As part of a push toward innovation in manufacturing processes, the Obama administration announced Monday the establishment of the Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation (DMDI) Institute, a program in which the Cockrell School of Engineering will play an integral role.

The research collaboration between UT and six other American universities will be funded by a $70 million grant from the U.S. Department of Defense, as well as $250 million of outside contributions from industry, academia, government and community partners.

Digital manufacturing is the use of virtual simulation tools to design and manufacture technology more efficiently.

Engineering professors Steven Nichols and Joseph Beaman have led the Cockrell school’s effort to be selected for this program, according to Nichols, who said they teamed with other universities to prepare a proposal for DMDI, and, after technical panels reviewed it, the proposal was submitted to and chosen by President Barack Obama for inclusion in the program.

According to Nichols, specific research topics will be decided between DMDI and funding agencies from a list of exemplar topics submitted as part of UT’s proposal. Nichols said it is their intention to drive innovation in manufacturing processes and systems by creating tools that can better predict and prevent manufacturing defects.

“The tools developed in this program will increase the speed and reduce the cost of the supply chain,” Nichols said in an email. “When combined with design process improvements, this will allow the U.S. supply chain to be more lean and responsive to demand.”

Beaman said he believes the University was selected because of its previous accomplishments in the areas of manufacturing and computational research. According to Beaman, the 3-D printing method they developed is a key advanced manufacturing technology today.

“UT Austin was selected because it is a top engineering school and it has a long history of excellence in advanced manufacturing and computational analysis,” Beaman said in an email. “UT-Austin was the first academic institution to develop and commercialize additive manufacturing, sometimes called 3-D printing or direct digital manufacturing, starting in my lab in the 1980s.”

Balaji Chandrasekaran, corporate relations director of the Graduate Engineering Council, said, as a mechanical engineer turned industrial engineer, he understands the importance of improving efficiency in manufacturing.

“The fact that UT has been selected to contribute to solving such an important issue adds to my pride of being part of this great institution,” Chandrasekaran said.

Professors Joseph Beaman Jr. and Sharon Wood were inducted into the National Academy of Engineering in recognition of their achievements in the engineering world.

Beaman received an undergraduate education at UT and works on technology for 3-D printing and manufacturing at the Department of Mechanical Engineering. Wood, chairwoman of the Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering, is the first woman elected to the academy in the area of structural engineering. 

The National Academy of Engineering has only 2,461 members and foreign associates, 80 of which were inducted this year, said Maria Arrellaga, director of communications and public affairs at the Cockrell School of Engineering. 

“Being inducted into the NAE is something that is the result of years and years of research,” Arrellaga said. “It’s the award of all awards, the recognition of all recognition.”

Wood was elected for her designs for reinforced concrete structures, which can withstand more severe earthquakes and are based on field research in Chile, Turkey and California after earthquakes, as well as for her work installing seismic instruments in earthquake prone areas, according to the academy’s website.

Wood said she and colleagues studied collapses of parking garages in California after the Northridge earthquake in 1994, and she recently worked on committees to implement a national plan for installing seismic instruments in buildings.

“One of the problems when you go out and look at an earthquake is you don’t know how the ground moved in that location or how the building moved,” Wood said. “The idea is you have instrumented buildings in regions of high seismic risk. Eventually there are going to be earthquakes in the region of those buildings and you’re going to get real seismic data.”

Beaman was elected for his role in developing technologies that can more cheaply manufacture parts on demand. His main contributions were with his work on solid freeform fabrication and selective laser sintering.

Beaman said the technology for selective laser sintering, which allows manufacturers to print parts on demand, is the result of his cooperation with former UT graduate student Carl Deckard that started in 1986.

“We wanted to be able to sit at the desk [in front of a 3-D modeling program] and print a hard copy,” Beaman said. “It costs a lot of money to make a mold. With this technology, you make it overnight.”

Beaman said according to one study the technology is usually cheaper than standard manufacturing processes when less than 10,000 parts are being produced.

“[Beaman has] been an integral part of UT,” said Jayathi Murthy, chairwoman of the mechanical engineering department. “I think it’s a shining example of how you translate high-level university research into real-world work.”

WASHINGTON — The U.S. economy’s recovery looks enduring. It’s just not very strong.

Hiring, housing, consumer spending and manufacturing all appear to be improving, yet remain less than healthy. Economists surveyed by The Associated Press expect growth to pick up this year, though not enough to lower unemployment much.

A clearer picture of the nation’s economic health will emerge Friday, when the government reveals how many jobs employers added in April.

“The outlook is for continued moderate growth,” John Williams, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, said Thursday. “Nonetheless, we have nearly 4½ million fewer jobs today than five years ago, and the unemployment rate remains very high at 8.2 percent.”

The 32 economists polled by the AP late last month are confident the economy has entered a “virtuous cycle” in which more hiring boosts consumer spending, which leads to further hiring and spending. They expect unemployment to drop from 8.2 percent in March to below 8 percent by Election Day.

