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The Formula for Kick-Starting U.S. Manufacturing Begins with Technology

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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New materials, 3-D printing and nano-scale fabrication are just some of the tools available to restore U.S. manufacturing prominence. Image courtesy of Ingram Publishing.

Much of what we buy in the U.S. is not made here, and hasn’t been for decades. If 2013 is any indication this could be changing, although the next generation of American manufacturing will differ greatly from its predecessor thanks to advanced technologies that rely on information rather than brawn.

Early in the year, President Obama alluded to a manufacturing revival in his 2013 State of the Union Address and backed up this reference with a $1.5 billion fiscal 2014 budget request to help the U.S. Department of Commerce spur the development of new approaches to manufacturing. (pdf) The administration had already committed $1 billion in fiscal 2013 to launch the National Network of Manufacturing Innovation, a group of up to 15 manufacturing research facilities across the country.

U.S. industry has likewise begun to reinvigorate its domestic manufacturing processes in recent years, after long outsourcing the work to cheaper labor in developing countries. But is the revival too late to  allow the U.S. to compete effectively with emerging manufacturing powerhouses in Europe and Asia, which in many cases enjoy trade surpluses despite paying their workers higher wages and investing more  in new technologies? William Bonvillian, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Washington office, poses this question and several others in a Policy Forum to be published Friday in Science.

A big problem, Bonvillian notes, is that U.S. innovation since World War II and the Cold War has focused mostly on early-stage research and development at the expense of investment in prototyping, demonstration, testing and production. The solution, he says, can be found  in a number of new technologies and inventive approaches to making things. Some of these include:

  • Making better use of information technology—including computers, radio-frequency ID tags and sensors to improve efficiency. Big data analytics also play a role here, along with advanced robotics, simulation and modeling.
  • Developing new materials that improve product strength and flexibility while reducing weight and production cost. This includes evolving new biomaterials through synthetic biology.
  • Fabricating at the nano scale and embedding nano-features into products to improve efficiency and performance.
  • Mass customizing products with the help of 3-D printing and other additive manufacturing processes. Additive manufacturing processes create 3-D objects based on a computer file by sequentially depositing thin layers of liquid or powdered metals, polymers or other materials on a substrate.
  • Leveraging advances in computing and networking to make product distribution more efficient. One advantage to making things domestically should be that they are easier and cheaper to deliver.
  • Reducing energy requirements throughout the manufacturing process via energy-efficient technology and processes.

Scientific American probed many of these issues in our May 2013 special report on the future of manufacturing and a subsequent Web-based in-depth report on the subject. We featured a new breed of robots designed to work in harmony with human laborers, advanced materials that change both the manufacturing process and the end result, and efforts to expand the use 3-D printers beyond their role as rapid-prototyping machines.

In the old way of thinking, a robot placed in a factory eliminated jobs once performed by humans. Looking ahead, companies should realize that workers are still needed to design, build and program that robot—and that humans can perform certain tasks more cost effectively. Similarly, computer software may streamline a supply chain, eliminating redundant workforce, but people are responsible for writing, testing and implementing that software.

Bonvillian likewise sees new approaches to manufacturing as sound investments central to growing the U.S. economy. The work required to bring production up to speed with traditionally strong investments in R&D will likely keep U.S. businesses busy for quite some time.

Larry Greenemeier About the Author: Larry Greenemeier is the associate editor of technology for Scientific American, covering a variety of tech-related topics, including biotech, computers, military tech, nanotech and robots. Follow on Twitter @lggreenemeier.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Arbeiter 8:57 pm 12/5/2013

    Managers cannot manage discovery, they can only manage to end it. Management obsesses on what is measurable instead of promoting what is important. Management kills the future, for the only trusted employee is one whose sole marketable asset is loyalty.

    “The R&D Function” Harvard Business Review 61(6) 195 (1983)

    30 years later, the crap level is rising as its bottom is dredged ever deeper.

