A type of manufacturing called "additive manufacturing" is now making it possible to cost-effectively "print" products. In conventional manufacturing, parts are produced by humans using power-driven machine tools, such as saws, lathes, milling machines, and drill presses, to physically remove material until you're left with the shape desired. This is a cumbersome process that becomes more difficult and time-consuming with increasing complexity. In other words, the more complex the product you want to create, the more labor is required and the greater the effort.
In additive manufacturing, parts are produced by melting successive layers of materials based on three-dimensional models -- adding materials rather than subtracting them. The "3D printers" that produce these parts use powered metal, droplets of plastic, and other materials -- much like the toner cartridges that go into laser printers. This allows the creation of objects without any sort of tools or fixtures. The process doesn't produce any waste material, and there is no additional cost for complexity. Just as, thanks to laser printers, a page filled with graphics doesn't cost much more than one with text (other than the cost of toner), with 3D printers we can print a sophisticated 3D structure for what it would cost to print something simple.
Three-D printers can already create physical mechanical devices, medical implants, jewelry, and even clothing. The cheapest 3D printers, which print rudimentary objects, currently sell for between $500 and $1,000. Soon, we will have printers for this price that can print toys and household goods. By the end of this decade, we will see 3D printers doing the small-scale production of previously labor-intensive crafts and goods. It is entirely conceivable that, in the next decade, manufacturing will again become a local industry and it will be possible to 3D print electronics and use giant 3D printing scaffolds to print entire buildings. Why would we ship raw materials all the way to China and then ship completed products back to the United States when they can be manufactured more cheaply locally, on demand?
Other advances in the next decade will likely affect manufacturing, particularly advances in nanotechnology that change the equation further. Engineers and scientists are today developing new types of materials, such as carbon nanotubes, ceramic-matrix nanocomposites, and new carbon fibers. These new materials make it possible to create products that are stronger, lighter, more energy-efficient, and more durable than existing manufactured goods. A new field -- "molecular manufacturing" -- will take this one step further and make it possible to program molecules inexpensively, with atomic precision. "Over the next two decades," Jacobstein says, "molecular manufacturing will do for our relationship with molecules and matter what the computer did for our relationship with bits and information -- make the precise control of molecules and matter inexpensive and ubiquitous."
All of these advances play well into America's ability to innovate, demolish old industries, and continually reinvent itself. The Chinese are still busy copying technologies we built over the past few decades. They haven't cracked the nut on how to innovate yet.
It's a near certainty that robotics, AI, and 3D-printing technologies will advance rapidly and converge. American companies are already finding the rising cost of labor, shipping costs and time lags, and intellectual-property protection to be major issues in doing business in China. And the Chinese government has done itself no favor by hoarding key raw materials such as rare-earth minerals, forcing Western manufacturers to start looking for alternatives. The most advanced automobile of today -- the Tesla Roadster -- is already being manufactured in the United States using robotic and AI technologies. Google just announced that it will produce its highly-acclaimed Nexus 7 tablet in the United States. This is just the beginning of the trend.
So, let me predict a future headline: "Protests break out in China over 2020 Summer Olympic uniforms, 3D-printed with U.S.-made technology."