But they still think the rate won’t reach a historically normal level below 6 percent until 2015 or later. And they predict hiring will slow the rest of this year from a relatively brisk December-February pace.

The government’s economic data have been sending mixed signals about the health of the recovery from the Great Recession. Here’s a look at the economy’s vital signs:

The job market is gradually improving, though not as fast as it had been. From December through February, employers added a strong 246,000 jobs a month. That figure sank to a weak 120,000 in March. The April jobs report could clarify whether March was a one-month dud — or evidence of a more lasting slowdown in job creation like the one that occurred in mid-2011.

The economists in the AP survey foresee average job growth of 177,000 a month from April through June and 189,000 for the next six months. The economy needs to generate about 125,000 jobs a month just to keep up with population growth.

On Thursday, the government said the number of people who applied for unemployment benefits last week fell by a sharper-than-expected 27,000 to a seasonally adjusted 365,000. That pointed to fewer layoffs and a
brighter outlook for hiring.

Further cause for hope came in a government report Thursday on worker productivity: It fell from January through March by the most in a year. Declining productivity could be a positive sign for jobseekers. It may signal that companies are struggling to squeeze more from their workforces and must hire to keep up with customer orders.

The housing market has been a dead weight on the economy. The single-family home market, in particular, is still struggling. House prices dropped for six straight months through February, according to the Standard & Poor’s/Case-Shiller home-price index. And Americans bought fewer previously owned homes in March.

The economists polled by the AP worry that the lingering effects of the housing bust are slowing the economy’s expansion. They say growth can’t accelerate until national home prices finally hit bottom.

Still, spending on home construction and renovations rose from January through March by the most in nearly two years. And housing investment, led by apartment construction, is expected to contribute to economic growth this year for the first time since 2005.

The warm winter may also have led more people to buy earlier in the year, essentially stealing sales from March. Reduced prices, record-low mortgage rates, higher rents and the improving job market appear to be emboldening would-be buyers. Many seem to have concluded that prices won’t drop much further, if at all.

And builders are laying plans to construct more homes in 2012 than at any other point in the past 3½ years.

Americans have proved surprisingly willing to spend in the face of a wobbly economy. In the first three months of the year, consumer spending grew at an annual pace of 2.9 percent, the fastest in more than a year.

Some economists doubt that consumers can keep it up. They probably can’t afford to. Americans’ after-tax income in the first three months rose just 0.6 percent from a year earlier. That was the skimpiest pay increase in two years. People spent more, in part, because they saved less. Economists worry that people won’t keep spending more unless their income grows.

On Thursday, big retailers including Costco, Macy’s and Target, reported that sales last month came in below expectations.

U.S. companies earned more money than analysts expected from January through March. They’re beating Wall Street estimates at the best rate in more than a decade. Improved earnings have propelled the Dow Jones industrial average up nearly 4 percent since April 10.

U.S. corporations excluding banks and other financial firms are sitting on more than $2.2 trillion in cash, up from $1.7 trillion in 2009. That surplus means they can afford to expand and hire whenever they’re confident enough.

Manufacturing has provided much of the fuel for the U.S. recovery since the recession ended roughly three years ago. American manufacturing expanded last month at the fastest pace in 10 months. New orders rose to the highest level in a year, a signal of more production in coming months. Export orders also rose, despite worries that weaker economies in Europe and China could hold back U.S. exports.

And the busier factories are hiring. Manufacturers added 120,000 jobs a month through March this year, their fastest three-month pace since 1997.

But the economists surveyed by the AP think manufacturers will fill jobs more slowly the rest of the year. If so, that could weaken overall job growth. 

Printed on Friday, May 4, 2012 as: Economic recovery underway even with mixed signals

A soldier stands in a room full of barrels containing white and yellow powder after a seizure of a small ranch in Tlajomulco de Zuniga, Mexico on Thursday.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

GUADALAJARA, Mexico — The historic seizure of 15 tons of pure methamphetamine in western Mexico, equal to half of all meth seizures worldwide in 2009, feeds growing speculation that the country could become a world platform for meth production, not just a supplier to the United States.

The sheer size of the bust announced late Wednesday in Jalisco state suggests involvement of the powerful Sinaloa cartel, a major international trafficker of cocaine and marijuana that has moved into meth production and manufacturing on an industrial scale.

Army officials didn’t say what drug gangs could have been behind the dozens of blue barrels filled with powdered meth. Army Gen. Gilberto Hernandez Andreu said the meth was ready for packaging. There was no information on where the drugs were headed.

Jalisco has long been considered the hub of the Sinaloa cartel’s meth production and trafficking. Meanwhile, meth use is growing in the United States, already the world’s biggest market for illicit drugs.

The haul could have supplied 13 million doses worth over $4 billion on U.S. streets.

The Sinaloa cartel, headed by Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, is equipped to produce and distribute drugs “for the global village,” said Antonio Mazzitelli, the regional representative of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime.

