Tuesday, September 11, 2012

In Which We Tell Manufacturing’s Future

By Matt Tester, Project Manager.

Have you heard? Manufacturing is the future. No wait, it’s the past. It’s definitely still going to China. Oops, I mean it’s coming back to the U.S. Well, only high-tech producers can make it here. That is, unless it’s a product with a short shelf life. Yeah, but…you see…it’s…well…uhh…impossible to bottle in a sound bite.

Let me now shock you with the revelation that no grand, unified prediction for manufacturing is forthcoming – this post will disappoint those devoted readers (Mom?) who bought the title. The enigma that is manufacturing in the American economic landscape has too many facets and too many caveats for a single theory. Instead, let me just point you toward some of the most interesting developments shaking up the sector:

Robots! My colleague Ellen Cutter has already blogged about this one, but it’s one of those stories that seems like it could change everything. There is a new breed of robots being installed in factories and warehouses all over the country, and they are so fast, precise, and versatile that human skills are being encroached upon at an unprecedented pace. Increased automation could play to an American competitive advantage in the sector, but it could also marginalize factory workers without advanced degrees. Naturally, experts disagree on the limitations of robotics and the prognosis for the American industrial worker, but none are ignoring the ascension of new robotics.

Story: Skilled Work, Without the Worker (The New York Times)

Solar Panels! After the high-profile bankruptcy in 2011 of Solyndra and a flurry of articles on the downturn in solar panel production, the future of the industry in the U.S. has seemed dismal. Low-cost Chinese competitors have been dominating the market, crippling many American and European companies. However, the winds may be changing. Accusing China of selling subsidized solar panels below the cost of production (“dumping”), American and European governments are moving to level the playing field – imposing antidumping and anti-subsidy tariffs on Chinese solar panels. Recent evidence suggests that Chinese competitors cannot sustain high volume, low-cost production indefinitely – China’s largest solar panel manufacturers are struggling, with some reporting a loss in the most recent quarter. As costs rise and solar installations continue at an unprecedented pace, American companies may be the beneficiaries.

Story: U.S. Slaps High Tariffs on Chinese Solar Panels (The New York Times)

Story: U.S. Solar Installs More Than Doubled in Second Quarter (Bloomberg Businessweek)

Printed Cars! Since happening upon an article in the Economist earlier this year on disruptive potential of “additive manufacturing,” I’ve been keeping an eye on this emerging field. Additive manufacturing, also known as 3D printing, is a process that uses a materials printer to make three dimensional objects. As in, using a machine to print your stapler. The capabilities of 3D printers have rapidly expanded over the last twenty years, and the technology seems to be moving closer and closer to large-scale production facilities. The potential applications are almost limitless. Both the White House and the Department of Defense have taken notice, and jointly launched the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute last month. If you’re looking for innovation, keep your eyes on this field.