A local robotics-software company says "reinvention of the wheel" by government laboratories ultimately will cost Brigham Young University million of dollars in royalties and taxpayers at least $25 million in wasted investment.
But an aide to Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, says the local company simply wasn't in a position to offer the comprehensive technology or to bid for the chance to develop it. By default then, the federal contract was awarded to a consortium known as ICON, comprising a number of major manufacturers, including General Motors, Hughes International and Allen Bradley Co.Claude Goldsmith, president and chief executive officer of Provo-based Cimetrix, said it would have been counterproductive to bid for the chance to develop what the company already has on the market - the Robline technology - developed at BYU in 1989.
Robline is a combination controller and software technology that brings custom equipment in line with other odd components to operate efficiently in mass production. The developers say it saves money and opens up a world of options to the mass manufacturer.
Edward Red, a BYU professor of manufacturing and mechanical engineering, led the student group that developed the technology and set up an exclusive franchise in BYU's behalf that became Cimetrix. The company has been providing the technology to a variety of large customers all over the world and paying minimum royalties of $40,000 a year to BYU.
However, Industrial Controls, or ICON, incorporated in 1993 in New Orleans and operating from Shreveport, La., has been awarded a $52.6 million Department of Energy contract in partnership with two federal laboratories to develop similar software on a 50-50 cost basis.
"We think it's a huge waste of taxpayer's money, for one thing, to pay another company to duplicate our technology" Red said. "We believe we have done for manufacturing what the modular personal computer has done for the computer industry in introducing the development of pseudo de facto standards. The introduction of such standards dropped the price of a personal computer to the affordable range of the ordinary citizen.
"Production plants are simply full of proprietary machines," Red said. "That's very expensive and, in many ways, the reason for skyrocketing costs. We set about trying to design an architecture that would interface with all of these different machines. We've accomplished that and feel we're the first to bring this to the world."
Steve Wampler of the government's Lawrence Livermore Laboratories said ICON, together with Livermore and Los Alamos laboratories, "will develop totally software-based systems for PCs to operate machine tools." Livermore's press release said the software to be developed will enable assembly lines to be changed in "days and weeks rather than months or years."
"The software system is expected to reduce GM's manufacturing costs and be one of the key factors in cutting its design-to-market cycle," said Clark Bailo, a staff project engineer within General Motors' powertrain group.
"The Department of Energy's weapons laboratories," said Don Adrian, president of the ICON consortium, "are the only place where there is sufficient scientific expertise to produce such a software-based operating system for motion control."
Red and Goldsmith feel it's morally wrong for the government to fund development of something a private enterprise already is marketing.
Bob Lockwood, working for Hatch to research Cimetrix's claims, said he has found "no evidence of wrongdoing" in the contract award. "We would, at the drop of a hat, call for a General Accounting investigation" if it was believed Cimetrix has a system operating now that could provide what Livermore has just been asked to do.
Livermore officials cite the difference between their proposal and Cimetrix's technology - Cimetrix officials say Livermore already is using Robline technology - as that between a word-processing program and an operating system.
"It has to exist now, not as a thought and not as a blueprint," Lockwood said.
Goldsmith and Red maintain they have such an offering.
Attempts by Cimetrix to reach ICON executives were unsuccessful, even after Goldsmith hired a private investigator.
The Deseret News contacted O.H. Storey, ICON's attorney, but he refused to share information about the consortium, its officers or members.
BYU's legal counsel, Michael Orme, said the university does not become involved in the politics that occur after a franchise has been formulated. "Basically our position is no position (in this matter)" Orme said.
A "cooperative research and development agreement" put in place at the signing of the contract between ICON and the government prevents outside entities from gaining access to agreement details, the technology or the contract terms.
That leaves Cimetrix's investors - who have put $10 million into their venture - without answers to many of their questions for the next five years.
Cimetrix has major customers that have been using its technology for years, including the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Accu-Fab Systems and Idaho National Engineering Laboratory. Hewlett-Packard uses Robline to automate its hard-disk formulation. Motorola is asking for an implementation plan for a generic robotic controller.
"It isn't as if they (the Department of Energy) can claim they don't know we're here," Goldsmith said.
"And there are laws that exist that say the government is required to purchase existing technology," Red said. "There's a board assessment by the Department of Energy that is supposed to determine the competency of the applicant to perform the task. They are also supposed to contact others who would be capable of fulfilling the contract. We were never contacted."
Cimetrix was unaware of the contract award until another company in the industry, Trellis Software, asked about Cimetrix's reaction to the shutout.
"There are laws being broken. We think the matter needs investigation by the Justice Department," Red said.
Lockwood said that if there is an encroachment on Cimetrix's patent, the "government is going to get clobbered" and it will be evident within the contract's five years.
Cimetrix officials say that's too long to wait.