If you talk to Richard Studer, you'll get a good picture of the economy's dispiriting present -- and also its brighter future. Studer runs an Ohio company that produces plastics-making machinery. Business is down, and the company has laid off 100 of its 800 workers. The bright spot is exports. They're up and represent about 15 percent of orders. There's the future: the U.S. economy should soon emerge as a powerful export machine.

Remember the chatter about us becoming a nation of hamburger flippers? The idea was always outlandish, but now the economy is moving in just the opposite direction. It's shifting from growth led by the service sector to growth led by rising exports. Service industries that overexpanded in the 1980s -- real estate, banking and retailing -- are retrenching, while the dropping dollar should spur exports. The change is one reason why the economy is teetering on the edge of a recession.

The bad news is that the service slump is currently overwhelming export expansion. In the past year, the economy has grown a meager 1.1 percent. That hasn't been fast enough to prevent rising joblessness. The unemployment rate in September was 5.7 percent, up from 5.3 percent a year earlier. Many economists now expect a recession, which is typically defined as at least six months of declining output.

The good news is that any recession may be cushioned by the effects of a lower dollar. Since 1985 -- when it reached its recent high -- the dollar has declined roughly 50 percent against other major currencies. Consider the impact on Studer's machinery. Among them are extruders, which can make everything from plastic pipes to drinking straws. The least expensive extruder costs $25,000. With today's exchange rate of about 1.5 deutsche marks (DM) to the dollar, that machine costs 37,500 DM in Germany (plus transportation). But in 1985, the exchange rate was nearly 3.4 DM to the dollar. A $25,000 machine then cost roughly 85,000 DM.

Wham! The dollar's depreciation makes U.S. manufactured goods enormously competitive in world markets. The export boom has already begun. Between 1985 and 1989, exports jumped from $219 billion to $364 billion. But the boom has stalled in 1990, because the dollar's exchange rate rose somewhat last year. The dollar's recent decline reverses that trend and restores the price competitiveness of U.S. exports. In a poll, the National Association of Manufacturers found that 52 percent of executives expect higher exports in 1991; only 10 percent expect lower.

The trade deficit, now running at about $100 billion annually, should drop. Economist William Cline of the Institute for International Economics in Washington thinks it could vanish by 1995. Not only should exports rise, but imports won't be as competitive. Studer already notices the change: "The Germans in particular . . . {are} not as aggressive in pursuing orders."

The idea of welcoming a weaker currency may seem subversive. A cheaper dollar isn't all sweetness. Traveling abroad is costlier for Americans, while visiting the United States is less expensive for foreigners. In 1989, foreigners spent more in the United States ($44.5 billion) than Americans spent abroad ($43.5 billion) for the first time since World War II. More fundamental, the decline in our trade deficit will increasingly force us to live within our means.

What has allowed us to live beyond our means is the dollar's role as the main global money used for trade and international investment. We buy imports with our own currency, and foreigners often hold the dollars rather than sell them for DM, yen or francs. In the early 1980s, foreign demand for U.S. investments (stocks, bonds, real estate and companies) was so great that the dollar's value rose sharply. It is this rise, which fostered the trade deficit by putting U.S. manufacturers at a competitive disadvantage, that is now being reversed.

The dollar's drop signifies that, on foreign exchange markets, there's more pressure to sell than buy. Our trade deficit means that we're still spending much more abroad than we're earning. Overseas investors have satisfied much of their appetite for U.S. investments. The narrowing of the gap between U.S. and foreign interest rates has also reduced the lure of American securities.

In 1984, a U.S. Treasury bond paid a 12.5 percent interest rate and a comparable German bond paid 8 percent. By August 1990, the U.S. and German rates were nearly equal at about 9 percent. American and Japanese rates have also moved closer. The costs of reunification have pushed up German interest rates, and Japan raised rates to dampen land and stock speculation. Increasingly, the DM and yen serve as global currencies. Investors don't automatically want to hold dollars.

Predicting exchange rates is notoriously risky, but the dollar could drift lower. Economist Nicholas Sargen of Salomon Brothers, the investment banking firm, thinks the dollar could hit 1.4 DM and 110 to 115 yen by mid-1991. (A dollar now equals about 129 yen, down from about 260 in early 1985.) A further decline, as long as it doesn't happen too fast, is not especially dangerous.

Just what happens to the economy now is anyone's guess. The outcome of the Persian Gulf crisis could quickly change things for better or worse. What's less murky is the connection between the health of the U.S. economy and foreign economies. The severity of any U.S. recession will depend heavily on what happens in Europe and Asia. Slumps overseas that cut demand for our exports would compound the damage. A spasm of foreign protectionism could also hurt us. One message here is not to fight the U.S. slowdown with protectionism. If it prompted retaliation (as seems likely), it would do more harm than good.

A dropping dollar is not an economic panacea. It merely gives U.S. producers a price edge in international markets. But price isn't everything. There's also product quality and reliability, aggressive salesmanship and good service. In the 1990s, American industry will have an opportunity to create its own brighter future. Whether the opportunity is seized or squandered depends on the country's Richard Studers.