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Exports Lead U.S. Toward Metric System

<i> Times Staff Writer </i>

The job of making steel rings for military jet engines appealed to Louis Cardona, president of Cardona Manufacturing in Burbank. But there was one drawback: The rings had to be made to metric specifications.

Cardona started by converting the centimeter dimensions on the blueprints to inches to determine whether his 30-employee firm could make the rings. Finding no major problems, he then applied a metric conversion factor of his own: He added 5% to the price he would charge for comparably sized rings made to so-called English measurements of inches and feet.

When he won the subcontract, he went out and reluctantly bought metric-measure drill bits for his workers--reluctantly because the available bits were expensive and poorly made, he said, compared to English-measurement tools.

“My first reaction, of course, was: ‘It’s a pain in the neck, but we need the work, so we do it,’ ” Cardona recalled.

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‘Star Wars’ Impetus

Led by the Pentagon, the U.S. government is trying to replace inches and gallons with centimeters and liters in its business dealings. The Department of Defense announced 14 months ago that all new weapons systems and work on the Strategic Defense Initiative--the “Star Wars” space-based missile defense system--would have to be done in metric units.

Then a little-noticed provision of the omnibus trade bill signed by President Reagan on Aug. 23 called for the entire government to do business in the metric system whenever feasible by Oct. 1, 1992. With the federal government buying 4.6% of the nation’s annual production of goods and service, the legislation may have far-reaching effects on U.S. industries and workers.

Owners and managers of companies that rely heavily on international sales are cheering the trade act provision and say it will reduce their costs and boost the competitiveness of their products overseas. Only isolationist Burma in Southeast Asia and tiny Liberia in West Africa join the United States in the odd club of nations that has not yet formally begun converting to metric, these proponents point out. (Despite the English system’s name, Britain has officially switched to metric.)

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Companies in countries that use the metric system are sometimes leery of importing products built to English-system measurements because routine replacement parts, such as nuts and bolts, cannot be bought at the local hardware store.

But some union activists and small businessmen are bitterly denouncing the metric provision of the trade act as a late amendment that, they claim, was slipped in under pressure from big business. These opponents fear that workers’ expensive collections of English-measurement personal tools will become worthless, that using an international measurement system will make it easier for multinational corporations to shift production out of the United States and that small firms unfamiliar with the metric system will be excluded from government contracts.

“They snuck it through because they were worried about opposition. . . . This is sort of an attack in the night,” said John Motley, director of federal government relations at the National Federation of Independent Business, which claims 570,000 small business members.

The federation, headquartered in Washington, is considering an effort to slow down the conversion to the metric system by forcing government agencies to observe every legal nicety, Motley said. “There may be a few things we can do to slow this process down a little.”

The metric issue has also given rise to the unusual spectacle of unions complaining bitterly about government intervention in business. “It’s a terrible intrusion in the free market. . . . Private enterprise should determine what is metric and what isn’t, not the government,” said Thomas A. Hannigan, an AFL-CIO official and one-time member of the now-defunct federal Metric Board.

Big exporters such as Deere & Co. of Moline, Ill., on the other hand, applaud the government’s move toward metric. Deere, the nation’s largest farm equipment producer, already produces mostly metric products but occasionally is asked by some government agencies to switch already-prepared metric designs to English measurement, Page L. Bellinger, the company’s engineering standards manager, said.

Ordering steel bars in metric thicknesses from U.S. producers is expensive and sometimes impossible, Bellinger added. But if a blueprint calls for a 25-millimeter bar, then 1-inch steel (25.4 millimeters) will not do, he said.

For Carl A. Beck, direct government support for the metric standard has also come none too soon. His small company, Charles Beck Machine Corp. in King of Prussia, Pa., makes industrial sheet cutters for paper, cardboard, film and textile factories and relies heavily on export sales.

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Foreign customers demand metric parts and gauges on their machines, but so few are made by U.S. companies that Beck Machine must buy expensive metric air-pressure gauges from Switzerland, Beck said. Large-scale domestic production of such gauges, he added, would lower their cost and help Beck Machine offer lower prices to overseas customers.

The trade act’s metric provision will encourage companies to start making metric parts, Beck said, thus ending the vicious cycle of corporations not designing products with metric parts because none are available and suppliers not making metric parts because there is little demand. “It’s breaking the chicken-and-egg syndrome,” he said.

