Manufacturing Techonomy Events

Why Making Things Still Matters

Innovation and the desire for innovation are nationally and globally pervasive. But by any measure of geographic or economic density, most of us still see Silicon Valley as the leader and lodestar of innovation.

It’s interesting to take a moment and reflect on the very name Silicon Valley. It is, after all, named after a chemical element and a technology for making things. At its roots, Silicon Valley was about making transistors, integrated circuits and chips, and, of course, the application of these for computing and software.

Today much of Silicon Valley is focused on the evolution of software and computing innovations, which take the form of Social, Mobile, Big Data, Cloud, and App economies. These are in fact tremendous innovation opportunities that can and will deliver great value—and we need it, all of it. This trend is pretty much true across U.S. regional technology centers. However, all of this innovation comes from exploiting a scaling law for how things are made: Moore’s law.

Why does this matter? In the rush to exploit the capability that comes from changing how things are made, we are overlooking that actual innovation in how things are made is still required and useful. If we take a hard and truthful look around, the literally-named Silicon Valley has gotten out of balance. We simply aren’t doing enough making right now. At some point, it may impact and limit the future growth of our software and services sectors.

Our ability to manufacture—and innovate and make the process better—has always been a core part of our country’s innovation cycle, spawning incredibly vast new industries and businesses from these historic revolutions. But the pendulum of the tech industry has shifted so far to software and services that we may soon face major uphill battles to reclaim our foothold on the “making” part of innovation, as well as the opportunity to bring manufacturing back to the US.

Innovation has natural cycles. We have been in a cycle that was created by innovation in how things are made, and that we are now exploiting through tremendous innovations in Social, Mobile, Cloud, Big Data, and App economies. I see these very innovations in computation as what will enable the start of a new cycle of innovation in how things are made. Computation has reached the point where we have cars that drive themselves and humanoid assembly robots capable of common sense reasoning for $25,000—no programming necessary. We now have the ability to simulate and model at the molecular level how a protein is made or a solar cell is grown. We can put on a $35 board all of the control needed to drive a 3D printer.

I believe we are at a phase-change point in manufacturing. 3D printing and low-cost robotics are the tip of the iceberg. There’s a host of other change points coming that will be driven by advances in software.

At PARC, we are working on combining 3D printing with electronics assembly to enable the printing of functional objects. We are also integrating AI and manufacturing knowledge into design tools that enable people to design complex objects and have them automatically manufactured over a distributed virtual supply chain at guaranteed best cost. In the future, you’ll be able to design your own custom Bluetooth headset and print it at your local TechShop, or design a new smart watch for Kickstarter that can be easily manufactured through a customized, virtual supply chain.

We are at a point where we need to return to our roots and really focus on innovation opportunities in how things are made. Are we innovating enough in making things, and, most importantly, how we actually make things? No. We need to understand how things are made, we have to be good at it, and we must innovate on it. If we get too far away from our “making” roots, we will not only lose our ability to create new platforms, but also the power to define and lead how it’s done in the future. We will miss the opportunity to spawn the thousands of new jobs that will come from rebuilding our country’s manufacturing capabilities in the digital age.

We gain tremendous value in innovation in software, computing, mobile, cloud, social, big data, and the rest. But there is a lot more left. At PARC we lead in those areas, but we all need to do both this and innovate in how things are made. We as a nation need to take global leadership in driving this phase change in manufacturing, as historically we always have. If we don’t, then you can be sure that other countries will. If we’re successful, we will create a revival in manufacturing in the U.S. that will have long-lasting impact for our economy and society. Because making things matters.

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. He was a speaker at Techonomy 2012 on the “What’s on YOUR Printer?” session. Click here for a complete video archive of Techonomy 2012.

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