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The `flexible factory' reshapes American industry

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DON TRUSKOWSKI pushes some buttons and takes a step toward the 21st century. His ``time machine'' is a computerized lathe that cuts metal into axles, bearing rings, and other metal parts. The parts themselves may be unexciting. But they are the early fruits of the next industrial revolution - a revolution that will likely determine whether or not this country can compete in the world market. Mr. Truskowski, an engineer at a small manufacturing company called Frost Inc., is reprogramming the computer so that the lathe will cut a different sized cylinder from the one it is set up to cut now. It takes a few minutes.

Before Frost got computers in 1984, such changes were manual and could take hours, or for big changeovers, days. In those days, Frost made parts for conveyer machines. Now, Truskowski says, the company makes ``round things.''

It's a subtle distinction, but one that kept Frost from going bankrupt. It allowed the company to sell to other industries, including the automotive and aerospace industry.

``Anything round, we'll machine it,'' Truskowski yells over the whir of the robots. ``We're getting into different trades so that if one goes down, we can keep the other markets going, and always hopefully keep everything happy around here.''

Frost is one of the first small manufacturers to invest millions of dollars in a ``flexible manufacturing system.'' The technology, in varying degrees of sophistication, allows the same production line to turn out different products, often within seconds of each other.

Bringing home the plants

The Japanese are ahead of the United States in exploiting the technology (story, Page 20). But, increasingly, large American companies are using flexible manufacturing as a tool to regain their competitive edge, win back markets, and penetrate new ones. It spells the revitalization of US industries long considered lost to foreign competition.

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