Immediately after my last post, the Economist magazine devoted a couple of articles and its monthly special report to the increasingly discussed “third industrial revolution”, in which manufacturing will be increasingly based on computer control and such processes as 3d printing (additive manufacture). This has resulted in quite a bit of interesting discussion on the internet. You will see some of it if you put “Economist Magazine April 21, 2012 A Third Industrial Revolution” into your browser. Devotees of this third industrial revolution are sure that manufacturing, and the economics and politics of it, will continue to change to require much less labor and be more dependent on digitally controlled and revolutionary processes. Among other advantages they see, is the return of manufacturing to wealthier countries, because labor costs will no longer be as large a factor. It is true that the cost of such things as 3d printers is rapidly falling, and that the aerospace industry is using them increasingly for manufacturing such things as titanium parts. But this move has been going on for some time (at least since the entry of computer aided design, computer aided manufacturing, and digitally controlled machining centers), and will continue, but not as rapidly as some people imagine.
Historically, new technologies have taken some 50 years to mature. Not only must the technology itself mature, but individual values, social norms, and economic and political beliefs must change if there is to be a true revolution. I first used a computer, a large ÎBM mainframe. in the 1960’s (actually I gave problems to a programmer and the programmer gave me the answer). I first owned a personal computer (an IBM PC) in the early 1980’s. It was a long way from this to my present computer and to the age of Facebook, Twitter, iPhones, computer-aided design and manufacture, machining centers, and all of the other digital applications of the present. But we are obviously still searching for the optimum use of this technology, which really began some 80 years ago. The first digital computer is now thought to be the ABC, which was developed at Iowa State College in the late 1930’s, followed by the better-known ENIAC, developed at the University of Pennsylvania in the mid 1940’s. But these both utilized vacuum tubes, and it was not until the development of the integrated circuit around 1960 that the path to modern digital technology was truly opened. That was approximately 50 years ago. And many people are still not comfortable with it.
The 3rd industrial revolution will similarly take a while. The first one is thought to have lasted from approximately 1750 to 1850, That’s about right. It required not only steam and steel, but people moving to cities and working by the clock, large organizations with hierarchical structures, dealing with industrial pollutants, and many other changes in life style.
It has taken us at least 100 years to develop the products and infrastructure that comprise our "automobile revolution”. We will continue to rely on people in manufacturing for some time, increasingly assisted (or displaced) by smart machines. And since the median income in the world is now approximately $1200 per person, there will continue to be trainable workers aplenty. There are many advantages to human labor. Chinese factories are valued because they can rapidly make changes in products and change the size of their workforce, as well as for their low wage scale. Outsourcing is influenced by tax structures and other business incentives as well as by lower labor costs. As the “revolution” changes the way products are manufactured, the world must deal with the costs (lower employment, economic shifts?) as well as the profits.
And no matter how they are manufactured, products will necessarily improve in overall quality.