The Commerce Department said yesterday it will sponsor three cooperative research centers with industry to seek breakthroughs in important manufacturing technology.

The program, announced by Commerce Secretary Philip M. Klutznick, is aimed at basic, long-range research targets that are too chancy or costly to interest most individual companies.

The research venture is much smaller than the Commerce Department had hoped for, with only $5.2 million set aside to start the three centers.

The department's plan was scaled down by the White House for budgetary reasons, but administration officials said it is a promising start in industry-government cooperation on research.

Klutznick called the programs announced today "but a beginning in the cooperative work that must continue among business, labor and government if we are to achieve the more productive, more competitive and more prosperous American economy that the administration envisions."

The centers will conduct research in:

Welding and joining. This critical process is used in a broad range of the industries that account for between one-fifth and one-quarter of all durable goods produced in the United States. Research would be directed at developing advanced automated robot welding, at improving materials and at preventing and detecting welding defects.

Lubrication and wear. Breakthroughs in reducing friction and wear will conserve energy, extend the life of machines and power-generating equipment, and permit advances in high-speed computer operations, Commerce officials said.

Powder-metal processing. This is a rapidly growing method for manufacturing automotive parts, business machine components, cutting tools and industrial equipment out of powdered metal rather than by stamping. Many of the firms using this technology are too small to support significant research ventures on their own, officials said. Advancements in powder metallury would reduce significantly the amount of metal scrap left over after stamping operations, they said.

The federal government will finance 80 percent of the initial costs of the centers, but its contribution gradually will shrink to 20 percent after five years, with the balance provided by industrial sponsors.

Each center will be a nonprofit organization governed by a board of directors elected by the participating private companies, which will determine specific research projects. The Commerce Department is seeking proposals from potential private company sponsors.