Getting people with different backgrounds to communicate and work well together. It's the key to innovation.

Steve Shooter

Interoperability is the ability of systems to work together toward a common goal. The concept is at the heart of mechanical engineering Professor Steve Shooter's scholarship and teaching philosophy. And, he explains, it is something that can be applied equally well to robotics, consumer packaging, and even human interaction.

Autonomous systems (a.k.a. robots) are a great example of the concept in action. Shooter's lab is full of robots, and parts of robots, at rest and in motion. Eyeballs move from side to side, a skeletal vulture raises metal limbs and faces watch idly from shelves, waiting their turn for testing. "We test the motors to the point of failure," Shooter explains. "We do work for theme parks so, unlike with the movies, these animatronic characters have to function for hours on end without fail. That's where interoperability comes in."

Shooter's research team's goal is to design the entire system so that individual parts run as efficiently and reliably as possible but can be easily replaced when necessary. Shooter explains that most systems fail at the connection points and this is why connections should be kept simple. He uses a USB port as an example. Thanks to the universal serial bus, a wide range of devices can be plugged into the same port. The external devices remain complex but their point of connection is simplified. This management of complexity is so important when it comes to physical and informational exchange it can actually be a matter of life and death.

In another part of Shooter's lab, a team analyzes pharmaceutical packaging to determine how well labels communicate critical information. Shooter says he was drawn to study the problem after seeing a story about babies who died after being given an adult dosage of the anticoagulant Heparin. "The labels are too similar," Shooter says. "There has to be a way to better manage the information on Heparin and on other drugs." Now, with a grant to work with Geisinger Medical Center, Shooter and his team are looking at ways to do just that.

The students on Shooter's pharmaceutical study team include psychology and management majors as well as engineers. "That's another great example of interoperability," he says. "Getting people with different backgrounds to communicate and work well together. It's the key to innovation." Shooter notes that Bucknell truly encourages this type of collaboration. "Within the engineering college alone I've worked with mechanical, electrical, biomedical and chemical engineers. In addition, I've worked with students and faculty from the psychology, art, theater, management and education departments. This kind of thing doesn't happen just anywhere."

Posted September 6, 2013