The Battery Breakthrough That Could Juice U.S. Manufacturing

In a new report, McKinsey describes a broad new age of manufacturing that it calls Industry 4.0. The consulting firm says the changes under way are affecting most businesses. They are probably not “another industrial revolution,” it says, but together, there is “strong potential to change the way factories work.”

For decades, the US has watched its bedrock manufacturing industries wither away, as they’ve instead grown thick in Japan, in South Korea, in China, Taiwan and elsewhere in Asia. According to the Economic Policy Institute, the US lost about 5 million manufacturing jobs just from 1997 to 2014. This includes the production of lithium-ion batteries, which, though invented by Americans, were commercialized in Japan and later South Korea and China.

So Chiang’s innovation could be a poster-child for a new strain of thinking in the US. This says that, while such industries are not likely to return from Asia, the US can possibly reinvent how they manufacture. The country wouldn’t take back nearly as many jobs as it has lost. But there could be large profits, as the country once again moves a step ahead in crucial areas of technology.

To be clear, this is not Chiang’s goal. He is a professed universalist, divorced from scientific realpolitik. But should he succeed, as he plans to, then in addition to helping to decode the perplexing problem of batteries, he might contribute to continuing America’s political and economic dominance.

—Steve LeVine, Washington correspondent for Quartz and author of The Powerhouse: Inside the Invention of a Battery to Save the Worldexplains how Yet-Ming Chiang’s startup 24M is reinventing lithium-ion battery manufacturing, potentially making the devices able to compete on cost with gasoline.

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