SwRI’s extensive consortia experience stems from a 1984 law
Technology Today recently asked Bruce Bykowski, vice president of the Engine, Emissions and Vehicle Research Division, and Daniel Stewart, the division’s executive director of Engine and Vehicle Research and Development, to reflect on the history and prominence of consortia as a tool for business as well as technological development. The two, whose division accounts for many of the Institute’s consortia, offered their thoughts.
What was the origin of SwRI’s consortium approach to research?
BB: The consortium approach to research came into being at the Institute in the early 1980s. Diesel engine manufacturers were being challenged to meet particulate emissions limits. At that time the manufacturers were comfortable with one approach, and that was improving combustion through engine design. They did not have any groups in their companies that focused on emission control, or aftertreatment. They didn’t understand the technology and felt they didn’t need the technology. When the technology of diesel filters, or diesel particulate traps, was developed as a possible solution, the engine manufacturers, government and academia were applying the technology without understanding fully how it worked. There was a lot of trial and error. Money was being spent to apply a technology that had mixed results. At about the same time, President Reagan signed the National Cooperative Research Act. It was designed to promote innovation, facilitate trade and strengthen the competitiveness of the United States in world markets. What it really did was to limit the antitrust liability of joint research and development ventures. The law was passed on October 14, 1984. Ten days after the act was signed, on October 24, we solicited a pre-proposal to more than 32 recipients to use this concept to obtain joint funding for precompetitive project work, basically to understand this new fledgling technology.
How did the industry respond?
BB: We obtained sufficient responses such that on March 18, 1985, we developed the formal proposal content of the consortium and began solicitation. During those five months, a lot of time and effort were spent to educate the industry on what the National Cooperative Research Act was, and that there was no fear of collusion in working together, and then trying to promote the objective. The consortium was formed on July 1, 1985, and ended December 1, 1987. So, in no more than three years after the Act was signed we ran this first consortium. It ended up with 28 members. Since that time we’ve had about 20 consortia, with the peak year being 1991 when we formed seven in our automotive divisions.
DS: I didn’t get involved in consortia until about 1990. We were visiting all the diesel engine companies around the world and realized that they didn’t have a good technical solution to meet U.S. 1991 emissions standards. This lack of combustion technology provided the idea for a new consortium. The Clean Heavy Duty Diesel Engine consortium was initiated in 1991. It was a four-year program that started with just seven members. The success of the first Clean Diesel consortium led to five more successive four-year programs. During Clean Diesel IV we obtained as many as 46 members. The consortium grew into a major technical and social event for the diesel industry. Meetings had to be held off the SwRI campus to accommodate more than 100 attendees. Clean Diesel is still going on today, although with a slightly different emphasis. By the end of Clean Diesel V, our members were concerned about the new fuel economy standards for on-highway trucks, so we created Clean High-Efficiency Diesel Engine VI. The new program is developing technologies to reduce carbon dioxide emissions at fixed NOx and particulate levels.
How do you know when a consortium is the right approach?
BB: We have many tools to not only identify whether a consortium is feasible, but how to form it, put it in place and run it. If you have a group of clients that are asking for a consortium, that’s the simplest way; you prepare a proposal and go to it. Or you may send out a letter of interest, like a survey. If you get enough response, you go to the next step. Or, you might put together a symposium at the Institute to discuss a specific topic. You try to see if there are unanswered questions, and whether the audience would be interested to work together to develop solutions. Through the years, we’ve gotten so good at identifying consortium potential that we can streamline them and get them in place pretty quickly.
DS: We have developed a business culture around the formation and management of consortia. It’s an important part of our business, because we’ve got six key consortia going on right now with a total revenue exceeding $25M. Bruce kicked it off, but now the next generation of engineers is picking it up. They’re the ones actually initiating these new consortia.
If selling clients on the first consortium was difficult, how hard is it now?
BB: One of the strengths that make consortia an — I won’t say easy sell, because nothing’s ever an easy sell — is that when members are pooling their resources together, it’s very difficult not to understand that the return on their investment is multiplied times the number of members. So 10 members, 10-to-1 return on your investment. Twenty members, 20-to-1 return.
