Ben's Website

Serious musings

Highlights: Reinventing The Wheel

Here are some highlights from a book I read recently. I found these parts interesting while reading, though they may not make the most sense in isolation. These are put here to aide my recall of the book and to give you the barest of encouragements to read it too.

"Reinventing the Wheel" by Steve Kemper, 2003.

At the end of the nineteenth century, these sixty-four textile mills comprised the world's largest industrial complex and were teh pumping heart of Manchester. By the early 1980s, they had deteriorated into an eyesore. But they were also cheap and structurally sound, a bargain for someone with vision. To Dean [Kamen] they symbolized a time when American engineering and technology had led the country to greatness and changed the world. That was the spirit he wanted for his new R&D company, which he named after himself: DEKA (DEan Kamen). 16

For Dean, frog-kissing meant looking for ways to combine the laws of physics with the latest technologies. ... In the case of the dialysis machine, his musing took him back to Boyle's Law and Gay-Lussac's Law... He explained the physics to his engineers and speculated that these principles could be combined with computer-controlled pneumatics and other modern technologies to create something altogether new for performing dialysis. It took five years to turn that insight into a product. In 1993 Baxter introduced its HomeChoice dialysis machine. ... Design News magazine named the machine the best medical device of the year. The royalties from it became the main source of Dean's personal fortune, and hence funded DEKA's freelance inventions. 19

The dialysis machine fit the pattern that Dean had been following since his days designing light boxes and infusion pumps: Combine inexpensive new technologies in unexpected ways to do unforeseen things. "I don't have to invent anything," he once said. "It's out there somewhere if I can just find it and integrate it." He added "Inventing is frustrating, it's dangerous, it's expensive, and innovators should avoid it whenever possible. Be a systems integrator." Innovation, he said, "was the art of concealing your sources." The dialysis machine also started a pattern that Fred and Ginger would repeat: a flash of inspiration by Dean, followed by years of work by his engineers to make it real. 19

Dean encouraged them to try their craziest ideas. It was fun but frustrating. Nothing but frogs [to kiss]. Even the designs that managed to climb a few stairs were unstable. "We had lots of systems, all bad" recalled Benge. 24

The surviving puppies [design ideas] would be prototyped in hard foam during the following week and voted on again. Doug reminded everyone that in a couple of years, two thousand Gingers a day would be rolling off the factory line, five hundred thousand machines a year. Ginger needed a solid base to build upon. 41

In typical fashion, Doug had taken one of Dean's casual aphorisms—"You gotta kis a lot of frogs to find a prince"—and methodized it into a monthly management tool. On Frog Day you couldn't work on anything you knew. Today, for instance, the electrical engineers were designing a kickstand and the mechanical engineers were investigating wiring. Each team had to make something that addressed one of Ginger's problems in an original way. Failure was encouraged because it implied real daring and creativity. On Frog Day, Doug wanted full-lip smackers, not safe pecks. 60

After many months of work, a DEKA team had finished an ingenious device that eliminated human error in drug dispensing...But the client had run out of money and put the project on indefinite hold, meaning no royalties for DEKA. "These things have left thirty or forty people here with no project to work on," said Dean. "But my rule is that no one will lose a job for causes that aren't their ethical or professional fault. The consequence is that DEKA—that is, me—had to absorb that expense." 79

I once asked him why he had never married. "I guess because the reason you get married is to have kids and if I had kids and did it right, I couldn't have DEKA and Teletrol and Enstrom. So if I did it right, I'd resent the kids, and if I didn't do it right, I'd feel so guilty and terrible. So I decided not to. I have a hundred and sixty kids at DEKA to take care of." He sincerely felt these things...Yet beneath these noble motives lurked another that was more self-serving and potentially damaging: the need for absolute control and an obsessive fear of losing it. 99

Dean thought that one of America's biggest problems was its adulation of empty vessels like athletes and movie stars. Why celebrate people whose chief talent was dribbling a little ball or looking attractive in two dimensions? It offended him that kids knew the names of such people but not those of real heroes, the scientists and engineers who invented and perfected products that improved the world. Too many kids wasted their time and minds dreaming about playing int he NBA or starring in a music video. They might as well buy a lottery ticket. 114

