Even with the recent strength in the U.S. manufacturing sector, labor-intensive industries won’t return to the U.S. as long as the huge labor compensation gaps persist with Asian and other developing countries. Sure, there will be niches created when quick delivery, changes in fashion and other developments require production to be close by.
The majority of what could be rapid growth in U.S. manufacturing will probably come from capital-intensive, robotics-intensive production that doesn’t require many people. Those employed in this area will need considerable skills. Furthermore, these are the industries that show rapid productivity growth as new technologies are introduced. But when productivity growth is robust, output will rise substantially without much increase in employment.
There are concerns about the lack of engineers and other professionals who make sophisticated manufacturing possible, especially as highly skilled members of the postwar generation reach retirement age. In 2008, the latest available data, 4 percent of bachelor’s degrees in the U.S. were in engineering, compared with 17 percent in all of Asia and 34 percent in China. That means that more H-1B visas allowing foreign professionals to work in the U.S. will be awarded. A Senate-passed immigration measure increases the number of these visas to 110,000 a year, from 65,000 now.
One of the most exciting new technologies is additive manufacturing, popularly known as 3-D printing, which uses layers of materials ranging from wood pulp to cobalt to human tissue to make three-dimensional objects of almost any shape from a digital model. Machines have been developed that can print more than 1,000 materials, and the layers can be mixed to embed sensors and circuitry such as those used for hearing aids and motion-sensing gloves.
Another form of additive manufacturing is cold spraying, in which metallic particles are blasted at high speeds and fuse into the desired shapes.
Industrial robots can operate 24 hours a day with no coffee breaks. Their cost compared with human labor has fallen 50 percent since 1990. Thanks to high-technology manufacturing, Boston Consulting Group estimated that 30 percent of Chinese exports to the U.S. could be economically produced domestically by 2020.
The U.S. won’t enjoy much of an advantage from lower energy costs. Crude oil prices are reasonably uniform throughout the world. The U.S. benchmark is West Texas Intermediate; Brent is the standard elsewhere, but the two move pretty much together. There have been differences, specifically the recent discount of WTI because leaping U.S. output was bottled up at Cushing, Oklahoma, until pipelines could be reversed to let it flow to the Gulf of Mexico. Then the gap closed.
Because of the high cost of liquefying and shipping natural gas, however, its markets are localized. U.S. gas is about $3.60 per million British thermal units, from $13.58 in 2008. The commodity fetches about $10 in Europe and $15 to $20 in Asia. This helps U.S. industries such as nitrogen fertilizer manufacturing and petrochemicals that are heavy users of natural gas. Still, the advantage isn’t as great as many believe.
For all manufacturing sectors, energy inputs, only one of which is natural gas, accounted for only 1.9 percent of the value of output, as of 2011, the latest data available. The largest manufacturing users are nonmetallic mineral products (6.8 percent), primary metals (6.2 percent) and paper (6.6 percent). Surprisingly, energy only accounts for 5.6 percent of utility output. It is more important in some other nonmanufacturing industries such as farms (8.8 percent) and transportation by air (25.8 percent), rail (12.6 percent), water (31.8 percent) and truck (18.2 percent).
Many factors besides energy costs affect industrial production, but within manufacturing, energy-intensive industries have underperformed in terms of industrial output in recent years.
Energy usage is equivalent only to about 17 percent of U.S. gross domestic product as the economy becomes more service-oriented and energy conservation increases. By contrast, in China, energy usage equals about 27 percent of GDP.
If U.S. manufacturing is enjoying a renaissance, it is one that’s focused on technology and capital-intensive production. The days of new auto plants that employ 5,000 semi-skilled workers are unlikely to return. Indeed, the recent increase in manufacturing employment has been driven by economic recovery, and there’s no evidence of a big job pickup thanks to advanced manufacturing, cheap energy or the return of jobs from abroad.
(Gary Shilling is a Bloomberg View columnist and president of A. Gary Shilling & Co. He is the author of “The Age of Deleveraging: Investment Strategies for a Decade of Slow Growth and Deflation.” This is the last in a two-part series. Read Part 1.)
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