outstanding teams. We are looking forward to next year’s competition and hope to move up in the ranks a bit, now that we know more about what’s expected!