x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Trendspotting: Made in the USA - again

Apple has announced that it will make Mac computers in the USA in 2013. But the return of manufacturing to developed economies is just the beginning of a revolution that will change our relationship with the designed environment. 

This month, Apple became the latest tech giant to join the trend, announcing it will bring production of its Mac computers back to the US next year. Charles Platiau / Reuters
This month, Apple became the latest tech giant to join the trend, announcing it will bring production of its Mac computers back to the US next year. Charles Platiau / Reuters

The early 2000s were supposed to be the years that taught us how the globalised economy works. One key lesson was simple: ideas and innovation happen in advanced economies, predominantly the US, Europe and Japan. Manufacturing happens in developing economies, where labour costs are low and working conditions are flexible.

By the mid-2000s, all was clear: China was the "workshop of the world". It made the cheap smartphones, jeans and Buzz Lightyear toys, and we consumed them.

Simple, right? But now the picture is becoming a whole lot more complex, and that has implications for the way we consume, the work we do and how we live. That's because - against all expectations - manufacturing is returning to the US and Europe. This month Apple became the latest tech giant to join in, announcing that it would spend US$100 million (Dh367m) to bring production of its Mac computers back to the US next year. Meanwhile, Google has started making its Google Q Media Player in California, where the innovative electric car maker Tesla also began making its Model S sedan.

Trendwatching.com calls this trend for re-shoring of manufacturing "again made here", naming it one of 10 consumer trends for next year.

But the return of large-scale industrial manufacturing is just the start. It's already been noted that Apple's investment in "made in the USA" products will be, to start with at least, largely symbolic: the majority of Apple products will continue to be made in China. In the meantime, cutting-edge technologies are sparking a new industrial revolution that will be about far more than symbolic change.

One of those technologies is 3D printing, in which graphical representations of objects are built up layer by layer in plastic, glass, ceramic or metal by special machines. In October of this year, the largest 3D printing website, Shapeways (www.shapeways.com), opened its Factory of the Future in Long Island, New York. The factory will print between three and five million objects - everything from lampshades to teapots to iPhone cases - every year. New York, a centre of manufacturing: who would have believed it two years ago?

What does it mean for us? Primarily, the meeting of these changes means a change in the relationship we have with the designed and manufactured objects around us. We're moving away from a world in which your teapot, jeans, smartphone or sofa is designed by someone in New York and made by someone in China, and towards a world where it can be designed by you and manufactured - thanks to 3D printing - just down the road, where you can have a chat with the manufacturer and even make some design tweaks while you wait.

The Factory of the Future and other manufacturing centres like it may produce millions of products a year but none will be mass produced: they can be bespoke, exactly as each customer wants them to be. The objects in your home will tell a story about you in a way that, today, they simply don't.

China, the workshop of the world? That was yesterday. Today, the workshop has come home to developed economies.

The next stage? A small 3D printer costs around $3,000 and falling. Soon, the workshop will be your home.

David Mattin is an analyst at trendwatching.com