Posted by: malstott | September 25, 2012

Bring (Some) Manufacturing Back

Yesterday a riot in a Foxconn plant in Taiyuan, China got out of control and police were called in to stop the violence. The reason for the unrest is unclear. The news articles coming out of China are stating that there was a disagreement in a dormitory between guards and employees. The articles are saying that 1000 workers were involved (out of the 79,000 in this facility)…and yet 5000 police were called in. This conjures up a disquieting image.

Warning: the following numbers are my guesstimates and are just a way of framing the problem. I have read that if Apple were to build the iPhone in the USA the cost would increase by $50 which is about 2 hours of fully loaded labor. Since that is just too much time to assemble, test and package the phone I am going to assume that the $50 includes space, logistics and even a tax differential so it is an “all in” number. The consumer price of the phone is about $650. If the gross margin is 50% (surely Apple doesn’t get all of this but it is spread amongst distributors/carriers) then the total cost of goods sold (COGS) is about $325 for material, logistics, overhead, depreciation, labor, etc. Adding $50 to this is an increase of over 15% to COGS which isn’t small change. What if that increase in cost could be offset with benefits that either manifest now or in the future? Could we find a way to bring some manufacturing back to the USA? What is the tipping point?

1. Grow your own workers – There is value in having access to trained and local electronic assembly and test technicians, engineers, manufacturing leaders. We have lost the training grounds for good manufacturing prowess in the USA. The last of us “hands on manufacturing nerds” are going to leave the workforce eventually and the next generation will not have experience on an actual manufacturing line.

2. “Next bench” experience for development engineers – The engineers who are developing the next big thing can walk down the line, ask questions, observe and learn from the people doing the assembly work.

3. Faster quality resolution – If a problem is found it is easier to be all over it if manufacturing is close at hand. Thus, faster resolution.

4. Faster ramp – Once the manufacturing expertise is solidified near the development and marketing arm it is easier to take ideas and ramp them to market. Less travel is needed. Less translation and more cooperation is possible.

5. Disruption insurance – Spreading out risk is a good idea. If all of a company’s manufacturing is in China and there is a labor strike, natural disaster, logistics event, fuel crisis you have a longer and more expensive recovery. Put your eggs in multiple baskets if you have the volume.

6. Good will and free advertising – Surely it is worth something to a company to get the good will associated with “made in America”. I know people who won’t buy an iPhone because of the “slave labor” association and noise. That is an unreasonable response since all phones and frankly almost all electronics are made in China. But there has to be some consumer value to “made in the USA”.  Maybe it would just be a willingness to buy the brand but not a willingness to pay more. But even that has value. Volume helps a company get to lower costs and more margin dollars associated with that volume helps cover more operating expense even if the margin per unit is lower.

7. Wild card government help – Maybe it is coming at the federal level. Surely there is help to be found at the state level. Look for it. Find a deal. Make a splash in the news. Start some momentum.

It is certainly time to take some manufacturing out of China and to spread it across the world. The risks are just too high in China to put all of your manufacturing in that one country. I believe it is time to bring some manufacturing back to the US. If the differential to bring work back is about a 15% hike in COGS with no mitigation let’s chunk the problem. Find a way for government to mitigate 5% with tax breaks or deals on land or capital. Be willing to eat 5% in the company if margins are good and if the future benefits can justify the investment. Pass on 5% to the consumer. Since this is 5% of COGS it is a smaller percent of the price to the consumer. Perhaps the impact shows up as a 2-3% increase. I think it would fly.

But what do you think?

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