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Making Revolution

The U.S. can compete with China if it gives factory workers smarter tools.
December 20, 2011

In October I joined a distinguished panel at the National Academy of Engineering on the future of manufacturing. One argument presented was that the United States needed to find things that it alone could make, ceding other manufacturing to China.

That wrongheaded thinking pervades discussion about the role of manufacturing in America’s future. It ignores huge opportunities by equating advanced manufacturing with manufacturing advanced stuff—things like jet engines that only big companies buy.

The United States cannot afford to stop making ordinary stuff—things we buy at the store, like running shoes and cell phones—and hope to compete by doing only design and innovation. Making more competitive products relies on a tight intertwining of design and manufacturing (see “Can We Build Tomorrow’s Breakthroughs?”). Once we outsource to manufacturers in China, they soon offer us design, too, since they are the ones who can most easily change existing product lines or introduce new ones. The contractor soon becomes an innovator in its own right, recruiting local designers to work with its now expert manufacturing engineers and get results faster than any U.S.-based design team. We saw this movie already in Japan and then in Korea, and now it is showing in Taiwan and China.

Making ordinary stuff domestically keeps transportation costs low and creates short supply chains that respond quickly to customers. More significant, it offers the chance to empower factory workers with information technology, just as the personal IT revolution has empowered office workers.

Thirty years ago, most office workers could not control information flow. They received paper memos and reports printed from mainframe computers. Distributing your own memo was a multiperson process; changing a printout took weeks and a dozen people. The PC changed all that. By the economic boom years of the late 1990s, any individual office worker could produce memos and automate simple tasks, using tools such as e-mail and spreadsheets.

The same democratization of information flow and automation has yet to come to manufacturing. By analogy, our current industrial systems and robots are mainframes, and advanced-manufacturing innovation is concentrated on supercomputers. But the building blocks needed to create the PCs of manufacturing abound; these will be the robotics and automation tools for the masses. We can create tools for ordinary workers, with intuitive interfaces, extensive use of vision and other sensors, and even the Web-based distribution mechanisms of the IT industry.

It was hard to imagine secretaries becoming “programmers” in 1980, and it is hard to conceive of ordinary U.S. factory workers becoming manufacturing engineers. But people who once would have been called secretaries now routinely use spreadsheets, typeset publications, and move money globally. We need to create the tools to similarly empower our factory workers.

Rodney Brooks is professor emeritus of robotics at MIT and founder of the manufacturing startup Heartland Robotics.

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