If recent moves by a few companies lead to a resurgence of manufacturing in the US, it won't necessarily be patriotism -- or even rising Chinese labor costs -- that drives the trend. (See: Is Outsourcing Losing Its Appeal?) The main factor will be innovative US technology.
That's the opinion that Vivek Wadhwa, a former software entrepreneur turned academic and pundit, lays out in a recent piece in Foreign Policy magazine. "Technical advances will soon lead to the same hollowing out of China's manufacturing industry that they have to US industry over the past two decades," Wadhwa wrote. He holds a ridiculous number of positions at places like Stanford, Duke, Emory, and Silicon Valley's Singularity University. Oh, and he seems to live on Twitter. Let's just say he's not shy about expressing his opinions.
In the Foreign Policy piece, Wadhwa ticks off these enabling technologies.
- Robotics: A new generation of robots will undercut Chinese labor costs. Wadhwa notes that Foxconn Electronics Inc. announced plans last year to replace some of its low-cost Chinese workers with 1 million robots. (In the United States, Amazon, for example, has started using robots in its warehouses.)
- Artificial intelligence: AI is helping Google develop a self-driving car. The iPhone's Siri is based on AI. One of Wadhwa's colleagues at Singularity University, Neil Jacobstein, told him that AI is going to revolutionize manufacturing, because we'll be able to design and build our own products at home.
- 3D printing: Through a process called additive manufacturing, printers can lay down successive layers of materials, including powdered metal and liquefied plastic, to print a solid object (in three dimensions) just as you would print a document. Costs are coming down fast -- 3D printers can be had for $500 to $1,000 -- and by 2020, 3D printers will be doing small-scale manufacturing of previously labor-intensive crafts and goods, Wadhwa wrote. We might even see the emergence of a Kinkos for 3D printing. You could go to your corner store and print out a new toy for your child, for example. "Why would we ship raw materials all the way to China and then ship completed products back to the United States when they can be manufactured more cheaply locally, on demand?"
- New molecular materials: Advances in nanotechnology and materials science are leading to the creation of new types of materials, including carbon nanotubes and ceramic-matrix nanocomposites. Wadhwa predicts that the emerging field of molecular manufacturing will produce ways to manipulate individual molecules easily and inexpensively, just as the electronics revolution enabled us to manipulate bits of information.
He makes some interesting points, but do they apply to the electronics industry? Board manufacturers have been using robotic pick-and-place machines for years. And it's hard to imagine a 3D printer could make the circuitry that goes into many children's toys, much less our other gadgets.
"All of these advances play well into America's ability to innovate, demolish old industries, and continually reinvent itself," Wadhwa wrote. "The Chinese are still busy copying technologies we built over the past few decades. They haven't cracked the nut on how to innovate yet."
What do you think? What impact will these new technologies have on electronics?