Made in America, Again

Bringing manufacturing jobs back to the U.S. is politically savvy and can make economic sense.

Offshore labor: A worker in a Foxconn factory assembles consumer electronics for U.S. markets.

At a dinner for Silicon Valley big shots in February 2011, President Obama asked Steve Jobs what it would take to manufacture the iPhone in the United States. Apple’s founder and CEO is said to have responded directly: “Those jobs aren’t coming back.”

In December, Apple reversed course, saying it planned to assemble a line of Mac computers in the U.S. With that, Apple joined a wave of companies that say manufacturing in this country makes sense again. Companies that say they’ve brought back jobs include General Electric, Michigan Ladder, and Wham-O, which in 2010 hired eight people to make Frisbees in Los Angeles instead of China. An MIT study in 2012 found that 14 percent of companies intend to move some manufacturing back home.

The idea is known as “reshoring.” Although Chinese wages are a fraction of U.S. labor costs, rising shipping rates, quality problems, and the intangible costs of being far from headquarters all add up. That’s why some companies have begun to rethink the manufacturing equation.

MIT Technology Review interviewed Harry Moser, head of the Chicago-basedReshoring Initiative, about the trend. Moser, a former industry executive whose family has been involved in American manufacturing for a century, says he grew up “experiencing the glory of U.S. manufacturing.” He created the initiative to help companies compare the real costs of manufacturing at home and abroad, and to track the experiences of those who are returning.

Why are people talking about reshoring all of a sudden?

It’s actually been happening over the last few years. The obvious answer is that Chinese wages are doubling every four years. The consultants who five years ago were helping people offshore are now helping them inshore. And then you have President Obama making a big deal over how to reduce imports and start making stuff again.

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