The U.S. will never manufacture iPads. Some people think that means there will soon come a day when we won't be able to invent gadgets like it.
The next great consumer gadget will not be built in the United States. That's a fact, not a forecast. Tomorrow's iPhone, iPad, or Kindle Fire -- pick your favorite -- will be assembled at a low-cost, high-volume factory in Asia, because that's where the locus of electronics manufacturing has been for decades.
But what if the fact that Americans won't build the next big gadget also means we won't invent it?
That's the vexing question raised in a Washington Post column this week from Harold Meyerson. Like roughly two-thirds of all business journalism these days, the piece is pegged to Steve Jobs. Meyerson believes the U.S. has developed a bit of a fetish for innovators. And in our collective rush to praise great visionaries like Apple's founder, he writes, we risk forgetting the role played by the people who actually built his products. Those would be the 700,000 Chinese workers employed by Taiwanese manufacturing giant Foxconn.
Meyerson, for his part, would like to bring some of those jobs home. Read carefully:
Apple's Silicon Valley innovators are doubtless highly paid, but there are too few of them to have any significant effect on the U.S. economy. Only by moving production back here could Apple really improve U.S. economic prospects. Given the huge productivity advantages this country has over China, there would be many fewer than 700,000 production jobs, but the advantage to the U.S. economy would still be substantial.
What's more, as manufacturing is offshored to Asia, innovation generally follows close behind. As professors Gary Pisano and Willy Shih explained in a 2009 Harvard Business Review article, "process-engineering expertise can't be maintained" when manufacturing is sent abroad. The ability to devise new manufacturing processes is lost, and with it, the ability to devise new products. Apple, thanks to Jobs, was an exception to this rule, but it was an exception to a lot of rules.
If you know a little about manufacturing, that first paragraph doesn't make a whole lot of sense. But the second paragraph does. And that's a bit frightening.