Appearances in this small, pleasant community can be deceiving.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Cows graze lazily within sight of a tall water tower that reads, simply, ''Dale.'' Two traffic lights flash incessantly over the street-corner businesses at the intersection of two highways. A few miles south stand two low buildings - surrounded by cornfields, but full of sleek blue and green machines that offer a hint of Indiana's industrial potential.
Welcome to Dale, Ind., population, 1,693; robots, 30.
In the smaller of the two buildings of the Thermwood Corporation here, the tall and curly-haired president walks along the various demonstrator robots. He describes each model, several of which look like giant arms crooked upward, but something else occupies his thought as well. Like an increasing number of business, government, and academic leaders in this economically depressed state, he wonders aloud about Indiana's potential as a high-technology center.
A few years ago, the idea would have inspired no more than a patronizing smile. But a 3 1/2-year regional recession is changing that. Indiana's unadjusted unemployment figures for April stood at 12.3 percent; personal income growth from 1978 to 1981 lagged behind every other Great Lakes state. More important, the state Commerce Department predicts permanent loss of 50,000 to 60 ,000 automobile-related jobs in the state.
For a healthy recovery, Indiana must shift its labor force from reliance on traditional manufacturing such as automobiles and steel - two pillars of Indiana's economy. And here, the high-tech success stories of Boston's Route 128 beltway and California's Silicon Valley shine with bright promise. Government, business, and academic leaders are working mightily to make sure it develops in Indiana.
To be sure, scholars and economists remain dubious that the state can nurture a Silicon Valley boom. ''In Indiana?'' exclaims Bn incredulous Edward B. Roberts , chairman of the technology management group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Competition among states for high-tech firms is aggressive, and experts are skeptical that Indiana offers those companies more than other states.
Successful or not, the bold experiments in economic development point to the possibility of another development here - intangible but perhaps more profound: a change in attitude.
Eight years ago, Thermwood's Ken Susnjara began to turn a crisis into a blessing.
At the time, the Arab oil embargo was squeezing his plastics company and raw materials prices were quadrupling. So Mr. Susnjara, casting about for a new industry to get into, took a good look at his company. What he noticed was that 60 to 70 percent of the machines were produced in-house. ''I decided to get into (building) not only machines, but computer-controlled machines,'' he recalls. ''Unfortunately, we knew nothing about computers, which was a bit of a stumbling block.''
Nevertheless, two years and $1 million later, the firm had an operating wood-routing machine that was self-operating enough to be considered a robot. By 1981, the robotics division was doing well enough that Susnjara sold off the plastics part of his company. And he has concentrated on developing the steel and plastic robots ever since.
While gross sales of $6.5 million doesn't make Thermwood an industrial giant, it is the kind of small, innovative company that high-tech booms are built on.
State governments have baited many a line to attract high-tech businesses. Michigan officials telephone Susnjara twice a month urging him to move to their state, which is trying to develop as a robotics center. But according to experts who have studied the Boston and Silicon Valley phenomena, government programs alone are ineffective.
Small, innovative firms provide the foundation for a high-tech boom, they say , because they attract talented individuals and train engineers in several skills. In Boston and Silicon Valley, these engineers often left their companies and started up their own firms, usually in the same area. ''If that spinoff spawns another spinoff, then it sets up an incubator effect,'' says Albert Bruno , a business administration professor at the University of Santa Clara.