How the U.S. Can Reinvent Manufacturing

‘Manufacturing 2.0’ is a radical shift already underway, and many key elements are taking shape. As technologies and business models evolve, we have an opportunity in the US to create and own the future of manufacturing. That means the opportunity for a resurgence of US manufacturing, creating big changes in the economy and revitalizing US cities across the country.

To realize this vision, businesses must start exploring new manufacturing technologies and business models, and US government needs to begin developing coordinated policies to support R&D, public education, and further investment in this new approach to manufacturing.

There is great enthusiasm about exciting new developments in manufacturing including 3D printing, robotics, and printed electronics. These are important technologies, but we believe they are elements of a larger, end-to-end change in manufacturing, representing a radical shift from traditional approaches.

A whole new ecosystem is arising, which will include social design, social funding, flexible and distributed supply chains, and more. This shift will ripple through the industry and likely threaten today’s vertically integrated, large-scale manufacturing industry—much as the PC revolution threatened the mainframe computer industry.  These democratizing technologies are a tremendous fount of innovation opportunities. As with most disruptive changes, new ways to fund, conceive, design, and build products means we will see entirely new markets develop, with brand new types of jobs originating right here in the US.

The next revolution in computing

We have seen advances in computational reasoning, decision-making, and control that are quickly reaching human skill levels, including IBM’s Watson computer that plays Jeopardy and Google’s self-driving car. A similar advance will soon enable ‘intelligent software assistants’ to work with human designers to convert design concepts into functional designs that can be manufactured at low cost. These capabilities will empower all kinds of people to design products and leverage complex production value chains. These automated assistants will frontload the design process, so mistakes can be made in the software, rather than in production. We will understand the actual manufacturing process in advance, including what will be made, how components will fit together, and whether the parts will work together safely and correctly and are manufacturable at a reasonable cost.

If we get the computational interfaces and reasoning right, there can arise a massive, distributed network of manufacturers able to work together to create a dynamic supply chain for complex products like vehicles, airplanes, and consumer electronics—without needing a central organizing entity. These can be manufactured with traditional production technologies or newer methods such as printed electronics and other additive manufacturing techniques, and then shipped directly to end customers through third-party distribution channels. Such a shift has the potential to dynamically connect all types of manufacturers across the US and other countries to create whole new opportunities, markets, and jobs. It might, however, be disruptive to existing “organizing entities” including branded suppliers in just about every industry. That such brands could potentially be threatened even in an industry like aeronautics is obviously a very significant change.

Parallel to this, social computing technologies have enabled new funding models and collaborative design systems to support a creator economy. We’re already seeing innovative funding platforms, such as Kickstarter, supporting new product opportunities that otherwise would not have been possible, including new games, apps, coffee, music, movies, and more. And social collaborative environments, like Quirky, use crowdsourcing to improve the design process and create a channel for individual designers to reach millions. Right now we are seeing companies, such as Local Motors, exploring collaborative design approaches for products as complex as automobiles.

The revolution is here

Like many disruptive, global changes, we can see the transformation coming by looking across a wide set of enablers. Here at PARC we are actively working on many of the key enablers, ranging from new manufacturing technologies such as printed electronics, to social design and intelligent design tools. As an example, we are working to incorporate manufacturing knowledge into design automation tools to give real-time feedback to product creators and designers on both the function and manufacturability of designs, avoiding months of delay caused by multiple iterations and prototype builds.

These design tools could also even in the near future embed business contracts and license agreements to facilitate a real-time connection among multiple manufacturers, eliminating months of business negotiations. Ultimately, these combined forces will yield more efficient time to market, with personalized products be made to order rather than stored in warehouses until purchased.

Our work in design automation is part of a larger DARPA program that will bridge individual designers and crowdsourced design communities with manufacturers, large and small. Through the Adaptive Vehicle Make (AVM) program, DARPA is developing a foundry-style manufacturing capability for complex defense systems, starting with vehicles. Supporting our open innovation model, PARC is simultaneously working with a number of clients to commercialize these technologies into the private sector. In addition, start-ups are already forming around many of these ideas.

After years of recession, high unemployment, and fear of America’s innovation and scientific downfall, Manufacturing 2.0 is on the horizon.

Stephen Hoover is CEO of PARC, a Xerox company that works with Fortune Global 500 and medium-sized companies, startups, and government agencies and partners to invent, co-develop, and deliver new business opportunities. Hoover oversees PARC’s work in diverse areas, from networking and printed electronics, to big data and contextual intelligence, to digital manufacturing and cleantech. He appeared at Techonomy Detroit in a session entitled “Manufacturing’s Future, and the Impact on Jobs.” For complete coverage of the September 12, 2012, conference, click here.

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2 Responses to “How the U.S. Can Reinvent Manufacturing”

  1. Kev says:

    I note the lack of people in the picture. I saw a post a couple of days ago about robots that were easy to train. If the machines are doing the work, what are the people going to be doing? There’s a political problem here that’s not being addressed.

  2. most folks dont like putting tires on cars all day. sounds like people
    need to learn how to program the computers or learn how to maintain the
    robots. workers are expensive so robots are cheaper for some tasks.
    bigger question is where do we want the robots…here or in china?

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