THE United States was once the envy of the world when it came to cultivating the seeds of ingenuity into the fruit of mass production. For every Thomas Edison there was a Henry Ford. While there continues to be in America no shortage of brilliant lab-coat innovators, however, there's a relative dearth of shrewd shop-floor engineers. As a result, the light bulb above the head isn't being translated into one on the belt.
The gulf between product and process was associated through much of this century with Britain. Call it the Cavendish Syndrome. That famous research laboratory at Cambridge University has produced some 70 Nobel laureates (Japan has produced five). But if the British could invent the better mousetrap, they usually weren't the ones to manufacture and market it.
The US is still the world's largest manufacturer, but it's slipping. Ominously, the slippage is most apparent in the newest, cutting-edge technologies. American scientists dreamed up the television, the VCR, and the semiconductor, but the bulk of those products are manufactured in Japan and other Pacific Rim countries.
Now US industry is being left behind in the development of the hottest new product, high-definition TV, which is expected to have numerous digital electronic spinoffs.
The decline of American productivity has many roots, as an important study published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology last week observes. A busted education system probably tops the list. But taking just one slice of the problem, what can the US do to speed technological breakthroughs from the lab to the line?
Adjust the allocation of resources between product development and process development. Japan, for instance, spends a larger portion of its R&D budget on manufacturing processes than the US does.
Break down the hierarchical distinctions between R&D types and production types. Universities have contributed to the elitist aura that surrounds laboratory researchers. This means changing both attitudes and levels of pay.
Improve the interaction and communication within companies between researchers and the ``downstream'' technicians who will implement the ideas. Treat product development and process development as parallel rather than sequential tasks. Japanese companies - partly for cultural reasons but also by conscious effort - do a better job than US companies of coordinating various specialists in the lab-to-line process.
IBM product engineers, after being instructed to consider manufacturing challenges right from the start, recently developed a printer with fewer parts that was easier to assemble than previous models.
Improve US capital formation. In the absence of sufficient capital, the lab-to-line current grows sluggish.
If the United States is to stay competitive in the international marketplace, it needs more than just good ideas. It's time to un-Cavendish American industry. Henry Ford, call your office.