WASHINGTON — WHEN Franco Eleuteri caught his first glimpse of blueprints for Kansai International Airport, he learned more than new innovations in engineering construction. Although his employer, the Austin Company of Cleveland, had been active in Europe for five decades, and had established a beachhead in Japan some 11 years earlier, reeducation occurred. Local customs, sales, and business practices, he recalls, were among the new dimensions that counted heavily.
Mr. Eleuteri was director of advanced facilities for Austin, which has pioneered ``factory of the future'' projects in several countries, as well as for United States clients such as General Motors.
The lesson his company learned ``is needed by all American construction companies,'' says K. M. Lee of Korea-based Sunkyong Construction.
Few would disagree. It is in the worldwide market, and especially in East Asia, that many of the great battles will be fought for new - and lucrative - projects.
Engineering construction involves construction management, design of infrastructure projects, and even allied fields such as architecture. Refineries, hydropower plants, public works, highways, manufacturing facilities, and electrification projects are all part of a worldwide multinational empire upon which the sun never sets.
The industry was buoyant until the oil price slump of 1982. Lavish Middle East contracts such as construction of veritable cities all dried up. Latin America was not capable of overcoming its debt woes and hoped-for African markets were not appearing. Where opportunities sprouted, so did the specter of Asian competition.
Most of this decade has been characterized by low returns, plus a dwindling worldwide market. Global contracts totaled $123 billion in 1982, but 12 months later, the figure dropped to $92 billion, and this amount fell to $76 billion by 1986. Although American firms held 45 percent of all worldwide contracts in the early '80s, the share soon shrank to 25 percent. A rising number of projects within the US itself were contracted to Kumagai, Hyundai, and other Asian-based groups.
``The US must realize it's critical to retake our position in construction,'' says Julian Morrisson, who directed a probe of the engineering for the National Academy of Sciences.
But fortunes of US titan groups are mixed. Revenue for some has grown. For example, Fluor Daniel Inc. boosted the volume of its contracts to more than $6 billion this year. Foster Wheeler, Stone & Webster, Brown & Root, as well as others, appear to be posting gains. Bechtel, which saw earnings of $13 billion in 1983, tallied revenues only a third as high last year.
New entrants to the increasingly competitive global arena included Korea and Taiwan. They lost billions when Mideast treasuries dried up. Firms in India, Turkey, and Brazil were suddenly capable of handling many projects that a few years earlier were the exclusive province of Europe, Canada, and the US. At the same time, the World Bank and other global finance institutions tended to favor bids from the newer entrants.
The non-US engineering-construction companies have prospered by offering low prices, plus government subsidization. Some observers believe that US firms are at a permanent disadvantage. ``In developing countries, nearly all customers are governments,'' says Jack Randolph, a specialist at the Department of Commerce.