LOUISVILLE -- The large, boxlike buildings that dominate the landscape at General Electric Co.'s sprawling Appliance Park here appear to be a monument to America's industrial past. There is little that suggests the future.

Inside is another world. A world of multimillion-dollar robotics, ergonomically designed work stations and employe study halls. GE calls it the factory of the future and the company is counting on a $1 billion, five-year investment in new technology to significantly increase its market share in the highly competitive business of building and selling refrigerators.

Five years ago, in what was also billed as a factory of the future, GE automated much of its dishwasher production facility in another part of the complex and managed to increase its share of the market from 30 percent to slightly more than 40 percent.

Unlike the dishwasher plant, which only involved islands of automation in the production process, the new refrigerator facility is automated from one end to the other.

GE Senior Vice President Roger Schipke said that with the new plant "we are establishing ourselves at the leading edge of manufacturing technology and technique... . We are beginning to turn around classic smokestack America."

GE's efforts here underscore a fundamental change that is taking place in labor-management relations in the nation's basic manufacturing industries as they are faced with new competition at home and abroad.

In the case of GE, the competition is at home. There is no serious global competition in the refrigerator business because of cultural differences. In the United States, for example, the average refrigerator size is 17 cubic feet, while the average size in Japan is 10 cubic feet and in Europe 12 cubic feet. The size differences reflect differences in living space and shopping patterns.

In the United States there are only four refrigerator makers -- GE, White Consolidated Industries, Whirlpool Corp. and Maytag Co. -- and the competition for market share is fierce. This has forced major plant consolidations, automation and work place changes in all the companies. The new GE plant is an example of that change.

The need to increase productivity has become the driving force in most manufacturing industries whether the competition is domestic or foreign. The changes that are taking place come after corporations have been forced to make sharp cuts in their work force.

At Appliance Park, for example, blue collar employment has dropped from about 19,000 workers a little more than a decade ago to 10,000 today. That shift has been mirrored in other industries as they have restructured to compete. Ford Motor Co., for example, had reduced its hourly work force by nearly 50 percent before negotiating a new contract with the United Auto Workers union that provides major work-rule changes in exchange for job security.

But few manufacturing plants are as automated as GE's new refrigerator line. And the changes here are a model for other industries. GE's first goal was to replace people with machines wherever possible. "Where it just doesn't make economic sense {to automate} we will have a manual position," said plant operations manager Don Kelley.

Thomas Dunham, vice president and general manager of the Appliance Park production facilities, said the goal was to "improve quality and reduce costs through better productivity." To accomplish this, he said, the company had to make changes in the manufacturing process and make "new arrangements" with the people on the factory floor.

Many of the arrangements have been taking place in other industries. At Appliance Park, the company, working with Local 761 of the International Union of Electrical Workers union, reduced the number of job classifications from four -- with numerous subclassifications -- to two: maintenance worker and production worker. The goal was to allow a worker to perform many different tasks. No one has to call an electrician to change a light bulb.

The most significant change, however, is in the attitudes of labor and management toward each other. The new refrigerator operation involves unprecedented cooperation between GE and its union in a plant that for years had been one of the company's most contentious labor-management war zones. Until the 1970s, labor relations at GE were considered among the worst in the nation.

"The basic adversarial feeling is gone," said a GE official with long experience at the plant. "In fact, things have gone so well, we're both a little nervous about talking about it."

Company officials acknowledge that a lot of the pressure to cooperate comes from the fear of unemployment. In addition to the enormous job loss at Appliance Park, the Louisville area in general has been hard hit by job losses at such companies as Navistar International Corp., Ford and the tobacco and liquor companies. "A lot of people talk about the impact of global competition, but the people here at River City have seen it," a GE official said.

The change in attitudes is not confined to the union. GE has also changed its ways.

"We need leadership as opposed to managing. Anyone can manage with power," Dunham said of the changes management must make.

Dunham said the company has learned to tap the resources of the work force in meeting the challenges of competition. "There's a tremendous amount of untapped mind power on the factory floor," he said. "People want to improve their basic skills, and given the opportunity they will absolutely amaze you."

Kelley, who may be the closest to the plant floor work force in the new refrigerator operation, summed up the change in management attitude during a tour of the automated line: "I find that if you treat the people right they'll treat you right," he said. He indicated there were still managers at GE who still were not sure about that approach.

Kelley meets with small groups of employes every month for an hour and a half during the work day to talk about the company, changes in the marketplace and other factors that effect GE's operations in Louisville. Half the time, he said, is devoted to answering questions.

Schipke, who has overall charge of the plant, said GE's goal was to "push authority downward." This means that more and more of the responsibilities for operating the plant are going to rest with the hourly worker -- another trend taking place throughout the manufacturing sector.

Nowhere is that more evident than in the four cords that dangle beside each work station with red, green, black or yellow handles. With a tug of a cord, any worker can stop, start or slow his or her portion of the production line. With a pull on the red handle the entire operation shuts down. This is something the company would not have risked in the past.

With the new authority to control the pace of production, however, there is a slow evolution in the way hourly wage earners are being led back to piece work. With the introduction of the assembly line in the early part of the century, America manufacturers were able to control the pace of production by controlling the speed of the assembly line.

With the pace of production now at least partially under the control of the factory worker, a different system of compensation had to be worked out.

Pay for workers on the new refrigerator line will be determined by how many units are produced during a shift. The eventual piece work rate will apply to all workers on the same shift.

Another major change in the GE operation that is being repeated throughout the basic manufacturing industries is an emphasis on training and continuing education. As part of its new production facility, the company has invested $15 million in a state-of-the-art Employee Development Center right on the factory floor.

The training center has classrooms complete with taping facilities that allow employes to review classroom instruction anytime they want. In addition, there are numerous cubicles that workers can use for studying on their own.

GE officials said production workers in the refrigerator operation have logged more than 150,000 hours of study on their own time since the center opened in February 1986.

The need to retrain its semiskilled workers has forced a change in another cornerstone of union contracts: seniority.

Like many manufacturing companies in the United States, the work force at Appliance Park is largely made up of older workers -- those who had enough seniority to protect themselves against layoffs. The lowest seniority at the plant is 10 years' service. When a job opens up it is awarded on a seniority basis.

But not all workers have the ability to learn the new skills needed for their new jobs. In these cases seniority rules can be a major impediment to assembling a work force with enough skills to deal with changing new technology. At GE, employes must pass a basic skills test before they can work in the new production facilities. If a worker with seniority cannot pass the basic test someone with less seniority can be awarded the job.

GE officials minimize the impact of the testing. "I don't think the skill level required is so hard," said one official. "It's not as though only two out of 10 can pass it."

One of the keys to GE's ability to win cooperation from its work force has been its ability to expand its share of the appliance market so it can automate without a permanent loss of jobs.

The real test of that is yet to come. The introduction of new technology in the dishwasher facility coincided with an unparalleled economic expansion in an industry that is extremely sensitive to interest rates and housing sales. As a result there has been no overall loss of jobs.

But rising interest rates and slumping home sales could result in the first real look at the impact of automation on jobs at the two facilities.