Manufacturing Coming Home

By: Richard Nass, Design News

Manufacturing in the US is making a comeback. It has to be true — it said so in my local newspaper. Actually, a similar story has been reported in lots of places, including a recent study released by the McKinsey Global Institute. That study is titled, “The next era of global growth and innovation.”

Propelling this comeback is an increased need to reduce the duration between the time that a product is designed and the time that it appears on the shelves. While much of the design has always occurred in the US, there was generally a lag before the product hit manufacture, which often occurred in a faraway place like China or India.

While we like to think we live and work in an ever-shrinking world (and we do), there’s still some amount of time to transfer information. And depending on the size of the run, it may or may not make fiscal sense, especially as manufacturing in the US is gaining momentum.

Part of this shift to the US has to do with the fact that labor costs in places like China are on the rise. There are also uncertain and potentially rising tariffs, fluctuating currency exchange rates, and fuel costs that have turned sharply upward in the past 24 months. Mix all those facts together, and when you ask why manufacturing is making a comeback domestically, the question becomes, “Why not?”

Wal-Mart recently announced that it would be buying an additional $50 billion worth of US-made products over the next decade. That sounds like a pretty good indicator to me. The company plans to increase orders for items like paper and sporting goods, which it already buys domestically, and bring back production of some textiles, furniture, and higher-end appliances. The latter item surprises me the most, as the US seems to have lost the appliance battle, but time will tell.

A defining statement in the McKinsey report sums it up: “As long as companies and countries understand the evolving nature of manufacturing and act on the powerful trends shaping the global competitive environment, they can thrive in this promising future.”

It’s generally acknowledged that manufacturing tends to rise as an economy grows, with emphasized growth coming out of the recession like the one of a few years back. Sustaining that growth, and by how much, is dependent on a bunch of factors. They include the availability of low-cost and/or highly skilled labor; having and/or building the proper infrastructure, meaning efficient transportation of resources/materials and of goods produced; and access to the technology that’s required to manufacture goods in this new world. There’s also a difference between manufacturing complex products as opposed to more simple goods.

A nice benefit of the increase in manufacturing is the service industries that get pulled along in tow. Depending on your definition, this could include the research and development activities, sales and marketing jobs, and certainly customer support.

The final piece of this puzzle lies with investment. Will the proper level of investment be made to fully secure the manufacturing growth in the US? If the promises made by both parties in the recent election hold true, the investment will be there. Where it comes from specifically is still to be determined, but it likely (hopefully?) will materialize.

One comment

  1. Jong Dellow /

    Manufacturing takes turns under all types of economic systems. In a free market economy, manufacturing is usually directed toward the mass production of products for sale to consumers at a profit. In a collectivist economy, manufacturing is more frequently directed by the state to supply a centrally planned economy. In mixed market economies, manufacturing occurs under some degree of government regulation.:^-.

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