Manpower to Think-Power: The New U.S. Manufacturing Renaissance

We are at the cusp of a new power shift as manufacturing moves from Manpower to ‘Think Power’.

In 1908, Henry Ford innovated U.S. industry and turned the country into a manufacturing technology epicenter with the assembly line.  He used creative thinking and a determination to simplify and advance a painstakingly slow process.

It happened again with the onset of World War II.  Never before in history was so much produced in such a small window of time - once again revolutionizing and innovating U.S. manufacturing.  And, while the forty years after World War II saw U.S. manufacturing rise to “super power” status, the last two decades have experienced a devastating shift. Production has been nearly flat for over a decade, the U.S. has lost one-third of its manufacturing workforce, and investment in new production capacity has all but stalled.

By contrast, countries like China and India have thrived.  With many U.S. companies moving their manufacturing overseas for a cheaper workforce, lenient regulations and overall cost savings, the manufacturing sector in the U.S. has rapidly declined and its #1 status erased. 

However, our history is dense with great comeback stories and the U.S. is in the midst of a really good one right now.

The United States is currently experiencing a kind of manufacturing renaissance which is catapulting the country back into a position of power: manufacturing has moved from “Manpower” to “Think-Power” and that shift is powering the next-generation of products and innovations.

The Think-Power manufacturing renaissance was enabled largely by combining the innovation, creativity, and ingenuity of manufacturing companies together with the research capabilities of academia and national research laboratories.  Already today, we see examples of new manufacturing technologies emerging that will have a disruptive effect on the way things are made. Examples include additive manufacturing (3D printing), bio-manufacturing, intelligent robotics and automation, nano-manufacturing and other novel fabrication techniques. 

Each of these new manufacturing technologies in turn unleashes a new spectrum of product innovations and use-cases.

For example, 3D printing facilitates the invention of new products that were previously ‘unmakable’ via machining or molding, and it also enables consumers to affordably customize products to their exact specifications. Bio-manufacturing enables the isolation and purification of natural medicines and pharmaceuticals, and even the design of replacement organs that graft naturally with body tissue.

Similarly, nano-manufacturing enables the production of entirely new materials that are built ‘bottom-up,’ molecule-by-molecule, with high precision and imbued with novel properties. For example, haptic motors (the mechanism that vibrates your phone and gaming devices) can be engineered out of a single polymer plastic whose molecules can be expanded or contracted on command – eliminating all other moving parts. Moreover, this haptic polymer material can be manufactured as thin as a human hair and can be precisely controlled to mimic textures, sounds and natural sensations against one’s skin, which opens up new uses for sensory feedback in products as diverse as keyboards and mobile phones, to medical devices, to clothing.

Extrapolating further, the discovery and refinement of new manufacturing techniques starts to blur the definition of what is a manufactured product. In the case of the nano-scale haptic polymer example, the addition of precise, physical sensory experiences can transform a discrete consumer electronics device into more of a natural extension or augmentation of the human body. 

In fact, I believe that manufacturing innovations in the very near future will enable lifelike sensory experiences that combine feelings and emotions also. This trend is sometimes called the Neo-Sensory Age, and it’s on a significant growth trajectory.

Manufacturing for the Neo-Sensory Age is the ultimate example of Think-Power manufacturing. It aims to create products that excite the senses and connect machines, devices and humans together – and it brings entirely new disciplines to be part of the manufacturing equation.  In addition to industrial engineers and assemblers, knowledge workers with skills like psychiatry, biochemistry, data science and A.I programming are being added to the product development teams.

One of the leaders in the Neo-Sensory Age manufacturing trend is San Francisco-based Novasentis.  As the developer of the world’s thinnest Electro-Mechanical Polymer (EMP) actuator, the company invented state of the art processes to laminate thin film fluorinated polymers in a manner that is scalable to high volume and low cost implementation. Novasentis has also developed a proprietary and highly tuned composition of the electromechanical polymer that optimizes power, strength and efficiency for actuation.

“Our manufacturing facility in State College, Pennsylvania, is a shining example of the possibilities and innovations born from creativity, imagination and inventiveness,” said Dr. Christophe Ramstein, President and CEO of Novasentis.  “Our Neo-Sensory Age manufacturing techniques are as novel and disruptive as our product, and have enabled us to mass-produce core materials for next generation consumer electronics devices.”

Dominance in manufacturing has always relied on technical superiority. Today, U.S. companies like Novasentis are developing Think-Power manufacturing breakthroughs at such a rapid rate that it will be close to impossible for others to replicate it over the short term.  The Think-Power renaissance is a trend shift that portends well for U.S. manufacturing – creating what may be the great 21st Century comeback story for the history books.


Dr. Christophe Ramstein is President & CEO of Novasentis