Changing Gears Across The World: New England Native Engineers ‘Best Gearbox Money Can Buy’

Jack Schorsch believes growing up on a farm in southwest North Dakota instilled a fearlessness in him about mechanical engineering.

Schorsch spent countless hours in his youth tinkering on machines and finding better ways to make them work.

“You have kind of an instinctive knowledge of how things are going to go right and go wrong,” he said. “I look at it as 10 years of experience in a whole variety of jobs.”

The latest prototype of the IM Systems Archimedes Drive, engineered by New England native Jack Schorsch, is shown during the YES! Delft conference on May 25, 2016. (Submitted Photo by Marco De Swart)

The 36-year-old has since tinkered his way to inventing what he calls “the best gearbox money can buy.” He calls it the Archimedes drive.

While working toward his Ph.D. in mechanical engineering at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, Schorsch joined forces with three of his colleagues and founded IMSystems to simply, as he says, “build a better gearbox.” It’s the result of an idea Schorsch, who is the company’s CEO, had been tossing around since he was developing advanced prosthetics for wounded veterans while at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago in 2007.

In the past year, Schorsch’s IMSystems has added a handful of employees and moved its operations to Yes!Delft, which bills itself as Europe’s leading tech incubator.

Now IMSystems is beginning to get noticed by some of the world’s leading technology firms, and is raising money and entering into development contracts with the hopes of slowly building the company and putting the Archimedes drive into mass production.

“Anywhere that’s got a gearbox, there’s an application for it,” Schorsch said.

Always an engineer

Kerry Schorsch, Jack’s father who still lives on the family farm just outside the old coal-mining ghost town of Havelock in central Hettinger County, said he began noticing at an early age skills that would translate into his son’s eventual engineering career.

When he was only 5 years old, Kerry said Jack opened up a drawing program on an old Apple computer and sketched out an aerial diagram of their corn planter.

“He always liked to take stuff apart and was always thinking along those lines, even when he was a little kid,” Kerry said. “He’d blow me away. It was interesting what he did.”

Jack Schorsch said working on and around machinery in his youth gave him insights into design elements that work and those that don’t.

He recalled fixing a hay conditioner that required regular tuneups on a certain part. But that also meant removing a pulley and belts in order to access the part. He said that piece of equipment still serves as a lesson.

“If there’s something someone is going to need access to all the time, make sure there’s an easy way to get in there,” he said. “Or, if it’s got to be there, give them a special tool to get at it. That’s something you get all the time.”

While he loved growing up on the farm, Schorsch said he has always had “itchy feet.”

After graduating from New England High School in 1998, he left for Tulane University in New Orleans. He has since lived in Africa, Los Angeles, Chicago and is now happily planted in Delft—a city of about 100,000—with his wife, Caroline, and their two children, Isabella, 4, and Jack, 11 months.

Schorsch said living in the Netherlands has also helped him embrace his Dutch roots.

“It was really weird. I came over here and all of a sudden, lots of things made sense about my family,” he said with a laugh. “My grandfather’s personality—he has a straight Dutch personality.”

Schorsch still works at Delft University of Technology and continues to teach there, though he has put attaining his Ph.D. on hold and will scale back how much he teaches to help get IMSystems further off the ground.

“I like being at the university. It’s a good way to stay current on what’s going on. It’s also a great place to find new employees,” Schorsch said. “You can find really bright people who work hard.”

Endless applications

The Archimedes drive has the potential for endless applications, Schorsch said, though he sees the product first entering the market in industrial robots and then likely in wind-power generation. He said there’s also a potential future for the drive’s use in the aerospace industry.

“There hasn’t been a major innovation in this field in decades, so we see it as a very innovative product,” said Rory Deen, one of IMSystem’s co-founders who met Schorsch during a course at Delft University.

Deen called Schorsch easy to work with and ambitious.

That ambitiousness is shown in the Archimedes drive’s revolutionary potential.

For the drive, Schorsch replaced gears in an ordinary planetary gearbox with smooth traction rollers and shaped them so they achieved higher gear ratios.

The drive operates at a gear ratio of 500-to-1 in a single stage—about three times greater than any other available gearbox, the company claims—and has been measuring at four times the torque capacity and 10 times the power capacity as similar commercial drives.

“The only reason we haven’t gone higher than that is that no one has a use for it that we’ve found,” Schorsch said.

Gearboxes in automated robotics—which are being used increasingly in nearly every sector of manufacturing and shipping—is a $5 billion a year industry and growing, Schorsch said.

IMSystems is also now eying wind turbines because Schorsch is certain the Archimedes drive can reduce the amount of energy loss incurred through a wind turbine’s operation, thereby making them more efficient.

Recently, the company began a project to build a drive for an offshore wind turbine company. Schorsch said the drive should be installed in turbines in the North Sea by March.

“We think we can push the efficiency above 99 percent, so less than 1 percent energy loss,” he said. “So for things like wind generation, any power generation, that’s just a pure bonus in production.”

It hasn’t taken much for the company to get noticed, either.

IMSystems was a finalist at the Philips Innovation Awards, held by the household-name tech company based in Amsterdam. They also recently pitched at the Hello Tomorrow Challenge in Paris, an event for some of the world’s most promising technology startup companies.

Schorsch said there’s a “wall of projects” in the company’s office, but they’re on hold as he and other co-founders focus on growing the company. He said the dream is to build a gearbox that functions at a 1 million-to-1 ratio.

“We know we can do it,” he said.