Forbes has run an interesting article outlining why the manufacturing boom in China may soon end, and how the U.S. manufacturing industry will experience a rebirth. The agent of change: robots.
Vivek Vadhwa reasons that these are not simple robots that do menial tasks like assembly. These run on artificial intelligence, and can already produce the desired products from raw materials using 3D printing technologies. So-called “additive manufacturing” enables future robots to create products from scratch, using powdered metal, plastic droplets and other raw materials to “print” something.
This means that cheap labor may not necessarily be the competitive advantage in the future. China has had its share of advancements in this industry, given its lower cost of production and agile manufacturing processes. But once machines themselves gain intelligence and the ability to create, then manufacturing industries can come back to countries like the U.S.
Further, future materials will be stronger, lighter and more energy-efficient than those that are used in today’s manufactured goods. This can be made possible through nanotechnology. This field of science and engineering has already made its way into some of today’s technologies (especially medicine). Nanotubes, ceramic-matrix nanocomposites and new carbon fibers will soon find their way into everyday products.
Of course, this does not necessarily answer the issue about jobs. Americans in manufacturing can still lose jobs. While they would no longer lose jobs to the Chinese, they’ll be replaced by robots. It’s a matter of changing skill sets and talents. Instead of focusing on manufacturing, the educational system can perhaps focus on designing and building the products that will manufacture other end-products.
So China has many reasons to worry, and manufacturing will undoubtedly return to the U.S.—if not in this decade then early in the next. But the same jobs that left the U.S. won’t come back: they won’t exist. What will the new jobs be? We can only guess.
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