Because nature does not present the world in the form we would like, we must reorder it. To create this new order, we need information about what that order is supposed to look like, knowledge about how to build it and energy to get it into shape. Many technological revolutions of the past have focused on the energy part of this equation—waterpower, the steam engine, the electric motor and the internal-combustion engine, to name a few.

The technological revolution under way now is not driven by energy, however. It is driven by information. A Boeing 747 or an iPhone is made mostly out of fairly common materials that are worth, at most, just a few dollars a pound. Yet the finished product sells for thousands of dollars per pound. Most of the value is in the information content. That is where the jobs and the livelihoods are going.

In his 2013 State of the Union Address, President Barack Obama spoke of “bringing jobs back” to the U.S., a phrase that suggests a return to a better past. The truth is that new jobs are not “coming back”—they are moving forward. Most manufacturing growth now takes place in China, India and other “developing” economies—helping to make these relatively poor regions of the world a little bit richer—but their machinery, materials and know-how must come from somewhere. The opportunity for advanced countries lies in building the high-tech tools needed to make more tools and in supplying the programming, finance, logistics and marketing required to intelligently manipulate matter. In this way, manufacturing will continue to pack more information and knowledge into less matter while using less energy, making the world to order.

The Future of Manufacturing Special Report

  • My Robot Boss
    Humans and robots will work elbow to elbow on the shop floor, but you'll be surprised by who's giving the orders
    By David Bourne
  • Future Materials
    Seven next-generation materials promise to change the way the world is made
    By Steven Ashley
  • Advanced 3-D Printing
    Will 3-D printing transform conventional manufacturing?
    By Larry Greenemeier
  • The Rise of Nanobots
    Scientists are building the next generation of atomic-scale devices
    By Mihail C. Roco
  • Digital Test Tube
    Digital simulations have become so powerful that companies send their products through the wringer—sometimes literally—before ever building a prototype
    By James D. Myers