Twenty years ago, American inventor Allen Breed used his expertise in triggering devices for military weapons to create Breed Technologies Inc. in Lakeland, Florida, an airbag supplier that challenged such industry giants as TRW and Autoliv.
These days, it is rare for an individual entrepreneur to have such an impact on the auto industry. Physicist Alan Kammerman hoped to follow in Breed's footsteps. A former scientist at a U.S. weapons laboratory, Kammerman had invented an airbag trigger. He thought he had a deal to sell it to BMW AG, but the automaker hired another supplier to produce the component.
Now the scientist and the German automaker are headed for a court fight. Kammerman contends in a lawsuit that he spent three years developing a new airbag igniter for BMW. He claims BMW dropped him and completed the work with another company. The scientist is seeking triple damages against BMW, plus half its profits from the commercial development of the device.
Kammerman, who lives in Los Alamos, New Mexico, developed his igniter after a career at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, a U.S. government weapons lab. Though still unproven, his igniter could be cheaper, more reliable and less costly than existing igniters. The case pits the scientist and his K&V Scientific Co. Inc., a Los Alamos engineering company with six employees, against one of the world's leading automakers.
DEFYING THE ODDS
The dispute highlights the difficulty of bringing new technology to market - especially for an entrepreneur. Alan Breed defied the odds. In 1961, he formed a company to make triggering devices for the military. Later, he invented a cheap crash sensor for airbags. His timing was perfect. In the 1980s, the automakers were preparing to mass-produce airbags. Breed's invention helped him build a company with sales of $1.4 billion. He died last December.
For Alan Kammerman, the story is different. 'The story is that of a little guy, a talented scientist who devoted a large part of his life to working with BMW to improve their technology and ended up being dumped,' said John Boyd, Kammerman's attorney in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Rudolf-Andreas Probst, a BMW spokesman in Munich, Germany, said the automaker is aware of the lawsuit but is not prepared to comment. Kammerman filed suit last month in U.S. District Court in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The lawsuit claims BMW completed the design of the new system with SCB Technologies Inc., an Albuquerque company that earlier had worked with Kammerman.
Kammerman is a physicist and 12-year veteran of the weapons laboratory. But a few years after forming K&V in 1993, he learned of BMW's airbag technology needs from an engineer with German parts maker Robert Bosch GmbH of Stuttgart, Germany.
Kammerman discovered how to adapt semiconductors to use in the airbag igniter. The lawsuit contends that SCB Technologies failed to find that application after obtaining the technology from Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque. Sandia is a U.S. defense lab that designs, among other things, the firing systems for submarine-borne nuclear missiles.
Today's airbag igniters are relatively simple ceramic plugs with a bridge, which is a wire laboriously soldered to two terminals. Electrical current to the bridge ignites the propellant for the airbag deployment. Igniters are about half the size of a shotgun shell and range in price from $1.80 to $4 each.
SMALLER AND CHEAPER
Kammerman developed a much smaller igniter with a micron-sized semiconductor bridge. The bridge was heavily treated to make it a good conductor so that a low-energy firing pulse would ignite a gunpowder-like material for inflating airbags. The igniter could help engineers shrink the steering wheel's airbag. Then automakers could produce more stylish steering wheels.
Industry consultant Scott Upham said the technology has the potential to cut both the size and cost of igniters. 'They are pursuing a technology that may provide a step up over competitors Mercedes, Volvo and Lexus,' said Upham, president of Providata Automotive Inc. in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
But after three years of working 80-hour weeks, Kammerman said he learned in 1997 that SCB Technologies and its parent, Ensign-Bickford Industries Inc. of Simsbury, Connecticut, were preparing to exclude him from any business deals. Michael Long, who is general counsel for Ensign-Bickford, said he was aware of the lawsuit against BMW but declined comment. The two companies are developing the airbag igniter that K&V designed and promoted, the lawsuit contends.
Kammerman faces a fight. The case may go to a German courtroom, and German lawyers would want payment in advance. But Kammerman is deeply in debt from his project.
You can e-mail Automotive News Staff Reporter Robert Sherefkin at [email protected]