By Ernie Tretkoff
Ed. Note: With this article we inaugurate an occasional series of profiles of physicists with careers in industry.
Photo credit: Ernie Tretkoff
Over his long and successful career as an industrial physicist, Charlie Duke has watched industry change dramatically and now sees industry moving into a new era in which the United States must struggle to keep up in a global economy.
Duke originally went into physics somewhat by chance. He started out in college in 1955 at Duke University as a religion major, intending to become a minister. After his junior year he realized it wasn’t for him. He switched his major to mathematics, but his roommate happened to be a physics major, so Duke took some graduate level physics courses, and found he excelled in them. Professors pushed him to go on to graduate school, and he did.
After completing his PhD at Princeton University in 1963, Duke found that physicists were very much in demand in industrial labs. “Sputnik had happened, and everyone was recruiting physicists,” he recalls. “I was in demand, to my utter shock.”
Duke started his career in industry as a staff researcher at General Electric in 1963. From 1969 to 1972 he was a professor of physics at the University of Illinois. He joined Xerox Corporation in 1972 as a scientist in the materials research section, and has been at Xerox in various positions since then.
Even though a career in physics wasn’t his original plan, Duke has been extremely successful. He has been elected to the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering, has won several prestigious prizes, including most recently the 2006 APS George E. Pake Prize. “That just goes to show that if you are determined and persistent you can do something.” he says.
When he started at Xerox in 1972, Duke’s research focused on the electronic structure of molecular solids. Models he developed helped enable Xerox to produce flexible organic photoconducting belts that could be wrapped around small rollers to enable high speed photocopying with small machines. The polymer belts helped create billions of dollars in revenue and helped the Xerox company to survive after it was forced to allow other companies to use its patents in 1975.
“Organic photoconductors turned out to be the essential innovation that allowed the company to survive,” he says. “Applying the physics of how charges go through polymers was one of many things that made it possible. The research was a vital part of the third generation of xerographic technology.”
Duke has also conducted research on other topics, including electron tunneling, semiconductor surface structure, tunneling in solids, and inelastic scattering of low-energy electrons in solids.
Duke drifted into a variety of research and management positions, simply by taking charge and doing what needed to be done. He has managed research groups of various sizes and has recently retired as Vice President and Senior Research Fellow of Xerox Innovation Group.
Having worked in both industry and academia, Duke has noticed quite a difference between the two environments. “The successful person at a university is an independent businessman. You get your grant, and you run your show. You’re like a small businessman. No one tells you what to do or how to do it. It’s every man for himself.”
Industry is the opposite extreme, says Duke. “When a young person comes to work for Xerox, they are put into a project. They are told what to do. They work on a schedule. Their resources are largely beyond their control.”
The social environments are very different, as well, he says. At a university, people socialize with others in their department. But not in industry. “There is very little social life at Xerox. It’s a very hierarchical structure. If you’re a boss, you have power over people. So it’s not appropriate to socialize too much. It’s intensely competitive,” says Duke, “That was one of my biggest shocks.”
In industry, the focus is always on producing a valuable product for the customer, unlike in the university, where research can be largely curiosity-driven. Duke clearly thinks in terms of economic value all the time. Giving customers products they value is the most important consideration. “If you don’t get the product out, then the company doesn’t survive, so there is a lot more intensity at an industrial organization.”
Over the course of his career, Duke has seen major changes in industry. Between the end of World War II and the end of the Cold War, large companies owned enormous industrial research laboratories, such as ATT’s Bell Labs, General Electric’s research lab in Schenectady, NY, and Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center. During this era, industry operated on a “closed innovation” model, in which every step of the value chain –from conception of an idea, to research and development, to manufacture of a product and sales and customer support–was done within a single company.
But since the end of the Cold War, the large industrial labs have collapsed. Now, information flows more freely between different companies, between industry and universities, and across national boundaries. Industry now operates on an “open innovation” model, in which different parts of the innovation process happen at different places. Companies partner with researchers in other companies, in universities, and in other countries.
“When I did research on organic materials that got turned into a product, that whole value chain existed inside Xerox,” says Duke. But that would never happen nowadays. “You would now have different pieces done in different places,” says Duke.
A threat that Duke worries about now is globalization. The United States is facing increased competition from other counties, including China and India, which are rapidly becoming technologically advanced and have an enormous supply of cheap, educated labor. China produces more engineers a year than we have in the entire country, Duke points out. The United States is in danger of falling behind in science and technology.
As this happens, more and more jobs will be outsourced, Duke predicts. (He even commented that APS could save money by having this article written by someone in Mongolia instead of here in College Park, Maryland)
“The pace of change is speeding up and the US is falling further and further behind,” says Duke. “It’s a big deal. It makes the fall of the large industrial labs look like a pin prick.”
Duke doesn’t claim to have a solution, but he is certain that the country is not paying enough attention to the looming threat. “The US government in my view is just distracted. The war in Iraq is a side show. This country is running on empty,” he says.
“People blow up cars in Baghdad, and that gets a lot of press coverage, but when you look at the global economy, that’s the end of life as the American middle class knows it.”
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