How fabricating can change the world

October 14, 2008
By: Tim Heston

Two machines sitting on a porch facing New Hampshire"s Merrimack River may well change the world. And at the FABTECH International & AWS Welding Show last week, I got a glimpse of them.

Dean Kamen showed a picture of the two little machines during his keynote Oct. 7. They didn"t look like much, but if you know a little about Kamen, you"d guess there would be more to the story than just two box-shaped things sitting in rustic New England environs.

They sat on the porch behind Kamen"s DEKA Research and Development Corp., a small Manchester, N.H., firm with big ideas that haven"t always received the best press. Kamen and his team developed the Segway, the overhyped invention that everybody thought would change the world (only it didn"t).

Kamen may not have changed the world for everybody just yet, but that doesn"t mean he hasn"t stopped trying. There"s no denying he"s saved and improved many lives. President Clinton gave him the National Medal of Technology in 2000 for good reason. By that point he had invented infusion pumps used for chemotherapy, neonatology, endocrinology, and other specialties. He also invented the iBOT, a powered wheelchair able to climb stairs and traverse uneven terrain. (The invention was in fact a precursor to the Segway.)

Most significantly (at least in Kamen"s view) he founded FIRST, For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, a youth science organization in which professionals in engineering, science, and technology mentor high school students through an intense six-week robotics competition. Kamen"s thinking goes like this: Kids idolize athletes and entertainers. Wouldn"t it be great if they would do the same with professionals in science and technology? That idea, he said, lies at the heart of FIRST.

We created an organization to create [in youth] a passion in things that matter, Kamen said during last week"s FABTECH keynote. Sports and entertainment are not the source of our wealth. They are the result of it.

Of course, the whole world isn"t wealthy, and it is here where Kamen hopes those two little machineseach about the size of a welding power sourcewill make a difference. About 1.1 billion people on this earth lack clean drinking water, and those two boxes overlooking the Merrimack River could give them some.

A surefire way to clean just about any waterbe it from the Dead Sea, Red Sea, or the dirty pool left after an elephant"s bathis to distill it. The problem is it takes an enormous amount of energy, about 25 kW of continuous input power, to do this (which is why water isn"t produced this way).

To solve the problem, DEKA engineers dreamed up a system in which water is vaporized under very high pressure; sent through specialized heat exchangers consisting of very thin, small metallic components; and distilled using less than half a kilowatt of continuous powerabout half of what a hand dryer requires.

That"s fine, Kamen said, but the problem is most of the poorest people in the world don"t have electricity. It doesn"t matter how little electricity the system needs if you don"t have any.

So company engineers, using some 200-year-old theories in thermal dynamics, developed a single-cycle engine that could run off a local source of heat, the most plentiful being cow dung. The engine kills two birds with one stone. Methane gas is 21 times worse for the environment than CO2, Kamen said, so why not collect it to power a machine that provides clean water?

You address the basic human needs of water and power, he said, and you change the world.

The Segway is nice and all, but this is major stuff, and Kamen can"t do it alone. That"s why periodically, Kamen called out to the keynote audience, We need your help.

The machines on the show floorfrom panel benders and robotic welding cells to combination laser-punch machinescan help Kamen and others cut, form, and join components for these inventions that serve basic human needs. This also shows how important metal fabrication and all the other sectors of manufacturing are. The future of human civilization quite literally depends on them.

That said, Michael Jordon probably wouldn"t know where to start.

Tim Heston

Tim Heston

Senior Editor
FMA Communications Inc.
2135 Point Blvd
Elgin, IL 60123
Phone: 815-381-1314