Where the Next Boom Is Coming From

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- You never know, at the start of an economic recovery, where the next boom is coming from. Of one thing you can be certain -- it won't be where the last boom landed. In this case, it won't be in housing.

This has held true throughout my career. You didn't find the economy of the 2000s in the embers of the dot-bomb. I remember spending years talking up multimedia in the 1990s, but it was the Internet that was on our doorstep. In the 1980s, everyone talked about the PC, but it was the secular change to client server computing that made the economy run.

I believe the next boom has begun. You just can't see it because it's still a baby boom.

It's about making stuff.

It starts from America's low input costs . Taxes are low and easily evaded. Labor costs are moderate for the developed world, workers quiescent. Low energy prices are the secret sauce. We're even competitive with China.

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But China can match all this. Chinese companies can mass produce solar panels for less than we'll be able to. Energy prices will, given some time, reach world levels.

What will differentiate America in this decade is "making." Starting with 3D printing and robotics.

"Making" uses social networking and the Internet to bring minds together. It uses programming, especially open source, to quickly develop solutions. It enhances PC and printing technologies that were developed here in the 1970s. It will be built on venture capital and research university systems dating from the 1960s.

The seeds were planted by Dean Kamen's US First and the Maker Faires. Kamen succeeded in getting millions of kids interested in tinkering and working with robots. We now have more of the skills necessary to advance the state of the art than any other country. The Maker Faires will, in time, become the West Coast Computer Faires of the new boom.

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3D printers are already being developed that will cost just $500. MIT has a system to turn around a robot design in 24 hours. This is already making its mark in business, super-fast prototyping and one-at-a-time production of precision parts.

A home printer may not be able to make big stuff, but a robot that can weave with plastic may. And the intelligence within that robot means it can react to its environment. You're talking about customization built on any scale, robotically, computer-controlled.

America's weakness in manufacturing has always been the size of the order. You need 10,000 units, you need 1 million units, you need 10 million units. For that kind of work, the fast way to get there is to hire hundreds of thousands of people and warehouse them -- just as your great-grandmother may have been warehoused in New York a century ago.

But that's the past.

The future lies in one-at-a-time, precision production done for less than the cost of mass manufacturing. It lies with trained minds, not trained hands, as it has for a generation now.

At this point in the evolution of Moore's Law, in 1972, Texas Instruments was just coming out with its first calculator. The Apple II was still several years away. At this point in the 1990s' boom, we were still noodling around with CD-ROMs. The Web had been invented, as an idea, but it had yet to be spun.

Our kids have great times awaiting them.

--

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