AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Officials in the United States have been wringing their hands over how to revitalize domestic manufacturing and keep factories from moving overseas. But not all of manufacturing plants are going across the ocean to China or India, or other low-cost production hubs in Asia. Many are relocating just south of the border to Mexico. Now, some people argue that the US/Mexico border region may be the key to rejuvenating manufacturing in North America.
NPR's Jason Beaubien reports.
(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)
JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Just across the border from McAllen, Texas at a factory in an industrial park in Reynosa, Mexico, workers are making aluminum vents for heating and cooling systems.
MIKE MYERS: So where air conditioning and heating and cooling comes out in your house, building, hospitals, we make it.
BEAUBIEN: Mike Myers is the general manager of INFASA. His maquiladora employs just over 200 workers. They produce everything from small vent covers that you'd see in a house to wall-sized, industrial air intake units.
MYERS: We custom make everything. When an order comes in here, we make it to order.
BEAUBIEN: Meyers says being just south of the U.S. border gives his company an advantage in the fiercely competitive global market. His firm gets access to a low-wage workforce in Mexico yet can still deliver products rapidly to their customers in the United States.
MYERS: Our lead times are seven days. Well, you're not going to get something from China in seven days unless you put it on an airplane. Here, we put it on a truck, and it's in. We take an order, we custom build it, we ship it out and it's out quickly.
BEAUBIEN: By being close to their market, INFASA has also eliminated warehousing costs. Their products leave their loading dock in Reynosa, clear customs a few miles away at the border and then immediately are shipped to the client. If a customer needs a product quickly, Meyer's team can build it, move it across to McAllen and have it on a FedEx flight within 24 hours. Myers says this is a service manufacturers in Asia simply can't offer. Business leaders on both sides of the border say this is a model for how the region can revive manufacturing in North America.
KEITH PATRIDGE: A country cannot survive unless they produces something that the rest of the world wants, and that means manufacturing is critical.
BEAUBIEN: Keith Patridge is the head of the McAllen Economic Development Corporation. Patridge and other local leaders are marketing the South Rio Grande Valley - both sides of the Rio Grande - as a hub for rapid response manufacturing.
PATRIDGE: I would say about 40 to 60 percent of our companies are in one way or another experimenting with the whole concept of rapid response manufactures. We have some companies that literally don't build a product until it's sold.
BEAUBIEN: Patridge and other advocates of rapid response manufacturing are betting that agile, streamlined companies based along the border will have a competitive advantage over Asian firms selling products to the U.S. market. First, North American manufacturers can avoid having large inventories locked in shipping containers crossing the Pacific Ocean; second, labor in the Mexican border factories is cheap, starting at roughly $10 a day; third, from the border, companies can deliver a customized product, whether that's an engraved cell phone or a custom mechanical part to a U.S. buyer in a matter of days.
PATRIDGE: For the Americas, and I'm saying really probably for the North America and Central American market, we are ideally positioned.
BEAUBIEN: And to foster manufacturing in the area, the city of McAllen is building an industrial research park. The University of Texas Pan American houses a rapid response manufacturing center. Officials say their goal is to be able to take a new product idea and move it from concept to production to the market in 30 days. They envision that the technical, administrative and design jobs could be based in Texas while the gritty production happens just a few miles away in Mexico. Across the river, authorities say manufacturing is booming with foreign investment doubling in the first half of this year, compared to 2010. Reynaldo Barrera Delgado publishes a magazine on the maquiladora industry in Mexico.
REYNALDO BARRERA DELGADO: (Spanish spoken)
BEAUBIEN: Barrera says despite the tough economic times, the maquilas in Reynosa continue to grow. However, the expansion isn't only among North American companies. Recently, many Korean and Taiwanese firms, he says, have been looking to invest in plants in Reynosa so that they too can get their products to the U.S. market faster. Jason Beaubien, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CORNISH: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.