Makers of pasta and growers of grapes are among the companies joining a unique but non-exclusive membership at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Along with scores of high technology firms, they have found solutions to their technical problems.
About 100 companies from around the nation, including members of the Fortune 100, have become partners with JPL in the Technology Affiliates Program, the only program of its kind under federal auspices.
"This has worked extremely well for us," said Max Canon of Aerojet Corp., a partner for four and a half years. "We get a fast response and a fast turnaround. JPL's technical people are very competent."
The National Center for Manufacturing Science, a consortium of about 200 individual companies, became a member of the JPL program during the past year. All of the companies have one thing in common -- they want NASA/JPL technology to help them solve their technical problems.
The pasta maker, for example, is a major food company which wanted to find a way to accurately test and manufacturer good microwavable pasta. The grape grower, another major food retailer, needed a more efficient way to harvest and dry grapes for raisins. Both companies joined with JPL experts and found profitable solutions.
In addition to the consortium about 20 individual companies have become new partners in the Technology Affiliates program this year alone. Five Fortune 100 companies have been members in the past and another 10 have partnerships pending.
The program was created eight years ago to help U.S. corporations become more competitive through the transfer of NASA/JPL technologies to the private sector, said James Rooney, Tech Affiliates manager. The companies pay for JPL's expertise and the program has brought several million dollars to the Laboratory over the years, supplementing federal funding.
"It is a unique program in the federal laboratory system because corporate members completely fund the modification and transfer of JPL capabilities that address their technical needs," Rooney said.
Of the more than 100 companies in 28 states that have participated in the program, most are small businesses. The diversity of technology capabilities at JPL has attracted a wide range of industry partners.
"About 18 percent of the partners are in the aerospace industry," Rooney said. "Approximately 15 percent are in manufacturing which includes the auto industry and related companies. DCT Technologies, Inc., for instance, through a subsidiary, is working with JPL to develop an environmentally clean fuel cell." The Department of Defense recently added additional funding because the fuel cell is seen as a reliable and durable power source in field operations.
The fuel cell, called a 3-percent methanol fuel cell, would also be used commercially for autos, homes, small businesses and emergency operations.
In addition to aerospace and manufacturing, 21 percent of the industrial partners are in electronics, 20 percent in communications, four percent in health care, environmental companies are six percent and a variety of other firms make up 16 percent of the total Technology Affiliates membership.
Many of those companies needed specific technologies that evolved out of NASA's space exploration program. JPL, which has been responsible for all robotic interplanetary exploration, has been a leader in the development of very small, very efficient remote sensing devices for space applications. Such sensors can be very useful also in ground-based industries.
For instance, the California Construction Technology Transfer Consortium worked with JPL to develop remote sensors for the analysis of asbestos in construction materials. That approach will save the industry millions of dollars annually and will minimize the down-time on the job sites.
A small high-technology startup venture in Orange County, CA, Dubbs and Severino, is fielding its first air safety product as a result of its partnership with the JPL program. "Key scientific knowledge, skills and technology were transferred to our firm with the dual goals of fostering commercialization and improving public safety," said Robert Severino.
JPL integrated several different federal agency maps with photo imagery to provide a terrain avoidance system on a laptop computer. "Pilots and co-pilots no longer need to work with paper maps," Severino said.
A mountain would show up on the screen in bright false colors, very visible, he said. "It's a digital color display that alerts the pilots before he is close to the terrain."
"Technology Affiliates provided the critical transfer of a proved technical solution to help make our first series of flight tests a success," Severino said.
Allen Osborne Associates has very successfully commercialized a JPL-developed Global Positioning System receiver. The receiver evolved out of NASA's years of experience in space telecommunications. The GPS receivers were used in the Persian Gulf War in 1991. The system uses a military constellation of satellites to provide location on the Earth's surface to within one millimeter.
"More than three dozen different JPL-developed technologies are being used in scores of successful businesses," Rooney said, "and the program shows the value of federal technologies at work for American business."
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