Turning a hunk of junk into like-new machine

If you've got a rusted and tireless jalopy serving as the centerpiece of a backyard weedpatch, Harry Holzwasser has got a deal for you.

The president of Arrow Automotive Industries Inc. in Framingham, Mass., would like to remanufacture your car. Not just jalopies but any car. And not just the parts, but the whole car.

He envisions remanufacturing plants nationwide that would turn old favorites into fully warranted, sparkling new cars in two weeks for around $5,500. Functionally they would be as good as new, and more dependable than a used car.

It's not necessarily flashy imports he's contemplating for remanufacture, but that old Chevy Nova or Ford Mustang that has served a family long and well. Or you could walk into a showroom of remanufactured cars and pick out your own. The work would include everything from the engine and electrical systems to the body and the interior appointments.

''Far-fetched?'' asks Mr. Holzwasser rhetorically. ''I don't think so. Attitudes of American car buyers are changing. People are keeping their cars longer than ever before.''

That penchant for hanging on to what they have isn't limited to American consumers. Dwindling natural resources and a recession-squeezed economy are prompting corporations and entrepreneurs to turn old products into new profits with the aid of remanufacturing.

Remanufacturers capture the value still remaining in aging and worn-out products by disassembling them, refurbishing usable parts, and reassembling them on a production line. Such items are usually indistinguishable in appearance and performance from new products, but typically sell for 50-70 percent of the original purchase price.

In the past, remanufacturing has been limited to industrial products - mainly the auto parts business where it has flourished for 40 years. But in the recession a growing number of firms with sluggish new-product sales are turning to remanufacturing as a way of sustaining profits and prolonging product use. There are now 300 to 400 firms in the United States involved in remanufacturing ventures.

For example, Unimation, a robotmaker, has now remanufactured more than 1,000 of its robots, and is currently at work on 23 a month. These remanufactured models are then sold in direct competition with its fresh-off-the-assembly-line counterparts.

''The cost of a new robot is $56,000. The equivalent remanufactured robot with the same warranty, the same guarantee, the same everything is $38,000, and it is indistinguishable from the original,'' says Norman Heroux, manager of field engineering services for Unimation, in Danbury, Conn. ''I don't have any remanufactured robots in stock; they go like hotcakes.''

''Because of long-term energy demand, remanufacturing will become a vital part of our economic future,'' says Robert Lund, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology senior research associate and principal investigator of a government sponsored study on remanufacturing. ''It is going to be a way of life in an economy where we can no longer afford to discard old but still usable products.''

Beyond profits, proponents of remanufacturing argue that the technique is beneficial to society. The benefits include:

* Energy savings. Every kilowatt hour of energy spent in remanufacturing represents about five kilowatt hours not spent in new product production.

* Materials conservation. For every pound of material reused in remanufacturing, about nine pounds of new materials are saved. Typically 80 percent of the weight of a discarded product is reused.

* Jobs. As a labor-intensive process, remanufacturing provides jobs for the sector of the work force most in need of them - unskilled and semiskilled workers - and typically provides three to four jobs for every one an original manufacturer provides.

These factors distinguish the process from recycling, where such values are not recovered.

But potential problems abound for remanufacturers. Many of them are in evidence in the auto parts field, where the bulk of remanufacturing in the US is currently. According to David O'Dell, president of Gould Auto Electric in Michigan, the major problem is the lack of cooperation between original equipment manufacturers and the remanufacturers who need their help in securing parts and expertise.

For his part, Mr. Holzwasser sees two major impediments to remanufacturing in his field: the use of lightweight material in new cars, primarily plastic, that cannot be remanufactured, and the proliferation of spare parts. But the use of plastic appears to have leveled off. And the number of spare parts is on the decline. Chrysler has reduced part numbers from 70,000 to 45,000 and is expected make further cuts.

Many remanufacturers say they'd like to see the federal government establish a remanufacturing policy, with tax credits and other incentives to follow. Some argue that with major industries like autos and steel shifting to third world nations, it's vital that the government support an industry that could absorb vast numbers of unskilled and semiskilled workers laid off as their current jobs move overseas.

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