I think DMcCunney is correct. Here's a hypothetical to further address Frank's question: If, say, Google decided it wanted to expand U.S.-based design and manufacturer of its wireless home media player, it would certainly need design engineers to generate new versions of the device and manufacturing engineers to oversee plant operations. Presumably there would be some detailed assembly work that would require certain skills. If Google found it could not find workers with these skills, it would be up to Google and others seeking to bring manufacturing back home to either train workers or work with community colleges to quickly adjust their curricula to teach the skills Google needs. All this won't solve our employment problems, but we will begin "making stuff" again, and that alone is worth the effort since knowing how to make something means you learn how to make it better and cheaper. That's how you move from low to medium volumes, which seems to be the sweet spot for U.S. EMS companies.
I agree. That's where the added value resides. Actually some of this work is done remotely by Indian technicians in some industries. There is a limit on how much you can outsource in this field though.
@Maxmin: "But where's the money coming from to invest such endeavor? From the bankrupt government?"
There's an awful lot of money floating around looking for a good place to be invested. The point to initiatives like this isn't to provide the investment: it's to set up conditions where private investment is more likely to happen.
@Frank: "So, what technical skills exactly do the few (and ever decreasing number of) manufacturing workers need to have to work in such an automated environment?"
I can think of two basic types offhand: programmers writing the code that directs the robotic assembly, and techs to maintains the robotic gear, because things with moving parts break.
Neither of these is necessarily a degreed engineer, but technical training will be required.
The machinist won't be replaced by the machine. Robotics can do machining, once they've been programmed, but you won't program a robot to machine a prototype or make a quick replacement for a broken part you need replaced *now*.
I would like to see more detailed job descriptions of these "qualified workers to run advanced manufacturing lines" that require some sort of new investment in technical education.
George, you mentioned a high level of automation and minimal dependence on labor. No argument there. So, what technical skills exactly do the few (and ever decreasing number of) manufacturing workers need to have to work in such an automated environment?
On the other hand, you mentioned the few but highly paid people needed to "deveop/deploy/maintain these processes." Those sound like engineers, not manufacturing workers.
I don't mean to undervalue what a skilled manufacturing worker does -- far from it. If you tell me we have a shortage of skilled machinists, I understand what that means. If you tell me that in the future, the machinist will be replaced by a machine, I again ask, what sort of skills are required of the worker who watches over the machine?
@Junko: "Steve Jobs demanded the last minute change on the iPhone screen from plastic to a glass screen... so, even though Apple wasn't directly involved in manufacturing, it had enough clout to force Foxconn to make that change."
Which brings up a related point. Foxconn was doing (and still does) manual assembly. It was a change they *could* make, as it was substituting a part made from one material to a part made from another.
An issue with robotic manufacture will be flexibility: what can the robots put together, and how quickly can they be reconfigured to put together something else?
In the mentioned case, changing a robot line to use a glass part instead of a plastic one would probably not be difficult. Changing it to build a tablet instead of a smartphone might be another matter.
Good summary in your comment above.
One thing I am still not clear on is the number 3.
What do you mean by "the later one can commit to manufacturing the more ability there is for efficiency, minimization of market risk, and inventory exposure"?
Do you mean...if a company A -- which is in the business of selling soda --gets involved in manufacturing at later in the process, the company can make the last-minute changes in the soda color, flavor, etc. that may reflect better the new trend and preferences seen in the market?
That may be so, but that doesn't seem to apply well for the electronics products.
But when I come to think of it, Steve Jobs demanded the last minute change on the iPhone screen from plastic to a glass screen... so, even though Apple wasn't directly involved in manufacturing, it had enough clout to force Foxconn to make that change.
More analysis on the manufacturing report from EMS expert Rahul Razdan:
On the manufacturing report, it is a large high level report, and I think heads in the right direction. However, the high level dynamics seem pretty straightforward...that is:
1. For the US to be competitive in manufacturing, the items manufactured need to have minimal dependence on labor costs. In all the situations, where labor costs are significant, other locals will have a significant cost advantage.
2. To enable the minimal dependence on labor, one needs to add automation. For a highly automated process, the US can be quite competitive because it also has the advantage of a large local market.
3. Another driver in this picture is the ability for late-stage customization. That is, the later one can commit to manufacturing the more ability there is for efficiency, minimization of market risk, and inventory exposure. Example: soda-water.
If one looks at the above dynamics, it would seem that a focus on
1. Research around automation and late stage customization
2. Talent sourcing for the far fewer (but highly paid) people to develop/deploy/maintain these processes
3. Capital Availability to fund the investment for research and plants
My sense is that the report is saying the above, but at a very high level without specifics.
As an aside, with success, the above will drive more manufacturing capacity/capability, but it is not clear to me it will have a meaningful impact on employment. It would seem that services would still be the driver around employment.