Skip to Content

Manufacturing Is Key to Innovation as Well as Jobs

We need a robust manufacturing sector to create tomorrow’s technology.
January 25, 2012

Suddenly, it seems that manufacturing is again in the news. Or, more precisely, manufacturing and jobs are.

GE’s new battery plant, under construction in Schenectady, New York. Credit: Ian Allen

“How the U.S. Lost out on iPhone Work,” a recent feature in the New York Times, presents a rather compelling look at why Apple, and specifically Steve Jobs, turned to China and Foxconn City with its 230,000 workers to make the iPhone. And, of course, the link between manufacturing and job creation figured heavily into President Obama’s State of the Union speech on Tuesday night and his strategy for a continued economic recovery.

All that is important. But it is important to not view manufacturing only through the lens of jobs. In fact, the manufacturing sector represents only 9 percent of total employment in the United States and that, according to many experts, is unlikely to change much even with a resurgence in manufacturing. The kind of manufacturing the United States excels at (it remains one of the world’s leading manufacturers, just slightly behind China, in terms of output) tends be the low-labor production of advanced technologies. But manufacturing is critical to the health of the U.S. economy for reasons other than just job creation. Recent academic research and much anecdotal evidence suggest that having a robust manufacturing sector is critical in the development of next-generation technologies.

In a recent cover story for Technology Review called “Can We Build Tomorrow’s Breakthroughs?” I visited a number of startup companies and factories in the United States to explore the connection between innovation and manufacturing.  What I found is that startup companies developing advanced technologies in areas such as batteries and solar power need to be closely connected, both physically and logistically, with existing manufacturing. Your chances of developing a new type of battery are far greater if you can leverage the experiences and expertise—and financial resources—of established battery manufacturers.

The greatest threat of a diminished manufacturing sector in the United States could, in fact, be the danger that it poses to our ability to innovate. The country has many strong competitors in the manufacturing realm, but the United States is still, by most measures, the world’s leader in innovation. If it loses that lead, it will truly be in dire economic straits. 

Keep Reading

Most Popular

transplant surgery
transplant surgery

The gene-edited pig heart given to a dying patient was infected with a pig virus

The first transplant of a genetically-modified pig heart into a human may have ended prematurely because of a well-known—and avoidable—risk.

Muhammad bin Salman funds anti-aging research
Muhammad bin Salman funds anti-aging research

Saudi Arabia plans to spend $1 billion a year discovering treatments to slow aging

The oil kingdom fears that its population is aging at an accelerated rate and hopes to test drugs to reverse the problem. First up might be the diabetes drug metformin.

Yann LeCun
Yann LeCun

Yann LeCun has a bold new vision for the future of AI

One of the godfathers of deep learning pulls together old ideas to sketch out a fresh path for AI, but raises as many questions as he answers.

images created by Google Imagen
images created by Google Imagen

The dark secret behind those cute AI-generated animal images

Google Brain has revealed its own image-making AI, called Imagen. But don't expect to see anything that isn't wholesome.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.