Doug Dorr leads a team of innovators at the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) who devise ingenious solutions for power industry challenges, including smart phone and smart device apps that solve a multitude of problems. Dorr's fascination with problem solving, though, had simple beginnings — his fifth-grade science class.

“We had a class competition in which you could earn a gold star based on the amount of research you did on a particular topic,” said Dorr, EPRI senior project manager. “We raced to see who could earn the most stars by the end of the year.

“Growing up, I tried to figure out how many things I could take apart with a pair of pliers and a screwdriver,” Dorr said. “My dad had every tool available, and those tools were the best toys. One of my favorite childhood gifts was a chemistry kit, which I used to turn our rug purple. I don't think my mom appreciated this.”

His obsession with science and problem solving held constant through his teen years, eventually propelling him to study engineering at the Indiana Institute of Technology, in Fort Wayne, Indiana, U.S.

Dorr spent the first five years of his career at an uninterruptible power supply test lab, where his team tore apart the competition's product to determine how to make their company's product better. He noted wryly that a big draw of that job was that the lab had a lightning simulator they used to blow up things in spectacular ways. A few years later, EPRI asked Dorr to lead its test facility in Knoxville, Tennessee, U.S.

Dorr's interest in lightning continued at EPRI, where his favorite projects have been testing lightning protection equipment for power lines. “You get to see smoke coming out of things. Sometimes it's pretty catastrophic how the equipment fails,” Dorr said. “It's rewarding to create a design that starts with failures and ends with a solution that is fairly bullet-proof.”

One lesson Dorr has learned in his team's experiments is that jumping to conclusions is not a good idea. “My team went to a GE plant where they make tungsten filament for light bulbs,” Dorr said. “They start with tungsten powder and make a bar, then run it through processes that heat and stretch it. Eventually, it becomes a long rod. By the time they get it to the other end of the plant, that rod has become a spool of wire. They are pulling it through and creating filament the size of sewing thread.

“It takes three days to wind a spool, and they have 200 machines doing the winding,” Dorr said. “Every time the lights blinked, the machines shut down, the spools continued to spin and the filament snapped. I was certain we could fix the problem with a power conditioner, but the machine wouldn't even run with the power conditioner on it. It started oscillating and snapping the wire even without a power variation. We were down to the last 10 minutes before we had to leave. One of my technicians walked over to a machine that had a portable disturbance generator hooked to it to simulate a voltage drop. He took a screwdriver and held the wire down at the place where it was coming off the roller and going onto the spool. Then he dropped the voltage. It snapped his arm up but didn't break the filament.

“We ended up adding a $40 spring roller at that spot that acted as a mechanical shock absorber, rather than using a $3,000 power conditioner. It fixed the problem and saved that company $500,000 annually. I learned that you should never assume anything.”

Dorr finds his work stimulating but also enjoys inspiring his team's creativity. “Each team member is very innovative and has a strong skill set in two to three specific areas. My job is to keep them focused on those areas,” Dorr said. “For example, we have a couple of guys who can build any kind of circuit you want, but they don't enjoy documenting or presenting it. So you try to bring together the entire group on a project to get all the strengths that you need for the project. I always tell my team that no one is as smart as all of us together.”

He also keeps his diverse team members focused on one goal that they establish as a group. One of their objectives is to bring technology to the field so that no one in North America is seriously injured or killed by an energized object this year.

To stimulate creative thinking, EPRI's Knoxville facility has Tech Thursdays in which everyone learns about one interesting EPRI project over lunch. “It's amazing how many e-mails we get after Tech Thursday from people who either attended or listened remotely,” Dorr said. “They have an idea for a new project or to enhance what we are already doing.”

What's next for Dorr? His team is working on a robot that can be sent down smoking manholes to diagnose power line problems. “This is going to be fun because everyone can contribute, from the crews who work in manholes to our engineers who will create an iPad platform to control the robot.”

Robots, smoking manholes and iPad platforms — things that would delight any fifth-grade boy in a science class.