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  2. 2. sault 11:02 am 12/6/2013

    We could also end our unwavering belief in the myth of “free” trade and realize that the lost jobs and trade deficits it produces outweigh the benefits. If a country pays slave wages, has unsafe working conditions, creates environmental disasters to make the products it exports, has a horrible human rights record and basically uses the trade surplus it garners from all the “free” trade it participates in to fund alarming military expansion (I’m looking at you, China), then tariffs should be slapped on their goods by the importing countries that want to do something to keep these problems from getting worse. Otherwise, all we’re doing is trading away good-paying manufacturing jobs for a bunch of cheap, plastic crap and all those economy-gutting WalMart stores that come along with the deal.

    Once investors realize that the developed world isn’t getting flooded with dumped products and that the unfair advantages of sweatshop labor are cancelled out, domestic manufacturing will take off in a big way.

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  3. 3. kfoelsch 12:35 pm 12/6/2013

    All these avenues seem like good things to pursue, but nowhere is the question answered, “What will make for a long term, sustainable advantage?” What’s to prevent all these technologies from getting picked up and outsourced?

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  4. 4. rkipling 1:02 pm 12/6/2013

    It’s always fascinating to read prescriptions for the revitalization of manufacturing from those without any actual manufacturing experience or any real concept of how stuff is made. Their ideas are limited to what they know or imagine they know. Occasionally they hit on a point or two that has value.

    The only bullet point in the list that has potential to make a meaningful impact on the number of jobs is the last one about reducing process energy requirement with technology. While this is an important point, unless there is IP protection in the form of international patents, technological advantages will quickly be copied by the Chinese and others. With sufficient vigilance, U.S. companies can realize IP advantages for the life of the patents in European markets and other markets where the rule of law is respected. It’s a good idea to apply for Chinese patents, but inside China they are only as good as the PRC wants them to be.

    Innovation is key to revitalization of U.S. manufacturing. There must be a sustained push for innovation. Manufacturing companies in the United States used to be run by people with engineering and operations backgrounds. Jack Welch, the former CEO of GE is a chemical engineer. When CEO positions became occupied by Harvard MBA’s, innovation and manufacturing began to decline. MBA’s in the main consider manufacturing as an unpleasant framework necessary to support their brilliant deal making. From the typical MBA’s perspective the farther away manufacturing happens the better. Make stuff in China and you don’t have to deal with unruly labor unions. Between pointy haired MBA’s and big labor, it’s a wonder we have U.S. based auto companies.

    For another example, there was no good reason TV manufacturing had to move to Japan and South Korea. The concepts for flat screen TVs were there. The people who saw the future of TV manufacturing were not in charge. The same story can be found in industry after industry.

    So, those in academia are welcome to offer up their words of wisdom as much as they like. Their words are mostly empty.

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  5. 5. tuned 2:15 pm 12/6/2013

    Tech. has always been a double edged sword.
    Thus far profit has far exceeded wisdom.
    The wealth gap, and thus the health gap, has only continued to get worse.

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  6. 6. rkipling 5:00 pm 12/6/2013


    Without technology there would be far more poor people.

    There is no practical way to spread the wealth around that achieves what I think you want. If your wish is for everyone to have all they need to have a good life, most all of us share that wish. It has never happened and I see no way for it ever to happen. Even societies supposedly founded on egalitarian philosophies have some who are more equal than others.

    This isn’t a new concept. I read recently that a javelin point estimated at 280,000 years old was found. So, the brighter Homo heidelbergensis who came up with the javelin probably ate better than the others for a time. It’s just how life works. In fact, the double-edged sword is one of the technological improvements.

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  7. 7. WarmNeutron 11:28 am 12/11/2013

    I try to buy Made in USA whenever possible and affordable (love my New Balance sneakers). It’s heartening to find out that there’s increasing opportunity for such purchases. You cannot outsource at the expense of decimating your country’s workforce.

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  8. 8. glideair 10:12 am 12/27/2013

    Trade deficits and associated collateral damage left by N.A.F.T.A will not succumb to building a better mousetrap. Profits are what drives capitalism. The deafening sucking sound we’ve been experiencing for the last twenty years is not by accident. Better products will not reverse the mind-set of profit-seekers. “Out-sourcing” will always be a constant in the quest for profit.

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