Manufacturing should become more competitive in the wake of a little-noticed provision of the new United States trade law. The law commits $98 million to an overhaul of technology transfer to manufacturers - getting technology out of the laboratory and into a product that can be marketed. Funding for the package was approved before President Reagan signed the legislation.
Though Fortune 500 corporations can afford costly automation equipment, many medium-size and small companies cannot. A vast pool of small and medium-size subcontractors - including 150,000 machine shops - are the backbone of the industry. Manufacturers rely on them for diverse, small lots of hundreds of parts.
The provision marks a departure from conventional transfers of manufacturing technology between large companies or between big companies and the government. In the past, few ``one-on-one'' efforts were attempted with small businesses. But technology transfer has become a complex process, and includes the stimulation of research and development and commercialization of products.
``Without modernization, small machine shops have no chance,'' declares Dennis Swyt, deputy director for advanced manufacturing at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). ``Materials fabricators - whether in plastics, ceramics, or metals - are unable to compete.''
NIST's name is new (created in the law), but the agency, formerly called the National Bureau of Standards, has long been the lead agency on automation.
The law establishes regional ``leading edge'' factories around the country, at which businesses can receive customized guidance on automation. In addition, companies can now tap the network of 600 federal R&D labs - where countless innovations remain largely unused by business.
The legislation also coordinates 43 separate state technology transfer programs. Currently, those states spend more than $800 million for a number of diverse efforts. They range from providing venture capital to introducing technology-related equipment.
NIST will now be able to share results of ``on-the-shelf'' techniques directly with small and medium-size companies in need. Supporters hope this clearinghouse function will mesh neatly with differing states' delivery systems for technology transfer.
``Small'' high-tech firms with new products, along with materials fabricators, will receive priority in the new effort. Don Johnson, director of the national measurement laboratory at NIST, concedes that a ``first come, first served'' basis will determine which companies receive the customized-aid packages. Generally, the candidates would be within a 50-mile radius or so from the automation centers.``Unless you have an outreach effort,'' says Thomas Byrer, vice-president of manufacturing and materials processing at Battelle Memorial Institute in Columbus, Ohio, ``those companies will overspend and still not achieve results.'' Mr. Byrer directs Battelle's Center for Materials Fabrication, which is often cited as an example of the direction NIST's evolving extension service should take. Now in its fourth year, the program established a free telephone hot line, promising customized solutions within five working days.
Specially tailored tech transfers rescued hundreds of firms. State-of-the-art methods in machining, die casting, and flexible manufacturing systems were adapted. Goals of lower energy costs - an important factor in profitability - were realized.
One company sought a new method for joining aluminum. After Battelle's program advised changes, the company discovered that a two-man, eight-hour shift produced nearly 10,000 aluminum columns - compared with about 300 using conventional techniques.
For those reasons, NIST supporters such as Sen. Ernest Hollings (D) of South Carolina and Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R) of New York insist that the extension service will succeed.
Battelle has identified potential recipients for technology transfer by using the standard industrial code index - which covers specific product lines - matching numbered codes with potential innovations.
Franco Eleuteri, a designer of advanced manufacturing plants for the Cleveland-based Austin Company, cautions that technology must be combined with ``behavioral aspects (of the factory) and an end to short-term financial horizons.''