When Ron Weishorn and Gary Kinkela started the Micro-Teaching Factory, they didn't know they were part of a national policy.

As sellers of automation equipment, the pair had a hard time getting small manufacturers to buy new technology. To reduce the risks, they started courses to update the skills of their customers' workers. As employees became more proficient, managers grew more enthusiastic about automating. Since opening, in September 1989, the Micro-Teaching Factory, in Monroeville, Pa., reports teaching 220 students from 90 area companies; it also leases advanced equipment to manufacturers who want to try it out.

U.S. Department of Commerce officials have been working on the same problem -- for a different reason. If small manufacturers don't adopt computer-integrated manufacturing, they fear, the United States will lose competitiveness. Because the technology is costly, Commerce has been promoting the concept of "flexible computer-integrated manufacturing microfactories." In plain English, those are state-of-the-art shared factories run by third parties such as colleges. According to Ted Lettes of Commerce, 4 shared factories are in operation, and another 14 are planned. Of the 4, only the Micro-Teaching Factory is for profit.

-- Martha E. Mangelsdorf