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Detroit floors the accelerator on technology

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WHEN General Motors decided on two new assembly plants to build its down-scaled, front-drive luxury cars - Buick Electra, Oldsmobile 98, and Cadillac Fleetwood/DeVille - it pulled out all stops on current high-tech.

An army of robots, automated material-delivery systems, and computers close ranks with workers to produce cars at both Orion Township, Mich., and Wentzville , Mo. Beyond that, new management methods have been introduced which encourage a ''team spirit'' instead of the ''I'm better than you'' attitude of the past.

What it should mean here, as well as in other all-new or totally renovated plants elsewhere, is better-quality cars off the line.

All of this, however, is only the beginning. What is now operating at GM's two latest assembly plants will pale when new facilities come on stream in the late 1980s and beyond.

''Both plants are probably already passe,'' asserts Dr. John D. Caplan, executive director of the GM Research Laboratories in Warren, Mich. ''If we were starting tomorrow,'' he adds, ''we'd do it a lot different, because we've got much more technology.'' Even GM chairman Roger Smith concedes that some parts of the Orion and Wentzville plants are already out of date.

No matter, either plant would have made GM organizational genius Alfred B. Sloan proud.

''The old joke about technology changing so fast that the engineer who goes out for lunch has to be retrained when he gets back is just about literally true ,'' quipped Mr. Smith at the formal press tour of the Orion plant last month.

The imprint of Japan is visible all around, including a ''just-in-time'' parts-delivery system in which most parts can be delivered to the Orion plant, for instance, in less than six hours, saving not only inventory space, but money.

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