January 3, 2013


Manufacturing in the Balance : Inexpensive labor has defined the last decade in manufacturing. The future may belong to technology. (Antonio Regalado on January 3, 2013, MIT Technology Review)

The vanishing comparative advantage of Asian cheap labor isn't the only reason for companies to question offshore manufacturing. Natural catastrophes can occur anywhere, but the risks of long supply lines became apparent in 2011, when the Japanese earthquake and tsunami interrupted shipments of computer chips and floods in Thailand left disk-drive factories under 10 feet of water. Meanwhile, higher oil prices have quietly raised the cost of shipping goods. And a bonanza of cheap natural gas has made the U.S. a relatively cheap place to manufacture many basic chemicals and is providing industries with an inexpensive source of power.

The kind of manufacturing in which labor costs are most important isn't ever coming back from low-wage countries (assembling five million iPhones for a product launch can still only be done in China), but the recent economic shifts are giving companies a chance to adjust course. One major line of thinking, the one most vocally endorsed by the White House, is that the U.S. should focus its efforts on advances in the technology of manufacturing itself--the set of new ideas, factory innovations, and processes that are also the focus of this month's MIT Technology Review business report.

The U.S. holds advantages in many advanced technologies, such as simulation and digital design, the use of "big data," and nanotechnology. All of these can play a valuable role in creating innovative new manufacturing processes (and not just products). Andrew McAfee, a researcher at MIT's Sloan School of Business, says it's also hard to ignore coming changes like robots in warehouses, trucks that drive themselves, and additive manufacturing technologies that can create a complex airplane part for the price of a simple one. The greater the capital investment in automation, the less labor costs may matter.
Posted by at January 3, 2013 5:10 AM
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