Bob Lally – Piezoelectric sensing technology pioneer.

Molly Bakewell Chamberlin, president, Embassy Global LLC pays touching tribute to an important instrument pioneer and innovator. She acknowledges the help of Jim Lally, retired Chairman of PCB Group in preparing this eulogy.

Bob Lally (1924-2018)

During my earliest days in the sensors industry, at PCB Piezotronics (PCB), I can still remember the excitement which accompanied publication of my first technical article. It was a primer on piezoelectric sensing technology, which ran some 15 years ago in the print edition of Sensors. About a month later, I recall receiving a package at PCB, containing both a copy of my article and a congratulatory letter. The article was covered in a sea of post-it notes, filled with new insights and explanatory diagrams. I recall marveling at the sheer kindness of anyone taking such time and interest in the work. I’d sent an immediate thank you, then received yet another encouraging response.  From that time onward, nearly each time I’d publish an article, another friendly envelope would arrive. I’d look forward to them, and the opportunities for learning and growth they’d offered.

As I’d soon come to know, those envelopes were sent by none other than PCB Founder, Bob Lally, who passed away last month at the age of 93. For me, Bob was my PCB pen pal, who along with his brother, Jim, helped me to develop a real appreciation for piezoelectric sensing technology. They made it fun. I also had the privilege of learning quite a bit about this kind, brilliantly complex and insightful person who was so helpful to me. To the sensors industry, Bob’s technical contributions were legendary. What is less known about Bob, however, were his equally remarkable histories, first as a decorated veteran of WW II; and later, as an innovator in STEM.

After graduating from high school in 1942, Bob entered military service, as part of the United States Army which helped liberate mainland Europe during World War II. His service was recognised with two Bronze Stars for bravery. When the hostilities ended, Bob returned home, and was able to benefit from a special U.S. government program which funded the university education of military veterans and their families. This benefit allowed Bob to attend the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he earned both Bachelor of Science and Master of Science degrees in Mechanical Engineering with a minor in Mathematics. He graduated with high honors, as University co-salutatorian, in 1950. Bob also later continued this commitment to lifelong learning via studies at both Purdue and the State University of New York at Buffalo (NY USA).

Bob’s first engineering job upon graduation was as a guidance and control engineer at Bell Aircraft Corp. (Bell) in Buffalo, (NY USA). This a position in which he would serve for four years. He worked in test flight control systems R&D for experimental aircraft, glide bombs and guided missiles. He also supervised the inertial guidance group. It was from his work at Bell that Bob first learned about the application of piezoelectric sensing technology for the dynamic measurement of physical parameters, such as vibration, pressure, and force. That technology was first developed by Bob’s colleague, Walter P. Kistler, the Swiss-born physicist who had successfully integrated piezoelectric technology into Bell’s rocket guidance and positioning systems.

Original PCB Piezotronics facility in the family home of Jim Lally, ca 1967. Bob Lally, centre background, is operating a DuMont oscilloscope in the Test department.
Jim Lally, left foreground, leads the Sales department.

In 1955, Bob and some of his Bell colleagues decided to form what was the original Kistler Instrument Company. That company sought to further commercialize piezoelectric sensing technologies for an expanded array of applications and markets, beyond the aerospace umbrella. In addition to his role as co-founder, Bob remained at the original Kistler Instrument Company for 11 years, serving as VP of Marketing, while continuing his roles in engineering, production, testing, and sales. Upon learning that the company was being sold to a firm out of Washington State, Bob decided to form PCB Piezotronics. Established in 1967, PCB specialized in the development and application of integrated electronics within piezoelectric sensors for the dynamic measurement of vibration, pressure, force and acceleration. The original PCB facility had rather humble beginnings, with all sales, marketing, R&D and operations running from the basement of Jim Lally’s family home.

IR-100 Award plaque, presented to Bob Lally, 1983.

It was also in this timeframe that Bob became world-renowned for his capability to successfully integrate piezoelectric sensing technology into mechanical devices, setting a new industry standard for test and measurement. He was awarded multiple U.S. patents for these innovations, including the modally-tuned piezoelectric impact hammer, pendulum hammer calibrator, and gravimetric calibrator, all for the modal impact testing of machines and structures. The modally tuned impulse excitation hammer was further recognized with a prestigious IR-100 award, as one of the top 100 industry technical achievements of 1983.

Bob was also renowned for his successful commercialization of a two-wire accelerometer with built-in electronics. That concept was marketed by PCB as integrated circuit piezoelectric, or ICP. Bob’s 1967 paper for the International Society of Automation (ISA), “Application of Integrated Circuits to Piezoelectric Transducers”, was among the first formally published technical explanations of this concept. As Bob had detailed, the application of this technology made the sensors lower cost, easier to use and more compatible with industrial environments. Subsequent widespread industry adoption of these accelerometers created new markets for PCB, such as industrial machinery health monitoring, and formed a major cornerstone for the company’s success. In 2016, PCB was acquired by MTS Systems Corporation and employs more than 1000 worldwide, with piezoelectric sensing technologies still among its core offerings.

Beyond Bob’s many R&D accomplishments, he is known for his invaluable contributions to the establishment of industry standards and best practices, as a member of the technical standards committees of the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE), Society for Experimental Mechanics (SEM), and Industrial Electronics Society (IES), among others. Bob also served on the ISA Recommended Practices Committee for Piezoelectric Pressure Transducers and Microphones, as well as the ASA Standards Committee for Piezoelectric Accelerometer Calibration. Many of the standards that Bob helped to develop, as part of these committees, remain relevant today.

Upon retirement, Bob remained committed to the education and training of the next generation of sensors industry professionals. He often gave tutorials and donated instrumentation for student use. Bob later continued that work as an adjunct professor at the University of Cincinnati. In the mid-2000s, he began to develop an innovative series of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) educational models. Each was designed to provide a greater understanding of various sensing technologies, their principles of operation, and “real life” illustrations of practical applications.

STEM sensing model, with adjustable pendulums, by Bob Lally.

Among Bob’s final works was a unique STEM model consisting of three adjustable connected pendulums. That model was used to illustrate the concept of energy flex transference and the influence of physical structural modifications on structural behavior. Bob continued his mentoring and STEM work nearly right up until his passing. He did so with unwavering dedication and enthusiasm, despite being left permanently disabled from his combat injuries.

In addition to co-founding two of the most successful sensor manufacturers in history and his many R&D accomplishments, Bob’s generosity of spirit shall remain an important part of his legacy. I, like many, remain truly grateful for the selfless and meaningful contributions of Bob Lally to my early professional development, particularly in my technical article work. It is an honour to tell his story.

• He is survived by his son, Patrick (Kathi) Lally of Orchard Park, New York; his grandson, Joshua Lally; his surviving siblings, Jim, MaryAnn (Wilson), and Patricia; and his many nieces, nephews, friends and colleagues.

• Special thanks to Jim, Kathi and Patrick Lally for their support and contributions to this article.

• All pictures used hear are by kind courtesy of the Lally family.

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