No man is an island. Nor is any manufacturer, it seems.
Engineers across many industries are increasingly finding themselves joining with customers, other suppliers, and even competitors to strike strategic—and often one-time—partnerships to develop a variety of new products.
Among the reasons: to meet ever-shrinking lead times from customers eager to get to market fast; to beat their own competitors for contracts by offering to provide products or components outside their normal scope of supply; and to solve specific design problems.
While the joining of hands may not be exactly new, the frequency certainly is. And often, it's forced on suppliers by customers.
Just ask any vendor supplying parts to the automotive industry. There are tier-one, tier-two, and tier-three suppliers for every project, each in some way satisfying an automotive company's insistence on being supplied complete subassemblies.
But fanning the flames of alliance formation today is the Internet. "It has opened the door to industry-specific portals of information," says JoAnn Prokopowicz, spokesperson for the National Association of Manufacturers.
"This abundance of information has made it more possible for technical alliances to take place," she says. And while she says it's impossible to predict if strategic partnerships will increase, she is convinced the attempts to form them will.
"The main advantage of technical alliances is that companies don't have to expend large amounts of resources to provide synergistic systems," says Chris Popp, director of strategic marketing for Diequa Corp. (Bloomingdale, IL).
Adds Gary Manchester, strategic product marketing manager for Molex, Inc. (Lisle, IL): "Alliances can strengthen relationships with customers. Ours have."
Partner modifies standard product for new design
Here are a few examples of technical alliances in action:
Ball Screws & Actuators (BS & A; San Jose, CA), recently joined forces with Compact Air Products Westminster, SC, to produce a custom anti-backlash nut technology that, they claim, has superior accuracy and repeatability of motion, higher speeds, and higher load capacity.
The specific application was for a new electromechanical product line. Standard nut materials were not sufficient due to the amount of friction from the screw threads, and the thermal expansion of the plastic material due to the heat from the friction. The project required that the system would not only have to function as a typical electromechanical actuator, but also mimic the fast jog speeds and higher loads obtainable with pneumatic cylinders. Fast jog speeds with high acceleration/ deceleration rates and greater loads generate additional heat that standard nut material can't tolerate. Robert Lipsett, engineering manager, BS & A, says the polymer-based anti-backlash nut and lead screw technology on the market offered no solutions that could withstand the high jog speeds and loads required.
"We had seen similar applications before, but nothing quite like this. We knew our standard product would not work because of the required jog speeds and loads," adds Lipsett.
BS & A engineers opted to provide their patented XC Series nut with ActiveCAM anti-backlash—but built it this time from an advanced polyamid-imid polymer with internal lubricants to reduce friction. The Torlon®material by Amoco offered the required advantages over the acetal based materials.
The plastic, says BS & A, offers up to five times the PV (pressure times velocity) capability while tripling the maximum operational temperature. The acetal material offers ~10k PV, while the Torlon has 50–60k PV.
BS & A had been testing alternate materials for the past two years, and when approached by Compact Air Products, test data from the material trials was matched to their application. The machined nut did not require any changes to existing geometry. Torlon has been used in other industries with extreme bearing applications.
Competitors join hands—carefully
When Candy Controls got a contract to upgrade printing press equipment, they knew that only one company could help them supply the specific shaft-phasing gear boxes required. Unfortunately, it was competitor Diequa (Bloomingdale, IL.). So, Candy asked Diequa to help. Both companies compete in the printing and packaging market, and offer alternative mechanical solutions.
Candy had the print registration system needed: an electronics and software package used as a closed-loop process controller for reading and correcting processing errors. The required mechanical shaft-phasing gear boxes had to be a right-angle configuration with specific ratio and accuracy requirements. Candy also had the electronics system. The company knew that it would take an extensive amount of resources to design a new box, and that meant they would have possibly missed the customer's deadline.
Diequa had the specific gear boxes on the shelf which required no modifications.
The companies agreed to work together, and to build trust into the relationship they joined in a multiple-piece purchase. Their engineers worked together to provide a single proposal that the customer accepted.
Were there problems with normally competing engineers working together? Although some of their respective product lines overlap, the general feeling is that they have had a relatively friendly competitive relationship.
Will they work together again? Candy Controls is moving towards electronic solutions where Diequa is not. As projects require the marriage of electronics and mechanical solutions, future relationships may develop. "The main advantage of technical alliances is that companies don't have to expend large amounts of resources to provide synergistic systems," says Chris Popp, director of strategic marketing for Diequa.
Alliance builds better customer relationships
Mobility Electronics, Inc. had developed serialized PCI Split Bridge technology which, the company says, provides the only 32-bit universal serial docking station for mobile computers. The company asked Molex Inc. (Lisle, IL), a manufacturer of electronic connectors, cable, and switches, to develop a connector/cabling system. The system may also be used where a PCI bridge is required such as peripheral devices for network servers.
The goal, Molex engineers say, was to develop cabling that provides sufficient bandwidth for users to get portable computer performance equal to that of a desktop system. The cabling had to accommodate high data-transmission speeds that support data-intensive applications, including Ethernet and video.
The engineering problem involved developing a leading edge technology for the signal speed link.
Molex developed new interconnect technology that enables bi-directional data transfer rates between 1.25 and 2.25 Gbyte/sec. Incorporated into the split bridge design, this interconnect system allows for the extension of a computer PCI bus to a remote device with little or no performance degradation and no software requirements, Molex says.
The cable Molex developed is flexible, 0.188 inches in diameter, and up to 15 feet long.
Determining system requirements and obtaining specific signals levels from the chip supplier were key development issues. During development of the working units, engineers communicated with each other every couple of days.
One indication of success: PC Week Magazine selected the Mobility Serialized PCI Split Bridge Technology as Best of Comdex in November 1999.
Each of these examples show how companies come together to form virtual companies to solve design problems. It's like islands of specialization coming together to form continents of innovations—and it's bound to continue.