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The Short History of the Future of Manufacturing

Scientific American

April 2013

Author: Ricardo Hausmann, CID Faculty Director

Advances in 3D printing, new human-robot interactions, extreme customization and shale energy are just some of the elements that will shape the future of manufacturing. As Yogi Berra said, “the future is no longer what it used to be”. But he also said that sometimes it is just “deja vu all over again”.

The future of manufacturing, like its past, involves astonishing changes. After all, etymologically, the term literally means handmade or handicraft. The word stuck, even though production processes changed to mean almost its opposite. These changes, while unpredictable in their detail, seem to follow certain broad directions.  

What impressed Adam Smith back in 1776 was the fact that manufactures could constantly reorganize labor, dividing tasks between people into narrower chunks that could then be either better mastered by the worker or more easily substituted by a machine. A Boeing 747 has over 6 million different parts. With the division of labor we can use much more knowledge than can be mastered by any individual. Through this process productivity increases, allowing us to do more with less.

At a more abstract level, what has been happening is simply a consequence of the laws of thermodynamics. We want to create products that satisfy our needs because nature does not provide them in the shape, quantities and locations we want them in. So we have to reorder the world. But order is not what the world tends to move into on its own—quite the contrary. So to create order, we need information about what that order is supposed to look like and knowledge about how to get there. But to create order you need to do work, you need to use energy. That is why so much of the technological revolutions of times past have been related to mastering energy: from waterpower, to the coal-powered steam engine, the electric motor and the gasoline-powered internal combustion engine. But knowledge about how to reorder matter—from chemistry, biology and solid-state physics—and about encoding and manipulating information allows us to use even less matter and energy in achieving our goals. In going from the wax candle in 1800 to the fluorescent light bulb of 1992, the number of lumen-hours per unit of work increased by a factor of more than 44,000. The Apple II Plus with 48k of RAM cost more than a Mac Pro today even though it had 125,000 times less RAM memory and ran at a frequency over 300 times slower.

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