The erosion of US manufacturing isn’t a foregone conclusion. The decade ahead—with increased demand, new technology, and value chain optimization—will give the sector a chance to turn around.
- Guarda il video “Making it in America: Revitalizing US manufacturing”.
US manufacturing is not what it was a generation ago. Its contraction has been felt by firms, suppliers, workers, and entire communities. In fact, the erosion of manufacturing has contributed two-thirds of the fall in labor’s share of US GDP.
But the decline has played out unevenly. In the past two decades, output growth in US manufacturing has been concentrated in only a few industries, including pharmaceuticals, electronics, and aerospace. Most other manufacturing industries have experienced slower growth or real declines in value added. The largest US manufacturers have managed to thrive despite growing headwinds, while small and midsize firms have been hit hard. Large firms have a stake in addressing this issue, since they face more risk without a healthy ecosystem of domestic suppliers to provide more agility and opportunities for collaboration.
Today the prevailing narrative says that nothing can be done to stop the ongoing decline of US manufacturing at the hands of globalization and technology. But continued losses are not a foregone conclusion.
The decade ahead will reshape global manufacturing as demand grows, technology unlocks productivity gains, and companies find growth in new parts of the value chain—all of which creates an opening for US manufacturing to turn things around. After combining demand projections with an analysis of specific industry trends and historic performance, the McKinsey Global Institute finds that the United States could boost annual manufacturing value added by up to $530 billion (20 percent) over current trends by 2025. Given the importance of manufacturing to the broader economy, capturing these opportunities should be a national priority. Rather than attempting to re-create the past or preserve the status quo, the United States will need to focus on positioning its manufacturing sector to compete in the future.
A wave of change presents manufacturers with new opportunities and imperatives
Manufacturing is being reshaped by three major trends: rising demand, the convergence of multiple new technologies, and shifting global value chains.
Demand is rising—and fragmenting
One fundamental advantage for US manufacturing remains unchanged: the United States is still one of the most lucrative markets in the world. While consumer demand may be muted by lackluster income growth, access to the US market remains a powerful lure for domestic and foreign manufacturers alike. US demand for heavy machinery, equipment, and building materials could also increase if public investment revives from its 50-year lows.
But the US market is not the same familiar ground it was in the past. The uneven nature of regional income growth translates into wide market variations. US consumers are more diverse and tech-savvy than in the past—and they have high expectations for quality, low prices, and variety. One global food manufacturer reports that the SKU count of its North American business unit rose by 66 percent in just three years.
Beyond the domestic market, demand is soaring in emerging economies around the world. Over the next decade, another one billion urban residents will begin earning enough discretionary income to make significant purchases of goods and services. By 2025, according to McKinsey estimations, consumption in emerging markets will hit $30 trillion. But tapping into demand growth in emerging economies requires knowing exactly where and how to compete. Markets such as Africa, Brazil, China, and India represent an enormous prize, but they have dizzying regional, ethnic, linguistic, and income diversity.
All of this means that manufacturers must navigate greater complexity than ever before. They are being challenged to produce a wider range of product models with differing features, price points, and marketing approaches. From fast fashion to new car models, products now have shorter life cycles, and customers are beginning to demand more choice and customization.
Industry 4.0 technologies are beginning to transform manufacturing
The US manufacturing sector needs an injection of productivity, and companies cannot capture the demand opportunities described above unless they step up their game. New technologies will play a large role in determining whether they can compete.
Today multiple technology advances are converging. This new wave, referred to as Industry 4.0, is driven by an explosion in the volume of available data, developments in analytics and machine learning, new forms of human–machine interaction (such as touch interfaces and augmented-reality systems), and the ability to transmit digital instructions to the physical world. Such complementary technologies can run smart, cost-efficient, and automated plants that produce large volumes—or, conversely, plants that turn out highly customized products.
These technologies touch on every aspect of manufacturing (see the interactive). New design and simulation tools can create “digital twins” of physical products and production processes, validating product designs and using virtual simulations to iron out the production process before it goes live. One aircraft manufacturer that implemented a rapid-simulation platform has reduced design time, cut design rework by 20 percent, and boosted engineering productivity. Internet of Things sensors can feed real-time data into analytics systems, which can adjust machinery remotely to minimize defects, improve yield, and reduce downtime and waste. Collaborative robots can handle dangerous tasks and eliminate safety risks, while 3-D printing can now produce intricate, multimaterial components and final goods. Beyond the factory floor, new applications for coordinating distributed supplier networks improve the flow and tracking of raw materials and manufactured parts.
Manufacturing involves market research, demand forecasting, product development, distribution, and services—activities that may take place in multiple locations or involve outside providers. Companies will soon be able to connect their entire value chain, including customers, with a seamless flow of data. This “digital thread” may lead to new sources of productivity and revenue.
