Meeting the Standard in a World Continually Transformed by Technology

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

All this week we are going to seat you next to people who might not have risky or glamorous professions, but who quietly perform jobs as engineers that we all depend on—from setting the standards for nuts and bolts to designing usable technology for the developing world.

Our series "Meeting the Standard" provides a chance for you to find out how it all works—how designs for safety and compatibility get from the drawing board to the market, and in many cases, to your homes.

Mark Sheehan is the managing director for development standards and certification at the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, otherwise known as ASME.

Engineers like Mark are working on the cusp of new global technologies, and their work finds its way into the tools and products many Americans rely on on a daily basis. But even Mark admitted that his job in standards and codes isn't generally the first thing he brings up around the dinner table.


Mark Sheehan

Produced by:

Ellen Frankman


T.J. Raphael

Comments [10]

Ronald George from Dubai

A crucially important broadcast into the backstage of engineering standards. As the anchor pointed out, virtually nothing in the global economy would work without standards. As more and more people point out that engineering is dying, it is programs like this that can help breathe life into the "image" problem of the engineering sciences. Once people know what it is that engineers are really doing to provide value to society, they will have the knowledge to base their career decision upon. Keep up the good work! And thank you Mark Sheehan for doing great service to our community.

Jan. 25 2014 04:48 AM
tom luther from raleigh

Jeff: Engineering has been 4 years for a long time. The math, physics, and chemistry haven't changed in decades, check out an ancient used text to confirm. Available education methods have improved, especially for more recently developed subject matter. Curriculum is easier than in times past, with programming and software capability replacing slide rule/abacus/calculator proficiency. Directly applicable job skill training has been pushed out of the curriculum to technicians in community colleges. OJT and study/training in a work environment is the only way to convert aptitude on paper to paid professional work. Engineers are the galley slaves in the military industrial state.

Larry: Building standards and codes are developed by civil engineers, ultimately distributed through NIST just like ASME standards. Older buildings are re-analyzed with current earthquake susceptibility and wind load analysis. Older buildings were more expensively and redundantly built, to compensate for lack of knowledge. More knowledge = less expensive construction methods.

Jan. 21 2014 08:38 PM
Evelyn from Portland, OR

I was delighted to hear this interview with a mechanical engineer! To many of us who work in technical fields, this is far more engaging than gushy chats with actors, actresses, singer-songwriters, sports figures, and the like. Safe cars, planes, bridges, buildings - we wouldn't be able to take these for granted without the engineering professions. The real world is fascinating - please cover it more, and Hollywood less.

Jan. 08 2014 02:22 AM
Robert Thomas from Santa Clara

John A quite reasonably asks here, "where is the professional organization for software engineering", perhaps analogous to the IEEE or the ACM?

Good luck finding it.

I just now listened to a segment on the hipster-oriented (what passes for hipster-oriented on NPR, anyway) PRI program _The World_ entitled

"At France's new school for coders, there's hot tech, little teaching, no grades or tuition — and loud critics"

This report extolled the methods of a private French "Coder School" (?!?!?!) that teaches what sound to me like the worst possible practices and techniques imaginable - the sort of fantasy that captivates know-nothing journalists who salivate at what they perceive as high salaries, at free cafeterias, foosball table arcades and other such cheap schlock they love to envy. This segment described the exploits of gallic Coder-Hipsters - CHeepsters? - an oddly French version of a cliche that might have been written by any bored, talentless and derivative third-rate Hollywood scriptwriter recently fired from a Disney Channel teen comedy. How depressing.

Jan. 07 2014 06:58 PM
Joel from NJ

Additional Standards Organizations:

Electrical and Electronic standards, Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers,

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is an agency of the U.S. Department of Commerce. (formally National Bureau of Standards),

Plus industry groups with the desire to make it all work.

Jan. 07 2014 05:12 PM
Robert Thomas from Santa Clara

What an exceptionally fine ten minutes of radio!

This is one of the most effective short portraits of what engineers and technology workers actually do that I have ever heard broadcast.

I've lived all of my life and spent all of my work life as an electrical engineer in the Santa Clara Valley, geographically positioned between IBM, Hewlett Packard, Intel and Lockheed,among countless others. I rely every day on the work of mechanical engineers, manufacturing engineers, chemical engineers, software engineers, all sorts of scientists and countless related disciplines. Standards engineers (and those who contribute their expertise to standards committee work) are obviously crucial contributors as well.

Theses people (more than me, I can tell you) and the people like them around the world are the people who Hold The Tent Up. I have come to this conclusion, not being much of a tent pole myself. I have, though, seen them up-close at their work.

I told this to a friend of mine; He said, "So, you've just become a Randian Objectivist Galtian bore."

"No." I said. "Because I don't believe that these people generally think of themselves in this way. They're often proud of their work, just like anybody else. They consider their best work to be valuable and important, just like anybody else. But they don't often realize how much the vast majority of us rely every hour on what they do and how much they are responsible for the prosperity we take for granted in the developed world, every single day." They're NOT boring, smug, puffed up self-aggrandizing John Galts, They're regular people.

I'm about fifteen hundred pages into Gibbon's _History of the Decline and Fall..._. It's an adventure. Something that's struck me is that the world Gibbon describes was eaten up from within and without, primarily by two things (I reserve the right to change my mind though): 1) slavery (which they seemed entirely unable to see was poison) and 2) reliance upon an increasingly incomprehensible technocracy which they abandoned trying to understand or appreciate.

Jan. 07 2014 04:39 PM
Edie from Manhattan

How great to hear this piece about how our human-made world is measured, and how important engineering is to solving the challenges of today and tomorrow - great work Mark Sheehan and ASME!

Jan. 07 2014 03:47 PM
John A

Where is the ASME for software development? How much of our lives revolve around computers, and how much of that is always talk of "exploits", based on flaws left in unregulated software? Time for computers to grow up and last for the centuries that ASME standards give to older tech.

Jan. 07 2014 03:45 PM
Jeff balough from Charlotte

I am currently a student at University of North Carolina of Charlotte. I majoring in electrical engineering and minor in math. As a student in engineering I find it very disturbing that over half of my classmates drop out of the program. Engineering is an extremely hard program. Our major typically has 130 credit hours. We're expected the know 2 years of calculus a year of chemistry a year of physics and then we get to finally learn our engineering discipline. Between all of this there are literally no women, out of 500 people I know this next semester I only know four girls. My question is as follows, "has engineering school become harder or easier in the past 100 years?" "Historically speaking did they always attempt to teach engineering as a part of a four year curriculum"

Jan. 07 2014 02:40 PM
Larry Fisher from Brooklyn, N.Y.

I do not doubt Mark Sheehan's integrity. I do have interest in corruption in New York and how the standard of just about everything here gets co-opted.
My question is, "Why don't more buildings collapse in New York, has the standard improved over the years, or are we all just lucky?"

Jan. 07 2014 01:50 PM

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