Kosuke Ishii, known for teaching manufacturing design, is dead at 51
Kosuke Ishii, a professor of mechanical engineering known for his dedication to teaching, died on March 2 at Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Gatos. He was 51 years old. Ishii's death, the result of internal hemorrhaging from burst blood vessels in his esophagus, came as a shock to his friends, family and co-workers.
As director of the Manufacturing Modeling Laboratory (MML), Ishii was interested in improving the design and manufacturability of products ranging from airplanes to water pumps.
"Kos made strong connections with all the people who worked with him and learned from him," said MML lab member and doctoral candidate Whitfield Fowler. "Personally, Kos helped to shape the opportunities that I will have for the rest of my life."
Ishii's energy and enthusiasm allowed him to interact with and influence an impressive number of people during his various careers in industry and academia, said Ken Waldron, a research professor of mechanical engineering and one of Ishii's longtime colleagues. "Kos will be sorely missed by his family, his colleagues, his students and former students, and by the numerous people around the world with whom he interacted at one time or another."
Born in Japan, Ishii attended high school in Sydney, Australia, where his father was employed. "Kos got my attention with his ready smile and the broad Australian accent he had at the time, complete with expostulations like 'blimey, Charley,' and 'stone the crows,'" recalled Waldron, who first met Ishii in 1986 at Stanford.
Ishii earned his bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from Sophia University in Tokyo in 1980. Two years later he earned a master's at Stanford, under the guidance of mechanical engineering Professor Phil Barkan. In 1983, Ishii earned his master's in engineering from the Tokyo Institute of Technology.
Ishii then took a job at Toshiba, the company where his father had worked for many years. His father had retired by the time Ishii began working there. As a controls and system design engineer based in Tokyo, Ishii commissioned power plants throughout Australia. Ishii would soon return to the world of academia, but he maintained a lifelong partnership with Toshiba.
At Barkan's urging, Ishii returned to Stanford in 1985 to complete a doctorate in mechanical engineering. During this time Ishii served as a teaching assistant for Barkan's course ME 217, Design for Manufacturability, a class that Ishii would later make his own.
After earning his doctorate in 1987, Ishii accepted a faculty position at Ohio State University, which he held from 1988 to 1994.
"Characteristically, at OSU he hit the ground running," recalls Waldron, who worked with Ishii there and later relocated to Stanford. "He soon had established projects with several automotive companies and with GE."
Meanwhile, Ishii's Stanford mentor, Barkan, had been diagnosed with leukemia. The university approached Ishii to take over Barkan's duties, and he accepted. He returned to Stanford in 1994, took over ME217 (which has since been renamed ME317) and founded the MML, which investigates "methods and tools that aid decision making in manufacturing enterprises," according to the lab's website. Although based in the Mechanical Engineering Department, MML works closely with both the Management Science and Engineering Department and the Stanford Graduate School of Business, reflecting Ishii's interdisciplinary approach. The lab's sponsors have included the National Science Foundation, U.S. Department of Energy, U.S. Department of Commerce, General Motors, General Electric, Toshiba, Toyota, Nissan, ABB, Ebara, Hitachi and Sony.
Ishii was perhaps best known among students and colleagues for his course ME317, which he had taught since coming to Stanford 15 years ago. A graduate-level, two-quarter series, ME317 presents students with the opportunity to work directly with industry partners across the world to take on a real-world design problem.
A team of two to four students takes on a company's design challenge, and with the aid of Ishii and his teaching assistants, develops a solution to be presented to the class and the company at the end of the year. Companies such as Nissan and Toyota and medical-device manufacturer Satiety pay a fee to participate in the course.
During the course, Ishii presented lectures three hours per week on subjects ranging from complexity worth analysis to eco-design.
"His passion for teaching showed through every class," said project coach and doctoral student Jenny Wong, who worked with Ishii for the last four years.
"He had this unique ability to make those around him feel immediately at ease and a part of the team," said MML Associate Director Kurt Beiter, who will take responsibility for ME317 for the remainder of the year.
The course also offered a distance-learning component for non-Stanford students, sponsored by their employers. Through online classes and supplemented by quarterly visits from Ishii, students in Japan and Mexico worked on their own company's design challenges. In 1996 and again in 2008, Ishii was awarded the General Motors Outstanding Distance Learning Faculty Award because of the course's success with its distance-learning students.
Like his innovative course ME317, Ishii's life bridged boundaries between professions, departments and nations.
Ishii was a member of the Science Council of Japan and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME). Last year, he was awarded the ASME Ruth and Joel Spira Outstanding Design Educator Award.
In addition to directing MML, teaching ME317 and maintaining his extensive industry contacts, Ishii found time to write and contribute to eight textbooks and numerous journal articles. He was awarded the ASME-Pitney Bowes Excellence in Mechanical Design Award for Best Paper at the ASME Design Automation Conference in 1993 and the Best Paper Award at the ASME Design for Manufacturability Conference in 2003.
While at Ohio State and Stanford, Ishii served as thesis adviser to 18 doctoral graduates. In his spare time, he enjoyed golfing.
When he could take time away from Stanford, Ishii spent a few summers as a consulting professor at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne and, recently, at Keio University in Japan.
"When I think about Kos, I feel I was observing a low Earth satellite: always on the move, operating all around the globe, from Japan to Switzerland to Mexico to Australia and back to the U.S., diligently attending to the needs of each site, and maintaining a huge international network of contacts," wrote Waldron in Ishii's unofficial web memorial.
"Kos was truly a man of these times. He connected continents, cultures, and individuals," wrote Beiter. "Words fail to express the collective sense of loss we feel today."
Ishii is survived by his wife, Naomi, of Los Altos, as well as his sister, Akemi Iida; his father, Tsuneharu; and his mother, Masue, all of whom reside in Japan. A memorial will be arranged at a later date. The family requests that donations be made to the Asian Liver Center at Stanford or the Stanford Liver Cancer Center.
Chelsea Anne Young is a science-writing intern at the Stanford News Service.