A Japan Eager To Pool Knowhow

Two years ago, Japan's government sought the help of American industry for an ambitious research program. The goal was to spur a quantum leap in production technology by pooling the knowhow of the world's top manufacturers. To sweeten the deal, Japan proposed to fund 80% of the estimated $1 billion cost.

But the overtures to U. S. companies infuriated the Commerce Dept. Fretting that the Intelligent Manufacturing System (IMS) proposal was a ploy to soak up American software expertise, Commerce demanded a halt so it could help plan the effort. That outraged American executives eager to learn about Japanese technology.

PLATITUDES. Now, IMS is finally limping down the runway. This month, the U. S., Canada, Australia, Europe, and Japan will meet in Switzerland to draw up guidelines for a two-year study. The real IMS project will begin after that.

The original idea has been muddied by a mishmash of multilateral proposals and communiques, and its scope has shrunk -- with no assurance that Japan will approve more than the $6 million slated for next year. At the Ministry of International Trade & Industry, officials spout platitudes about Japan's contributions to a new "technoglobalism." But when asked which U. S. companies will participate, IMS point man Naoki Motoshima replies: "I was hoping you would tell me."

Even if IMS never lives up to its billing, it has provoked thoughtful responses in Europe and the U. S., such as the new study from Lehigh University. The challenges in the next century are "too big for any one country," says Richard K. Dove, a California entrepreneur who helped guide the Lehigh study. That's why IMS will need a clearer commitment to global cooperation if it is to deliver tomorrow's technology to the factory floor.

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