January 24, 2012
Why It’s China’s (and Everyone's) Turn to Worry About Manufacturing
In a recent piece for the Washington Post, Vivek Wadhwa, Vice President of Academics and Innovation at Singularity University writes that America has for a long time been extremely worried about the loss of manufacturing to China, but the tide may soon turn.
New technologies will likely cause the same hollowing out of China’s manufacturing industry over the next two decades that the U.S experienced over the past twenty years. That’s right. America is destined to once again gain its supremacy in manufacturing, and it will soon be China’s turn to worry, writes Wadhwa.
China’s largest hi-tech product manufacturer Taiwan-based Foxconn Technology Group, made waves last August when it announced plans to install one million robots within three years to do the work that its workers presently do. These robots will perform repetitive, mechanical tasks to produce the circuit boards that go in many of the world’s most popular consumer gadgets. But even these robots and circuit boards will soon be obsolete.
As Wadhwa's colleague Neil Jacobstein, who co-chairs the Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Robotics program at Singularity University explains, there are three exponentially accelerating technologies—artificial intelligence, robotics, and digital manufacturing—that will reshape the competitive landscape for manufacturing. Specifically, these technologies will make manufacturing more creative, less expensive, more local and more personal.
AI is software that makes computers do things that, if humans did them, we would call them intelligent. This is the technology that IBM’s Deep Blue computer used to beat chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov in 1997, and that enabled IBM’s Watson to beat TV-show Jeopardy champions in 2011. AI is what powers the self-driving car that Google is developing and Apple’s Siri voice-recognition software. As a field, AI is now over 50 years old. People thought AI was dead after all the hype it generated in the ‘80s and failed to deliver. But it is fulfilling its potential now.
AI technologies will find their way into manufacturing and make it “personal,” but the technical challenge is simplifying the design process for products that we want to “manufacture” at home, says Jacobstein. Computer-aided-design companies like Autodesk are actively working to make what they call the Imagine, Design, Create-process much easier for mere mortals to perform. These will empower millions more people to join the ranks of the creator economy, where mass production is replaced by personalized production, and people are empowered to specify new products, design, test, and build them.Through his work at the Singularity University, Wadhwa is experiencing first-hand the potential of AI technologies and their consequences. As he put it at the Which Way Next event today, "I thought American innovation was dead, but I found it alive and kicking at the Singularity University." Linked to these developments are continuous improvements in robotics technology.
For Wadhwa, manufacturing is another piece of the competitive manufacturing puzzle.
It refers to a spectrum of capabilities that include the ability to imagine new products and test them virtually using design checkers and simulators, specify the design of three-dimensional objects in computer software and send that design to a 3D printer. These materials printers can render the design in plastic, composites, or metal in a matter of minutes or hours, depending on the size and complexity of the design.The promise of 3D printing and other rapid prototyping technologies is getting brighter, but for the foreseeable future other processes are dramatically less expensive in manufacturing terms for volume than additive manufacturing. Robotics may have a greater impact in driving down cost and improving quality than 3D printing.
What happens when you combine AI, robotics, and digital manufacturing? A manufacturing revolution, that will enable U.S. entrepreneurs to “set up shop” locally, and create a wide variety of products. As Kinko’s is for 2D digital printing on paper, we will have shared public manufacturing facilities like TechShop where you can print your 3D products. How is China going to compete with that?A further question would be, how is anyone going to compete with that?
Although Wadhwa presents an optimistic view for the US, the future might not be so rosy for the American worker. Exponential technology will wipe out jobs globally. As Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee have written about in Race Against The Machine, exponential technological obsolescence does not discriminate between borders.
Moreover, the manufacturing job drain has been so drawn out and pervasive that even if China does undergo technological employment obsolescence, it is the location where the factories are now operating, and where the automated factories of the future will most likely rise up. The technical, engineering and design know-how that has been building up overseas for years is ripe to become the leaders of the new manufacturing revolution of the 21st century.
The Washington Post:
Tags: artificial intelligence, digital manufacturing, economics, economy, Foxxcon, future technology, manufacturing, Race Against the Machine, robotics, Vivek Wadhwa, Watson
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