Practical Problem-Solving

photo fo Dave Kim helping a student

Mechanical engineers like Dave Kim help make our manufactured environment safe and strong.

Say you need to move a two-ton object. For this, you will need a crane. You do some research and find three cranes for rent—one for $100, one for $500 and one for $1,000. Which do you pick?

This is the problem Dave (Dae-wook) Kim likes to present to his entry-level mechanical engineering students at WSU Vancouver. The answer isn’t as simple as picking the cheapest—although the calculation does ultimately come down to money. The engineer must consider many factors that will affect the cost, such as the crane’s capacity, condition and usability; the length of time and number of people needed to do the job; maintenance costs for the crane; wear and tear on the object to be lifted; insurance and labor costs; even the possibility of injury or loss of life.

The right decision will solve the problem cost effectively and safely. The wrong decision will end up costing money and time and may not even solve the problem.

“The sciences teach force and motion, heat and energy—and scientists study those because they are curious,” said Kim, professor of mechanical engineering and head of the Advanced Materials and Manufacturing Lab. “Engineers study those topics to make money.”

Of course, good engineers, like any other scientist, are also curious. Kim, who received last spring’s Chancellor’s Award for Research Excellence, identified curiosity—asking questions—as the number-one attribute for research in mechanical engineering. Next is energy and third is time. “If you have curiosity and energy, it’s really a matter of time to produce something to answer those questions,” he said.

To look at things from a mechanical engineering perspective is to ask and answer the right questions to solve a problem, ultimately making lives better. The solutions developed by mechanical engineers help companies test, develop and manufacture everything from machines to aircraft to wind turbines. It is a practical, hands-on discipline with real-world consequences.

Kim’s refreshingly frank approach endears him to students and his industry colleagues alike. It helps to explain why he consistently brings in large grants and research contracts with the likes of Boeing, why so many of his students remember him long after graduation and go on to high-profile careers, and why his work so often garners awards.

Industry solutions

In 2008, Kim got a phone call out of the blue from a Boeing research group. They were looking for an expert in hybrid composite drilling and had stumbled on a paper he had written. In fact, it was the first published paper on that subject.

To develop its 787 line of airplanes, Boeing has chosen a hybrid composite consisting of carbon fiber-reinforced plastic composites and a titanium alloy. The hybrid composite offered excellent structural integrity, but drilling holes in it to assemble the plane wasn’t going well. Kim had been researching the drilling of hybrid composites since 1999, and it was his Ph.D. topic at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Kim tested Boeing’s material in every which way possible, using equipment available on campus. Through numerous experiments and analyses, he discovered why drills used with the materials were wearing out too quickly and compromising the plane’s structure. Kim’s lab discovered, among other things, that the orientation of the fibers made a difference. Boeing supported the lab’s research for a decade, and Kim’s drill solutions have been applied to 787 assembly lines. The first Boeing 787 Dreamliner was delivered in 2011, and more than a thousand 787s have been built.

Boeing is just one of many industries—from local to global—with which Kim has collaborated. Another Seattle-based aerospace company, Fatigue Technology or FTI, approached Kim in 2007 to help develop simulations to help understand why cracks (called fatigue cracks) were developing around holes in metal structures, weakening the structures. Kim had done some research in the area but had no experience with crack simulation. “It was my first research contract as an assistant professor,” Kim said. “FTI took a risk, so I really appreciate them.”

Kim helped FTI figure out what the company calls “a cost-effective solution to problems associated with fatigue cracks in holes in metal structures”—a cold hole expansion process that reduces stress at the hole to retard the crack’s development and spread. Kim’s lab, collaborating with Hua Tan, associate professor of mechanical engineering at WSU Vancouver, developed an automated modeling technology that enables FTI’s modeling engineers to simulate crack formations.

The collaboration has expanded to more contracts and grants, and crack growth simulation technology is becoming the company’s primary engineering service. At WSU Vancouver, the study of the process is a primary topic with a dedicated research team in the Advanced Materials and Manufacturing Lab. The lab also studies applications in other industries, such as automobiles, railroads and boating. Simply put, “The technology makes the structures stronger and safer,” Kim said.

Kim is considered an excellent mentor, and his graduate students and some undergraduates are involved in all his research. In nominating him for the Chancellor’s award, two of his colleagues praised his leadership and project-management skills, and wrote, “Dr. Kim spared no effort to provide outstanding mentorship for our graduate students.”

Engineering education

As a researcher, Kim has one additional area of specialty: engineering communication. Working with Wendy Olson, associate professor of English, and Praveen Sekhar and John Lynch, both associate professors of electrical engineering, he has helped bring in grants to study “writing transfer,” or the transfer of knowledge about writing expectations and conventions from one context to the other—for example, from essays in English classes to engineering lab reports.

It started when Kim wondered why students who had taken freshman English were so bad at writing reports in his classes. “I hated my students’ writing,” he said, with the same candor he brings to his technical work. Then he went about solving the problem. He approached Olson, and a collaboration began that has won more than $1 million in grant funding and has spread new knowledge about writing transfer to multiple colleges and universities.

“Now I’m not unhappy when I see bad student writing,” he said, “and I don’t blame the English professors. I know how to help my students improve their writing for engineering. So instead of anger, I am happy because I can help them.” Naturally, it comes down to money. With a bad report, he tells students, nobody will want to hire them. “But with training, your reports will attract your future boss or collaborations. Indeed, at the end of the term, their writing becomes a lot better.”

First-generation immigrant

Kim’s is a classic American dream story. He grew up in South Korea. He liked to draw, and when he learned that mechanical engineers use a lot of drawings, he set his sights on an engineering career. He completed his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Sungkyunkwan University in Korea, worked for a year at Jung-An Machinery in Seoul, then decided to earn his Ph.D. at the University of Washington. One influence was Michael Crichton’s book “Rising Sun,” which Kim read at about age 21. The book identified two technical powerhouses—Japan and the United States. He picked the latter, considering it the place to help him become a world leader in the aerospace manufacturing field.

He and his wife, Eun, came to the United States together. He joined WSU Vancouver in 2003. They live in Vancouver and have two children, a girl, Sydney, a senior in biochemistry at the University of Washington in Seattle, and a boy, Ian, a freshman at Skyview High School. The family was attracted to Vancouver in part because the metro area has a strong Korean community. He and his wife became U.S. citizens about 10 years ago; their families remain in Korea.

Kim says he truly values work-life balance. He plays racquetball two or three times a week. He and his family like to cook Korean food, play video games and hike together. He is an elder in a Korean Presbyterian church in Vancouver.

As for the future, he plans a long career. “Some questions I answered right away,” Kim said, but “I still have a lot of questions that I can’t answer yet. I believe I have enough energy to answer them, so I pray for God to give me more energy. We all have the same clock.”

The world can say thanks for that. Engineers’ decisions affect everybody. Thinking of recent airplane crashes in which hundreds of lives were lost, Kim said, “Whenever I hear that kind of news, I feel really bad, because engineers can prevent those problems. The decisions we make as engineers can make money, but at the same time they impact a lot of communities and people.”

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