Value is shifting, leading companies to rethink their business models, footprint, and sourcing
Manufacturers are finding ways to capture value beyond traditional production activities—whether upstream in design and product development or downstream in services. Some aerospace firms, for instance, provide leased aviation services, including pilots, aerial refueling, and “power by the hour.” John Deere has added sensors to the farm machinery it sells. The data it captures enable the company to offer farmers new types of user-sourced, real-time information on planting, soil health, and other best practices. Nvidia, a maker of graphics-processing units and chips, has established a developer platform, increasing the sales and reach of its core products.
Input costs are also changing. The gap between labor costs in the United States and those available overseas has narrowed, while the cost of industrial robots continues to fall. These trends have led some manufacturers to return production to the United States, albeit in more automated form. Finally, the dramatic increase in US shale-energy production provides ongoing assurance of low natural-gas costs for US-based plants, and it has made cost-effective raw inputs available to US producers of refined petroleum products, petrochemicals, and fertilizers.
Labor costs will continue to be paramount for low-margin and tradable products, but companies in many industries are reassessing the downsides of offshoring and lengthy supply chains. More firms are making footprint decisions using a “total factor performance” approach that considers logistics, lead time, productivity, and risk—as well as proximity to suppliers, other company operations, and final demand.
The United States has an opportunity to boost manufacturing GDP by up to $530 billion over current trends
Translating the trends described above into opportunities, MGI has created three scenarios for 2025. They combine consumption forecasts with industry-by-industry analysis that considers the probability and potential impact of higher technology adoption, export growth, and share of domestic content in finished goods.
Real value added in US manufacturing stood at $2.2 trillion in 2015. In the “current trend” scenario, we assume that the share of domestically produced content continues its trajectory of decline across most industries. Even in this case, manufacturing GDP would increase over the next decade by $350 billion in real terms. This can be attributed to rising demand that lifts output across all industries, plus new output from petrochemical, fertilizer, and energy-processing plants coming online in the next decade.
We also consider a “new normal” scenario in which the United States maintains the current level of domestic content in finished goods in most industries, arresting the decline. In this case, value added across the manufacturing sector would hit $2.8 trillion by 2025, an increase of some $300 billion over the current trend.
Finally, we consider a “stretch” scenario in which GDP in some industries returns to a recent peak (exhibit). It is based on an analysis of global trends and each industry’s health in the United States; it also assumes greater technology diffusion and incorporates the higher-end projection for energy-intensive production output. By maximizing all of the opportunities, US manufacturing GDP would climb to $3 trillion in 2025—a boost of $530 billion, or 20 percent, above the current trend.
The biggest upside potential is found in advanced manufacturing industries—areas in which the United States should have a competitive advantage but instead runs a large trade deficit. With Asian, European, and luxury carmakers gaining market share and domestic OEMs sourcing more heavily from Mexico for SUVs and pickup trucks sold in the United States, imports have risen in recent years. But foreign carmakers are expanding some US production of both parts and finished cars—and since car production is already starting from a large base, even a small percentage increase adds significant value. Aerospace is another industry with significant potential. Its domestic production remains strong, global market growth is expected to be robust, and import competition remains relatively weak. Computer and electronics industries could also make a contribution, given that domestic content has stabilized recently and demand is expected to stay strong. By contrast, we find limited prospects for growth in industries such as basic consumer goods, where domestic production has already been hollowed out.
In addition to boosting its value added by $530 billion, the manufacturing sector could add 2.4 million jobs on top of current trends by realizing the stretch scenario. Furthermore, the positive effects would ripple into services and other industries, potentially creating another $170 billion of direct value added and almost one million jobs in industries that provide inputs to manufacturing. Adding together the manufacturing and upstream effects, the total potential benefit to the economy could be $700 billion in additional annual value added and 3.3 million net new jobs.
US manufacturing needs to scale up efforts on multiple fronts to compete in the future
The opportunities outlined above are real and substantial, but the United States will have to make up lost ground. No one should underestimate the effort it will take to turn things around.
Strengthen the US supplier base
In contrast to the institutional support enjoyed by Germany’s Mittelstand (medium-size firms), small and midsize US manufacturers typically lack financial, technical, and business-development help. The German approach may not translate into the US context, but there are ideas to extract from it about the value of greater coordination.
Keeping suppliers at arm’s length affects the bottom line of large manufacturers. Inefficiencies in OEM–supplier interactions can add up to 5 percent of development, tooling, and product costs in the auto industry. These costs are significantly higher for US carmakers than for their Asian counterparts. Similar inefficiencies affect other industries, and they are likely to multiply as manufacturers seek to expand product portfolios and reduce turnaround times. Firms that work closely with their tier-one suppliers may have little visibility into their tier-two and tier-three suppliers, especially if they are overseas.
Over time, seeking out ever-lower bids from suppliers produces diminishing returns. Procurement can be a source of value rather than simply a place to cut costs, but this mind-set requires large firms to change incentive structures among their own purchasing teams. Large firms can benefit from identifying which of their suppliers provide critical, high-value components; these may not be the largest suppliers. Instead of just monitoring them, large firms could solicit their ideas, invest in their capabilities, and build trust to create a preferred relationship. Beyond their current suppliers, large companies also need to be engaged in strengthening the entire base of smaller manufacturers.
