The ``millennium bug'' could be the greatest fictitious insect since Dr. Doolittle's giant lunar moth.
Or, it could be one of the greatest technological disasters in world history.
Most prudent companies aren't willing to take that chance, and as a result many already have begun to look at how to prevent a computer system meltdown on Jan. 1, 2000.
The reason is familiar to most: Computer code writers in the 1960s and '70s were looking to save a little time and energy, so they cut a corner by making computer date codes represent years only two digits long. For example, 1997 in computer-speak is simply 97.
But how will the computer tell the difference between that 97 and 2097? Or the difference between 2000 and 1900?
The result could be that just about any device powered by a computer — including cars, elevators, aircraft and telephone switches — could go haywire when the calendar rolls over.
Beyond the potential for real disaster, firms have plenty of mundane ramifications to worry about. Billing departments need to make sure the bug doesn't scramble the past-due accounts with the blue-chip customers. Quality control divisions must ensure that statistical process control data isn't jumbled into unusable muck.
Many companies are scrambling already — two years in advance — to take care of the potential problem. Larger companies are dispatching in-house computer specialists to investigate their systems. Others are hiring would-be Dilberts as consultants to exterminate the bugs. The Big Three car companies are demanding that their suppliers deal with the millennium bug now to make sure that precious supply schedules aren't disrupted later.
Most small plastics processors aren't in the habit of throwing money at problems, so here are some common-sense approaches to the millennium bug:
Contact your key plastics machinery and software suppliers early to make sure your equipment and process controls are millennium-compatible. These firms have experts on staff who have looked at the issue. But you can be sure that, as the deadline approaches, they'll be busy.
Remember that computer systems have a sneaky way of becoming obsolete very quickly. Keep in mind that the equipment you're using now may be one or two generations removed from what you'll have in late 1999. Most equipment that you buy today and in the future should be millennium-compatible.
If you're not sure if a program can handle 2000, take some time now to run a simple diagnostic test: After backing up all the important files, go into the computer's clock on a Friday afternoon and change the time to Dec. 31, 1999. If it handles the change and performs regularly Saturday morning, you're probably OK.
If not — well, get out your checkbook.