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Better Technology Means US Industry Can Swell Its Chest

INDUSTRY in the United States is getting some compliments.

For about a decade, critics have berated American companies for poor quality, obsession with quarterly profits, and the loss of a technological edge to Japanese companies.

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But, according to two new studies, US companies have snapped back.

* The US has ``significantly strengthened its competitive position in critical technologies during the past five years,'' says the Council on Competitiveness in Washington, a nonprofit organization of chief executives from business, higher education, and organized labor.

* The US has replaced Japan as the world's most competitive economy for the first time since 1985, maintains the International Institute for Management and Development in Lausanne, Switzerland, and the World Economic Forum in Geneva. The 1994 World Competitiveness Report ranks 41 countries on the basis of responses from 16,500 business leaders around the world. The report concludes that the US economic recovery, entrepreneurship, and nearly a decade of corporate restructuring have helped raise the US to its top ranking.

In a report released today dealing with some 94 ``critical technologies,'' the Council on Competitiveness found improvement ``especially noticeable'' in commercialization and production systems.

``The private sector has aggressively embraced manufacturing and quality as keys to technological leadership,'' the report adds. ``As a result, America's ranking has been upgraded in such areas as total quality management, design for manufacturing, and the integration of research, design, and manufacturing.''

The US has also made progress in electronic components, such as actuators, laser devices, multichip packaging systems, and printed circuit-board technology, the report continues. Electronic displays are the only area where the US is ``still losing badly and has made no real progress in the past few years.''

In biotechnology, environmental technology, and information technology, the US has maintained its leadership, the report says. It is still competitive in design and engineering tools. The solid foundation in information technology is helping the US take the lead in the creation of a pace-setting information infrastructure.

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However, both reports include some cautions. The Swiss report warns that poor secondary-school education and work attitudes, as well as a low savings rate, could cause longer-term decline if uncorrected.

The Washington report notes that many countries are building competency in critical technologies where the US has traditionally been a world leader.

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