Policy can play a role in modernizing smaller manufacturers through financing programs, business accelerators, or tax incentives. The US federal government has established the Manufacturing Extension Partnership for small and medium-size firms, but it does not have the scale for maximum impact. Smaller firms need expanded access to advanced technology, whether at federal labs, universities, or public–private hubs.
Pursue growth through deeper global engagement
Emerging markets present crucial opportunities to win brand loyalty from huge new customer bases. But less than 1 percent of US companies sell abroad, a far lower share than in other large advanced economies. Small and midsize US manufacturers need more mentorship and strategic guidance to understand the market opportunities at stake, and they need more of the networking opportunities that their counterparts enjoy in many other advanced economies. They also need access to capital in order to handle the additional costs associated with exporting. But trade finance remains a major barrier for them; in fact, access to capital has generally been tighter for small firms in the United States than in other countries of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development since the Great Recession.
The United States is already the largest recipient of foreign direct investment (FDI) globally, but it can attract more greenfield FDI, particularly from China and India. The federal government can play a bigger role in facilitating these matches and directing investment where it is most needed, as investment promotion agencies do in other countries around the world.
Improve digital adoption to boost productivity
The US manufacturing sector’s relatively slow pace of digital adoption has been a drag on its productivity performance. The intensity of industrial robot usage remains lower in the United States than in countries such as Germany, Japan, and South Korea. While US plants turning out vehicles and electronics are generally highly automated, robots have relatively little penetration in large US industries such as metals and food processing.
To capitalize on technology, companies have to start by capturing, integrating, and analyzing data flows from across their operations and ecosystems. Building the right structures for exchanging and safeguarding information is critical. Some machinery will have to be upgraded or replaced. More fundamentally, manufacturers will need to identify strategic use cases, link their digital initiatives to their broader business strategy, and consider how to begin working alongside machines in a more automated and data-driven environment.
Develop the manufacturing workforce of the future
Many manufacturers, particularly in advanced industries, report difficulties filling open positions. Over the longer term, these issues seem likely to worsen. The manufacturing workforce is aging, and highly specialized skills will be lost to retirement. The median age of a US worker in the aerospace supply chain, for instance, is 50 years old.
Tomorrow’s manufacturing jobs may have very different and more digital skill requirements. Education systems alone cannot be expected to solve all the potential mismatches beyond providing basic math and digital skills. Workforce apprenticeships are gaining traction in the United States, but now these efforts need to happen on a much larger scale and with a system of established, transferable credentials. MGI estimates that ramping up a program to apprentice roughly one million workers annually might cost $40 billion a year.
Think—and invest—for the long term
Faced with competitive headwinds, financial constraints, or shareholders driven by short-term expectations, US manufacturers have deferred investment and focused on cutting costs. The average US factory was 16 years old in 1980, but today it is 25 years old. Inside the plant, the average piece of equipment was seven years old in 1980 but is nine years old today. Production assets are even older in metals, machinery, and equipment manufacturing. MGI estimates that upgrading the capital base would require $115 billion in annual investment—and companies that put off investing will not be positioned to capitalize when growth picks up.
The federal government has multiple programs already in existence, such as the Manufacturing Extension Partnership for small and medium-size firms and SelectUSA for attracting FDI. But these and other efforts generally have smaller budgets, less certainty of ongoing funding, and more constraints on their mandates than comparable programs in other countries. Policy makers should examine which existing initiatives are producing the most promising results, then scale up those efforts and commit to them for the long term.
Local policy makers, too, can fall into a short-term mind-set. Announcing a brand-new manufacturing plant to their constituents is a political win, but it is too often accomplished by awarding poorly designed subsidies to individual companies without ensuring a sufficient return. Incentives are most effective as part of a solid and more holistic economic-development plan targeting growth industries that complement a region’s legacy strengths. Most subsidies are geared to greenfield investment, but incentives for brownfield investment could help existing firms upgrade and stay productive. Local regions have to sustain investment in workforce skills, infrastructure, institutions, and quality of life over the long haul.
It is not hard to find industry success stories and promising initiatives in US manufacturing, but isolated examples have not created broad momentum. Revitalizing the entire sector will require dramatically scaling up what works—and the task is too big for any single entity. Manufacturing needs supportive government programs and policies with long-term certainty and funding. It also needs regional coalitions with everyone at the table: large and small manufacturers, workers, technology experts, educators, public officials, and investors.
- Download the technical appendix to this report. (PDF-591KB)
About the author(s)
Sree Ramaswamy is a partner at the McKinsey Global Institute and is based in McKinsey’s Washington, DC, office; James Manyika is chairman and a director of MGI and a senior partner in the San Francisco office, where Gary Pinkus is a senior partner; Katy George is a senior partner in the New Jersey office, where Andrea Serafino is a consultant; Jonathan Law is a partner in the New York office; and Tony Gambell is a partner in the Chicago office.