KENNETH TAULBEE, an engineer from White Consolidated Industries Inc., is being quizzed at a conference about a compressor used in a refrigerator made by his company. Mr. Taulbee glances at the name tag of the inquisitor who is from General Electric Company (GE). ``Hey, we're working with you guys,'' says Taulbee.
In normal times, Taulbee would have considered the information none of GE's business. Or, the conversation might have sparked the interest of the antitrust division of the Justice Department since White Consolidated and GE compete against each other on the appliance-showroom floor.
But these are not normal times.
Instead, similar conversations are taking place all over the country as companies that use chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) are cooperating instead of competing with one another to find alternatives to CFCs which deplete the Earth's ozone layer. Taulbee's conversation took place at a conference on CFCs here earlier this month.
There are now at least eight consortia or trade associations exchanging data that in the past was considered proprietary information. These groups are from such industries as refrigeration, air conditioning, foam production, fire fighting, electronics, and defense.
``This is cooperative America, not corporate America,'' says Stephen Seidel, an official at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which sponsored the conference. ``It is unusual in the pollution field,'' says David Doniger, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's ozone protection project.
An example of the cooperation is the refrigerator manufacturers. They are now sending each producer a compressor that will be used to calibrate test equipment. Then each manufacturer - with the knowledge of its competition - will test a different CFC alternative. They will compare results.
Since refrigerators usually last 15 or 20 years, the testing has to evaluate long-term effects. ``This will reduce the amount of testing by each company,'' says Jan Michael Pottinger, a senior staff engineer with Admiral Home Appliances, a division of The Maytag Corporation, in Galesburg, Ill.
Defense contractors, who normally compete against one another, are also banding together. Such companies as Texas Instruments Inc., Northern Telcom, American Telephone & Telegraph Company, and Boeing Company are sitting down with the Department of Defense and rewriting the military specifications that apply to CFCs.
The old military specification required companies either to use CFCs or apply for permission to use an alternative. The new specification allows the companies to use an alternative without seeking permission as long as the contractor includes technical analysis of the new process. At the same time, the defense electronics contractors are working together to evaluate alternative products.
This ``who's who'' of defense suppliers is comparing data on new solvents used to take the grease and metal shavings from electronic circuit boards. ``If you participate you are required to share the information,'' says Joe Felty, manager of process information for Texas Instruments. Earlier this month, seven large companies, including Texas Instruments, pledged to both phase out the use of CFCs by the end of 1994 and share information.
Competing companies have worked together on a smaller scale before. The semiconductor companies, with government funding, have formed a research and development cooperative, SEMATECH, to help compete against the Japanese. Trade associations routinely put together technical committees to establish industrywide standards.
According to the Justice Department, there have been 130 joint research projects - ranging from the steel industry to the auto industry - begun under the auspices of the National Cooperative Research Act (NCRA) of 1984. This act limits the potential liability of companies from antitrust prosecution.
However, as James Calm, director of the Air Conditioning and Refrigeration Institute notes, ``This is the first time the government has sought to be the catalyst.''
EPA officials agree. ``We were driven most by the tight time frame,'' Seidel says. The United States and 40 other nations signed the Montreal Protocol which scaled back CFC use to 1986 levels by this past June and gradually scales back all use to 50 percent by the year 2000.
The US, Canada, European Community, and the Nordic countries are calling for a complete phase-out of CFCs and halons (used in fire fighting) by the end of the century.
In the meantime, many companies are setting their own timetables for the elimination of CFCs and some states and communities have set deadlines. Congress is also considering legislation mandating CFC cutbacks.
The cooperation goes beyond US borders. ``All data are available to every industry in every country to accelerate the phase-out of CFCs,'' explains Mr. Calm. There has to be such global cooperation because of the way companies source parts for machines. Many refrigerator companies, for example, use compressors built in Japan by Matsushita. And electronic circuit boards are produced in scores of countries around the world.
Despite the cooperation, EPA officials maintain companies will remain competitive. ``People will still want to be first and best,'' Seidel says.
Using the same materials in manufacturing, says Mr. Felty of Texas Instruments, does not necessarily mean the products will come out looking the same. ``The processes vary so greatly that it does not mean there will be a consolidation of designs,'' he says.
Mr. Doniger of the NRDC says there has been no evidence that the consortia are other than earnest. ``This is just not public relations,'' he says.
That much is clear from the conference. In working sessions, competitors compared notes on different chemicals. Almost every speaker offered to send technical information to anyone sending in a business card. ``There is a lot more creative thinking on the issue,'' says Doniger.