“Such large-scale production could suggest an expansion ... into Latin American and Asian markets,” Mazzitelli said. But he also noted, “it may be a product that hasn’t been able to be sold, and like any business, when the market is depressed, stockpiles build up.” A senior U.S. law enforcement official in Mexico said the operation raided in Jalisco was “probably Sinaloa.”

The official, who could not be quoted by name for security reasons, said Sinaloa may be trying “to reduce its reliance on Colombian cocaine by flooding the market with meth.”

Reporters were shown barrels of white and yellow powder that filled three rooms on a small ranch outside Guadalajara, Mexico’s second-largest city.

The lot around the house, which included an empty swimming pool, was littered with metal canisters and cauldrons used in the production process. While the equipment appeared makeshift and partially dismantled during a tour of the facility given to news media, it was apparently used intensively.

There were no people found on the ranch or arrests made, although it appeared 12 to 15 people worked there.

The seizure of such a large quantity of meth is expected to have a big impact on the U.S. meth market. A pound of meth can sell for about $15,000.

“This could potentially put a huge dent in the supply chain in the U.S,” said U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration spokesman Rusty Payne. “When we’re taking this much out of the supply chain, it’s a huge deal.”

But that may not ultimately mean less meth in the U.S. Law enforcement officials in California’s Central Valley, a hub of the U.S. methamphetamine distribution network, say a cutoff in the Mexican supply could mean domestic super labs will increase production.

“This will be a big seizure and will most likely slow down distribution for a short period of time until manufacturing can continue,” said Robert Penal, a meth expert and former commander of California’s Fresno Methamphetamine Task Force. “However, when there is an interruption in supply it is not uncommon for domestic super labs in California to start up operations to fill the void until the supply from Mexico can be restored.”

Tom Farmer, director of the Tennessee Methamphetamine Task Force, believes the seizure could have a big impact in his state. Tennessee led the nation in clandestine meth lab busts in 2010 with 2,082, but the majority of meth in the state comes from Mexico.

Farmer said the Mexican meth is often made without pseudoephedrine, an ingredient commonly found in cold and allergy pills, which has been banned in Mexico and restricted in the United States. Most meth made in clandestine U.S. labs is made with pseudoephedrine, making it a more powerful high, he said.

“Meth users prefer domestic dope,” Farmer said. “What they end up using is a combination of both. They’ll use the local dope for special occasions, but when it comes to feeding their habit, they’ll revert back to Mexican meth.”

The Mexican army said troops received several anonymous tips and found the big drug stash in the township of Tlajomulco de Zuniga, near the Jalisco state capital of Guadalajara. The army statement said that “the historic seizure (is) the most important in terms of quantity of methamphetamines (seized) at one time.”

The previous biggest bust announced by the army came in June 2010, when soldiers found 3.1 metric tons (3.4 tons) of pure meth in three interconnected warehouses in the central state of Queretaro, along with hundreds of tons of precursor chemicals used to make meth. A giant underground lab was also found in Sinaloa state.

Those other seizures were believed to be linked to the Sinaloa cartel.

The size of the Jalisco bust stunned Steve Preisler, an industrial chemist who wrote the book “Secrets of Methamphetamine Manufacture” and is sometimes called the father of modern meth-making.

“I have never seen quantity in that range,” Preisler wrote. But he added: “The amounts of precursors they were importing would produce multi-tons of product.”

Preisler was referring to the dramatic increase in seizures in Mexico of chemicals used to make methamphetamine, usually imported from countries such as China.

In December alone, Mexican authorities seized 675 tons of a key precursor chemical, methylamine, that can yield its weight in uncut meth. All of the shipments were headed for Guatemala, where the Sinaloa cartel is also active. Officials in Guatemala, meanwhile, seized 7,847 barrels of precursors in 2011, equivalent to about 1,600 tons.

The supply of methamphetamine in the United States has been growing, mainly due to its manufacture in Mexico, according to U.S. drug intelligence sources.

Between 2007 and 2009, seizures of methamphetamine by U.S. authorities along the Mexican border increased by 87 percent, according to the 2011 U.N. World Drug Report, the most recent statistics the U.N. has available.

Eighty percent of the meth caught being smuggled into the U.S. is seized at the Mexican border, according to the National Drug Intelligence Center.

Few drugs do as much widespread damage — both to users and the general public — as meth, which is highly addictive. It’s produced with volatile chemicals that can lead to explosions. Chronic use can lead to psychosis, which includes hearing voices and experiencing hallucinations. The stimulant effect of meth is up to 50 times longer than cocaine, experts say, so users stay awake for days on end, impairing cognitive function and contributing to extreme paranoia. Users are known to lose massive amounts of weight, suffer scabs on their bodies and even lose teeth to “meth mouth” caused when saliva dries up and decay takes over.

Printed on Friday, February 10, 2012 as: Gigantic seizure of meth concerns drug officials