Interest in shared factories continues to grow. In Meadville, Pa., 15 companies have set up a group to offer classes in computer-integrated manufacturing, with plans to open a "teaching factory" sometime next year. Altogether, about 40 coalitions of business, educational, and government groups have formed around the country to work on shared-factory plans, although most are in the very early organizational stages, according to Ted Lettes of the U.S. Department of Commerce. The goal: to create highly automated plants where small companies can both learn about the new flexible manufacturing systems and, in many cases, rent production time.
Look for more large companies to establish electronic channels of distribution, comparable to the major airlines' computerized reservation systems. After surveying 75 Fortune 500 companies, Digital Equipment Corp. estimated that 25% to 40% plan to offer distribution channel computer systems in the 1990s, if not sooner. That could mean trouble for small competitors. "There are 2,500 disadvantages to being big, but this is not one of them," notes Howard Anderson of The Yankee Group, a high-tech market research firm. "He who controls the network controls the higher ground, and the big guys will do all they can to tilt the system.'
There's been a marked increase in the number of small to midsize companies considering flexible benefit programs, in which employees assemble personalized benefit packages from a menu of options offered by the company. In the past, smaller businesses have generally found the programs too complex, but now more insurance firms are offering prepackaged plans for companies with as few as 50 employees, and there's more software available for self-administration. Another incentive: flex benefit programs make it easier for companies to shift increases in health insurance costs to employees, thereby serving as a hedge against future premium hikes.
How big is the trend to high-tech marketing? Superior Livestock Auction Inc. now conducts call-in cattle auctions via satellite television. In Denver, Western Livestock Journal has about 40 ranch and farm videos it sends to buyers interested in quick armchair "tours." And in Midland, Tex., PLS Petroleum Listing Service Inc. is offering its more than 750 oil-company members an on-line database of oil properties for sale. Its slogan: "The good ol' boy network . . . it just gets gooder.'
As small-business incubators develop a track record of job and company creation, more private-sector sponsors emerge. Among large companies, AT&T, GTE North, and Coopers & Lybrand have begun promoting incubators, following the lead of Control Data. "We're literally growing customers," says GTE North's Bill McDermott. Overall, 25% of the nearly 300 incubators are now private and for profit, says Carlos Morales of the National Business Incubation Association -- up from 9% three years ago. By 1992, he projects that the figure will reach 50%.
Companies will continue to see hefty premium hikes for health insurance over the coming year, according to industry experts. Dr. Thomas Frist Jr., CEO of the giant Hospital Corp. of America, predicts increases ranging from 20% to 60% and blames the problem on too-low Medicare reimbursements. Whatever the cause, he isn't alone in his forecast. James MacDougald, chairman of Applied Benefits Research Inc., estimates that health insurance rates are already rising 30% a year, while others break the figure down to 2% a month.
-- Martha E. Mangelsdorf
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