In the May, 2019 edition of ASME magazine, they offered an educated guess on the future of manufacturing and business. As an industrial engineer working in IT, I can see some of the trends they are discussing.
They thought that digital platforms would increase global trade by 1.3 to 2.1 trillion dollars by trimming costs, increasing trade 6 to 10 percent by “reducing friction”. Having ordered parts off eBay from China for a client and responding to customer support requests from Canada and Pakistan, I can agree with that assessment. Platforms from Ali Express to eBay to Facebook classifieds make it easier for any business and individual to engage in international trade.
They predicted an 800 billion dollar reduction in trade because of additive manufacturing. After all, why import it when you can buy the 3D file and print it? Robotics and automation were expected to reduce the trade definite 1 to 3 trillion because it offsets high labor costs. The U.S. offers cheap energy, and when you build it near your customers, you reduce transportation costs and get to meet customer expectations of nearly instant delivery. Building highly automated factories here lets you do that while offsetting the high by global standards wage rates.
Nor is it necessarily going to take the form of a nearly fully automated factory. The “Fight for $15” movement learned that when restaurants rolled out self-ordering kiosks and self-checkout lines became more prevalent in the grocery store. As an IE, I have noticed the longer-term trend toward “shadow work”, pushing work onto the customer to avoid having to pay an employee to do it. Designing restaurants so that they need to fill their own drinks, bus their own tables and encouraging ordering via an app so you need fewer people at the counter are all forms of shadow work.
The ASME article suggested that IT and business outsourcing would be reduced by 9% because artificial intelligence is increasingly able to do it instead. I have actually run into this by failing the Turing test. I have had online discussions in instant messaging chats where I was accused of being a robot, and my denials were used against me. Mentioning my family or picking up the phone proved I was human. The fact that the AI behind chat bots is so advanced proves we are indeed moving in this direction.
How did I fail the Turing test more than once? By sticking to the script and remaining formal when dealing with customers online. Then again, I have provided input on IT support scripts for clients, written software manuals and technical FAQs, and provided plenty of input on Amazon Mturk hits used to train chatbots. We aren’t “merging” with the tech. It is just learning to “speak” like us. I did not think American Big Tech firms developing this technology would have such a large impact on global trade, but it is having an impact.
The ASME article supposes that we will reduce oil trade by 6 percent by increasing the number of electric vehicles. Surprisingly, this would reduce the parts trade by 10%, because we are importing so much equipment for power production from overseas. Renewable energy generation would reduce commodities trading by an estimated 100 billion dollars a year.