Should Manufacturing Jobs Be ‘Re-Shored’ to the U.S.?

Yes. No. Maybe.

A recent article over on the Knowledge @ Wharton site that questions if manufacturing jobs should be ‘re-shored’ to the U.S. points out that the Boston Consulting Group forecasts that 2 Million to 3 Million manufacturing jobs will come back to the U.S. because of the fundamental shift in economics between China and the United States. While the projected shift will increase U.S. economic growth by about $100 Billion, let’s not get too excited. First of all, this is less than 1% of current GDP. Secondly, if the right jobs aren’t brought back for the right reasons, they’ll just shift again next decade.

Before we dive into this discussion, let’s summarize some key statistics from the article. Namely:

  • it is projected that the wage differential will drop from the 22X it was in 2000 to 4X in 2015, not adjusted for productivity
  • many global manufacturers have begun to move their outsourcing to even lower cost countries such as Vietnam, Indonesia, and Cambodia
  • outsourcing costs include higher transportation/logistics costs, extra inventory costs, and quality control costs
  • improved lean manufacturing processes can often cut production-times per unit considerably, up to 65% in one instance at GE
  • more than 60% of the cost of manufactured goods can be attributed to goods and services that the average firm buys from its suppliers

When you consider these points, it becomes clear that:

  • if the primary reason for outsourcing to China was labour savings, this is no longer a good reason; in some districts, the wage savings are less than 40%!
  • the wage game requires a constant move, often into unknown, or dangerous territory (as Africa will be next)
  • there are ‘hidden’ costs as transportation costs are rising, inventory carry costs can explode if demand patterns shift, and quality control costs are exponentially higher as the only sure way to ensure quality is to get feet on the ground … regularly
  • innovation and creativity can slash the relative cost of manufacturing at home if productivity is doubled (or tripled)
  • the production costs will probably be less than the procurement costs for the raw materials, components, and services — which means cost reduction is more reliant on Procurement efficiencies and successes than manufacturing, as it should be

This means that:

  • you should never outsource on a wage analysis alone, but it doesn’t necessarily mean you should pull back to the U.S. — sometimes near-sourcing, to Mexico for instance, is the right solution
  • you shouldn’t play the wage game unless you are planning two moves ahead
  • bulky items, items that can experience unpredictable demand spikes, and items that require a lot of quality control are typically not good options for outsourcing
  • you should never underestimate the potential of talent — and what can be accomplished with the right incentive
  • decisions should be made from a true TCO perspective, not just a manufacturing perspective

And when you start looking at the overall picture, the overall product lifecycle, and the strengths and weaknesses of outsourced manufacturing partners, you’ll realize that some manufacturing, even with the disappearing wage differential, should be left in China; some should be brought back home yesterday; and some should be near-sourced. For example, you can’t build a FoxConn in the U.S. China is dominant in many areas of electronic manufacturing now and will stay that way — and considering the density of phones, tablets, and laptops, it makes sense to produce them in China. On the other hand, major appliances and automobiles should be produced at home, where efficiencies in production and greatly reduced transportation costs more than make up for the labour differential. And major appliance and automotive sub-assemblies should probably be produced in Mexico, where they have idle factories, and from where shipping costs are relatively minimal.