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A person I interviewed for one of the articles in this issue made an interesting comment. He said that in his experience dealing with ceramic component suppliers, it has been very difficult to find a company that could consistently provide both high quality and a fast turnaround. Now, it's quite possible-probable, even-that he simply wasn't dealing with the right companies. He's since found a supplier that has exceeded his expectations, and we all know that there are other companies capable of doing the same. But what struck me is that he had had so many bad experiences with ceramic suppliers in the past. And this isn't the first time I've heard that complaint. Other individuals I've talked to have also commented that one of the main barriers to more widespread use of ceramics is that there is often a disconnect between what's needed in the field and what a ceramic supplier provides. In an era where the competitive stakes are getting higher all the time, the ceramic industry appears to be falling short. But why? And what can be done to change the situation?
Some in the industry have speculated that a lack of education is to blame. Designing with ceramics is not taught to mechanical engineering students, and few resources are available on the subject for those who seek information on their own. (This is one of the reasons Ceramic Industry recently launched our new Ceramic Components Directory)
But perhaps another reason is that many companies in the ceramic industry have focused too narrowly on their specialty. After all, designing and manufacturing ceramic products is challenging enough. It simply isn't reasonable for ceramic manufacturers to also be knowledgeable about all of the end uses for their products.
Or is it?
In fact, this might be exactly the solution that's needed. According to Thomas Hinman, vice president and general manager of Corning Diesel Technologies, ceramics are often just part of a much larger system or technology. "In the right technologies for the right needs, there are roles for ceramics," he says. "But companies need to really look at these opportunities, take a more holistic systems kind of approach to the applications, and then drive their value into the customers' hands based on that holistic approach." (See A Clean Air Initiative for more information on how Corning is benefiting from this approach in the automotive industry. The article on Ceradyne's new Wixom Vehicle Armor Systems facility, A Safer Ride is another good example.)
Precisely because there are few education and information resources on ceramics, end users are increasingly turning to ceramic manufacturers to provide solutions, rather than products. For manufacturers that are willing and able to step up to the plate, opportunities abound.