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.