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Dean Kamen Talks Engineering, Inventions

Dean Kamen Talks Engineering, Inventions

Dean Kamen is an engineering hero. Among our readers, he ranks as one of the most respected and accomplished engineers. His name is associated with highly visible innovations such as the Segway, the portable infusion pump and more recently innovative devices to serve impoverished areas of the world. He is also a fierce advocate for attracting more students into engineering through organizations such as the FIRST Robotics Competition for high-school students. Design News Editor-in-Chief John Dodge recently conducted a wide-ranging interview with Kamen at his sprawling hilltop home in New Hampshire. Dodge also shot an extensive photo gallery of machines, scientific gear and industrial antiques in Kamen's home.

DN: What is the inspiration for this house?

Kamen: I just wanted a really cool place that I could fill with really cool technologies, old and new.

DN: How many pieces do you have?

Kamen: I've got a lot. They are all my favorites.

DN: How long have you been collecting pieces?

Kamen: As long as I can remember.

DN: Do you find it on the Web? Where do you get this stuff?

Kamen: I don't think I found any single piece on the web. People know me and send me stuff. I travel around the world and a lot of it is stuff made for me by DEKA engineers. Once a year, I have a holiday party. They always come up with some beautiful piece of technology that has some relevance to something we have been doing.

DN: You have a huge antique steam engine in the lobby. What did it take to get it in here?

Kamen: It's about 150 years old (built for the British towboat Oscar). It came out of the Ford Museum in Greenfield Village (MI) and we started working on it years before I moved into this house. I designed the house with that space available for it. When they finished pouring the floor underneath it while there was still no roof, I had the two core pieces of the engine brought in and we covered them with tarps. As the house got finished, we started building the rest of the engine. Each spoke of the six flywheel segments we brought in through the front door with 10 really strong guys.

DN: How long did it take from the time you acquired it to get it into this finished state?

Kamen: It's not done yet. We're still doing work on it. Every year, I say this is the year it will actually run.

DN: Do you have to get steam permits?

Kamen: No. We're converting it to a Stirling cycle engine. The floor beneath that one (pointing) is where we're building the cylinders for the displacers and then they will feed up through the floor through a six-inch pipe to the working pistons in the main engine. The original steam cylinders will be the working cylinders of a Stirling cycle engine. So there will be no exhaust steam or noise - just this giant beautiful piece of kinetic sculpture spinning away.

DN: How much does it weigh?

Kamen: About 40 tons...

DN: Was it a Ford Museum surplus item?

Kamen: Every 20 years or so, the museum goes through a big process of redefining itself. When they were doing that in the early or mid-80s, they (offered) this and I was lucky enough to bid and get it. I had it disassembled out there and moved to a big warehouse here. I did a lot of work disassembling it and taking each piece apart with a forklift. Then we sand blasted and refinishing it and made the bright metal shafts with stainless steel. All the castings we refinished and painted. We remade the bronze bushings and started reassembling it piece by piece in the house.

DN: Is your company DEKA Research for profit and privately held?

Kamen: Yes and yes.

DN: There's not a lot of information about your activities on the website. Is that deliberate?

Kamen: A little of each. The kind of stuff we put on the website is (information) about the technology we are proud of and vectors to send people to FIRST where I want to get information out. But there's not a lot of information I want to put out about DEKA. We greatly value our privacy.

DN: How do these innovations find their way into market? Does DEKA sell them?

Kamen: We are not selling them because we have no production capability. The design is not ready for production. When it is, we hope to find partners to do that because DEKA is not in the business of making and selling products. We are in the business of designing products and letting the rest of the world, typically our corporate clients, go out and build and sell them so we can move on to designing the next thing.

DN: Who makes the Segway?

Kamen: The company Segway does.

DN: Do you own Segway or part of it?

Kamen: I retain the technology and various companies have licenses to our technologies. Medical companies have licenses to medical applications and Segway has a license for the consumer products.

DN: How many Segways are out there?

Kamen: I don't think they like giving out that information, but it's in the tens of thousands.

DN: What's some other news out of DEKA in terms of products?

Kamen: We're working on lots of stuff. Most of the stuff I can't talk about because it's for clients. The stuff I can talk about is a water project and a Stirling engine for electricity for the developing world, the next generation of drug systems. That's our day job. We're also working on prosthetic limbs.

DN: How far along are you on the advanced prosthetic arm?

Kamen: Hopefully about a year from today, we'll have them to take home and use in clinical trials.

DN: I understand with your water purifier, you can turn filthy water into clean. Put in sewerage and out comes potable water. Is that true?

Kamen: The water purified is a very robust system in terms of what it can take as input. Literally, you can put in sewerage water and get out absolutely pure drinking water. You can put in water with biological and chemical toxins. There's very little concern about anything getting through that device.

DN: What is the filtering technology?

Kamen: It's a vapor compression distiller and does a very good job of getting rid of most of the stuff that would be problematic for filters or chemical devices.

DN: Is it ready for production?

Kamen: Nope. Again, we are working as hard we can to make those things ready for production. Our goal will be to find partners once we are done with the design that will put it in production and as with the generator find some developed world applications for it that can justify putting it in production and selling it in the for-profit world. Hopefully that'll leave us with the capability to build more of them (for the) developing world as a means of supplying desperately needed clean potable water to over a billion people.

DN: How did you and DEKA end up in New Hampshire?

Kamen: I grew up in New York. As my business started growing, I needed more and more engineers and scientists. I realized that getting people who were graduating from engineering schools from around the country - young enthusiastic kids to move to New York - was a bit of a stretch. You want to be in New York if you are in finance, advertising, publishing or the fashion business. Getting young enthusiastic inventors and engineers to move to New York would be hard. And I wanted to be close to the Boston area, skiing, the ocean, mountains and where there is a lot more open land.

