The decline of manufacturing jobs due to automation and the growth of outsourcing may paint a dire picture of the future American workforce, but as we’ve noted before, innovation offers the potential for substantial upside as well. The Economist points to some of that promise:
Ask a factory today to make you a single hammer to your own design and you will be presented with a bill for thousands of dollars. The makers would have to produce a mould, cast the head, machine it to a suitable finish, turn a wooden handle and then assemble the parts. To do that for one hammer would be prohibitively expensive. If you are producing thousands of hammers, each one of them will be much cheaper, thanks to economies of scale. For a 3D printer, though, economies of scale matter much less. Its software can be endlessly tweaked and it can make just about anything. The cost of setting up the machine is the same whether it makes one thing or as many things as can fit inside the machine; like a two-dimensional office printer that pushes out one letter or many different ones until the ink cartridge and paper need replacing, it will keep going, at about the same cost for each item. […]The wheel is almost coming full circle, turning away from mass manufacturing and towards much more individualised production. And that in turn could bring some of the jobs back to rich countries that long ago lost them to the emerging world.
New technologies like 3D Printers and the others mentioned by the Economist could make it economical once again to produce customized, individual products much like craftsmen and cottage industries did before the Industrial Revolution. Also, by reducing labor’s share in the cost of production, these technologies could move factories back to rich countries, where they can react to changes in the domestic market more quickly than they could offshore.The factories of the future will look very different from what we’ve become accustomed to, but they will be better: cheaper, faster, and more customizable to the needs of a rapidly-changing economy. And many of them will be built right here in the U.S. Declinist naysayers take note: rumors of the demise of American manufacturing have been greatly exaggerated.