American companies have long believed that hard-nosed competition is what makes the free enterprise system work. You are not going to help your bottom line by helping your competitor.
But now the state government and other business groups are trying to convince companies that to be competitive in a global market, they should cooperate with other companies -- at least to a certain extent.
Called "manufacturing networking," the idea is for groups of companies to work together on common interests such as marketing, employee education, purchasing and waste disposal. In this way, smaller companies can achieve economies of scale not otherwise possible.
To promote such cooperation among businesses, a conference will be held Friday from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. in the University College Conference Center at the University of Maryland College Park.
The session is sponsored by Synapse Inc., a Baltimore human resource consulting company involved in organizational development and marketing. For more information about the conference, call (410) 669-5739.
Co-sponsors of the conference are the Foundation for Manufacturing Excellence, the Maryland Department of Economic and Employment Development, Maryland's Regional Technology Councils, the Johns Hopkins University Institute for Policy Studies and the University of Maryland, University College.
James A. Cramer, executive director for corporate affairs at the University of Maryland, said networking is done "religiously" by smaller companies in Japan, where he spent 10 years.
But he concedes that one of the biggest obstacles is the reluctance of U.S. companies to cooperate with competitors. "They have to look beyond the horizon of their immediate competitors," he said.
American anti-trust laws can also have a "chilling" effect on some companies that might be thinking about manufacturing networking, Mr. Cramer said. But antitrust laws do not prohibit cooperation in areas such as employee education, marketing, purchasing of equipment and waste disposal, he said.
Besides providing economies of scale,manufacturing networking also lets companies know what other companies are doing in their field and provides a springboard for possible overseas expansion, he said.
Networking already is being used on a small scale among some Maryland companies.
Faced with a dwindling number of machinists, 15 companies joined two years ago to create MechTech of Maryland, an organization to train new machinists.
OC Unlike traditional apprenticeship programs, 4-year-old MechTech
sends participants from company to company, where they work three-month stretches at each, said J. Alexander Doyle, MechTech.
The apprentice is exposed a variety of machine shops and "develops maturity and flexibility," said Mr. Doyle, who is also president of Micro Machinery Inc., one of the participating companies.
Another example of networking is a common marketing effort by four small Eastern Shore seafood companies. For two years, the companies have shared the cost of displaying their products at the annual Boston Seafood Show, the largest of its kind in the country.
"I think it's great," said Jerry T. Redden, general manager of Aquamar Industries Inc. of Pocomoke, one of the companies involved. "Networking makes a lot of sense."