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Everyone has undoubtedly heard the old adage, "Two heads are better than one." But when it comes to sharing ideas for advancing technology or improving the industry, companies are increasingly reluctant to reach outside their own boundaries to work with other organizations. In today's economy, competition is fierce, and companies must carefully guard every possible advantage to protect their market position.
But what if such independent, protectionist thinking actually limits market potential? In rapidly developing areas such as ceramic armor and fuel cells, the benefits of collaboration with other organizations are readily apparent. Budgets are tight, yet a significant amount of research and development work is still needed to improve and commercialize new technologies-it only makes sense that companies in these fields would seek out partnerships with universities, national laboratories and government programs.
For example, the Cooperative Research and Development Agreement between Superior Graphite and the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory has led to a lower-cost silicon carbide armor that neither group might have been able to achieve on its own. And while some solid oxide fuel cell (SOFC) advances are being developed independently, many believe that full-scale commercialization of this technology will not be possible without programs such as the Solid State Energy Conversion Alliance (SECA), which was initiated in 1999 as an alliance between government, industry and the scientific community. "The industry really needs the level of collaboration that SECA offers," notes Hansraj C. Maru, Ph.D., executive vice president and chief technology officer of Fuel Cell Energy, Inc., headquartered in Danbury, Conn. "Continued support from the U.S. government, along with increased participation from the national laboratories, the academic community and other companies, is key to the development of SOFCs."
But collaboration is also important in other areas that are not as high-tech. Virtually all manufacturing plants are facing the same challenges of high energy and labor costs, cheap imports, and the need to continuously increase both quality and production efficiency. While some proprietary developments in these areas are necessary to maintain a competitive edge, the U.S. ceramic industry needs to start sharing ideas for how we can compete on a global scale-or risk losing more market share to competitors in lower-manufacturing-cost regions. Attending industry trade shows, conferences and workshops; participating in industry associations and organizations; sharing non-sensitive information in case study articles about the benefits of a new process or technology; participating in discussions on Ceramic Industry's online bulletin board-these are all ways in which we can take an active role in ensuring the health of the industry as a whole.
Whether we're trying to advance technology or simply improve our bottom line, we need to be willing to work together to find solutions.
Editor's NoteFor more information about the SECA program, visit http://www.seca.doe.gov .
For more information about Fuel Cell Energy, visit http://www.fuelcellenergy.com .