Asking Ajith Kumar to pick his favorite patent is a little like asking a father to choose his favorite child. But in this case, Kumar has 311 children. Press him hard enough, though, and he’ll admit to liking one best: technology that powers each wheel on a locomotive separately.
Kumar calls the technology “quite simple,” but in reality it has revolutionized the freight industry. Old direct current locomotives sent the same amount of voltage to each wheel, but that meant when rails were slippery, all of the wheels had to reduce power. Kumar’s AC technology makes it possible to send more power to wheels that need it at any given time, helping new locomotives run faster and stay on the tracks without slipping.
It’s the technology, not the achievement, that really excites Kumar, a consulting engineer with GE Transportation Systems who holds more patents than any other GE employee. “I’ve worked on every new product transportation has come up with from the conceptual stage to prototype and first production,” says Kumar, 65. “I really enjoy solving problems in a slightly different way.”
Kumar has seen enormous changes in technology over the past 40 years. The son of a math professor and a school superintendent in Trivandrum, Kerala, he was always interested in electricity on the grandest of scales, from large motors and transformers to transmission lines. He received a degree in electrical engineering from the University of Kerala in India, but when he arrived at Stanford University as a graduate student in 1976, he started learning about the smaller world of engineering. “It was all micro-electronics and micro-processors, totally different,” he laughs.
Kumar melded the two worlds by becoming an expert in controlling huge machines with tiny circuits. He focused on transportation equipment including locomotives, mining vehicles, subway cars and drilling equipment.
After graduating from Stanford, he considered going back to India, but decided to take a chance and try for a job at GE. “I wrote a letter telling them I’m interested in working in high power and its control,” he says. “I just asked, ‘Do you have a position?’ ”
In response he received a telegram from Erie, Pennsylvania, that said, “Please call me collect.” He had to look Erie up on a map. “I didn’t know where Pennsylvania was, but they said come for an interview, so I went,” Kumar says. There was a telegram with a job offer waiting for him when he arrived back at his dormitory.
Kumar still lives in Erie, where he works on developing new products. He married his wife, Meera, in 1982, and has two daughters and two grandchildren. When he’s not working, Kumar loves to travel and spend time with his family and friends. He’s still collecting patents. He was awarded his most recent patent just last month for a GPS-based enhancement to the axles that decreases slipping and increases locomotives’ pulling power.
Having marked his 40th work anniversary in September, Kumar is considering retirement but not quite yet. He’s still enjoying himself way too much.
“When there’s no more interesting work,” says Kumar, “that’s when I’m going to leave.”