Michigan hopes for home-grown high-tech industry

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Every state in any economic trouble these days would like to hit it big in high technology with its own variation of California's Silicon Valley or Boston's Route 128.

Like other states leaning hard on a dwindling manufacturing base, Michigan has had a blue-ribbon gubernatorial task force looking at how to recruit more high-tech business.

But unlike other states, which are courting businesses from a variety of high-technology fields, Michigan's task force (including chief officers from the Bendix Corporation, Burroughs Corporation, and Dow Chemical Company) looked inward to see what state resources offered the best possibilities for realistic, specialized high-tech growth.

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The group zeroed in on the state's automobile, appliance, and machine-tool manufacturing base and its rich agricultural and forestry resources. Upon its recommendation, two independent, nonprofit institutes were established to pursue high-tech research related to those fields.

* The Molecular Biology Institute in East Lansing near Michigan State University was given $16 million in public and private start-up funds. Instead of pursuing popular biotechnology research such as genetic engineering, the institute will specialize in agricultural and forestry technology. Researchers are already at work, for instance, on a fast-growing ''supertree,'' and are searching for a way to transform wood into chemicals for the manufacture of plastics.

* The new Industrial Technology Institute here in Ann Arbor will focus on modern manufacturing technology for use in the factory of the future. Acting director Arch Naylor, who is on loan from the University of Michigan, where he teaches electrical and computer engineering, explains that emphasis will be given to developing ''flexible'' computerized automation systems that can be adapted to produce a variety of manufactured goods for a number of years.

By contrast, automobile and other industries have relied on ''dedicated'' automation machinery, which is discarded after producing a particular item. Mr. Naylor says robotics will be one part of a broad range of industrial technology Michigan will develop. ''We're talking about the entire sweep of manufacturing automation,'' he says.

Both institutes are expected eventually to garner their own funds from industry contracts and research work, as do companies such as Arthur D. Little Inc. in Cambridge, Mass., and Battelle Memorial Institute, headquartered in Columbus, Ohio. Meanwhile, for its first decade of operation, the Industrial Technology Institute has a firm $17.5 million in hand from the State of Michigan and is working, apparently successfully, to get $100 million from several Michigan foundations.

''Our goal is to spawn new companies and make Michigan the center of modern manufacturing,'' Naylor insists. ''We're not doing this because it's nice to do research.''

In fact, he says, the task force decision was almost inevitable.

''We really didn't have too many choices in Michigan,'' he says. ''There was no way this state was going to create another mammoth Silicon Valley. . . . We could either watch as manufacturing disappeared or try hard to be as modern and competitive as possible. . . . Michigan knows plenty about manufacturing and we're the home of automation. Other places in the Midwest could probably do the same thing. But they haven't.''

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