The Short History of the Future of Manufacturing: Scientific American
More and more information is getting packed into less matter. As a consequence, more of the work goes into manipulating information rather than matter. Jobs move from the shop floor to the design floor. A Boeing 747 or an iPhone are made mostly out of fairly common materials that are worth at most just a few dollars a pound. However, they both go for over $1,000 per pound. The bulk of the value is in the information content, not the raw materials. And that is where the jobs and the livelihoods are going.
As this happens, the nature of work changes causing job losses for some while opportunities open up for others. The future is always some combination between the promise of new possibilities and the threat to existing ones. Again this is not new. Back in 1811, skilled craftsmen—the so-called Luddites—attacked the new automated power looms designed to cost-effectively replace their handlooms and their jobs. Today, similar fears about outsourcing generate much anxiety in advanced countries. A Google search finds the phrase “jobs that cannot be outsourced” in over 470,000 different documents. In fact, in his 2013 State of the Union Address, President Obama presented a manufacturing plan to “bring jobs back” to the U.S., a phrase that suggests a return to a better past.
The truth is that new jobs are not “coming back” but forward. The world is changing as technology advances and diffuses throughout the globe. This is also not new. But for the first time since the Industrial Revolution, the last decade has seen growth in the so-called advanced countries account for less than 50 percent of world growth, down from over 80 percent in the 1970s and 1980s. They will be down to less than 30 percent through 2014. The rest of the world is simply catching up faster than before. This can be made into good news. First, the income per capita of the new fast growers is on average less than 20 percent of that of the advanced countries. So the world is becoming less unequal. More importantly, the fast growers will need more machines, materials and knowhow and these have to come from somewhere.
Jobs are constantly shifting and not always out of manufacturing. It used to be that farmers made their own fertilizer with dung and plowed land with their own animals. Today, fertilizers, tractors and fuel are made with manufacturing jobs that have displaced agricultural work. Even service jobs have moved into manufacturing. Penicillin destroyed thousands of jobs in Alpine sanatoria, to the delight of the sick. Accountants used to work with paper and pencil. And only yesterday, airline staff printed boarding passes at airport counters. Machines are eliminating these jobs. And these machines have to be made and programed by people too.
So I guess it is deja vu all over again, after all. Just as before, manufacturing will make more with less. It will pack more information and knowledge into less matter using less energy while making more effective products. Jobs will keep moving from manipulating matter to playing with information and ideas, as tasks will keep moving towards design, programming, finance, logistics, marketing, commerce and repairs and into making sure that this much deeper division of labor and tasks works smoothly. And as always, the future of manufacturing will just get better.