Reader Feedback – 2005-11-01

Federal bureaucracy can be difficult to navigate NAM president John Engler presents a thoughtful analysis of the relationship between the decline in R&D spending and the U.S. decline in high-tech exports. I am currently engaged in developing industrial manufacturing technologies in my own business, and spent several years prior as product/R&D manager for an innovative process equipment ...

By Staff November 1, 2005

Federal bureaucracy can be difficult to navigate

NAM president John Engler presents a thoughtful analysis of the relationship between the decline in R&D spending and the U.S. decline in high-tech exports. I am currently engaged in developing industrial manufacturing technologies in my own business, and spent several years prior as product/R&D manager for an innovative process equipment manufacturer. Having built a career on innovation, I could not agree more with the premise that the U.S. must lead with new developments. I also agree that the R&D tax credit should become permanent, and would add that it be broadened to embrace a wider variety of R&D efforts. However, I must relate that the current federal research funding system is a serious hindrance to real innovation that can be applied “boots on the ground” today.

Recalling a major development program in which I was involved within the last 10 years, I explored federal funding to help defray costs of bringing this new technology to market, which significantly impacts quality of environment, jobs and production in the manufacture of components. Given a short and competitive time-frame in which to accomplish our goals, I found that federal funding sources were:

  1. difficult to identify due to a splintered array of R&D funding programs spread around the federal bureaucracy;

  2. unrealistic to accomplish in the time-frame given;

  3. under-funded to accomplish much of anything;

  4. unresponsive to real market pressures.

    1. Dismissing federal programs as unworkable, we plowed ahead, brought products to market (both U.S. and international) and ultimately joined forces with a competitor, thus combining two sources of innovation for the same market. Let me tell you, this is not an easy road, nor is it cheap. The total development cost was met after maybe 5—6 years, and when the product would seem to be poised to be a profit-center, the market began to pull back due to (you guessed it) price pressure from China. Then, witness the emergence of another competitor who had navigated the tortuous path of federal funding to get his project funded with a process that was touted as breaking new ground.

      Guess what — his “new ground” is the same ground already plowed and cultivated by my group — 5 years earlier! And he received millions of federal dollars for something that infringes existing patents! (Federal claims no responsibility.) Ultimately, this competitor could not compete with existing processes — a great investment by the feds. After this experience with a widely touted federal innovation program over a several year period, I now am highly skeptical of any government program. It is my studied opinion that the bureaucracy does not know how to evaluate correctly or respond effectively with even the declining resources available.

      I will also add that funding at university levels in the U.S. similarly neglects innovation capacity that could be employed within a 5—10 year period — most programs are focused on research that will impact decades down the road. I found that I had to go to Europe (!) to find universities able to work on manufacturing technology that I could employ within five years.

      In closing, I should mention that the above scenario was played out entirely by small businesses in a “heavy manufacturing” market. The company I worked for devoted an average of 2—3% of gross revenues to development efforts while providing jobs for hundreds of people and helping factories stay competitive in a global market. I think this is what we are all about isn’t it?

      John Engler: keep up the good work, but let’s not misplace confidence in the federal government.

      Jim Lewis, PE

      Coastal River Technologies, LLC

      Calabash, NC

      Manage water-damaged equipment safely

      News coverage this summer has been fraught with images of the destruction and, unfortunately, deaths due to hurricanes. Those are not the only weather calamities that can cause water damage to electrical distribution and control equipment. Floods caused by both hurricanes and heavy thunderstorms can cause serious weather damage. That means no matter where you are in the United States, you may be facing frantic questions from customers in the wake of a natural disaster, wondering whether their equipment can be dried out, are their circuit breakers OK to use, can their switchboard be re-energized?

      There may not be a more appropriate time than the present to review rules regarding water-damaged equipment. Adhering to these rules will make your customers feel safer; reminding them of the rules will make you a good neighbor.

      The simplest rule of thumb is this: Electrical equipment that has been submerged must be serviced or replaced. Attempting to dry out the equipment in many cases leaves portions of the current-carrying parts with damp or wet surfaces, which may be in contact with insulators or other materials that prevent them from being properly dried out and cleaned of debris. Residual debris or wet surfaces could result in a loss of dielectric spacing within the equipment and could be hazardous upon re-energization. In addition, hazardous conditions can develop after re-energization if untrained personnel try to disassemble and reassemble equipment.

      For certain types of equipment, such as switchboards, switchgear and medium-voltage circuit breakers, reconditioning may be possible, but the ability to do so will vary and may include repair or replacement of internal components or of the complete circuit breaker. Disassembly should be performed only by trained factory service personnel who are familiar with equipment design and function.

      If your customers have equipment located in flooded areas but it was not submerged, it should be inspected by a qualified person to determine whether moisture has entered the enclosure. If there are any signs of moisture or damage, the equipment should be replaced or repaired.

      Resources are typically in place from manufacturers to help customers evaluate water-damaged equipment and make recommendations. For example, in the wake of Katrina, home and business owners with concerns about the operation and safety of damaged electrical systems and equipment were able to call Square D’s Customer Information Center toll-free around the clock to speak to experts about the correct course of action to safely restore electrical systems.

      Additionally, Square D also activated its “WE CARE” program in FEMA-declared disaster areas in several states to address public safety issues and support electrical personnel as they repaired damaged electrical structures and systems, in addition to expediting orders for electrical products to aid in the reestablishment of electrical systems.

      What if your customer has equipment with field-replaceable interior components? Generally, this situation is limited to a load center or panelboard product where the entire interior assembly can be removed and replaced as a unit. It is possible that enclosures can be reused in this situation if they have not been subjected to physical damage and if they have been properly cleaned of all debris and foreign materials. Consideration must also be given to other components in the electrical system, such as conductors (wire, cable and bus), junction boxes and termination points.

      Be sure to make customers aware that certain kinds of cleaning agents, especially petroleum-based cleaners, can be hazardous when applied to the current-carrying portions of electrical equipment to remove debris or residues. Additionally, some cleaning and lubricating compounds can cause deterioration of non-metallic insulating or structural portions of equipment. Abrasives or sandpaper should not be used to clean current-carrying parts of equipment.

      The only thing you can predict about natural disasters and flooding caused by lesser weather events is that they are going to occur. It is never an ideal situation, but any information you can provide to customers after a calamity — or better yet, before — is going to increase their chances of survival.

      Mike Rice

      Director, Square D Services

      Schneider Electric