DS: Consortia are attractive today, for two reasons. One is, there aren’t many companies that can cover all the research subjects. There’s so much technology, and it’s growing at such a rapid pace, that companies no longer can do all research in-house. And the other point, as Bruce said, is that everybody can’t afford to do all the research work themselves. It’s much more efficient to do it as a group.
Once the legal obstacles were removed, did clients find it easy to join consortia?
BB: We have had to do a lot of educating and convincing our client base not only of the value of consortia, but also of improving the comfort level of working with their competitors. Now, as we expand to other areas with perhaps a new group of clients, those companies also are having the same concerns and sensitivities about their confidential data and working with their competitors. You can see that that same potential could exist in other divisions at SwRI, which have still other client bases.
DS: I remember when we were starting the Clean Diesel consortium. When you first bring competitors into the meeting room, they’re all very uncomfortable because they’ve never worked together in a group. But over time they get used to it. I’m seeing the same thing now, with the new EssEs consortium, because we are pulling together battery companies that are really competitors. They’ve never worked together before. Some companies are very active in meeting discussions where more conservative companies sit back and listen.
How do consortia affect your core business of confidential, single-client research?
BB: In many cases, we hope consortia will be the seeds for larger single-client projects. Remember, it’s pre-competitive, which means it’s more basic and less product-oriented, so everyone starts at the same point in time and dataset. Then, to make it competitive, they can dip into that database and start applying it specifically to their product. A lot of the preliminary work was done and cost-shared, and now we can have single-client, confidential, one-on-one projects with our members.
DS: Sometimes it’s a little of a double-edged sword. Maybe sometimes we don’t get the single-client project because clients are already working with us in the consortium. A consortium can have a lot of different objectives. One is to help develop the base technology and then pursue single-client research, but it’s also a way for us to advertise our capabilities. If you conduct a single-client project, you can’t talk about it because of confidentiality, whereas if you do a multi-client consortium project, the objective is to advertise the consortium to the whole world.
Who owns the intellectual property rights to the technology
developed by a consortium? DS: SwRI retains the IP, but we give the members royalty-free licenses to use it. Clients participate knowing they’ll get free use of the intellectual property. Sometimes that’s actually a strong marketing point: We tell companies that they can’t afford to be left out. If all your competitors are developing IP in a large program, you need to join, if nothing else, as an insurance policy against the IP going to production.
Is that the main reason why clients decide to join?
BB: Clients join for so many different reasons. I’ve heard soup to nuts. We’ve had them jump on the bandwagon, as Daniel said, because they may be missing out on something that their competitors are doing. I’ve had people say they’re using it as a training ground for their younger engineers because it’s a cost-effective way to do it. I’ve had companies say, “We’re trying to expand our market, and we have all our clients in the room.”
DS: Each member joins for different reasons. If you understand what that reason is, you can get them to participate. For example, when visiting companies that are trying to develop new products, the selling point is that the audience we bring together for a consortium meeting might have more than 100 participants, representing 40 companies from all over the world. If you bought airline tickets to visit all those clients individually, it’d cost more than the consortium membership, so come join and I’ll give you an opportunity to present your technology to the whole group.
In addition to science and engineering resources, what does SwRI bring to the table?
DS: We share the results of our internal research projects that are the building blocks for the consortium. We typically put together a whole string of internal research projects in new technology areas before and during the consortia. We let the clients know that SwRI’s contribution is sharing our internal research. In some consortia we’ve shared the results of four or more internal research projects. It adds value for the members.
Who sets the agenda for the consortium, and who guides and manages the research program?
BB: The short answer is that SwRI sets the agenda and our engineers manage the consortium. However, it’s more complex than that. One of the characteristic traits of a consortium manager is that you have to be a good diplomat, an arbitrator in many cases, because the consortium’s Program Advisory Committee is an advisory committee, not a steering committee. A steering committee is quite different. It is made up of several companies, and all of the decisions are made by committee vote. With the advisory committee, we basically are seeking their advice so we can make the sole decision. You have to look at every member’s interest and give at least their money’s worth. Sometimes that can be a little contentious.
DS: It comes back to trying to understand what each client wants from the consortium. A typical consortium might have four or five research projects in it. Selecting the projects so that you keep the interest of all your members sometimes can be quite challenging.
Did the recession help, or hurt consortium participation?
BB: Consortia are multi-year and the members are already committed. The value they get as a member is one of the last things that they would cut. They might cut internal spending or major project spending, but I don’t think we had hardly anybody drop out of our consortia during the recession.
