BUILDING No. 35 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology strikes a visitor as an industrial hamlet off the highway of time. A workshop on the first floor is filled with heavy machine tools and the smell of lubricated metal. A floor above, in a well-worn lecture hall, undergraduates are learning about forming, die-casting, and other manufacturing operations that bring to mind, vaguely, Studebakers and FDR. Within five minutes, a visitor is lost in arcane calculations relating to ``inhomogeneous deformation.'' To bring things down to earth, the instructor shows a film of industrial casting, with two Chester A. Riley types in hard hats standing by the mold. To today's high-tech sensibilities, they seem a little like football players in leather helmets. The class cannot suppress a chuckle.
The response is just a small indication of a problem that is becoming urgent for MIT and engineering schools generally. Of the many theories advanced regarding America's industrial decline, the one that hits home is that the engineering community has turned up its collective nose at the factory floor in favor of the more rarefied atmosphere of Nobel Prize research. As MIT President Paul Gray told a conference in Washington last month, ``the highest prestige has been reserved for advanced research and development, and only cursory attention has been paid to manufacturing.''
``Then we are surprised our cars don't work,'' adds Arnold Kerr, an engineering professor at the University of Delaware. ``Without good [production] engineers, our R&D will simply be ripped off by our competitors.''
MIT is one of a number of institutions that are setting up special programs to address the problem. Observers are encouraged but say it's just a beginning. ``We have so far to go,'' says MIT professor H.Kent Bowen, a leader in the new program.
The problem started during World War II, when American engineers felt upstaged by the physicists who walked off with all the glory. Previously known for their workshop genius, engineers resolved to make engineering a ``science.'' Then the space program, high-tech defense, and a new National Science Foundation poured grant money into arcane research projects that reinforced this trend. ``You completely forgot about how things are made,'' says Yoshi Tsurumi, a professor at Baruch College in New York.
The corporate world, meanwhile, was moving in the same direction. At companies founded by production men like Goodyear and Ford, the path to the top now lay through marketing and finance. Production became a dead end, paid accordingly. Students got the message. ``It was typically the less capable students who would end up in industrial engineering,'' says F.Karl Willenbrock, who heads the American Society for Engineering Education in Washington.
``We have a reverse work ethic that looks down on manual labor,'' says Eli Sachs, who teaches the basic manufacturing course at MIT. In Japan, by contrast, production engineering is a ``very prestigious, very important job,'' Professor Tsurumi says. ``They are favored for promotion.'' When Japanese companies recruit American engineers for their US plants, he adds, ``They get the best ones.''
By the early 1980s, there were stirrings of reform. IBM awarded $50 million in grants to five engineering schools to help develop graduate programs in manufacturing. The National Science Foundation, traditionally a bastion of elite ``engineering science,'' began supporting ``Engineering Research Centers'' at American universities that are working on the production arts.
Now MIT is starting its own ``Leadership in Manufacturing'' program. Students will receive fellowships to work with individual companies on the shop floor, along with their course studies, and in two years will receive a master's in both management and manufacturing. The main point of the program is to give manufacturing new prestige among students. ``If [faculty] do nothing but esoteric research, students think that's all that has value,'' Professor Bowen says.
Even before the leadership program begins, there are signs of change. New technologies such as robotics have given the factory a luster it didn't have before. The number of graduate students in manufacturing-related subjects has ``exploded,'' says MIT professor Ming Tse, from only 20 or 30 students 10 years ago to upwards of 150 today. (In the United States, student membership in the Society of Manufacturing Engineers has grown by more than 80 percent since 1978.) For tenure decisions, the faculty is now asking whether a candidate's research has had any impact on practice, Bowen adds.
There have been changes in the workplace as well. General Electric awarded two of its prestigious Steinmetz awards last year to manufacturing engineers, which is ``totally unprecedented,'' says Fred Garry, vice-president of Engineering and Manufacturing Services.
``It's a beginning,'' Tsurumi observes. ``But I don't call it a turnaround.''
``The staff in manufacturing at most companies is as moribund as can be,'' says David Hardt, director of MIT's Laboratory for Manufacturing and Productivity. Starting salaries for industrial engineers are still lowest of all engineering fields, according to the placement office at Stanford's school of engineering. Even small high-tech companies, regarded as the last refuge of tinkerers, are falling prey to the engineering ``caste'' system. ``[Manufacturing] guys are still left out of meetings,'' says Peter Lowe, president of Interform, a Silicon Valley design consulting firm. ``Their absence is conspicuous.''
Academia can be equally slow to change. The ``publish or perish'' syndrome is especially hard on those who strive to solve problems rather than analyze them. MIT's Sachs says his grant proposals are often criticized for being ``too applied'' and not sufficiently theoretical. ``Why isn't it better because it's a technique the country needs?'' he asks.