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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.