American Elephants

Outsourcing and Insourcing: Where Should Stuff Be Manufactured? by The Elephant's Child

What about manufacturing, aren’t all the jobs going overseas where people work for extremely low wages?  How can we compete with that? It’s true that fewer people are employed in manufacturing plants, but we’re still manufacturing lots of stuff. We’re just doing it with fewer people.

The production line has been changing ever since Henry Ford invented it after visiting a meat-packing plant that was already using the concept.  For simplification sake, at one time someone stood at a particular spot along the assembly line and separated the stream of parts into two different streams, but they developed gates or electric eyes that would do that without a constant attendant, eliminating the need for a worker. But that step was a long time ago. These two videos explain how the world has changed.

Here is a BMW USA manufacturing plant, in 2009. Body shop: spot welding by robots. Mounting of side sills on body structure. Hot-stamping: Heating, compression molding, quenching. Wedding: Drive unit engine, transmission, axle, exhaust system is bolted to the body. Final assembly: BMW 5 Series Sedan rolls out of factory.

There are lots of decisions built into every manufacturing plant, and every product. Skilled workers or cheap workers who can be trained to be skilled. Energy costs. Some manufacturing processes need to be located next to water. Some need rail transportation. Some big things need to be moved, and freeway overpasses are a problem. Is shipping a major expense or minor — depends on the size, fragility and weight of the product. Raw materials: where do they come from, what kind of transportation is needed — some manufacturing plants need to be close to the source of their raw materials. Some need to be close to their market. Where is speed a factor?  Regulations play a part.  Unions v. right-to-work.The decisions are complex, and involve far more than greedy businessmen looking for cheaper labor.

The New York Times recently explained why Steve Jobs bragged when Apple began building the Macintosh in 1983 that it was “a machine that is made in America.” Today, the iPhone is made in China, and the Times article explains the details:

Mr. Jobs angrily held up his iPhone, angling it so everyone could see the dozens of tiny scratches marring its plastic screen, according to someone who attended the meeting. He then pulled his keys from his jeans.

People will carry this phone in their pocket, he said. People also carry their keys in their pocket. “I won’t sell a product that gets scratched,” he said tensely. The only solution was using unscratchable glass instead. “I want a glass screen, and I want it perfect in six weeks.”

After one executive left that meeting, he booked a flight to Shenzhen, China. If Mr. Jobs wanted perfect, there was nowhere else to go.

The facility in Foxconn City, where the iPhone is assembled, has 230,000 employees, many work six days a week, often spending up to 12 hours a day at the plant. Over a quarter of the workforce lives in company barracks, and many workers earn less than $17 a day, a good salary in China. When the first truckloads of cut glass arrived at Foxconn City, in the middle of the night, thousands of workers were aroused and lined up to assemble iPhones by hand. Since then they have assembled more than 200 million iPhones.

China could also supply engineers at a scale the US could not match. Apple executives had estimated that about 8,700 industrial engineers were needed to oversee and guide the 200,000 assembly line workers.  Do read the whole article. It offers a valuable insight into manufacturing and trade that really helps to explain a very complex problem. Not all of it, certainly, but it’s a help in telling when the politicians are knowledgeable or just pandering.


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