Engineers. Where I saw scenes with literary and painterly overtones, they saw physics puzzles and thermodynamics. We both loved the physical world, but absorbed and processed it differently. "I'm perfectly willing to watch a sunset," Dean once said, "but I also want to know why its orange and why it looks bigger when it touches the horizon. People think science is dry, but it's as emotionally charged as looking at a beautiful woman. The most shallow bunch of pinheads I know are arts people. I ask them, 'So you're cultured and well read? Tell me one differential equation you know, one piece of elegant physics.'" 147

He was determined to be a guy in denim and to keep DEKA a down-to-earth crucible of invention...But he also wanted to change the world and build a multi-billion-dollar international company and be pursued by heavyweights like John Doerr and Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos. This tension was manifest in his thirty-eight-acre estate... It was far more revealing than Dean seemed to understand, a monument to engineering, ego, conspicuous consumption, and the Old Economy. ... The 32,000-square-foot hilltop house offered mountain views in every direction. A heated hangar housed his two helicopters. In the garage, a Porsche 928 sat next to a black Humvee. DEKA employees sometimes used the tennis court, baseball diamond, and basketball court, but Dean never did. 160

For Scott and the engineers, the redesign offered the opportunity, or perhaps the trap, to create lots of commonalities between Pro and Metro. ... But the launch clock was ticking, and it was much easier to design two unique machines than to force commonality. Eventually—and that word skims over much anguish and many late nights—the team decided to go with two unique designs and a few common parts. 184

The first D1B took ten hours to build [assemble]. ... He insisted that everyone on the team build a Ginger, for two reasons: The process revealed assembly problems and forced the engineers to wrestle with their own designs. Chip let them install motors incorrectly, strip screws, drop screws into the chassis, and use the wrong screws (there were two similar sizes—bad poke-a-yoke). He watched them cross-thread the wheels and listened to them curse as they struggled to line up all the screw holes on the fender. He let them discover that the O-ring on the control shaft was binding under the steel washer. To get through the wiring stations, one engineer had to remove the chassis cover three times. One of the gaskets looked square but wasn't, and had to be studied before putting it on. ... Overlong guide pins forced an assembler to jiggle a transmission halfway on, partially tighten nuts, then pound the tranny with a rubber mallet until it was finally seated. 205

"When this machine comes out," said Doug, "Honda or GM can buy one and tear it down and figure out everything—except the software. That's our Coke formula. Strategically, it would be a huge risk to let it out [by subcontracting software development]." 223

No, said Dean, that's setting the bar too low. We have to be aggressive and take the position that we have the solution, and if you don't want it we'll go elsewhere. We want them to help us make their cities Ginger-friendly by getting rid of traffic. We expect merchants to pay for Ginger kiosks. "We are going to make the pedestrian king again," said Dean. "The threshold isn't will they let us do it, it's what they will do for us." 226

The next day Dean rolled up to the White House gate on an iBOT, trailed by the 60 Minutes II producer and cameraman. He charmed the guards, letting them think he was disabled and had permission for the others. The guards did make him empty the pockets of his fatigue jacket and explain why he was carrying not just a cell phone, camera, and Palm Pilot, but a tape measure, screwdriver, flashlight, electronic distance calculator, collapsible telescope, electrical tape, voltage meter, adjustable wrench, and, most puzzling of all, a steel machine nut as big as a baseball. ... He finally wheeled into the Oval Office on the iBOT, trailed by 60 Minutes II, and proselytized Clinton for fifteen minutes about FIRST. ... "If you do not want to hear about what he does," Clinton remarked at the time, "do not ask or stand within a four-mile radius." 249

On the morning of the reveal, when the curtain lifted off the machine and Diane Sawyer said "But that can't be it," she spoke for many. The show's hokey, breathless presentation turned one of Ginger's greatest virtues—it's simplicity of design—into a negative. Standing still, the machine looked ordinary, even mundane. 298

It's been three and a half years since Dean revealed the Segway on Good Morning America and told Time magazine that the machine "will be to the car what the car was to the horse and buggy." ... When Amazon began selling the machine to the general public two and a half years ago, Dean and Doerr clearly expected a torrent of sales. Instead they got a trickle. 315