WASHINGTON — If David Stewart's plans come to fruition, U.S. mold makers will have a new weapon in their arsenal to attack lower-cost competition.
Using a $2 million government grant and at least $400,000 from research partners and his own company, Stewart Automotive Research LLC, he wants to transfer technology used in making the F-22 fighter to the toolmaking industry.
Stewart thinks it can shave months off lead times for making molds for large parts like automotive panels and bumper fascias, and it may be able to trim costs.
"At this point, it looks pretty promising," said Stewart, who is president of the Houston-based company. "It could have a large impact, but we don't want to say it will until we know for sure."
Stewart's company is one of 54 industrial research projects, including two in plastics, getting $144 million this year from the Commerce Department's Advanced Technology Program, designed to fund high-risk research. The other plastics project is a $2 million grant to Albemarle Corp. for metallocene research.
The program has funded some high-profile plastics projects, including Dow Cargill's biopolymer work and composite bridges and utility towers. But ATP is controversial in Congress: Lawmakers criticize it as corporate welfare, and the House initially voted last year to cut funding before relenting and agreeing to continue it.
What's the plan?
For Stewart, though, those political debates are dwarfed by more immediate challenges of trying to make the research work.
Stewart's three-year project is just beginning, and he stressed that it may not be able to be commercialized. He is working with several mold makers and auto manufacturers, but he declined to identify them.
"We don't really need or desire any publicity until our technologies are ready for commercialization," he said.
Essentially, his technology builds a large mold in many pieces, then joins the components using a welding technology adapted from Chicago firm Sciaky Inc. The technique does not leave weld lines or affect the mold's performance, he said.
Stewart's 15-person company works on technology transfer for the auto industry and won an ATP grant in 1997 for research on fiber-reinforced car parts.
For this project, Stewart wants to take Sciaky's electron beam technology, which welds in a vacuum. The computer-controlled welding is used to make components for the oil industry and aerospace companies and is widely used on the F-22 fighter, he said.
Building the mold in pieces is key to quickening the manufacturing because the smaller segments can be cut with an abrasive waterjet, he said. Traditionally, large-part molds are made by roughing out big pieces of steel on milling machines, a time-consuming process, he said.
End result: He said a mold that now takes six months to build could be done in no more than four. The process also could allow for faster cycle times in molding because better cooling channels can be made in the mold, Stewart said.
Ultimately, to be successful, the technology will have to at least not raise the cost of the tool, he said.
The need for funds
Stewart said government funding is important because mold making is a cash-strapped industry that is unable to pay for much of its own research and development.
"Putting new technology into the auto industry, especially a sector so starved for R&D funds, is always difficult," he said.
The ATP program is designed to provide early seed capital to projects that are too risky for private financing and could significantly benefit the country, not just the company, said Michael Baum, spokesman for the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Md. NIST administers the program.
But ATP gets criticized in Congress for being corporate welfare that gives government money to research that companies should do on their own, and there are serious efforts annually on Capitol Hill to cut funding.
This year, the House voted to eliminate the program, but the Senate protected it and it emerged from the end-of-the-year budget battle essentially intact.
The House Science Committee, chaired by Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., led efforts in the last Congress to cut ATP funding. Committee spokesman Jeff Lungren said the panel believes government research money should instead be spent on basic research, where the private sector does not have much financial interest.
Lungren pointed to a recent government report that he said bolstered his claim. The General Accounting Office, Congress' investigative arm, said in an April report that ATP often duplicates private research. A 1996 GAO study found half of ATP applicants surveyed said they would go ahead with their work without government funding.
But the program could fare better in the new Congress. Sensenbrenner moved over to chair the House Judiciary Committee, and the new head of the Science Committee, Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., is considered friendlier to ATP, observers said.
The other plastics project, at Albemarle Corp., would fund research on new activators for metallocenes.
The most widely used activator, methaluminoxane, is not well understood, so it has been difficult to make improvements, according to a description of the project provided by ATP. Officials with Richmond, Va.-based Albemarle said in a statement that it will develop "well characterized, highly efficient" activators.
"This project is a giant step toward expanding our knowledge and capabilities in one of our core technology areas," said Dixie Goins, vice president of research and development.
At least 90 percent of MAO used in making metallocenes is wasted, and the large amounts of MAO used as an activator leave ash in the polymers, according to Don Bansleben, APT program manager.
"If you can reduce the amount of activator, you have less ash left in the polymer," Bansleben said. "That is very important in things like food packaging."
Albemarle said it is contributing more than $2 million to the three-year project.
Albemarle had 1999 sales of $845.9 million. Bansleben said the company "justified to us why they cannot do it themselves."