A Manufacturing Renaissance?

manufacturing2On May 29th, 2013, Motorola announced the opening of a manufacturing plant in Fort Worth, Texas to produce its new product, the Moto X. Motorola estimates that the plant will generate roughly 2,000 American jobs. Texas Governor Rick Perry supports Motorola’s initiative, stating, “Motorola Mobility’s decision to manufacture its new smartphone and create thousands of new jobs in Texas is great news for our growing state.”

Motorola’s decision is especially significant in the modern age of dominant overseas outsourcing. Moto X will be the first smartphone manufactured entirely in the United States. Will Moss, a spokesman for Motorola Mobility, explains that producing the Moto X in the United States will engender “much leaner, more efficient operations” by moving Motorola’s manufacturing operations “much closer to our key customers and partners as well as our end users.” Other technology firms have been following this same trend. For example, in December, Apple CEO Tim Cook announced plans to move the manufacturing of an existing line of Mac computers to the United States within the coming year.

Although some experts believe that these companies’ efforts are primarily politically motivated, other reasoning may exist to explain recent attempts to bring manufacturing opportunities back to the United States. A recent Gallup poll determined that 64% of Americans are willing to pay more for a product produced in the U.S. as opposed to overseas. Additionally, wage increases have led to rising production costs for companies located in East Asia. Economist Dan North predicts that the difference in labor costs between China and the United States could decrease to only $7 per hour by 2015 (as opposed to the $17 difference reported in 2006), as the Chinese economy strengthens and Chinese workers push for higher salaries.

It is still unclear if the “Manufacturing Renaissance” will generate enduring consequences for the U.S. economy—an increase in U.S. industrial production has yet to occur. According to the Federal Reserve, industrial production fell by 0.5 percent in April. Furthermore, although the total number of manufacturing jobs in the United States has increased by 520,000 since January 2010, only 50,000 of those jobs are due to re-shoring. It is therefore disputable as to whether efforts to bring manufacturing back to the U.S. will contribute to profound and lasting benefits for the U.S. economy, or if companies’ current efforts in this capacity will merely amount to a short-lived phase.

Posted by: Marjorie Baker

Sources: The Washington Post, CBS News, Businessweek, the Federal Reserve, Gallup, Huffington Post

Photo Credit: Big Industry of America courtesy of flickr user Canon in 2D


The Challenge of a Changing China

chinaLower than expected growth numbers from China on Monday have raised worries that China’s economy may be losing momentum.  Forecasted to have a growth rate around 8%, China’s actual growth came in at a lesser 7.7% for the January to March quarter, compared with 7.9% in the previous three months. This slower growth is in part due to lagging recoveries in the US and Europe causing China’s exports to decline. However, it is important to note that major, if understated, structural changes within China’s own economy have also contributed to these unexpectedly low growth numbers.

Rapidly rising wages have led to a systemic shift in the way China’s economy currently operates and have caused the country to move away from its traditional reliance on low cost manufacturing. China is looking towards a transition to a more sustainable economic growth model and these numbers might be indicative of the growing pains that China is currently facing. In fact, according to Ms Yao of Societe Generale,”Given Beijing’s goal of restructuring the economy, a relatively moderate economic growth is not a bad thing in the longer term.” While China will likely remain a manufacturing hub thanks to its relatively mature investment environment, superior infrastructure, and skilled workforce, it is the higher-knowledge industry sector and domestic consumption that will be the future drivers of Chinese growth.

Improving wages and job opportunities have created an optimistic and vibrant consumer class that has demanded both a higher standard of living and higher quality goods and services. Metaphorically speaking, Chinese citizens are emerging from the factories and entering the malls. Rather than being a mere base of production, China has become a prime market to sell into as consumption continues to increase. This massive and complex market holds huge commercial potential for those businesses that can successfully adapt and gain a foothold. Meanwhile, China itself can benefit greatly from increased foreign direct investment as its economy continues to mature.

Despite China’s economic dynamism, it is still a place that is plagued with many dilemmas that limit its potential. Some of the most infamous issues revolve around corruption, which is especially rampant at the local level leading to staggering pollution, serious quality control issues, and enormous levels of inequality. In addition, China’s educational system is stunted by its singular focus on testing and needs to be reworked to foster creativity and innovation, skills that are vital in an increasingly connected global marketplace. These concerns may limit China’s global economic potential, especially when major policy efforts are still needed to address these critical domestic problems.

Overall, China is still dealing with the disorder commonly found during major economic transition. Its switch from a primarily manufacturing economy to a consumer economy may take time as growth rates begin to rebalance. In fact, it is likely that  these declining numbers indicate not economic problems in China, but an economic changing-of-the-guard that will result in less dramatic, healthier, and more reliable economic growth.

