Outside help Featured

11:26am EDT April 22, 2005
Graphite has become a key heat-reducing component in many of the latest electronics.

GrafTec International has a wide range of expertise when it comes to both natural and synthetic graphite applications, but as technology advanced, product development times shortened, leaving GrafTec's researchers with less time to respond to market demands.

"What we've had to do over the last three years is develop some sophisticated adhesives to apply thin layers of graphite for use in electronics," says Marty Smalc, senior development scientist with GrafTec, which has facilities in Cleveland, Parma and Lakewood. "In the past, this was not important for applications like gaskets, but it is important in electronic applications, and we needed to come up to speed very quickly with adhesives and testing techniques, and we needed to acquire this technology rapidly."

To do this in a time frame that would allow the company to keep up with customer demands, GrafTec turned to an outside testing company -- Mentor-based Chemsultants International -- for help.

"What's most significant is the time savings," says Smalc. "In the electronics industry, product development times are extremely short. We are talking about developing products in a few months. You have to respond very rapidly to a rapidly changing environment.

"There was no luxury of starting from scratch, and we needed to bring this on board very quickly, and that's where Chemsultants really helped us. Speed to market is critical in our business."

In a three- to four-year time span, GrafTec was able to take a nonexistant business segment, develop it and make it a significant portion of its sales.

Smalc says working with third parties can be beneficial, but you have to be comfortable with the relationship.

"Of course, make sure you have a nondisclosure agreement in place before you embark," says Smalc. "I believe we are lucky because of the physical closeness as well; they are literally an hour's drive away. That's helped a lot. We've done a lot of hands-on things at Chemsultants.

"Our engineers have gone in and worked with their engineers to perfect products. It's been very collaborative."

But the most important aspect of a successful relationship may simply be being comfortable that any third-party adviser has the expertise you seek.

"It was clear that they have a lot of experience in the area of both adhesives development and testing," says Smalc. "They have a lot of expertise that we're very comfortable with. We are comfortable with the personal relationship with the people there, and that's important."

Smaller companies may need access to machines or expertise they lack in house, but larger companies may turn to an outside expert to get development time that can't take priority over existing jobs.

If you are looking at using an outside party to test or assist in the development of your products, there are a few things you can look for.

"Look for lab certification from the (American Association for Laboratory Accreditation)," says Joe Mauser, marketing manager at Chemsultants. "That body accredits labs to the fact that they are capable of qualifying certain types of tests."

Also, ask whether the facility's testing equipment meets the standards of your trade association specifications. Having tests run that don't meet your market's standards won't do you much good in the long term.

Because you'll be sharing trade secrets with the outside agency, developing that sense of trust might be the most important factor. Meet the people you'll actually be working with, get detailed bios on them and question them to make sure they have the expertise you seek.

How to reach: GrafTech, www.graftech.com; Chemsultants International, www.chemsultants.com