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Achenbach Awarded Nation's Highest Technology Honor

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February 16, 2005

Jan D. Achenbach, Walter P. Murphy Professor and Distinguished McCormick School Professor of the Departments of Mechanical Engineering and Civil and Environmental Engineering, has been awarded the 2003 National Medal of Technology, the nation’s highest honor awarded by the President for technological innovation.

Achenbach’s award was announced by President Bush Monday (Feb. 14). Achenbach, who will receive the medal at a White House ceremony March 14,was honored for seminal contributions to engineering research and education and for pioneering ultrasonic methods for the detection of cracks and corrosion in aircraft, leading to improved safety for aircraft structures.

Established in 1980 by an Act of Congress, the National Medal of Technology recognizes men and women who embody the spirit of American innovation and have advanced the nation’s global competitiveness. The award is administered by the Department of Commerce.

Achenbach, who also is director of the Northwestern University Center for Quality Engineering and Failure Prevention, was elected a member of the National Academy of Engineering in 1982, a member of the National Academy of Sciences in 1992 and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1994. In 1999 he was elected a Corresponding Member of the Royal Dutch Academy of Sciences. He is also an honorary member of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers and a fellow of ASME, ASA, SES, AMA and AAAS. His awards include the Timoshenko Medal and the William Prager Medal.

In 1985, Achenbach established the Center for Quality Engineering and Failure Prevention, which has become a state-of-art laboratory for quality control in structural mechanics, with profound impact on the aircraft industry, particularly the monitoring of aging aircraft.

With his co-workers, Achenbach has made major contributions to practical application of ultrasonics to detection and sizing of cracks and corrosion in metal structures. An example is the detection of corrosion and stress-corrosion cracks in the wing box of the DC-9. In the mid-1990s, Northwest Airlines had in operation more than 125 DC-9 aircrafts older than 20 years. These aircrafts needed periodic check-ups for corrosion in the inner layers of the wing box, which is a fuel compartment.

Achenbach was the leader of a team that developed an ultrasonic technique for non-destructive testing of the wing, from the outside of the wing, without wing box entry or disassembly. This reduced the inspection time from 800 to 50 hours and saved Northwest Airlines millions of dollars. The technique is now also being used by other airlines and by the U.S. Air Force. Another successful project was carried out for the Air Force.  Fatigue cracks in weep holes in the wing structure of the C141 were detected by an ultrasonic method from instrumentation on the wing surface.

Achenbach has been a preeminent researcher in solid mechanics and quantitative non-destructive evaluation during the last three decades. He has made major contributions in the field of propagation of mechanical disturbances in solids. He has achieved important results in quantitative non-destructive evaluation of materials, damage mechanisms in composites, and vibrations of complex structures. 

He also has developed methods for flaw detection and characterization by ultrasonic scattering methods. Achenbach’s work has been both analytical and experimental. He has also achieved valuable results on earthquake mechanisms, on the mechanical behavior of composite materials under dynamic loading conditions, and on the vibrations of solid propellant rockets.

Achenbach, who joined Northwestern in 1963, has received research funding from NSF (Solid Mechanics Program, Earth Sciences Division, RANN), Office of Naval Research, Army Office of Research (Durham), Air Force office of Scientific Research’ ERDA, Wright-Patterson AFB, DARPA, Rockwell International Science Center; Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, Ames Laboratory, Department of Energy (BED), National Institute for Standards and Technology, and Federal Aviation Administration, as well from the industry.