Posted by: Matthew Goldberg

Sources: The Economist, BBC News, Bloomberg, CME Group

Photo Credit: China Pavilion courtesy of flickr user Wojtek Gurak

Is the US moving toward a future of “zero net offshoring” for manufacturing?

manufacturingIncreasing competition from manufacturers abroad has led many  to conclude that manufacturing industries have no place in a relatively high wage, knowledge-driven economy like that of the United States. Others contend that manufacturing will be the key to reestablishing prosperity and bringing high paying jobs back to the United States. Various plans have been put forward for cooperation between businesses, governments, and organizations that will spur investment, production, and innovation at home, while boosting exports abroad.

Experts disagree on whether America has lost its edge in manufacturing merely due to emerging foreign competitors or due to a combination of foreign competition and domestic policies that stifle manufacturing efficiency. A certain amount of outsourcing assembly or production of inputs is expected due to specialization, but the real blow to American manufacturing came as final goods production moved overseas. Benefits have accrued to consumers due to lower prices for foreign manufactured goods, although these benefits must be weighed against the costs of lower employment and income in America. Profits are often higher for offshored businesses, but these profits are often accompanied by unforeseen transaction costs. Offshoring can also ensure access in emerging markets.

The Manufacturing Institute reports that US policy towards taxing and regulating businesses has exacerbated the movement of companies overseas, and that changes could be made to promote the “re-shoring movement”. Their studies estimate that, “it is 20 percent more expensive to manufacture in the United States than it is among out major trading partners, excluding the cost of labor” and “the regulatory burden on manufacturers is equivalent to an 11 percent tax on their businesses.”  The statutory and effective corporate tax rates, at 40.0% and 34.6% respectively, are among the highest in the world. These structural costs disadvantage American manufacturers and encourage offshoring.

President Obama’s State of the Union address and a recent white paper outline a plan to remedy some of these issues, although the success of any proposal in today’s fiscal climate is uncertain. The plan calls for the creation of fifteen Manufacturing Innovation Institutes to attract R&D funding and speed the process from basic research to product development. It encourages states and cities to offer incentives to companies that will produce in America, lowers the corporate tax rate for manufacturers to 25%, and provides tax credits for clean energy research and production. Additionally, opening markets through trade agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership and proposed talks with the European Union could either lead to a manufacturing boost, or encourage even more production to move overseas depending on the markets’ reaction and the language of the agreements.

Although offshoring is a rational choice for many businesses to cut costs, the combination of hidden costs to foreign production, rising foreign labor costs, complex supply chains, and business-friendly policy changes may serve to reverse some offshoring. The nascent re-shoring movement is a testament to this fact, and strong economic trends are making such moves more desirable. If policy does not hamper these developments the US could see “zero net offshoring” in the near future, where businesses make decisions about where to locate production facilities based on a more level assessment of costs and benefits.

Posted by: Ben Copper

Sources: Manufacturing.net, The Manufacturing Institute, White House press release, The Economist

Photo Credit: courtesy of flickr user The U.S. National Archives

American Manufacturing Starting to Make Sense Again

reshoringIn the past decade, offshoring was considered an obvious business decision for companies that wanted to reduce costs and increase profits. However, this trend may soon begin to wane as many American companies, both large and small, return to the U.S.

This so called “Reshoring Movement” has been generating a large amount of buzz, especially as high profile companies such as General Electric and Apple plan to start manufacturing more products back home. This reverse course is based both in public relations and sound economic reasoning. While larger companies often leave the majority of their manufacturing abroad, they are still able to benefit from the positive publicity of selling some American-made goods. For smaller businesses, it makes clear economic sense primarily due to soaring wages in low-cost countries. For instance, the pay and benefits for the average Chinese factory worker increased by 10% a year between 2000 and 2005 and rose to 19% a year between 2005 and 2010. This increase has made offshoring only marginally cheaper, and firms still have to deal with other problems such as intellectual property theft and unwieldy supply chains.

This trend ties in nicely with the issue over consistently high US import levels and enormous trade deficits. Harry Moser, head of the Chicago-based Reshoring Initiative, states that “since the 1950s, about three million manufacturing jobs have been lost to imported goods. So to balance the deficit we’ll need to bring back three million jobs.” While “reshoring” has only brought back around 50,000 jobs in terms of offsetting trade imbalances, it is an interesting development that is worth further exploration.

Posted by: Matthew Goldberg

Sources: The Economist, MIT Technology Review, Forbes

Photo Credit: World Class Manufacturing Academy courtesy of flickr user Chrysler-Group

Apple to start manufacturing in U.S.

appleRecently, Apple CEO Timothy Cook announced that the company plans to invest $100 million in manufacturing operations in the United States next year.

