Manufacturing is not returning to the West


There’s many claims over the last year or so that “manufacturing is returning to the West” and “China’s days as the world’s factory are numbered”{{1}}. These claims are misguided.

[[1]]Vivek Wadhwa (23 July 2012), The End of Chinese Manufacturing and Rebirth of U.S. Industry, Forbes[[1]]

We’ve just reached a time where manual and skilled labour is no longer a major manufacturing cost, causing final assembly to slowly drifting toward the customer base it serves. This shift reduces the length of the supply chain from assembly to your front door resulting in a reduction in turn-around time which, in turn, reduces working capital requirements and allows manufacturers to push product updates through the supply chain faster.

Manufacturing isn’t leaving China and other low cost manufacturing centres. What has changed is that it now makes good sense to manufacture some high value but low volume and bulky products in other major markets, such as the U.S.

The problem with thinking that manufacturing is returning to the first world is the implicit assumption that this also means that the old manufacturing jobs will return. They won’t. They no longer exist. It also ignores that fact that the huge scale of manufacturing in China will help it to grab the lions share of the world manufacturing market for some time to come.

Manufacturing as a manual process

Consider Henry Ford’s assembly line from 1913: a complex, labour intensive process that created a large number of good, blue collar jobs.

566px-Ford_assembly_line_-_1913Source: Public Domain

When we think of manufacturing this is the image we usually have in head. It’s a bit like those train crossing signs that have a caricature of a steam engine on them. It might not be the current reality, but it’s the image we use to understand what’s going on around us.

As transport costs dropped, work moved to lower cost countries

Back in Henry Ford’s day transportation was expensive. Factories were often located close to the markets they served to minimise transport costs, with management struggling to ensure that enough raw materials arrived at the factory to keep it busy. However, the development of railroads, steam ships, and the shipping container network incrementally cut the cost of transport until it cost roughly the same to move a box across the world as it did to move it across the country.

As Marc Levinson points out in his book, The Box{{2}}:

[[2]]Marc Levinson, The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger. iBooks.[[2]]

As transportation costs decline relative to other costs, manufacturers can relocate first domestically, and then internationally, to reduce other costs, which come to loom larger. Globalization, the diffusion of economic activity without regard for national boundaries, is the logical end point of this process. As transport costs fall to extremely low levels, producers move from high-wage to low-wage countries, eventually causing wage levels in all countries to converge. These geographic shifts can occur quickly and suddenly, leaving long-standing industrial infrastructure underutilized or abandoned as economic activity moves on.

This is the shift we’re thinking of when we consider off-shore manufacturing: China as the source of cheap (and fairly unskilled labour).

Today, manufacturing is not a manual process

Apple released an interesting video the other day{{3}}. It shows the manufacturing process for the new Mac Pro.

[[3]]Greg Koenig (22 October 2013), How Apple makes the Mac ProAtomic Delights[[3]]


What’s interesting about this process is how few people are involved.

Manufacturing has changed a lot in the last few decades. What was once dominated by manual labour is now an automated and highly efficient process. Machines have replaced people. We can see this in many of the factories that are returning to the West: they’re all highly efficient, highly automated, capital intensive operations that require very little manual or skilled labour.

7395855880_053e6daede_cSource: Steve Jurvetson

Machines, however, have yet to replace engineers

While capital has won over manual and skilled labour, that same is not true for engineers: knowledge workers.

As Roger Martin found in his research for a recent HBR article{{4}}:

[[4]]Roger L. Martin (October 2013), Rethinking the Decision Factory, Harvard Business Review[[4]]

I vividly remember working with the CEO of one of North America’s largest bread manufacturers in 1990–1991. He had just replaced a labor-intensive and antiquated plant with the most advanced bread bakery on the continent. He proudly told me that the new computerized ovens and packaging machinery had reduced direct labor costs by 60%. But meanwhile, a throng of new and expensive knowledge workers had been added at both the head office and the plant—engineers, computer technicians, and managers—to take care of the sophisticated computer systems and state-of-the-art equipment. The new plant wasn’t quite the unalloyed good that it appeared at first sight. Variable costs of manual labor fell, but the fixed cost of knowledge workers rose, making it critical to keep capacity utilization high—which was possible in some years but not in others.

