Warren Hunt

In my last post, I referenced an essay in the recent Scientific American series, “How to Make the Next Big Thing,” that describes how manufacturing is changing. Penned by Ricardo Hausmann, the essay, “The Short History of the Future of Manufacturing,” points to a critical paradigm shift: information, as opposed to energy or labor, will be the key to future manufacturing growth.

Hausmann relates this shift to the laws of thermodynamics—we constantly have to reorder the natural world to create products that satisfy our needs, which requires energy. So, because light bulbs don’t grow on trees, we have to do the work and expend the energy it takes to put them together. As a result, finding ways to bring more energy to the task at hand served as the way to drive previous technological revolutions.

But today’s innovations rely less on energy-intensive production and more on reordering materials themselves—using our knowledge of chemistry, biology, and solid-state physics—and on encoding and manipulating information. This shift has made us less dependent on energy and more on information and our ability to leverage it. Hausmann illustrates this point via the evolution of the Apple computer: the Apple II Plus with 48k of RAM cost more than a Mac Pro today even though it had 125,000 times less RAM memory and ran at a frequency over 300 times slower.

Transitioning from energy-intensive to information-intensive manufacturing will also change the nature of manufacturing jobs. By essentially packing more information into products more efficiently, Hausmann contends that jobs will move “from the shop floor to the design floor.” He takes issue with the Obama Administration’s claims that advanced manufacturing will “bring jobs back” to the United States. Rather than bringing back the jobs of the past, he says, new, information-based jobs are bringing a new order of manufacturing employment.

Hausmann rightfully warns that the move to information-intensive jobs should not be interpreted by advanced countries like the United States as exclusive competitive advantage. With projected growth in these advanced countries declining from less than 50% of world growth today to 30% through 2014, competition will be fierce. A recent Economist article on China’s 3D printing efforts (clearly a technology that is creating a new order in how products are designed and manufactured) is a strong example of why the United States should not assume it is pushing the advanced manufacturing envelope alone.

One thing that could help set our country apart? Effectively sharing the data and information that we have across sectors. National efforts such as the Materials Genome Initiative and the recently announced topics for the next Manufacturing Innovation Institute competitions are heading toward this goal. Becoming a “collaboration nation” has the potential to help us set the pace for the new order of manufacturing.