Information technology 'revolution' will aid manufacturing

Energy.gov

Article Highlights

  • Smart manufacturing has extraordinary economic implications for the US.

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  • In the last 3 decades, computing speeds have risen 200,000-fold, while costs have dropped 10,000-fold. @Mark_J_Perry

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  • “It's time to start modernizing the electrical infrastructure now to prepare for an exciting digital future.” -@Mark_J_Perry

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We are on the cusp of a revolution in information technology that will be even larger than the one that's taken place over the past 40 years. Evidence of this transformation is emerging in what's known as direct-digital manufacturing, an innovation that could lead to the "desktop" printing of entire products from automobiles to washing machines.

Some products developed from three-dimensional computerized manufacturing — such as patient-specific implants for hip joints or teeth, and lighter and stronger aircraft parts — are being made from computer-engineered materials that did not exist a few years ago.

Smart manufacturing, in which the science of emerging materials revolutionizes the very fabrication of physical products, has extraordinary economic implications for the United States, which is at the epicenter of digital innovation.

Yet this good news gives rise to some serious questions: Will the United States be able to produce enough electricity to power smart manufacturing and the wireless revolution? Or will a failure to modernize the nation's electric power infrastructure — power plants and the transmission grid — wind up stalling the potentially great economic gains from the pending technological transformations?

Mark Mills, a physicist who worked in the White House science office during the Reagan administration and now is chief executive officer of the Digital Power Group, a technology and investment advisory firm, addressed the coming technological boom in a recent talk at an energy conference in Charlotte.

This is a big-data era, he said, and the greatest demand for electricity comes from moving, creating and storing data.

What's missing is any public awareness of the huge quantities of electricity needed to power data centers. It's been estimated that data centers consume 1.3 percent of the world's electricity, and there are tens of thousands of electronic data centers being built, and each one needs as much electricity as a steel mill.

Those requirements underscore the need to build many more "base-load" power plants in the United States. Because renewable energy sources are unreliable, most of the electricity will need to come from nuclear power and the abundance of cheap natural gas. But too few power plants are being built.

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas has projected potential power shortages over the next decade, and other states, particularly several in the Midwest, have reserve margins that are too short for comfort.

The need for improvements in the electrical infrastructure is not to be underestimated. It's essential to our economic well-being, especially in the context of the technological innovations in automation, information systems and advanced manufacturing sweeping our country.

After all, it is technological innovation that drives economic growth, and only growth will raise our standard of living over time. Without adequate supplies of electricity, our economic growth can be compromised.

To grasp the magnitude of the changes taking place, consider that, in the last three decades, computing speeds have risen 200,000-fold, while costs have dropped 10,000-fold. In 1980, it cost $10,000 for the hardware to store a single book. Today it costs one penny. That's why a Kindle can store thousands of books. And the cost of storing books and digital information is still collapsing.

We're entering a new age of super-computing, providing cheap information and processing power to nearly everyone. But that assumes that our electricity production keeps pace with the rising energy demands of the new information-intensive technologies. Those states that fail to increase electrical generating capacity will pay a huge price for such shortsightedness in terms of lost economic opportunities and jobs. It's time to start modernizing the electrical infrastructure now to prepare for an exciting digital future.

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Mark J.
Perry

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