Supported by groups ranging from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to the Wood Heating Alliance, Democrats and Republicans joined forces on Capitol Hill last month to overturn all of the Reagan administration's proposed budget cuts in the basic research activities of the Commerce Department's National Bureau of Standards.
The cuts threatened the jobs of more than 300 employes, 70 percent of the research on computer efficiency being performed at the Institute for Computer Sciences and all of the funds for the Center for Fire Research and Center for Building Technology.
At one Senate hearing, NBS Director Ernest Ambler tried to point out diplomatically that the cuts could threaten savings that might be realized through state-of-the-art technological advances.
When asked at one point what would happen if the agency had to rely on other federal agencies rather than Congress for funds for fire research, Ambler replied, "I have always maintained that this is a very difficult, perhaps even a dangerous, thing to do. If you do not have your own flexibility and in-house research base, you can very quickly become a job shop and I do not think the Bureau of Standards should become a job shop."
Replied committee Chairman Slade Gorton (R-Wash.): "That is the kind of answer I was looking for . . . ." BACK IN THE JOB SHOP . . . For every $100 the Congress appropriates for the bureau in fiscal 1983, federal agencies will contribute an estimated $61.70 for special research. The Energy Department will provide the most, followed by the Navy and Air Force. One project now under way for Treasury's Bureau of Engraving and Printing involves developing perforated plates to punch holes in sheets of commemorative stamps.
The wastebasket-sized curved rollers used to take three years to order and were hand-crafted in Italy for $700,000 each. But since NBS wrote a computer program and developed standards for pressure on the hole-punch, the products can be ordered in less than a month from domestic manufacturers for $70,000 each. US VS. THEM . . . Each day, 377 scientists and researchers from private companies go to work at the bureau's Gaithersburg headquarters. The major reason for the cooperation, says deputy director John W. Lyons, is the quest for a competitive edge internationally.
"The trend in Japan is to unman factories and a lot of the Japanese manufacturing systems are made by one supplier," said Lyons. Here "people would prefer to deal with different suppliers offering competitive products. That leaves us with the task of setting standards to hook together these unmanned robot systems."
To meet part of that challenge, Dr. John Simpson, director of the Center for Manufacturing Engineering, is setting up what he and his colleagues consider to be the world's most intricate automated manufacturing plant: a system that weds an automated cart, an $80,000 robot arm and a $170,000 horizontal milling machine to an experimental computer.
Because each piece of machinery is made with proprietary information from different companies, Simpson says, "there is no one who can cut through and say, 'let's standardize these machines.' " That's when the bureau steps in to create standards for machines so that they can talk to each other.
By October, Simpson said, an electronic "vision" system will be added to allow the robot arm to distinguish different types of blocks. "The factory of the future is going to look a lot like a computer room of today--but with muscles," he said.
In other projects with the private sector, the NBS is:
Working with the American Dental Association Health Foundation to develop a bonding compound that would allow dentists to fill cavities without having to drill as deeply as they now must do.
Working with the National Association of Corrosion Engineers to create an alloy that resists corrosion. If the effort is successful, roads, bridges and buildings would need less structural support and presumably would need less repair work in the future.