TO HELP SOLVE ENGINEERING problems for small and mid-size companies, The University of Maryland created the Technology Extension Service in 1984. In most cases, the cost of its help is free or close to it.
The service, which is attached to the Engineering Research Center, receives approximately $700,000 in support annually from the university. It is part of the university's effort to "stimulate the linkages between the university and the state's business and industrial community by promoting cooperative research projects in engineering, science and computer technology."
The program can help you improve your company's efficiency through the recommendation of new technology applications. The service will also review compliance with environmental regulations.
While the service can provide advice to solve a "glitch" in your product or production process, it cannot conceptualize and develop a product for you. This could put the university in between two competitors -- one that received state-supported help to create a new product and another business that got no help. You can, however, have your own design for a new product and ask the extension service to test it and make recommendations for its efficient production. The service could also solve problems between the design phase and the manufacture of a product.
Clients: The technology assistance program is involved in about 250 projects each year, but it is not required that your business be technology-based to get help. One "non-tech" business asked for help and the result was the development of a prefabricated foundation wall. The service assisted another company to develop an efficient manufacturing process to produce a virus-based pesticide used to combat the Gypsy moth. While most of the companies have created a physical product, service companies are occasional users. About 40 percent of current activity relates to the working environment inside a plant or to problems regarding a plant's residential neighbors.
Companies can be large or small; however, the thrust is to help small and mid-size firms. The extension service's experience ranges from companies with 10 to 200 employees. Large companies, such as Black & Decker, generally approach the service for a fresh look at something that the company has already examined, but would like another perspective.
Offices: TES is headquartered at the university in College Park, and has five regional offices located in Baltimore, Annapolis, Cambridge, Rockville and Frostburg. Each staff person has a specialty in an area that differs from the specialties of the people in other offices. Specialties include mechanical, electrical and agricultural engineering and can span challenges from industrial wastes to robotics or digital signal processing.
The local staff cannot be experts in all fields, so they take advantage of each other's skills to operate as a team. The agricultural specialist on the Eastern Shore may require time from the Rockville person who specializes in computer- based products and solutions.
Director W. Travis Walton coordinates the skill resources of the eight people in the field. His phone is (301) 454-1941. When you call, you will be directed to one of the five local offices.
Walton says, "This is a one-on-one operation." Based upon your telephone conversations, the local field staff will actually visit your business to listen and to observe problems first-hand. The staffer will make a preliminary determination of what is needed.
The service can give your business up to 40 hours of free assistance. Walton says the time frame can be longer for projects that are "highly interesting." If extended help is needed, most projects will be referred to private sector consultants.
Once faced with a task, the extension service might conduct a search of university literature and explore the resources of the university's faculty and staff at the Engineering Research Center or the College of Engineering. Almost half of all the extension service projects involve a faculty member, who is usually paid a consulting fee by the company.
NASA: The National Aeronautics & Space Administration has a program to transfer to the private sector information developed in the course of space exploration. The tecnnology extension service is an affiliate of the NASA Industrial Applications Center, which is located at the University of Pittsburgh. The result is direct access to one of the largest data bases of technical information in the world.
The forum: On the second Wednesday of each month, the extension service holds a free presentation on a technology problem. Topics include industrial waste management, compliance with "right-to-know" regulations and implementation of computer-aided design. The meetings begin at 7 p.m. and are held at 618 W. Lombard St. in Baltimore. Call (301) 328-3233 for a reservation.
The bottom line: While the technology extension service is a great public relations tool for the university, its main thrust is economic development. The program can come up with a relatively inexpensive answer to your recent production problems or other challenges to the modernization and survival of your business.
Patrick Rossello, president of The Business Consulting Group, is D a member of a number of local advisory boards, including the = College of Notre Dame. Send questions or suggested topics to = him c/o Money at Work, The Evening Sun, 501 N. Calvert St.,
Baltimore, Md. 21278.