The modern engineering achievements of Japanese industry are the stuff of legends. And for an engineering nerd like myself, Japanese industry quite often equates with the many qualities that drew us into engineering –precision, vision, and technological ambition. So it’s no surprise that each time I visit Japan, I feel like a kid again, eagerly waiting to discover yet another technological marvel -- whether it’s something very important like automotive powertrains that consume ridiculously small amounts of fuel or something that’s just plain fun (like this), I’m generally in a constant state of amazement if not giddiness during my visits.
I’ll be returning to Japan in a few weeks and this time, my level of anticipation and even excitement seems to be a bit higher than usual. The main purpose of my visit this time will be a couple important conferences for the Japanese engineering community on various aspects of mathematics and modeling.
First will be our annual Maple TechnoForum presented by our distribution partner Cybernet Systems (http://www.cybernet.co.jp/maple/mtf2008/ if you’re interested – and can read Kanji). This remarkable meeting is the largest technical conference focusing exclusively on the engineering applications of Maplesoft technology. Hundreds of engineers from the most famous names in Japanese automotive, electronics, consumer products, and other key industries converge to learn more about new computing techniques for real applications. I’m really looking forward to this year’s event as MapleSim will be a key highlight of the sessions and as such will mark a major milestone for our activities in Japan.
Next, Maplesoft will also be sponsoring the third meeting of the Plant Modeling Consortium (PMC). The PMC is one of the more exciting developments in recent years within the engineering modeling and simulation scene. Founded by Toyota and Maplesoft, the PMC aims to define and refine best practices for the next generation of modeling techniques for control systems. At our meetings, members present and discuss innovative ideas (typically involving symbolic mathematical techniques) that will help members meet the emerging modeling challenges in industry.
The PMC is unique for more than just technical reasons. It’s also an organization that is bringing a very diverse range of companies and even competitors to collaborate on important engineering issues. The membership list is literally the “Who’s who?” within industry with the heaviest concentration in the auto industry and it’s quite heartening to see the collaboration emerging from traditional rivals.
Along with these big meetings, I’m typically called upon to visit individual companies for smaller meetings and presentations and historically this has meant stepping inside the secure gates of some pretty heavy-duty companies. On my last trip, I had the privilege of meeting the advanced design team at Yamaha Motors (yes, the motorcycle people), and a research team at Fujitsu (yes, the supercomputing people). Previous visits included Canon, Panasonic, and a humanoid robotics lab.
As interesting as all these activities are, I find the bigger picture to be much more exciting. Various blogs in this series, whether from me or from my colleagues, have touched on the growing importance of mathematics in engineering – “math matters” is one of the phrases that we like to throw around. In many ways, what we are witnessing in Japan is the full industrial validation of this fundamental concept.
It’s not difficult to find people who would readily agree that math is important. We’ve all been trained to think this since kindergarten. But when you observe actual conventional engineering practice, math has historically been either buried deep inside some compiled computer code known only to one engineering programmer, or nudged aside and replaced with a (hopefully) suitable approximation because the math was simply to difficult to manage.
The Japanese experience as embodied by my upcoming meetings is a clear indication that times are changing; that the forward thinking engineers are seizing technological opportunities and succeeding with the mathematics. Ten years ago, the Japanese engineers who would show up at our presentations were there often out of curiosity. Today, they come with rich stories, insightful suggestions, and challenging questions on the future. Although my life is a lot tougher now because of this, I keep reminding myself how important this process is. Feeding the creative ambitions of some of the most innovative engineering communities is critical for long term solutions to today’s immense industrial and societal problems. And as these talented people meet these critical challenges, the kid in me is also thrilled that a few spin-off technologies will emerge just for the fun of it!