About 15 years ago, a British scientific journal published the first article that anyone can remember about an exciting new idea: automobile engines, the article reported, could be made out of ceramic material instead of metal. Such lightweight, thermal-efficient ceramic engines would have stunning advantages, especially a 30 percent reduction in fuel consumption. And the engine itself would practically never wear out.

No one in the West--certainly no one in Great Britain--considered this more than a pipe dream. But--you guessed it--the article on ceramic engines came to the attention of the Japanese government and Japanese businessmen, who carefully scan all technical literature published everywhere.

The potential for ceramics was only one phase of $460 million in R&D money the Japanese government committed for a 10-year exploration of new industrial materials, biotechnology, and so- called "new function elements" in electronics.

So it happened that a few weeks ago on a visit to Japan to study how these new high-tech programs are coming along, Commerce Undersecretary Lionel H. Olmer drove the world's first car with a ceramic engine on the grounds of the KYOCERA Corp. (Kyoto Ceramics). "It's an experimental model and it idles sort of rough--but it works, that's the main point," Olmer told me.

KYOCERA already is commercially producing ceramic components for diesel engines. And Olmer says in a report on his trip, "It is anticipated that ceramic parts--including turbine blades--will be usable in ships and aircraft, eventually."

The experimental ceramic engine is a good example of why Olmer argues that American manufacturers trying to compete with Japan are dealing with "a moving target." Merely slapping quotas on Japanese cars for a fourth year (as Tokyo, under pressure from U.S. trade ambassador Bill Brock, has just agreed to do) is a pitiful Band-Aid for Detroit, which simply seems unable to meet Japan's creative challenge.

Olmer says in his excellent report--a public document available from the Commerce Department--that Japan concentrates on high technology because there is a bigger bang to the buck: success in high tech makes all Japanese industries more competitive.

Any company, especially one in Great Britain --where, God knows, something is needed to stir the country out of an economic quagmire--could have pursued the idea of a ceramic automotive engine. But it was a Japanese company that pressed ahead, its instinct for innovation importantly supported by government direction and money.

But Olmer makes the point that it would be a mistake to attribute these successes just to governmental spoon-feeding. The truth is that entrepreneurial skills of private management, the dedication of a non-confrontational labor force, and just plain common sense are also key factors.

Two examples Olmer cites:

Originally, an American company developed a kind of crane to lift airplane fuselages off the assembly line and twirl them in midair while the assembly crew carefully listens for rattles. That's what the Japanese do--and American makers don't--in assembling F15 fighter aircraft. Predictable results: Japanese-made F15s don't rattle.

A recent "time and motion" study in the United States shows that, typically, about 75 percent of a worker's time is spent looking for the right tools and parts, and only 25 percent at the actual assigned task. The Japanese have reversed these percentages--tripling actual work time--by providing each worker with a simple plywood cart in which he neatly stores all of his tools and parts. He doesn't go off the shift until that is done.

What are the lessons here? The West has scoffed at the Japanese as imitators of Western technology. But Olmer quotes Edison's definition of genius--99 percent perspiration and one percent inspiration--to suggest that Japan's special creativity is "incremental improvement," which is just as important as "a blinding flash of insight."

The reality is that the Japanese have become either preeminent or equally eminent in many high-technology fields, including ceramics, carbon fibers, robotics, computers, semiconductors and machine tools. To a substantial degree, Japan has benefited from a transfer of technology from the West, and often has been more alert to the potential of an invention than the inventors.

Now, some of the transfers must go in the reverse direction. Just how this is to be worked out will have an important bearing on the economic development of the non-communist world for the rest of the century.