This sounds like great news for the suffering U.S. economy but whether this decision will be beneficial to the U.S. economy or if this is just part of a public relations strategy by Apple is yet to be seen. The $100 million Apple is investing in this new manufacturing transition only amounts to 1/100 of Apple’s profits from last quarter.  More and more, high-technology manufacturing is made by robots, therefore this investment wouldn’t necessarily be going to produce thousands of new jobs here in the United States. The number of employees that will be added to the payroll is a mere 200.

When comparing manufacturing costs in China versus the United States, Apple’s move makes sense. The benefits of bringing these jobs back to the U.S. is that the company will not have to deal with union demands, Chinese regulation, or disputes with other contractors. China leads with a 72 percent profit margin for production compared to the U.S. profit margin of 46.5.  Although this seems like a significant difference, 46.5 percent is still not too shabby and the long-term benefits could be worth the move. As China’s wage rates and currency rise, skilled workers grow scarcer, the United States still maintains a strong lead over the nation in terms of productivity.

With the rapid emergence of China, India, and other developing countries transitioning to “middle income nations,” the cheap-labor-for-exports model is losing ground. In the future, we will start to see companies target manufacturing in the same country where the product is marketed. Apple is also changing the view on manufacturing with a shift toward more automated manufacturing. The final assembly is the least complicated part of producing it but the company is seeking to have more of the initial components made in the U.S.

Regardless of whether this is a public relations ploy or a new economic strategy for growth, Apple is thinking ahead about manufacturing.

Posted by: Elizabeth White

Sources: Reuter’s, Bloomberg Business

Photo source: courtesy of flickr user afagen

Wilson Center Policy Brief Series: Manufacturing Matters, Strengthening America: Inventing the Future

The Wilson Center recently released two essays by Kent Hughes, Director of the Program on America and the Global Economy, in its series of policy briefs on critical issues which will run from now until Inauguration Day.

Manufacturing Matters

Manufacturing plays a key role in the U.S. economy and will continue to do so. The private sector provides roughly 70 percent of total U.S. spending on research and development, and the bulk of that amount comes from manufacturing enterprises. Manufacturing generates 90 percent of U.S. patents. It also is central to the system that translates laboratory research into commercial products, thus generating jobs and creating wealth. Manufacturing also constitutes the single most important export sector of the economy and is thus critical to America’s ability to pay its way in the international economy. Finally, manufacturing generates millions of jobs, which provide pay and benefits that exceed the national average. Looking ahead, the United States needs a manufacturing strategy that can support the emergence of advanced manufacturing processes that, in conjunction with low-cost energy, can revitalize the U.S. manufacturing sector.

>> Read the Policy Brief in its Entirety

Strengthening America: Inventing the Future

The U.S. innovation system has enormous strengths, including public and private support for research and development, the world’s best university system, and an entrepreneurial risk-taking culture. But those elements of the system now face several domestic and international challenges. In the United States, cuts in federal spending could reduce support for university research. The kindergarten through 12th grade (K–12) education system struggles to keep pace with the rising demands of the 21st-century workplace. Internationally, the United States now faces competition to attract or keep advanced manufacturing firms, research facilities, and top scientific talent. The United States will need to maintain support for research and development (R&D), improve its education system, and learn from best practices around the world.

>> Read the Policy Brief in its Entirety

US Manufacturing Up for Second Straight Month

The most recent report by the Institute for Supply Management points to an increase in manufacturing in the United States. The ISM index which measures factory activity measured 51.7 for the month of October; anything above 50 indicates growth. This is the second month in a row that manufacturing has been on the increase following three consecutive months of contraction.

The optimistic report on American manufacturing was met on Friday by a less favorable report on European manufacturing for the month of October. The Eurozone experienced another month of factory output decline, totaling 15 consecutive months now, going back to the summer of 2011. The European report was based on a survey of purchasing managers by Markit Economics, a research firm, and showed signs that the manufacturing decline, which started at the periphery of the Eurozone, has now spread Germany as well.

Meanwhile in China, manufacturing rebounded somewhat from a month earlier. For the month of October, the HSBC China Manufacturing Purchasing Managers Index rose to 49.1, up from 47.9 in September. China is still in a manufacturing downturn which has seen twelve straight months of PMIs below 50.

Looking at the statistics from economies all over the world, there is increased optimism about the role of the U.S. in leading the way to a worldwide recovery in manufacturing output. It remains to be seen, however, if the U.S. can continue this upwards trend for the next few months. Several factors will influence the prospects of manufacturing growth in the U.S. and these include the outcome of the election, fiscal policy, and overseas demand for manufactured goods. The looming fiscal cliff presents another obstacle that needs to be dealt with in order to enable a more sustainable growth trend in manufacturing.

Posted by: Samuel Benka

Sources: The Associated Press, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Reuters

Photo Credit: ABB Assembly Line Robot Courtesy of Flickr user avramc