SCS Remembers Robotics Pioneer Lee Weiss

Matthew WeinThursday, July 8, 2021

Lee Weiss, a professor emeritus and founding member of Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute, died on Wednesday, June 30. He was 70.

"Lee was a brilliant scientist whose creativity influenced so many people across multiple disciplines, and his technical achievements remain amazing," said Martial Hebert, dean of the School of Computer Science and former head of the Robotics Institute. "But something many people don't realize about Lee is how much of a mentor he was to everyone he worked with. He was so warm and understated that he made everyone he interacted with feel like they were getting special attention."

A lifelong Pittsburgher who did his undergraduate work at the University of Pittsburgh, Weiss earned his Ph.D. from the College of Engineering's Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering in 1984, under the advisership of Arthur Sanderson. He started working at the still nascent Robotics Institute as a research assistant in 1979, and was hired as faculty after completing his doctorate. He would go on to spend his entire career at CMU, holding additional appointments in the Biomedical Engineering, Materials Science and Engineering, and Electrical and Computer Engineering departments before retiring in 2016.

"Lee was here from the beginning," said Raj Reddy, the Moza Bint Nasser University Professor of Computer Science and Robotics and founder of the Robotics Institute. "He was one of the first people we hired."

Weiss's initial research focused on visual servo control of robots, flexible manufacturing systems and micro-electro mechanical systems (MEMS). In the early 1990s, Weiss became a pioneer in what was then called additive manufacturing — now commonly known as 3D printing. In the fall of 1990, when all additive manufacturing had been done using polymers, he became one of the first people to 3D print with metals. This led Weiss and his colleagues to devise a process for creating parts from multiple materials and, a few years later, the first wearable computers.

"Lee and I would have a chat about technology and the next time I saw him, he would have worked out the details and created a working, physical prototype," said Daniel Siewiorek, the Buhl University Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and Computer Science and a longtime colleague of Weiss. "He was an engineer's engineer — he was MacGyver before MacGyver."

Later in his career, Weiss returned to his bioengineering roots. He worked on technology-based solutions to problems in translational clinical medicine, including developing devices for interventional radiology, fetal heart monitoring, cardiac pacing, angioplasty, MEMS-based drug delivery and computer-aided surgery. Adapting methods he used while first working on additive manufacturing, Weiss, along with the Biomedical Engineering Department's Phil Campbell, created REPAIR bone putty – a plastic made from platelet-rich plasma designed to accelerate the healing processes in bone and soft tissue.

"Because he worked across so many departments here at CMU, the mark he left transcends robotics or engineering," Hebert said. "The university is a better place for having had him all these years."

Funeral services for Weiss were held on July 2. His family asks that contributions in his memory be made to the Jewish Association on Aging.

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