Need R&D Help? In Tennessee, Dial O A K R I D G EJames B. Treece
Making pencils isn't nuclear science. But when Faber-Castell Corp.'s Lewisburg (Tenn.) pencil plant ran into production problems, it called in Oak Ridge National Laboratory. John M. Googin--a veteran of the Manhattan Project team that built the first atomic bomb--showed up with other scientists to see why diamond-tipped bits used in extruding graphite for pencil lead were wearing down. The group sent samples from the plant to Oak Ridge, where graphite is a key material in the nuclear industry. "They said, 'We've done this before,'" recalls Victor U. Ebolum, laboratory manager for Faber-Castell. The company is testing possible fixes. The lab's consulting fee: nothing.
Companies throughout Tennessee are starting to tap Oak Ridge's expertise. The lab began setting up Cooperative Research & Development Agreements, or CRADAs, in 1990, after Congress approved the idea. At first, paperwork was an obstacle. "If there isn't a quick, easy way to deal with these companies, it just doesn't work," says James E. Radle, a technology transfer manager at Martin Marietta Energy Systems Inc., the contractor that manages Oak Ridge.
GRIDDLE RIDDLE. So Oak Ridge began a new type of CRADA last year with the University of Tennessee's Center for Industrial Services and the state's Economic & Community Development Dept. They identify companies Oak Ridge can help--and cut the red tape. Each Tennessee company gets up to four days of free help, which can involve on-site consultations, use of laboratory equipment, or picking staffers' brains. "When you marry that expertise with the needs of a company, it's almost a guaranteed success," says T.C. Parsons, executive director of the Center for Industrial Services.
Take Star Manufacturing Co. The $24 million maker of popcorn poppers and hot-dog cookers called Oak Ridge to its Smithville (Tenn.) plant to help keep griddle plates from rusting in storage. Oak Ridge suggested using a special paper coated with rust-inhibiting chemicals between every metal slab. Next, Star asked about a blue mark left on the griddle front after a seam was welded on the back. The Oak Ridge solution--bathing the griddle front with an inert gas during welding--eliminated the need for workers to clean and polish the griddle front. That saved about $10,000 a year.
Some companies do much better. The lab's chief chemist helped a metal-coating concern change its process and eliminate the need for a costly chromate-waste treatment facility. Savings: $100,000-plus the first year.
More than a dozen field agents seek and cull candidates for technical aid. The university's center, which focuses on small companies, aims to line up 65 projects a year. The state's reps go out on more than 3,000 visits to companies and industry groups annually, says Joe B. Brandon, the agency's director of services to industries--and help 50 per year.
Tennessee's network won't be easy to replicate nationally. Still, Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) believes that such approaches are the key if the laboratories are to help private industry. "The only way to get from here to there is to use state and local centers," he says. "We don't need to set up a whole new network." State officials who have been on the road for years know which companies are ready for what level of technology. Brandon knew Faber-Castell: Lewisburg is his hometown.