While the West has been worried about losing it manufacturing capability, many of the off-shore manufacturing destinations have been investing in education. China, for example, now has a huge engineering workforce that companies can draw own to sort out their manufacturing problems.

It’s this incredible ability to mobilise huge workforces that is keeping many manufactures in China. An article in the New York Times from last year has an Apple anecdote that shows this in action{{5}}.

[[5]]Charles Dugigg & Keith Bradsher (21January2012), How the U.S. Lost Out on iPhone Work, The New York Times[[5]]

Another critical advantage for Apple was that China provided engineers at a scale the United States could not match. Apple’s executives had estimated that about 8,700 industrial engineers were needed to oversee and guide the 200,000 assembly-line workers eventually involved in manufacturing iPhones. The company’s analysts had forecast it would take as long as nine months to find that many qualified engineers in the United States.

Moving closer to the customer

The rapid pace of change in today’s market is driving companies to reduce the time between final assembly and when the product drops into the customer’s waiting hands.

Zara is the poster child for this shift, with a supply chain can create a new product and then have it in the stores in around two weeks. Zara has used this ability to disrupt the traditional annual, seasonal fashion cycle, resulting Zara becoming one of the largest retailers in the world.

Apple’s recent decision to make the Mac Pro in the U.S. is part of a trend to move the manufacturing of high value but low volume and bulky products closer to the customer. Elon Musk’s Tesla is also part of this trend.

Manufacturing automation technology has reached the point that it makes more sense to locate the manufacturing of these products closer to the customer, allowing transport costs and delivery times to be minimised.

We shouldn’t assume, however, that this trend will end with manufacturing returning to the West.

It’s easy to forget the more people live in Asia than in the entire rest of the world combined. If manufacturing is moving to be closer to the customer, then we need to remember that there are more customers in Asia than in the rest of the world. China’s position as a manufacturing powerhouse appears safe for the time being.


Source: valeriepieris

What we mean by “export” is changing

So just where will this trend take us? (And, by extension, will our old export industries return, bringing their jobs back with them?)

The future of manufacturing and export seems – like to many industries – connected to the knowledge economy.

Those old manufacturing jobs are never coming back. They no longer exist. Similarly, thinking in terms of operating a factory and then exporting to another country is also looking somewhat antiquated.

Today (or perhaps, tomorrow) a manufacturer is a simply company that is run from one country and, from there, manages the sale of products in another.

Kogan{{6}} is a great example of this. The business is run from South Melbourne, Australia, which is where the products are designed. The products themselves are made in China and (in many cases) shipped directly to the United Kingdom where they are sold via the company’s UK web site (which is also managed from Port Melbourne, but hosted somewhere “in the cloud”).

[[6]]Kogan @ PEG[[6]]

An even more interesting example is another local business which sells safety barriers that are placed around robots in factories to ensure that workers aren’t accidentally injured. They recently started exporting to Europe. They did this by setting up a small, automated factory in Germany to service the European market. The barriers are designed in Australia and the designs are beamed directly to the machines in Germany, machines that consume resources from all over the globe.

So manufacturing – as we’ve traditionally understood it – is not returning to the West. The blue collar jobs that went overseas are not coming home to give our rather lacklustre economies a boost.

We can also expect China to remain an manufacturing powerhouse for the foreseeable future. The huge scale of operations over there, and the ability to rapidly redeploy these resources, will allow China to grab more than it’s fair share of the world manufacturing market.

Manufacturing, like so many industries{{7}}, is changing, and changing rapidly. What’s most interesting though, is how a new generation of companies are emerging that are finding ways to exploit this situation to “export”, and create new, knowledge intensive jobs at home in the process.

[[7]]The destruction of traditional retail @ PEG[[7]]

Source: Steve Jurvetson

Posted under: Manufacturing

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