September 21, 2005
Steve Eppinger started riding his bicycle to MIT 26 years ago. As an undergrad, he lived at the Zeta Beta Tau fraternity house in Brookline, and he needed transportation to the Department of Mechanical Engineering, from which he earned an S.B. in 1983.
Today, the GM LFM Professor of Management Science, Professor of Engineering Systems and Deputy Dean of the Sloan School of Management, still rides his bicycle to work nearly every day, a 24-mile round trip from Lexington. "I commute by bike partly because it’s ecologically efficient…for me to drive a 3,000-pound hunk of steel into Cambridge every day is laughable…I’d rather do it with pedal power. Also, it keeps me fit."
It’s this philosophy of practicality that inspired Eppinger to create an interdisciplinary product development course in which graduate students from MIT Sloan, the MIT School of Engineering, the Leaders for Manufacturing and System Design and Management Programs (LFM-SDM) and the Rhode Island School of Design collaborate to create better products.
The class, Product Design and Development (15.783J), was created 17 years ago. Students work on interdisciplinary teams to design and build innovative products, some of which have been patented and brought to market.
Eppinger’s duties in the dean’s office don’t permit him time to teach the course now, but he does assist Thomas Roemer, assistant professor at MIT Sloan, who has taken over the class. Although Eppinger says he misses teaching, he’s excited about his new responsibilities as deputy dean. "It’s interesting work, and I get to help run, and hopefully improve the school. There’s just so much energy, and it’s fun to be involved."
Eppinger, 44, grew up in Stamford, CT, where he graduated as a top science and math student from Rippowam High School. MIT was a natural choice and he received a scholarship to study chemistry. He jumped into an advanced chemistry course as a freshman, and quickly decided it wasn’t for him. Since he had always been interested in engineering, he followed that pursuit. He appreciated that he didn’t have to specify a major immediately. "One of the nice things about MIT is that you can take that time in the beginning to explore," he says. In addition to his S.B., he received his S.M. and ScD. Degrees from the Department of Mechanical Engineering before he joined the MIT Sloan faculty in 1988.
He assisted with the founding of the LFM and SDM programs, and served as faculty co-director of the two programs from 2001-2003. He still supervises a couple of LFM and SDM students each year. His role in both programs is one of his proudest accomplishments. "They are both terrific programs," he says.
Eppinger is also the co-author, along with Karl Ulrich, of a widely used textbook, Product Design and Development, published by McGraw-Hill, now in its third edition. "It’s available around the world, and it’s just wonderful to see all of these universities using our curriculum," he says.
Eppinger maintains a world view that aligns with his ongoing research in organizing large and complex development processes. He’s passionate about the need for alternative energy solutions and is a strong supporter of hydrogen and electric-based vehicles. "I’m excited about the auto industry’s accomplishments. Hydrogen- and electricity-powered vehicles are the way to go, and they are important steps in the right direction." He’s optimistic that the auto industry will continue to advocate for alternative fuel solutions, and points to the accomplishments made in automobile safety. There are similar challenges within the aerospace industry, he adds, because in 50 years, we won’t have enough fuel. "It’s so critical that we continue doing energy research at MIT," he says.
His dedication to numerous causes doesn’t surprise anyone who knows him. "We could all learn a lot from him. He is very grounded," says Alice Downing, administrator to the MIT Sloan deans.
"When I first met Steve, shortly after he joined the faculty, it was obvious to me that not only was he a very talented academic, but that he also had leadership qualities that would soon benefit the school," says Don Rosenfield, director of the LFM Fellows Program. "His accomplishments in design and operations management and his contributions to LFM-SDM and the school have all been substantial."
Pedaling for a Cure
This is the second year that Eppinger has completed the Pan-Massachusetts Challenge, a 189-mile fundraising state-wide bike-a-thon to raise money for cancer research and treatment at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute through the Jimmy Fund. "I had a great ride," he says of the route that took him from Sturbridge to Wellesley this summer. Although Eppinger rides his bike nearly year-round, the two-day ride is still a challenge, even for a seasoned cyclist. "It’s two long days of riding, and I still have to do a lot of training for it." Inspired by his mother-in-law who died of lung cancer, and his own father who’s currently battling kidney cancer, Eppinger is confident that the disease can be eradicated some day. "I believe that more aggressive cancer research is the only way we will have a future in which our grandchildren won’t die of cancer…but we need to work hard."
He has also completed a triathlon, and swims, and runs in his free time, although he acknowledges that running is his "weaker sport." He can be found swimming laps at the Z Center all winter long. In the summer, he takes time to tend to his vegetable garden, which provides healthy veggies for his family’s table. He’s also an accomplished cook and is brilliant at baking pies, and during this interview, his wife Julie was anxiously awaiting him to bake a peach pie. He makes his own pizza crust, stir fry, and salads, and just learned to grill a pizza outdoors. "You roll out the crust, cook it on the grill for a few minutes, flip it over, put the toppings on, put it back on the grill and it comes out great!" Naturally, he uses his own homegrown zucchini, onions, and plum tomatoes.
The Eppingers have two children – Lauren, 19, who attends Bennington College in Vermont, and Andrew, 16, a sophomore in high school. Lauren studies ceramics and psychology, and Andrew is interested in architecture.
Eppinger is still in touch with some of his old fraternity friends, and is proud to still be at MIT. "MIT has always been a very entrepreneurial environment where people can get involved in projects. I’ve been at MIT my entire adult life, and I really enjoy being here."