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Commentary By Mark P. Mills

Tomorrow's Manufacturing Revolution

Energy, Economics Technology, Employment

Bioelectronics is as big a jump as ditching vacuum tubes.

President Trump says he will revive U.S. manufacturing through better trade deals and tax incentives. Others argue that America has entered a new “postmanufacturing” era. Sound familiar? In the 1970s, the U.S. had a stagnant economy, sluggish productivity, high unemployment and an auto industry threatened by the Japanese “juggernaut.” Doomsday was nigh.

But with a big boost from the Reagan tax cuts and deregulation, entirely new domains of manufacturing emerged, breathing new life into the U.S. economy in the 1980s, ’90s and 2000s. Today, producing semiconductors and computing hardware is a $1.5 trillion-a-year global industry, comparable to automobile sales. And that unforeseen revolution gave birth to a whole new economy and tech giants like Intel, Microsoft, Amazon, Google and Facebook.

What are the mandarins of economic forecasting missing today? Here are three examples, each as transformational as going from vacuum tubes to transistors to microchips.

  • Bioelectronics. Pliable, biocompatible microchips and sensors allow computing devices not only to be comfortably worn (think “smart” bandages) but also implanted in living tissue or widely distributed into the environment, enabling biological and medical advances as remarkable as silicon electronics.
  • Transient electronics. Digital devices that literally disappear on a schedule, or are consumable, will allow entirely new ways for sensing our environment as well as hyperprecise delivery of new kinds of therapeutics in specific areas of the body, organs and even cells.
  • Electroceuticals. These dust-sized, microscopic wireless sensors target nerves, areas of the brain and other human tissue to treat an array of medical conditions including chronic pain and infections.

Consider that the 2016 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded “for the design and synthesis of molecular machines.” Like last century’s revolution in chemical and pharmaceutical production, today powerful physics-based algorithms, combined with the development of a materials genome, put us on the path to designing custom molecules from the atom up.

And there’s more. The combination of the “internet of things”—where trillions of objects and machines are networked—with analytics-based supply chains, machine intelligence and three-dimensional printing will usher in a new world of manufacturing as profound as the advent of mass production: effectively, manufacturing as a service.

This won’t happen overnight. Two decades separated the invention of internal combustion from Ford’s first production line, and the transistor’s invention from Intel’s founding. But the next tech revolution is on its way.

Yes, technology also eliminates jobs. Manufacturers since antiquity have sought to reduce labor hours. The only way more people are employed making existing products is when demand grows faster than the rate of declining labor-hours per product—or when engineers invent new products. Engineers create demand from a near infinite capacity to invent. There was no demand for cars, smartphones or pacemakers until they were invented.

A big part of the blame for the decline in U.S. factory jobs is found in regulatory and tax policies that stifle innovators. As was the case in 1900 and 2000, radically new classes of products are on the horizon, provided we unleash what has always been the U.S. economy’s greatest asset: its innovators and risk takers.

This piece originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal


Mark P. Mills is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a faculty fellow at Northwestern University’s McCormick School of Engineering, and author of Expanding America's Petroleum Power: Geopolitics in the Third Oil Era. Follow him on Twitter here.

This piece originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal