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RCA affirms its role in electronics R&D

When Edgar H. Griffiths became the president and chief executive officer of RCA Corporation in 1976, the scientists at RCA Laboratories here were afraid that the hard-nosed businessman would cut back on their research efforts to increase the company's profits over the short term.

Since the labs, named after David Sarnoff, former head of RCA, had been responsible for the invention of color television and had done important work on radar, sonar, the transistor, and liquid crystals, this possibility upset the academic-like staff of the research facility.

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Today, some four years later, William Webster, vice-president in charge of the labs, says Mr. Griffiths has demonstrated that the company is "committed" to research. RCA's budget for research and development has expanded 20 percent annually since 1976, and, Mr. Webster says, "Whenever I ask Ed Griffiths for money for a project, he's never turned me down."

Still, he says, a lot of "misconception" exist about RCA's stake in research and the labs. Some of them surfaced when Mr. Griffiths first met with reporters after taking over as president. He was asked about RCA's plans for electronic innovation, with a reporter hinting that RCA was willing to take a backseat to others. Mr. Griffiths replied that RCA was committed to and would remain committed to being a leader in research. Recently, Mr. Griffiths re-emphasized this aim in speeches at the laboratories and before a retirement club.

Some questions were raised a few years ago by Electronics magazine when it noted that RCA was busy investing money in such nonelectronic subsidiaries as Banquet Foods, Random House books, and Hertz rental cars.More recently, however, some of the nonelectronic subsidiaries have been sold off. Today, the magazine's managing editor, Alfred Rosenblatt, comments, "If money doesn't tell the story, what does?" In 1979, RCA spent $200 million on research and development. This represents about 6 percent of the $3 billion in sales by its electronics divisions.

By way of comparison, Zenith Radio Corporation, in Chicago, spent $33.8 million on R&D in 1979, or about 3.1 percent of its sales. It's impossible to get any numbers from the large Japanese companies, although observers believed they spent a larger proportion of their profits on research.

Of the $200 million he is allocated, Mr. Webster says that about 30 percent is geared to "close-in" support of projects that are coming out of the labs and into production. Another 20 percent is supposed to go toward research that has no immediate practical value. The remaining 50 percent is spent on projects that can be developed within a three- to six-year period with research having a practical application.

Because of the push by RCA to get its video-disc recorder on the market, though, the labs are not spending any time on the "blue sky" type of research projects. Instead, the manpower and money are being devoted to developing the second and third generations of the recorder.

Some 250 of the 1,400 professionals at the labs are working on the video disc -- which give some idea of the large effort the company is putting into the machines. Mr. Webster says that some of the research is aimed at incorporating a freeze-frame mode into the recorder, the introduction of stereo sound, and possibly the use of digital audio to give an extremely high-quality tone to it. The video disc is a TV system that will show movies or other entertainment that's recorded on a recordlike disc.

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Three hundred more employees are doing research on improving RCA's television sets. Mr. Webster says he believes there is still the possibility of improving the color picture as well as the sound.

Specific research is being conducted to develop a four-inch-thick TV set with a 502-inch-high screen. He predicts that such a "wall" set will be sold at te end of the 1980s. As a measure of how effective he feels RCA's research effort has been in developing TV sets, he says, the company has begun to take business away from the Japanese manufacturers. Still another group of 200 scientists at the labs is involved in solid-state technology, finding better ways to make and use semiconductor chips.

Finally, other scientists are working on an automobile "radar" system that would theoretically prevent an automobile from having an accident at high speeds. Research on satellite communications and solar technology is likewise carried on at the labs.

Mr. Webster's goal is to take this research and convert it into practical salable items. "Through our research," he says, "I hope we can make that $3 million in electronics sales into $10 billion by the year 1990."

This sales orientation makrs a sharp change from the labs as they first operated under Mr. Sarnoff. "The general," as he was known, liked to be considered a patron of the arts and sciences. Thus, money devoted to research went into "blue sky" types of projects that academics wanted to pursue.

But today Mr. Webster announces that "the company's money will not be spent on PhD theses that have no practical application." Thus, when the labs return to spending 20 percent of their time on "pure research," it will probably be related to energy projects.


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