Let's say your old Soviet-built tank needs a part, and you don't want to go to Moscow for a replacement. Well, pretty soon, you may not have to. You'll be able to get exactly what you need -- in Michigan.

It's the latest bizarre twist in the tortuous saga of the U.S. automobile industry. With automakers cutting back, many of their former suppliers now have excess capacity, says Michael Hasler, cofounder of The Flint River Project Inc. So how might they use that capacity? One way, says Hasler, is to produce spare parts for, say, the Egyptian army. That's right -- the Egyptians. Before cooling relations with Moscow in the 1970s, Egypt got a lot of Soviet-bloc military equipment. Now, it has a problem getting hold of spare parts.

Enter the Project, which will act as the engineering and marketing staff to a network of small, independent manufacturing partners. The Project will identify market needs, reverse-engineer parts, farm out production to its partners, and market the finished goods. Hasler, himself a General Motors veteran, says he hopes to have the operation up and running by year end.

Of course, U.S. allies with Soviet-bloc military equipment aren't alone in needing hard-to-find parts. Other potential markets include owners of construction equipment from defunct manufacturers; drivers of limited-edition domestic autos; even the U.S. military. Hasler believes that many small Michigan shops have the manufacturing skills to meet these customers' needs. But the very thing that keeps the shops competitive -- the absence of overhead-generating staffs -- also keeps them from diversifying. Hence the idea for The Flint River Project. As for the name, it was inspired by a Soviet arms plant called The Kama River Project. Hasler says his group liked the ring of it.

-- Tom Richman

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