Wholesalers and small businesses that do not export are generally less enthusiastic about converting to metric. Suppliers of parts to big corporations are especially worried about the expense of being asked to provide products in both metric and English-system sizes.

For example, the trade act could prompt conveyor belt manufacturers to start demanding mounted ball bearings in metric as well as in English sizes, said Dave Griffiths, marketing and sales support manager at Command Bearings in Salt Lake City.

Producing mounted ball bearings in metric sizes is not technically difficult, he said. Loose ball bearings already are made to metric specifications. The problem, Griffiths explained, is that his company is “looking at duplicate inventories, which will increase our costs.”

Trade unions, which led opposition to the metric system in the 1970s, have revived their stance that conversion will not bring about the desired goal of making U.S. products more salable overseas. Detroit auto makers now use metric measurements almost exclusively to build cars, but their export performance has not improved, one union official pointed out.

“How many cars do we sell in Japan? It doesn’t matter what dimension the car is,” said Andrew Kenopensky, national automotive coordinator of the International Assn. of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. He was the other union representative on the 17-member federal Metric Board.

The board was the flagship of Congress’ last effort to lead the country onto the metric standard, the Metric Conversion Act of 1975. Kilometer signs sprouted along highways and cookbooks appeared using grams and liters. But compliance with the act was strictly voluntary and without deadlines and quickly faded amid the outcry from older consumers who had forgotten the metric system since their school days or never learned it in the first place.

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The Metric Board, intended to guide conversion, sank in 1982, a victim of internal bickering, budget cuts and public apathy.

Metric advocates argue that the trade act provision will fare better because it does include a deadline, uses government spending power to influence industry and will have little direct impact on consumers.

“The consumers don’t know that the nuts, bolts and screws that hold a Sony television set together, or an RCA television now, for that matter, are metric,” said Alan S. Whelihan, acting director of the Commerce Department’s four-person Office of Metric Programs.

The legislation also has a pair of loopholes: Government agencies must comply “to the extent economically feasible” and “except to the extent that such use is impractical or is likely to cause significant inefficiencies or loss of markets to United States firms, such as when foreign competitors are producing competing products in non-metric units.”

But opponents assume that zealous civil servants will apply the new law rigorously, giving the whole economy a strong push toward the metric system. “It’s going to have a rippling effect, which will turn into waves, which will turn into a tidal wave,” said Larry A. Stanley, president of Empire Bolt & Screw in Spokane, Wash. The 14-employee wholesaler would need extra warehouse space and computer capacity in order to stock and keep track of metric parts, he said.

Partly because of the loopholes, no one has been able to place a cost on the metric provision. The Congressional Budget Office, a federal agency that analyzes legislation before Congress, declined to make an estimate. Opponents have repeated their warning of the 1970s that conversion will require a large-scale retooling of American industry--such as Cardona’s purchase of new drill bits.

Yet wide segments of American industry--from car and computer makers to liquor and some soft-drink bottle producers--have already converted, and some argue that few new tools are needed on the factory floor or on the mechanic’s workbench.

“How many sets of wrenches do you have? I have two, and I think everybody else does now. . . . At this point, the only way to simplify things is to go the rest of the way,” said Jim Turner, counsel to a subcommittee of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology.

The advent of inexpensive desk computers and hand calculators may ultimately prove the biggest boon in easing the country’s conversion to the metric system. Computer-aided design and manufacturing systems, for example, can automatically convert measurements.

“They’ll . . . (turn) out a blueprint in the metric system; push another button, and it’ll roll it out in the English system,” said Antonio J. Perez, training manager at Rexnord Corp., a large producer of power transmission equipment in Brookfield, Wis. “Fifteen or 20 years ago, when people were thinking about this, everything had to be done by slide rules.”

In the meantime, as the nation straddles two measurement systems without committing to either, some firms do metric work without embracing the mathematical logic behind the system.

“We just convert the metric to the English system,” said J. C. (Chick) Ertel IV, vice president of Ertel Manufacturing, an Indianapolis maker of car and truck parts. “If the thing is supposed to be 2.54 centimeters, we just convert back to 1 inch and set the machines. . . . You have to be careful to carry the conversion out far enough so you don’t round off a number you need.”


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