President Donald Trump has long talked about reinvigorating American manufacturing, which has suffered heavy job losses as a result of automation, trade deals and other factors.
In July, the Trump administration even celebrated “made in America” week by showcasing things built in the U.S. and hosting dozens of manufacturers at the White House.
Some of the highlighted products included golf balls made in Arizona, helicopters built in Connecticut and New York Steinway pianos – one product from every state.
To me, an engineer who studies the future of manufacturing, this focus on what the U.S. made yesterday will only go so far in saving American manufacturing. The U.S. needs to figure out what the country should make tomorrow – and invest heavily in it. Whether we do depends on our willingness to embrace the fourth industrial revolution, a new era that is beginning and is destined to be just as pivotal as the previous three.
Revolutions one and two
So what is an industrial revolution and how can we take advantage of the current one?
Broadly speaking, we define something as an industrial revolution when great technological advancements are accompanied by significant socioeconomic and cultural changes.
The first one, from the late 1700s to mid-1800s, marked the transition from making goods by hand to using machines. Begun in Great Britain and adopted in Belgium, France, the U.S. and elsewhere, it was made possible by harnessing water and steam power and the development of machine tools and factories, leading to unprecedented change.
The second industrial revolution began in the late 1800s largely as a result of the invention of electricity and ushered in an era of mass production and assembly lines. Widespread adoption of technology – the telegraph, railroads, gas and water supplies, among others – not only enabled the movement of people and information like never before, it also led to the production of goods such as cars, fertilizer and petroleum.
Both revolutions had great socioeconomic and cultural impacts, some good, some bad. Basic necessities, such as food and clothing, became more available. Trade increased. Populations soared as people moved from rural areas to cities. At the same time, far more pollution led to serious health consequences, and unsafe labor conditions resulted in worker unrest.
Countries that spearheaded the first revolution dominated the second as well, but Germany, Japan and other nations also embraced the latter’s changes. The strong American role helped the U.S. become a global leader in manufacturing, which made the U.S. the world’s largest economy by 1913.
A third revolution and China’s rise
The introduction of computers and other digital electronics launched the third revolution in the 1950s, and there’s debate about whether we’re still in it. Among the key changes was automation, which led to China’s rise.
Repetitive and low-skill tasks once performed by people, especially on assembly lines, were handed over to machines, which became ubiquitous in auto plants and made switchboard operators obsolete. From a consumer and cultural standpoint, this era is often identified with the profound changes resulting from the introduction of television and personal computers.
During the third revolution, the U.S. began to cede its lead manufacturer role to China as the latter invested in industrial production and education and eased restrictive trade policies. For the U.S., that meant textile mills and steel plants closed, leading to the loss of more than four million manufacturing jobs.
Yet manufacturing remains an integral part of the U.S. economy, employing almost 13 million people in the production of electronics, automobiles, airplanes, refined oil, plastics, pharmaceuticals and more.
Today China and the U.S. both jockey for the lead as the world’s most dominant manufacturing nation.
That makes it all the more pivotal which countries dominate the next industrial revolution, whether it’s already happening (as I believe), or if we’re on the brink of it.
The fourth industrial revolution focuses on artificial intelligence, big data, the internet of things and other emerging technologies that fuse the physical, digital and biological worlds.
How impactful it will be compared with previous revolutions is open to speculation. But we’ve already seen a glimpse of a world in which self-driving cars, personalized medicine and humans working alongside robots are likely to be the norm.