There are no dirty kilns, here. No greasy gears. Over by the stock room, Petrarca points to white markings on the floor where the old conveyor belt once stood; it is almost entirely dismantled now.

The American factory is no longer a long line of unskilled laborers fixed at their stations, each performing a discrete task with mass production in mind. Those jobs — cranking out t-shirts and, now, cell phones — are in China or Mexico, where the labor is cheaper. And if costs rise too much, they'll move to Bangladesh.

Instead, it's computers, robots, and the quiet chatter of skilled technicians. And this is where the country's competitive advantage lies. If the work is complex, if precision and quality are paramount, if nimble, small-batch production is important, the US manufacturer has a leg up.

All the automation has led to remarkable gains in productivity. In the last decade output at American factories has grown by one-third, adjusted for inflation. Indeed, by this measure, US manufacturing was humming even during the naysaying of the aughts.

But greater efficiency, of course, means fewer workers. Astro-Med, Petrarca tells me, has held steady on its manufacturing staff in recent years — they're at about 190 people now out of 360 total employees — even as it has tripled its product line.

And it is easy to see why. Take the circuit boards the company builds for its products. When Petrarca started working at Astro-Med in 1980, he says, at least a half-dozen assemblers hand-placed color-coded transistors, capacitors, and resistors on the boards; another employee or two soldered the pieces in place.

On the day I visit, one of Astro-Med's three board specialists, Amy Fredette, has fed a circuit board into a $50,000 machine that applies soldering paste with a squeegee and moved it over to a $225,000 Samsung robot loaded with components.

The robot, roughly the size of a large basement freezer, has a glass enclosure on top, housing an arm that moves with astonishing speed — four suction cups picking up components and placing them on the board within an accuracy of 50 microns, or 1.9 thousandths of an inch.

Fredette tells me it will take nine minutes for the robot to complete this rather large board, assuming no problems along the way. I ask her how long it would take a person to do the same task manually.

"Oh, nobody could," she tells me. "All day."

_DSC8786c_main
TOUCH-UP Limited mobility for blue-collar workers like Kiefer.

THE GAP

If the arrival of "advanced manufacturing" means fewer jobs, it also means a fading promise of advancement for the sort of entry-level manual laborers who once powered the American factory.

Take Melissa Kiefer, 32, a North Attleboro, Massachusetts native who now lives in Warwick. She is friendly, bright, with brown hair that spills past the shoulders.

At Bridgewater State University, she majored in criminal justice, and she hoped to work as a police officer after graduation. She passed all the required tests in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, she tells me, and got to the fourth stage of the interview process with the North Attleboro Police Department. But the slots were few, the competition fierce.

"It's a tough career to get into," she says.

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