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Is Manufacturing “Cool” Again?

WASHINGTON, DC – Once upon a time, ambitious young people with a knack for math and science went to work in manufacturing. They designed planes, computers, and furniture, figured out how to lay out an assembly line, helped to make new cars faster and refrigerators more efficient, pushed the limits of computer chips, and invented new medicines. But, as the role of manufacturing diminished in advanced economies, the brightest talents tended to gravitate to finance and other service fields that were growing rapidly – and paying well.

But here’s some news: global manufacturing has the potential to stage a renaissance and once again become a career of choice for the most talented.

Of course, any manufacturing rebound in the advanced economies will not generate mass employment; but it will create many high-quality jobs. There will be more demand for software programmers, engineers, designers, robotics experts, data analytics specialists, and myriad other professional and service-type positions. In some manufacturing sectors, more such people may be hired than will be added on the factory floor.

Exploding demand in developing economies and a wave of innovation in materials, manufacturing processes, and information technology are driving today’s new possibilities for manufacturing. Even as the share of manufacturing in global GDP has fallen – from about 20% in 1990 to 16% in 2010 – manufacturing companies have made outsize contributions to innovation, funding as much as 70% of private-sector R&D in some countries. From nanotechnologies that make possible new types of microelectronics and medical treatments to additive manufacturing systems (better known as 3D printing), emerging new materials and methods are set to revolutionize how products are designed and made.