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?
@anadvy I did not realise inflation would have such a huge impact. It is also surprising that the effect of inflation is strong enough to justify the initial investment needed to utilise 1 million robots. As I do not have solid figures to provide on this kind of investment, I cannot provide a comparison on this but I cannot see how it all adds up.
This is a very interesting point of view. While I can see many possibilites from these ideas and innovations, I don't see how it will create jobs. It will bring manufacturing back stateside, but it will limit the amount of workers involved. I guess if we go by volume, even if 1 company produces a few hundred jobs, hundreds of companies should create thousands of jobs. And that is better than no jobs at all.
What impact will these new technologies have on electronics?
@Tam, thanks for the interesting post. I think the new molecular materials will have significant impact on the electronics industry. Advances in nanotechnology and materials science will help us build smaller transistors with low-leakage.
The oher thing I found interesting was why would anyone want to replace a cheap labour force with an army of specialised robots?
@Cryptoman, the reason is Inflation. Inflation in china has gone up substantially and there is nothing called cheap labour force now. Cost of maintaining the labour force is significantly higher than cost of maintaining the robots.
I do not really feel these technologies could have any sort of immediate effect to bring the manufacturing back to USA. But I really admire the way wadhwa thinks about all this. Is America manufacturing is really blooming?
I cannot see how all this is related to electronics either. Maybe the plastic toy industry (that specifically designs 15 cm x 15 cm x 15 cm toys) will get a hit in China due to the cheap 3D printers but that's about it.
The oher thing I found interesting was why would anyone want to replace a cheap labour force with an army of specialised robots? This sounds like false economy to me. My guess is the maintenance and running cost of one million robots will probably be much higher than employing one million unskilled workers in China (not to mention the huge one off costs one million robots will bring). When you average all the costs over 10 years, I have a feeling that employing real people will work out to be cheaper in China.
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