Here's one sign the auto industry is moving away from its not-invented-here syndrome: Most engineers who are surfing for technology ideas are doing it outside the industry.
A year-old Web-based technology broker - yet2.com - reports that 85 percent of its auto-related customers are trawling for technology and patented ideas outside their own arena. The most popular sources for ideas to the auto industry these days: mechanical product manufacturers, construction companies and producers of non-automotive engines.
On the other side of the coin, 90 percent of the technology seekers who are knocking on the doors of automotive companies for new ideas also are coming from outside the industry. The most popular seekers of automotive know-how are chemical and aerospace companies, and providers of material-handling products.
'Ten years ago, a lot of auto industry companies were still very entrenched in that not-invented-here mentality,' said Ben du Pont, president and co-founder of yet2.com. 'Business can't afford to work like that today. The competition is too keen. What we're seeing is that when there is access to new technologies, it doesn't matter where it comes from.'
Du Pont's company started last year in Cambridge, Mass., as an electronic library for technology and patents.
Du Pont spent 14 years with E.I. du Pont de Nemours, the global chemical and automotive products conglomerate his family started. He was a salesman in Detroit and then attempted to interest outside companies in licensing DuPont technology.
'That's a shoe leather-intensive job,' he said. 'What I discovered is that there are companies who truly want to license new technology, but they have no way of learning where it is or even what's out there.'
In the past year, the Cambridge Web venture has brought together 15,000 companies from all industries, and posted all of the technologies they have for other businesses to use. Among the automotive companies in the data bank - Ford Motor Co., Toyota Motor Corp., Porsche AG, Robert Bosch GmbH, TRW Inc., Siemens AG, Denso Corp., Asahi Glass and Delphi Automotive Systems. The company is restricted in what it can divulge about the people who use the service. The concept has about 30,000 registered users. Though still unprofitable, the start-up received $20 million in a second wave of funding in February from Siemens, Caterpillar, Bayer and NTT of Japan. Users pay a monthly fee of about $25.
Du Pont said the system has been bringing together technologies and new users on an average of two a day. That represents companies that have moved to the point of sitting down together to discuss a licensing agreement on intellectual property.
The site works like this:
Anyone can visit yet2.com on the Internet to search for a technology of interest. If visitors express an area of interest and find a specific technology they are interested in, the site will provide a brief description of it. If the visitor is a subscriber, he or she can then move on to level two, in which the technology is described in more detail. At that level, the information explains possible uses for the technology and discusses the patents that might be part of it.
If subscribers want to talk in more detail about the technology, they request an introduction. The Web site contacts the company that controls the technology, and then passes a phone number to the subscriber.
Who finds whom is as unpredictable as the matches made by a dating service, du Pont muses. One example: A U.S. producer of touch screens for computer monitors discovered that Boeing had developed a method for keeping instrument panels free of fingerprints and grease build-up. The smaller manufacturer is licensing the technology to use on its computer screens.
'This has been the big learning curve for us,' du Pont said. 'You would have thought that automotive companies would be approaching other automotive companies for their technology. But instead, the majority of our introductions are taking place between people who have never talked to each other.'