After years under wraps in nuclear-weapons labs and private industry, the supercomputer, crunching a blistering 500 million numbers a second, is surfacing at U.S. universities, where professors say it could radically alter American industrial competitiveness in the 21st century.

Although a state-of-the-art supercomputer is not scheduled to arrive here at the University of Illinois until summer, enthusiasm for the ultrafast calculating machines is as high on this science-oriented campus as anywhere in the nation.

Few Illini scientists have experience on the new computers, but state officials and educators already consider them indispensable to hopes of reviving the Rust Belt's beleaguered economy.

"We can survive only if we compete more effectively, becoming more productive and efficient, and the supercomputer can help us do this," said physicist Larry L. Smarr, a leader among young scientists spearheading a costly nationwide effort to bring supercomputers to campuses.

Smarr, 36, helped persuade the National Science Foundation to earmark $200 million early this year to establish supercomputer centers here and at Cornell University, Princeton University and the University of California at San Diego. Linked by satellite for rapid information exchange, the centers will apply the supercomputers to such vital but time-consuming industrial research as metallurgical analysis, fluid dynamics, materials stress, bioengineering and three-dimensional design.

The new facilities also will conduct pure scientific research, including subatomic physics, astrophysics, molecular structural analysis, geophysics and computer modeling of weather systems.

Computers operate by breaking problems down into a set of smaller problems. A regular computer treats those problems as a series, solving them one at a time. A supercomputer solves many problems simultaneously, dramatically reducing the time involved in calculations.

Nearly a dozen universities or college consortia are using or buying supercomputers. These include Purdue University, the University of Texas, Colorado State University, the University of Georgia and the University of Minnesota. Just five years ago, the exotic machines were virtually unknown outside government-run weapons-research programs or major oil firms, where they are used to analyze geological data.

Smarr and other scientist-administrators make dazzling predictions about the centers' impact on industrial innovation and development. They foresee communities of theoreticians, engineers and programmers from many different academic and industrial disciplines gathering at the high-speed processing centers to exchange information on how to best use the supercomputers to speed industrial change.

The supercomputers' power, they say, is so much greater than anything previously available that there may be revolutionary changes in the time needed to design and produce such items as cars, airplanes, power tools, even computers.

"These tools are crucial to building new industry, providing new jobs, better jobs for thousands of people," Smarr said. "In a car, for example, safety, airflow, weight, comfort, fuel economy -- all can be simulated by these machines. In the old days, it could take three months to build a clay scale model of a new car and test it in a wind tunnel. But a supercomputer can do 15 different models in a single week. That means fantastically improved efficiency."

Thomas Putnam, manager of computer-user services at Purdue, said that by learning to use Purdue's two-year-old CDC Cyber-205 supermachine, biologists have reduced from six weeks to one hour the time needed to model the structure of a simple vegetable virus.

Such feats are possible because supercomputers, depending upon what tasks are to be accomplished, process information up to 20 times faster than the largest mainframe computers now in use.

Most of the machines are built by Cray Research Inc. of Chippewa Falls, Wis., and Control Data Corp. (CDC) of Minneapolis. Their cost, which can exceed $20 million, has sharply limited their use to well-heeled federal or private agencies.

Once the University of Illinois' $20 million Cray X-MP model is installed, in a nondescript building on Springfield Avenue in the heart of the campus, Smarr's National Center for Supercomputing Applications is likely to become a mecca for some of the nation's best programmers.

Already, according to George Badger, director of Illini computer services, more than 200 programmers around the country have asked him about jobs. The university plans to add only 35 full-time professionals to help run the X-MP, but that is just a start.

"We are going to produce better grad students by training them in using this new tool," Badger said. "For the first time, supercomputers are being put in very wide-open environments that will encourage interaction across many scientific disciplines.

"There will be experimenting with a lot of new ideas, and this will have a very important effect on the general technology of the country. Grad students will be able to experiment in many ways, and that will encourage their professors to learn about these new machines as well. As people become more familiar, the number of applications will increase.

"If we are going to attract high tech to the Midwest, we must have a high-tech work force," Badger said.

"These computers can do a very good simulation of a structure crushing into a wall," said Tom Walsh, head of the University of Minnesota's supercomputer operation. "Soon, it will be possible to do an auto crash solely by computer. This in turn makes it possible, in principle, to set up a design bureau, from top to bottom, to simulate car crashes."

The knowledge gained will result in better, safer design at lower cost, he said.

"There is a growing demand for engineers to learn how to use this machine as a daily tool. They won't be productive if they don't know their way around it," Walsh said. "If you look around the Twin Cities Minneapolis-St. Paul , you will see how it reached a point that new technology began creating new jobs. I think this probably will happen with the new supercomputer centers."

Midwestern states have staked millions in the supercomputer effort. Indiana pledged $8 million to bring the machine to Purdue. Illinois Gov. James R. Thompson (R) has backed the state university with more than $10 million in direct state aid.

Thompson intervened personally to persuade Smarr's colleague, David J. Kuck, to stay in Champaign to found a supercomputer center devoted to the design of Fifth-Generation computers, machines with so much speed and power that they could be said to have synthetic powers of thinking: artificial intelligence.