Wheeling Nail Factory. (Image courtesy of artistColin Winterbottom/IMAGE COURTESY OF ARTIST, COLIN WINTERBOTTOM)

The future of manufacturing in America may look completely different from the way you imagine it. As President Obama toured the country earlier this year, sharing his vision for bringing back high-paying manufacturing jobs to America, one might think the same manufacturing jobs that were sent offshore to low-cost destinations such as China, would soon be returning to places like Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Detroit.

Instead, the new manufacturing hubs may be places like San Francisco, Raleigh-Durham, Austin and New York — vibrant tech hubs where young, creative individuals have access to cutting-edge technologies in fields ranging from robotics to nanotechnology. With new 3D printing technologies on the way, it may soon be possible to print anything you can imagine. As a result, the manufacturing companies of the future are more likely to be virtual, just-in-time collectives quickly assembled to plan, create and manufacture a product for a very specific market niche. In other words, say “good-bye” to the huge conglomerates and industrial titans.

Welcome to the world of 21st century manufacturing.

For an example of what the manufacturing future may look like, consider the new TechShop in San Francisco, which blends a bit of the Web start-up ethos and the can-do attitude of a Maker Faire with the hip quotient of a new Apple store (the authorized ones). TechShop refers to its on-site advisors as "Dream Coaches" and provides a welcoming environment for anyone to get involved: “You can think of TechShop like a fitness club, but with tools and equipment instead of exercise equipment.” Some of the products manufactured at TechShop have been more whimsical than mass-market, but it’s clear that something very exciting is going on here — especially now that TechShop plans to roll out nationally to places like Detroit.

The most interesting aspect of Obama’s Advanced Manufacturing Partnership is the emphasis on close collaboration between academia and corporations, getting innovative new technologies from the lab out into the wild as soon as possible. That’s why the concept of a TechShop is so exciting — imagine a chain of “manufacturing clubs” springing up across the nation, giving aspiring entrepreneurs access to the tools and technologies previously hidden behind factory walls and ivory towers. Instead of measuring manufacturing output in terms of widgets, we may soon be measuring manufacturing output in terms of high-tech gadgets and gizmos.

Tweet — What do you think the next era of manufacturing will look like? We’re following #futurework for your feedback.

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