Can you point to tangible technological advances that have come about as a result of SwRI’s consortia over the years?
DS: One example is the application of exhaust gas recirculation (EGR) to diesel engines. EGR reduces diesel combustion peak flame temperature, which, in turn, reduces the formation of nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions. We applied EGR to a diesel engine in 1991 during the first Clean Diesel consortium. SwRI conducted basic research to determine the effect of EGR gas composition, temperature and introduction method on NOx formation. Today diesel engines in passenger cars, trucks and off-road vehicles employ EGR. Diesel particulate traps, lean NOx catalysts and the Dual Coil Offset ignition system, which won an R&D 100 Award last year, were also developed within our automotive consortia and are available for use by consortium members.
BB: There are also technologies that were developed outside the consortia, but as a result of them. For example, in one consortium several candidate materials were identified for high-temperature trap media. One, silicon carbide, had been previously studied under SwRI internal research and was patented. Several clients went on to commercialize it and other materials. Other examples would be gasoline engine cold-start emission reduction technologies and approaches, such as molecular sieves and burners; and improvements to diesel particulate trap regeneration using fuel additives, burners and electronic control strategies. Consortia also have led to studies of the importance of lubricating oil effects on the performance of aftertreatment equipment and to the development of tools to study those effects, such as SwRI’s FOCAS® catalyst aging system.
What are the prospects for enlarging or expanding the consortium program?
DS: Consortia can be more expensive to promote than single client projects so typically we make them four years long so we can get a better return on the investment. With Clean Diesel being the business model, now in its 21st year, some of our other multi-year consortia are also being extended. We hope they continue to go on and grow, but at the same time our younger staff members are coming up with new ideas for consortia, so we encourage them to start new programs.
BB: Another opportunity for consortia that we are starting to see is the formation of multidivisional groups that include experts outside of automotive engineering, like the International Alternative Fuels Technology Center. Another effort, the Energy Storage Technology Center, could involve at least five SwRI divisions. When you have these multidisciplinary capabilities, the concept of a consortium is something made in heaven.
DS: We’ve set up consortia where we’re the expert in the field, like some of the early particulate trap consortia or Clean Diesel, where we had 40 years of diesel experience before we started. But I think we’ve also successfully used consortia to get into new markets. The EssEs consortium is a good example of that. We purchased the equipment for a new cell-level battery facility and started the EssEs consortium before we even had a chance to install all the equipment. We have some very talented staff in the division who made this project a success despite the steep learning curve.
Do other institutions make use of consortia as much as SwRI does?
BB: It is difficult to match not only our experience, but the structure of the Institute that allows it. Because we have such an active internal research program, because we encourage creative thinking and innovation from our staff, ideas for consortia flow. Others have tried but they have not been as successful, and for whatever the reason there do not seem to be many challenges to our concept with consortia. What we need to strengthen is the public perception that we are not just a research institute, but that we understand it all the way to production.
Automotive Consortia at SwRI
- Particulate Sensor Performance and Durability (PSPD), organized in 2012.
- Pre-ignition Prevention Program (P3), organized in 2011.
- Energy Storage System Evaluation and Safety (EssEs), organized in 2011.
- Clean High Efficiency Diesel Engine (CHEDE), organized in 2011, sixth round of consortium originated as Clean Diesel in 1991.
- Diesel Aftertreatment Accelerated Aging Cycle (DAAAC), organized in 2008.
- High Efficiency Dilute Gasoline Engine (HEDGE), organized in 1995 and in its third iteration.
- Diesel Particulate/NOx Exhaust Aftertreatment Using Plasma or Corona Discharges, 1995-97.
- Diesel Aftertreatment Sensitivity to Lubricants/Non-Thermal Catalyst Deactivation (DASL/N-TCD). 1991-95.
- Investigation of the Potential Poisoning Effects of Lubricating Oil on Diesel Flowthrough Catalysts, 1991-93.
- Feasibility Study on Using Zeolites for Lean NOxx Control, 1991-92.
- Development of a High Temperature-Resistant Diesel Particulate Trap, 1988-90.
- Evaluation of the Mechanisms of Heavy-Duty Diesel Particulate Trap Regeneration, 1985-87.