The U.S. apparel industry says it took a major step in strengthening its position against foreign imports this week with the opening of a multimillion- dollar national high-technology center in Raleigh, N.C.

With this technology, American companies can manufacture a quality product, competitively priced, with quicker turnaround than an overseas plant, said William Klopman, former chairman of Burlington Industries and executive director of the center.The center was founded in 1987 and is funded by the Textile/Clothing Technology Corp. - a coalition of textile, fiber and apparel manufacturers - the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union and the federal government.

More than 75 corporations contribute to Textile/Clothing Technology Corp., which is popularly called (TC)2 - pronounced TC-squared.

North Carolina State University and its College of Textiles host the center, which is a combination laboratory, demonstration manufacturing operation and classroom.

The center is equipped with over 60 pieces of apparel manufacturing equipment, valued at over $2 million. The center's 30 employees use the equipment three days a week to manufacture trousers.

Member companies use the facilities the remaining two days of the workweek to run their own experiments and learn about the latest systems and equipment.

This is the only place in the world where apparel companies have an opportunity to both observe and utilize the latest equipment and production systems operating together under commercial manufacturing conditions, said Joseph W.A. Off, managing director of the center.

Equipment includes the latest CAD systems for both apparel and machine design, automated spreading and cutting systems and programmable sewing. The center expects to bring in robots, controlled by vision systems, and feeding automated sewing machines in the near future.

Although most of the equipment installed at the center is available commercially, only about 15 percent of apparel plants in the United States use this type of machinery, Mr. Off said.

A goal of the center is to help apparel manufacturers understand the impact advanced technology can have on productivity and profitability, he said. Much of the emphasis, therefore, is on systems that handle the materials more efficiently, reduce in-house inventory and cut the time needed to complete a garment.

The center also will provide three- to six-month training programs to assist the industry in developing a new generation of managers more accustomed to operating within a high-technology production environment, center officials said.

The establishment of the center is part of the effort by the U.S. soft goods industry to strengthen its competitive position vs. imported goods.

This industry needs to take full advantage of its location in the middle of the world's largest apparel market, says James F. Kearns, president of Textile/Clothing Technology Corp. and group vice president of the E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co. Textile Fibers Department.

A business strategy known as Quick Response is helping us do just that by shortening the pipeline from fiber producer to consumer, he said.

The new center will help apparel manufacturers evaluate the equipment and computer technology needed to participate profitably in the quick-response strategy, he said.

The U.S. apparel industry is one of the country's largest employers, accounting for some 1.2 million jobs.

New York and California have the most jobs with 127,000 and 113,000 respectively. They are followed by North Carolina with 89,000.

In the last four years the number of jobs in the apparel industry has dropped by 70,000, a phenomenon the industry attributes to overseas sourcing.