RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
It's been years since Apple computers were made in this country, but last week, the company's CEO, Tim Cook, announced that was about to change. He said Apple is spending about $100 million to begin manufacturing a line of Macs in the U.S. NPR's Steven Henn reports it's a tiny investment for Apple, but it could be the beginning of a trend by makers of other products.
STEVE HENN, BYLINE: To understand where U.S. manufacturing might be headed, I wanted to introduce you to Baxter. Baxter's a little over six feet tall. He has an expressive face, long red arms and a circuit board for a brain. He's also kind of shy.
JIM DALY: If you get into its workspace, it will turn red. His face will turn red, like it's blushing.
HENN: You probably realized Baxter's a robot. Jim Daly is vice president of manufacturing at Rethink Robotics. He says Baxter's completely different from industrial robots common in huge factories. First off, you don't have to be a computer programmer to teach Baxter what to do.
DALY: You teach it the same way you teach a person or a child to do something. You hold his hand. So if you wanted to pick up an object, you show Baxter, by grabbing his hand, where the object is. It has cameras and sensors, and you pick that object up and you move it and put it down where you want it to put it down. And Baxter will remember that.
HENN: Baxter's designed to replace unskilled labor on the factory floor, and he's cheap: less than $30,000.
DALY: Baxter will help U.S. manufacturers not have to offshore their product, because they'll be more competitive.
HENN: Over the past 25 years, U.S. manufacturers were lured to China by the promise of cheap, plentiful labor. But Vivek Wadhwa, a fellow at Stanford University, believes technologies like Baxter - which use artificial intelligence to create easily programmable, flexible robots - are undercutting that advantage.
VIVEK WADHWA: Five to 10 years from now, you're going to find that most manufacturing begins to move back to the United States.
HENN: Wadhwa says more and more executives are realizing that manufacturing in China has high hidden costs, from public relations problems to piracy to transportation and logistics.
WADHWA: It's not practical to be manufacturing in China, and this is what companies are realizing, that it makes a lot more sense to bring it back to the United States.
HENN: Still, there are barriers to bringing large scale, high-tech manufacturing home to the U.S. They just aren't what you would expect. When NBC's Brian Williams asked Apple's CEO Tim Cook what an iPhone would cost if it were built here, Cook replied price really wasn't the problem.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "NBC NIGHTLY NEWS")
TIM COOK: It's about the skills, et cetera. Over time, there are skills that are associated with manufacturing that have left the U.S. - not necessarily people, but the education system's not producing them.
HENN: Manufacturing experts say rebuilding those skills and bringing supply chains back to the U.S. will take time, but every high-tech project helps. When Jim Daly at Rethink Robotics was deciding where to build Baxter, he looked all around the world.
DALY: We decided, for lots of reasons, including intellectual property protection, including cost, that we'd like to look here in the U.S. And, frankly, I was quite pleased - having not spent a lot of time looking at manufacturing in the U.S. for many years - how competitive it had gotten.
HENN: In the 1990s, Daly helped Apple set up a factory to build Macintosh computers in California. Now, with Baxter, he's back in the U.S. Steve Henn, NPR News, Silicon Valley. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.