This profile is part of IEEE Spectrum's Special Report on Dream Jobs 2009.
Kunio Koike, an IEEE member, designs innovative low-power electronics for Seiko’s high-end watches.
Dream Jobs 2009
When video-game entrepreneur Richard Garriott blasted off on his US $30 million space ride last October, he carried into orbit a remarkable piece of advanced technology: his wristwatch. Not any wristwatch, mind you, but a Seiko Spring Drive electromechanical timepiece, specially modified to be lightweight and work in zero gravity and fitted with an extralong Velcro strap to circle Garriott’s padded space suit.
Kunio Koike knows that watch better than just about anyone, because he helped design its ultralow-power, battery-less, motorless mechanism. As head of the watch-products development department at Seiko, he engineers the exquisite electronics that go into the company’s highest-end watches.
Even as a child, Koike loved making and repairing things—”boxes, toys, that kind of thing”—and giving them to other people. That sense of fulfillment led him to his profession, he says. ”My image of my future was straightforward. I would be an engineer.”
Koike grew up in the industrial prefecture of Shizuoka, about 200 kilometers southwest of Tokyo. It’s the land of Honda and Yamaha, and he figured he’d go work for one of those companies after he graduated from Shizuoka University. But in his senior year, on a whim, he decided to interview at Suwa Seikosha Co., maker of Seiko watches. He traveled to Nagano prefecture, famous for its rugged mountains, fruit orchards, and ski resorts, and he visited the watch factory overlooking picturesque Lake Suwa. Koike fell in love with the area. ”I could feel nature,” he says, a warm smile spreading across his boyish face as he recalls the experience. It didn’t hurt that his family and friends all thought highly of Seiko, which had introduced the first commercial quartz watch in 1969. ”Many Japanese people are proud of the Seiko brand,” he notes.
And so, after earning his bachelor’s in electrical engineering in 1982, he went to work at Suwa Seikosha. His first project was straight out of Dick Tracy : helping to design a wristwatch TV. It was the world’s first such device, and it demonstrated the watchmaker’s prowess in low-power electronics. But, Koike notes, ”it wasn’t very popular.”
In 1985 the company merged with Epson, a maker of printers and other electronics, to form Seiko Epson Corp. For an electrical engineer, the merger opened up a world of possibilities, and Koike soon found himself working on image-processing systems for TV cameras, liquid-crystal displays, and other products.
He joined the watch-development department in 1990. In his new assignment, he worked on solar watches, powered by tiny photovoltaic cells, and kinetic watches, which wind their stepping motors by scavenging energy from the ordinary movement of the wearer’s arm. With no main battery to draw on, the watches had to be extremely power efficient. So Koike designed control circuits that needed less than a microwatt.
One day in 1997, he got a call from his colleague Osamu Takahashi. Had Koike heard of the Spring Drive? Takahashi asked.
Of course he had. The watch is part of company legend. Twenty years earlier, an enterprising engineer named Yoshikazu Akahane had envisioned an extremely accurate self-winding watch with a novel mechanism that he likened to ”a bicycle coasting down a slope at constant speed.” Think of this hypothetical bicycle as having a dynamo that converts energy from the spinning tires and also keeps the bike from accelerating. Akahane fleshed out the idea in his spare time, filling up notebooks with sketches and descriptions of how the device would work. But he knew the technology to craft such a watch didn’t yet exist, so he put off trying to build one.
Over the years, Akahane returned to the project from time to time, eventually creating two series of prototypes of the spring-drive mechanism. The first, completed in 1982, ran for just 4 hours; the second, in 1994, petered out after 10 hours. The big issue in both cases was the power balance: The watch was simply using more energy than its dynamo could generate.