Many U.S. firms have long had a simple mantra: “Invent here, manufacture there.” But, increasingly, those same companies are now choosing to invent as well as manufacture abroad. From automotive to semiconductors to pharma to clean energy, America’s innovation centers have shifted east, offering growing evidence that the U.S. has lost what Harvard Business School’s Willy Shih calls the “industrial commons”: indispensable production skills and capabilities. It’s not just that virtually all consumer electronics are designed and made overseas. It’s that the U.S. has lost the underlying capacity to make products like flat-panel displays, cell phones, and laptops; nearly half of the foreign R&D centers established in China now belong to U.S.-based companies.
This isn’t just a lesson for the United States. It’s a lesson for countries around the world: Once manufacturing bids farewell, engineering and production know-how depart as well, and innovation activities eventually follow. We can trace how this happened in the U.S. by looking back to the original offshoring frenzy which started with consumer electronics in the 1960s. The invention of modern transistors, the adoption of standardized shipping containers, and the advent of low-cost assembly lines in East Asia lowered costs and created larger markets for televisions and radios, setting the stage for an Asian manufacturing powerhouse. By the time that substantial U.S. federal research investments enabled the invention of the magnetic storage drive, lithium-ion batteries, and liquid crystal display technologies that paved the way for the next generation of consumer electronics in the 1980s and 1990s, the U.S. had already ceded electronics manufacturing to Asia.
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