'Information, Please' business bureau

By , Business and financial writer of The Christian Science Monitor

How do you keep your wooden truck bed from shrinking? Can you use old tires to fuel your boiler? Where can you get some green dye for your much?

These are some of the questions businessmen have brought to a state program that passes on technical and scientific information -- free of charge. Known as the Pennsylvania Technical Assistance Program (PENNTAP), the 15-year-old service has been getting a good deal of attention recently from states interested in setting up similar programs.

Based on the premise that, with scientific and technical information doubling every eight years, businessmen and local government officials cannot possibly keep up with all the new information they need, PENNTAP acts as a sort of superlibrary to gather and distribute this information.

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But unlike a library, when it sends the answers, it also sends along a technical specialist who can explain the best way to use the information in a particular situation. These specialists come from backgrounds that include energy, electronics, structural engineering, plastics, fire protection, and agriculture.

In recent months the program's director, H. LeRoy Marlow, has spent a lot of his time traveling to other states where officials are interested in starting similar programs. In some of these, intitial planning is just starting and political negotiations over funding are still going on, so Dr. Marlow would not name them. "But while there are some differences," he said, "at least two states are actively putting together programs that almost exactly copy PENNTAP."

Also several states, including Oklahoma, Iowa, Maryland, Tennessee, and Michigan, have already begun similar programs. Some of these serve only the public sector, unlike PENNTAP, which is available to both public agencies and private businesses, Dr. Marlow said. In all, his setup has helped some 30 states asking about or starting similar programs.

The program was started in 1965, Dr. Marlow says, by the combined initiative of the state government, Pennsylvania State University, and private business. Today it is still run by Penn State, and half of the $500,000 annual cost is provided by the Legislature; the rest comes from private organizations and individuals.

The information coordinator, Paul W. Houck, says questions come by phone or mail to one of the 24 campuses of the Penn State system. Most of the questions come from people operating smaller businesses, because they usually have less access to new technical information, Mr. Houck points out. In fact, he adds, while PENNTAP is available to all businesses in the state, it is geared to the needs of smaller companies.

In the last seven years, from 1972 to 1979, 12,776 questions were received. In 1979 alone, there were 2,325 requests for information on such topics as setting up a master plan for fire protection; the technology for making alcohol from peaches, corn, and waste wood; improving fleet driver efficiency; cutting the energy use of refrigeration equipment; dealing with federal safety and environmental regulations; and applying solar energy in a manufacturing plant.

PENNTAP does not always wait for a question before spreading the word about new technology, Dr. Marlow points out. If one of the program's specialists comes across an innovation or improvement, potential users are contacted.

To help its clients, Mr. Marlow said, PEENTAP has access to nonclassified government research and to the work done by a number of major corporate laboratories, including General Electric, US Steel, Sperry Rand, Arthur D. Little, and several oil companies.

The most important function, Dr. Marlow beleives, is saving money. More than industry in the United States last year, he estimates. For private business, this cost was up nearly 19 percent over the previous year. With research taking up so much of business spending, it is important -- especially for smaller businesses -- to be able to skip trial-and-error methods of finding answers whenever they can.

In one case, the program saved a company in central Pennsylvania $30,000 it had planned to spend on research into finding a formula for reducing the flow of its product in certain pipelines. In another, a school district cut its fuel bills by $40,000 after it asked about the best uses of oil and natural gas. In all, officials estimate the program saved businesses and local and state governments over $1.5 million in research costs or savings from using solutions found for them.

All of these savings, Mr. Houck noted, come from using other people's information. "We do not do any research and development of our own," he says. "We do not create any new knowledge."

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