Is Reshoring Near the 'Tipping Point'?

Another day, another new assembly plant. As we’ve been reporting, there’s been an uptick in manufacturing activity in recent months. For instance, just the other day, General Electric unveiled a refrigerator plant in Louisville, KY (several weeks after opening a new water heater plant at its Appliance Park complex).

Perhaps all the talk about reshoring and new infrastructure has something to do with the fact that this is an election year. However, I like to think that my bold prediction five years ago is finally coming to fruition.

While commenting on our Assembly Plant of the Year award, I predicted that we’d soon experience a golden age of American manufacturing (see “Is Your Plant a Winner?” in the April 2007 issue of ASSEMBLY). Unfortunately, I did not forsee the Great Recession (otherwise, I’d be writing this from my yacht in the Caribbean!). But, now that the economy is humming along, manufacturers are expanding factories, adding assembly lines and building new facilities.

Our friends at the Boston Consulting Group (BCG), the cosponsors of the Assembly Plant of the Year award, have just released a report that backs this up. According to “U.S. Manufacturing Nears the Tipping Point: Which Industries, Why and How Much?,” improved U.S. competitiveness and rising costs in China will put the United States in a strong position within three years to add up to 1 million manufacturing jobs and an estimated $100 billion in annual output in a wide range of industries.

The BCG experts have identified seven “tipping-point sectors” that will be impacted the most: appliances and electrical equipment; computers and electronics; fabricated metal products; furniture; machinery; plastic and rubber products; and transportation goods. They predict that production of 10 percent to 30 percent of U.S. imports from China in these sectors could move back to the United States. That translates into a whopping $200 billion worth of products.

Through its research, BCG has identified many companies—large and small—that have added or are planning to add U.S. production after assessing the total costs and risks involved in offshoring. For instance, ET Water System LLC, a maker of irrigation controls, recently relocated its assembly line from Dalian, China, to San Jose, CA, to improve quality and yield.

AmFor Electronics Inc., an electronics manufacturing services company, cited delivery responsiveness, ease of design revisions and implementation of lean manufacturing practices as reasons for onshoring wire harness production from China and Mexico to Portland, OR.

In another sign of growing American manufacturing competitiveness, foreign companies are adding capacity in the U.S. to serve both the domestic market and export markets. According to BCG, strong productivity is a key to America’s improved export competitiveness. For example, productivity growth has been higher in the U.S. than in Western Europe, while the dollar has depreciated against the euro over the past decade.

Adjusted for productivity, the average U.S. assembler is around 35 percent cheaper than the average Western European worker. A decade ago, the same U.S. assembler was only 12 percent cheaper.

“We expect this gap will continue to widen, giving the U.S. one of the lowest manufacturing cost structures in the industrialized world,” says Michael Zinser, a BCG partner who leads the firm’s manufacturing work in the Americas.

“The global production shift is still in the early stages, and the full impact of the changing cost structures may not be felt until the end of the decade,” adds Zinser. “Still, companies should reassess their global manufacturing footprints now, especially if they are in an industry nearing the tipping point.”

ASSEMBLY recently conducted an online survey about reshoring. Look for the results in the “Assembly Lines” section of the April issue. We’ll also be covering this topic in our annual “State of the Profession” report in the July issue.

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