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A systems approach makes for successful engineering, says former Cornell professor

From leading Cornell's championship RoboCup team to founding a company that uses robots for moving warehoused goods, former Cornell professor Raffaello D'Andrea brings a systems engineering approach to every project.

That was the message he conveyed as keynote speaker at the Systems Engineering Forum, held April 7-8. A member of Cornell's mechanical engineering faculty from 1997 to 2007, D'Andrea, now a professor at ETH Zurich in Switzerland, attributed his many technical and entrepreneurial successes to the adoption of a systems engineering framework -- a well-known and prestigious program at Cornell.

Systems engineering encompasses how complex engineering projects should be designed and managed, from technology to logistics to teamwork. A striking example of D'Andrea's systems thinking is his involvement with Kiva Systems, a company that uses intelligent robots to move goods in a warehouse for shipping.

D'Andrea co-founded Kiva Systems in 2004 spurred by the idea that robots, not humans, would be more efficient at moving rapidly through vast warehouses to bring shelved goods to the perimeter. Humans would then take over to pack the goods to get them to the consumer.

It's a multifaceted endeavor that involves technological know-how and business acumen, D'Andrea explained. To robotics people, it's a relatively "easy" system -- a structured environment that can be modified. The harder parts, he said, are accounting for things like robot malfunction, maintenance, size variability of products and even "physics" -- when goods fall unexpectedly. Making everything function in a profit-making venture is perhaps the biggest challenge.

"Obviously you have to figure out, does this even make sense? Can you actually do this in a cost-effective way?" D'Andrea said.

D'Andrea has worked on many other projects, including art installations with robotic components and student projects at his new academic home at Zurich. Among the things he tries to instill in students is working well in groups, which will no doubt help them become better engineers.

He also attributed some wisdom to Al George, Cornell's Carr Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. Success, he quoted George as saying, can be spread around to individuals without diminishing the magnitude of the success. In other words, D'Andrea advises group leaders to be "generous" in sharing credit for any success.

The talk was one of a series of events related to systems engineering. Themes also included systems approaches to energy and sustainability. The forum was held during Cornell's Sustainability Month.

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Blaine Friedlander