September 14, 2009

Making the World a Safer Place

Dan Sharp ’07 writes about his work on critical safety standards in mechanical engineering

Since graduating from Lafayette, I have worked as a staff engineer for the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), a nonprofit dedicated to furthering the field of mechanical engineering. One way ASME does this is by developing codes and standards for mechanical industries.

Around my six-month mark, I was asked to attend a high-level workshop to reorganize the committee structure responsible for developing all 15,000 pages of the boiler and pressure vessel code. This structure has been in existence for the better part of a century, so reorganizing it was a big deal. The workshop was made up of many high-level and experienced volunteers, most of ASME’s staff leadership, and me. I was there mostly to take notes and record what was going on, but I was also allowed to provide input and opinions. Not bad for a 22-year-old!

I am now the staff secretary for several code committees in the pressure technology codes and standards and safety codes and standards departments. These committees oversee the design of transport tanks for hazardous waste, design of lifting devices, and elevator and escalator safety.

These are crucial to public safety and efficiency, and without them, the world would be a much different and more hazardous place. For example, ASME was founded to write a standard on boilers. When boilers, like those used in steam locomotives and factories, were still in their nascent stages, they tended to explode, causing huge losses of life and property. Now boilers are very safe and taken for granted. Another great example is related to bolts and screws. Without standards, every bolt and screw would be different. Instead, when you reach into the bin at Home Depot, you know that if you pull out a handful of screws, they all will be the same.

I first became aware of ASME codes as a Lafayette student while interning with Spence Engineering Company in Walden, N.Y. That internship provided me with my first experience doing real-world work on engineering drawings, and that fascinating work confirmed my desire to be an engineer.

Professor Lou Hayden, my mechanical engineering senior design project instructor, informed the design team that ASME was hiring engineers in New York City to work on code development. Throughout the year, I developed a friendship with Lou, a very active ASME volunteer, and continue to interact with him on a professional level.

One of my primary responsibilities is organizing ASME committee meetings, which are comprised of volunteers who contribute their collective engineering and professional knowledge to develop codes that safeguard the industry. Each committee meets as often as four times a year in different cities in the U.S. and abroad. Between meetings, I make sure that committee members progress on assigned tasks related to revising and developing the code.

One thing that I find fascinating about being an engineer and working for ASME occurs at committee meetings. Some committee members design products, fabricate them, or inspect them and make sure they meet the requirements. Additionally, many work for companies that directly compete with one another. You would think that with all these different groups meeting in one place, the proceedings would be contentious. Instead, they are civil and always focused on creating requirements that either enhance the safety of the product or allow a product to be more efficient. Even when the debate between opposing viewpoints becomes heated, it is never personal. It is not uncommon for individuals who disagree fiercely in a meeting to go out to dinner afterwards as if nothing’s happened. What I’ve found is that no matter the circumstances, the engineers who volunteer for ASME are always working toward the common goal of advancing the profession and ensuring the public’s safety.

My academic experience at Lafayette has helped me work with committee members. Though I am far younger and less experienced than these highly accomplished volunteers, the approachability of the Lafayette faculty helped me develop the confidence to interact effectively with them, which is the best part of working at ASME. These men and women possess decades of engineering and industrial experience. Working with them provides me with a wonderful opportunity to gain insights into multiple areas of mechanical engineering. Also, I cannot think of another entry-level job that would allow me to interact with so many influential people. I correspond with presidents, vice presidents, and high-level engineers of major companies, a fact that continues to amaze me.

Interpreting standards is difficult enough if you have years of experience in writing them. For me, having just graduated from college with no field experience, it was almost impossible, at least at first. Luckily, there was a volunteer, Urey Miller, who was always available to answer any question I had, whether it was something complex or seemingly obvious. Having someone who could explain not only the language in the standard, but also how it applied to the real world, was extremely valuable in my professional growth. In two years at ASME I have never met a volunteer who wasn’t very forthcoming in answering any questions I had.

In my travels for ASME, I have been fortunate to come in contact with two other alumni. Jim Coaker ’68 is the chairman of the A17 Standards Committee, which oversees the development of standards for elevator and escalator design and safety. Tom Loughlin ’83 is a deputy executive director. Both exhibit a contagious enthusiasm for what they do and have welcomed me warmly. Seeing their achievements reminds me that my Lafayette education provides similar possibilities.

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