Shifting Gears--Again?

Our preoccupation with high-end manufacturing shouldn’t let us overlook the opportunities that re-shoring may present in other directions.

“Do we really want to be making pots and pans in this country again?” I asked. He looked me straight in the eye and asked: “Why not?”

Columns From: 4/14/2010 Modern Machine Shop, ,

Editor's Commentary

Mark: My Word (A monthly column of comments and opinions)

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Mark Albert, MMS Editor in Chief

Mark has been writing his Mark: My Word column every month since January, 1981.

For the last 10 or 20 years, many U. S. metalworking companies have shifted to “high-end” parts and processes because the “low-end” work was likely to go overseas. This shift meant adopting more advanced machining technology such as five-axis CNC, robotic cells and more. It also meant adopting sophisticated shop management techniques such as lean manufacturing, machine monitoring and shop control systems. Companies were advised to focus on very big parts, very small parts, very complex/tightly toleranced parts or “sensitive” parts that must be kept here for security reasons or to protect intellectual property.

Now, there is talk about “re-shoring”—moving off-shore production back to the United States. Overseas producers are facing rising costs and wages; mounting safety and quality issues; negative consumer perceptions; unfavorable exchange rates; and other pressures. This makes relocating production to U.S. suppliers more attractive.

 This trend, if it takes off, represents an opportunity and a challenge for U. S. manufacturing companies. However, they may have to once again realign their production strategies and capabilities. This time, the re-focusing might have to be on the low-end/mid-range parts.
 
Not long ago, I was discussing this possibility with the head of a very capable, very diversified contract manufacturing company. He clearly welcomed this development. Thinking about how well-equipped his company is to meet some of the most demanding workpiece challenges in the industry, I suggested that perhaps some low-end work might best stay offshore. “Do we really want to be making pots and pans in this country again?” I asked. He looked me straight in the eye and asked: “Why not?”
 
I shouldn’t have been surprised by this reply. This company has always sought the jobs that few other shops could handle because it was precisely the best way to hone skills and advance its capabilities for every other kind of work. Profitable productivity was the goal no matter what kind of part or process was involved.
 
I think this is exactly the right outlook.
 
This is not to say that our current bias toward advanced manufacturing is ill-advised. U.S. companies have to stay at the forefront of innovation and inventiveness. However, striving for competitiveness across the entire spectrum of manufactured parts also has value. Winning back all kinds of work is a worthy aim, and the timing for a renewed effort may be perfect. Click here for information about the Re-Shoring Fair.
 
The timing could become urgent. Extended supply chains are vulnerable to serious disruptions. What if off-shore part makers were cut off by a natural disaster, energy shortage, political upheaval or money crisis?
 
We need a broad and diverse manufacturing base, strong from top to bottom.
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