I searched around my house. My Apple laptop was, of course, made in China. Phone? China. Backpack? China. IKEA table lamp? China. Water bottle? China. Pillow? China.
The only thing that I could find with a “USA” on it was my Papermate #2 pencil.
During last week’s presidential debate, President Obama and Governor Romney argued over outsourcing as part of economic policy. Both candidates believe offshoring will effectively push jobs from the U.S., and Americans will suffer. In the hectic back-and-forth, it’s easy to miss the point: the way we manufacture things is about to change. Drastically.
The change will occur first in electronics manufacturing. Today, most products are designed in America, then mass produced in Asia. A laptop might have memory from Korea, a display from Taiwan, a hard drive from the Philippines, and a battery from China. To assemble it all, huge armies of assembly line workers snap together products piece-by-piece. Final assembly is almost always done in China because it’s cheap and convenient to hire hundreds of thousands of workers for long hours.
This process works because a company’s main goal is to make money. “For a company to survive, it has to seek out the best place to make its goods,” says Fahreed Zakaria, a host of CNN’s popular GPS program. “Hundreds of millions of consumers [also] benefit; they get cheap goods and services.” A cheaper manufacturing process also allows more profit to be used for research and development.
But outsourcing has increasingly come under fire: China is so cheap because it can skimp on ethics. An assembly worker is paid a paltry $400 per month, made to work twelve hours a day in dangerous conditions, and required to live on a company-run campus. Multiply this by 230,000 workers, and this is the Foxconn factory in Shenzhen, the “Orwellian work environment” where 40% of the world’s consumer electronics are made. “What U.S. plant can find 3,000 people overnight and convince them to live in dorms?” doubted Jennifer Rigoni, a former Apple manufacturing executive. I feel bad supporting a company that takes advantage of its workers and the environment.
And apparently so do thousands of other people. In response to a global outcry against these practices, Chinese officials and international activist groups have fought to improve working regulations. Factories are starting to be held responsible for worker’s safety and harmful materials. But that takes more work, and more money. We’re a far way off from American labor becoming cheaper than Chinese labor, but as the price for human work rises, the effort and risk will eventually overtake gains from manufacturing abroad.
Jobs will gradually return to America, back to where these products are designed in the first place. In fact, this is already happening; just yesterday Lenovo, the world’s second largest PC manufacturer, announced that they are making their first U.S. plant. I think that could be the first laptop tagged “USA” in a long time.
The change doesn’t stop there. The rising global cost of a human worker means that, in order for things to be cost effective in the future, we have to move to automated factories. As production returns to America, our assembly lines will replace human workers with robots.
The traditional approach to automating factories involves heavy-duty and highly-integrated robots. They become obsolete quickly, are expensive, and are a pain to install—the factory must be essentially rebuilt.
But new, human-like robots are appearing. Baxter, made by Rethink Robotics, is “a robot with common sense.” It can learn tasks by example, adapt to the speed of an assembly line, and can safely work around humans. Jon Markoff, a New York Times author, thinks that “this is the future. A new wave of robots, far more adept than those commonly used by automakers and other heavy manufacturers, are replacing workers around the world…”
Robots won’t just exist in factories, however. They will come into our neighborhoods and homes.
You’ll be able to print your own electronics, parts, and prototypes with a 3D printer like the MakerBot or the FORM1. Current 3D printers print in hard ABS plastic, but soon we could have metal, rubber, and more materials. Imagine when you can just download and print a new binder? Or customize and build a new backpack?
Chris Anderson, writer for Wired magazine, writes his ideas in Makers: The New Industrial Revolution. Now, “any kid with an idea and a laptop can create the seeds of a world-changing company…Would-be entrepreneurs and inventors are no longer at the mercy of large companies to manufacture their ideas.” Capital or infrastructure are no longer major limits, progress has shifted to rely on innovation itself.
Communities around this idea will spring up in neighborhoods everywhere. Makerspaces will be the community centers of innovation. They will have even powerful machines that can make designs, like a hyper-local assembly line. There are already more than a thousand worldwide, including one in D.C.
We’ll still need factories for a long time. But imagine when you can just print out the next iPhone. Or even, a better 3D printer itself! The decentralized manufacturing revolution is already taking hold. No more paying for labor or waiting for shipping. In the future, everything will be made in your own home.