There's a young kind of attitude and environment (here). Being in New Hampshire has a lot of the really neat advantages of being away from things that are really big but close enough to access them. To me, it represented a perfect opportunity.

I said let's give it try. People told me "You'll be back in a year." When we moved up here, it was one of the best business decisions we ever made. Look at us out here. You're up on a hill. You can't see a single house. Yet, we're less than an hour drive from a major city like Boston and its universities. We're right near other major universities like Dartmouth and the University of New Hampshire. It's a place where you can be far enough from the big downtown and not feel isolated from the world.

DN: How does one individual get 440 patents?

Kamen: Well, I share them with a lot of my brilliant engineers. I am not sure the raw count is the appropriate thing to do. We specialize in looking at the world's problems and trying to find ways to apply technologies in new ways to solve old problems. When you go about doing that, you do a lot of inventing. And so I have a lot very creative inventive people. Since the only thing our company does is create new solutions to problems, the only thing we really create is intellectual property so we have to protect what we do.

DN: What are the most significant patents?

Kamen: Significant is a bad term. We have classes of patents mostly around medical products. But we also have patents around energy and transportation. We are working in more areas.

DN: How important is energy in terms of projects at DEKA?

Kamen: It's getting more important all the time. If you asked me that question a year ago, we had one or two projects directly related to energy and others that are sort of related in the sense like a Segway saves you energy when you're getting around.

Now we have a lot more projects related directly and indirectly such as our Stirling engine, wind technology, hybrid vehicles and a whole lot of technologies that collectively would be considered energy.

DN: What is the status the Stirling engine?

Kamen: The Stirling engine has been around since 1816 when it was patented by Reverend Robert Stirling. As he did it, it wasn't very practical or competitive to things like steam. Today it would not be very competitive to things like gas turbines or diesels. But there are plenty of places where you need some form of heat engine for which a gas turbine or diesel are not very practical today, which is why they're not used.

DN: How is your Stirling engine different from Reverend Stirling's engine?

Kamen: That's a really good question because the core thermodynamic cycle and the brilliance of his idea are identical. But in terms of implementation, today there are so many better materials that you can run much hotter than he could. There are things like sensors to control it better. We can get power in and out of the engine without having any shaft that penetrates the pressure vessel because we have a pure electric drive inside. In many, many ways, he would not even recognize what we are doing as a Stirling engine, but the thermodynamics of it are all pure Stirling.

DN: What are you doing in hybrids?

Kamen: We have not talked much about hybrids. I have one out in the garage (After the interview, we trekked to his garage and he showed me a THINK hybrid whose engine was being converted to a Stirling).

DN: You and I were just at a conference where a guy said conservation is a sham and that we are "chromosomally" incapable of it.

Kamen: I heard him say that. I heard him say that. I think he was trying to make an intellectual point as opposed to a factual point. I would agree in some ways with what he's saying. It's unrealistic to expect people are going to be disciplined enough to do that until the cost of not doing it is very high, which is happening with the price of fuel. But I think he was saying, "Let's use our creativity so we do not have to choose between quality of life and quality of the environment. Let's find a way to use technology that will allow us to do all the things we want to do...but do it using less energy and (without) using energy in detrimental ways to the environment." And I think that's a realistic goal.

DN: We heard another speaker who is a venture capitalist criticize the Department of Energy, saying little comes out of it relative to what taxpayers pony up to support it. He also said federal and corporate labs are marginally productive. As a hyper-productive inventor and innovator, what do you think?

Kamen: Well, I think any entrepreneur sees any big organization as sub-optimal. The entrepreneur has to do more with less and is competing with guys who have lots and lots of resources and typically multiples of what's available to the entrepreneur in terms of resources and times. So every entrepreneur measures their relative capability against these big guys and says, "They're not doing as much." And relatively speaking that might be true, but the economies of scale tend to be better in terms of productivity for the little guy. If that wasn't true, big organizations would have all the advantages if scale also made them more capable of fundamentally being more effective. There would be no little companies out there because they'd have no advantages. So I don't think it's surprising that he and most people believe that little organizations are more effective relative to their resources versus big organizations. That's an ongoing debate and it's not going to be settled here or anytime soon by anybody else.

DN: What are you doing with wind energy? I notice you have a turbine in your yard.

Kamen: We have a wind turbine here and we are working hard now to make some changes in it from a structural point of view.

DN: Is it homemade?

Kamen: That was originally from a company no longer in business in the U.S., taken over by a Canadian group, and we are making changes and improvements to make it significantly better in terms of efficiency and reliability. And we're also on a couple of other wind-related ideas that are totally different from that.

DN: What kind of output does that one have?

Kamen: That'll do about 50,000W in a 24 mph wind.

DN: So my 7-kW Generac generator will produce about one seventh of the wind turbine, right?

Kamen: The trouble is the Generac will give 7,000 kWs whenever you ask for it and I'll make 50 kW when the wind blows at 24 mph.

DN: Won't that fuel development of storage technologies when it comes to renewable energy?

Kamen: Storage is either an unsung issue or opportunity, depending on where you sit in the world of energy. You can't store electrons in the grid very well so a lot of the magic will be unleashed when there are cost-effective, reliable, easily integrated storage systems. But that will take awhile.

DN: We did some research among our readers about which engineering hero they'd most like to have dinner with. You would sit at a table with Ford, Tesla and Edison.

Kamen: (Laughs) Holy mackerel. You know, if you said I was third out of three guys at that meeting we went to, I'd be depressed.

DN: I think politicians were the group with most responses as a group and businessmen were second.

Kamen: That's disappointing. Who was the audience?

DN: The survey drew from 1,800 engineers who responded.

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