ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
For decades, American companies have sent manufacturing work overseas. It's known as off-shoring. They've taken advantage of extremely low wages in places such as China, Vietnam, the Philippines and that has reduced business costs and helped consumers buy cheaper flat-screen TVs, dishwashers and the like. Well, a growing number of American companies are rethinking that business model and bringing manufacturing back to the U.S.
NPR's Jackie Northam reports on what some industry advocates call re-shoring.
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KIM FREEMAN: This is the hybrid water heater factory. And you can just see rolls of raw steel that are there. That steel will be made into the tanks...
JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Kim Freeman, a spokesperson for GE Appliances, walks into a sprawling plant in Louisville, Kentucky. The noise from the machinery in the brightly lit room is thunderous. The finished product - a hybrid water heater - is not much to look at; tubby, about four feet tall with a few knobs and levers. But it's actually a high-tech, energy efficient appliance.
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NORTHAM: For years, GE outsourced the manufacturing of the water heater to a company in China. In 2009, GE did the math and - considering rising wages overseas, as well as climbing transportation costs - decided to bring production back here to the U.S.
Freeman says the company wanted more control of the product, especially the technology that goes into it. She says to maximize savings the water heater had to be completely redesigned.
FREEMAN: We could not just bring this product and plop it in the U.S. and make it the way we had traditionally manufactured.
NORTHAM: And why is that?
FREEMAN: Because we couldn't have done it cost competitively.
NORTHAM: GE ripped apart one of six massive factories at the complex here in Louisville, and built a water heater assembly line. It worked out a new, lower-wage structure for employees, brought in experts to help reduce waste and time, make the production more efficient while reducing costs.
A month later, GE began producing high-end refrigerators, the type with the bottom drawer freezer, a version which up until then had produced in Mexico. Mike Chanatry, the head of manufacturing for GE Appliances, says the decision to bring some of the manufacturing back to the U.S. was a risk, but one worth taking. He says GE faces stiff competition from LG Electronics and Samsung, two new up-and-comers in the world of appliances.
MIKE CHANATRY: We need to be introducing and enhancing our product not every couple of years, but every three and four months. Now think of a world where you have to deal with a supplier halfway around the world to do modifications and design and change the quality.
NORTHAM: Other major companies, Ford and Whirlpool among them, have also brought back some of their products. But so have many smaller companies, says Harold Sirkin, a senior partner with Boston Consulting Group. Sirkin has been surveying companies, large and small, about reshoring.
HAROLD SIRKIN: In the beginning in 2011, for the most part, most people thought that this was just impossible, that there would be no reshoring to the U.S., that everything was going to China, manufacturing was leaving the country and will never come back. And I think the striking thing is how much that's changed in the last three years.
NORTHAM: Sirkin says at least 200 companies have already returned, and there's been a dramatic jump recently in the number of companies saying they're seriously thinking about it. Sirkin says a huge factor has been rising wages overseas, that pay in China has risen at least 15 to 18 percent annually for the past few years. Wages there are still comparatively low to the U.S., but Sirkin says there are other important factors.
SIRKIN: You went to China because it was just so cheap you couldn't help it, but if you've got the engineers and people in the U.S., and the customer base in the U.S., you'd like to be close to the customer. It gives you a smaller and a shorter supply chain and it also makes sure that you know what your customers are doing and that you can react faster.
NORTHAM: Sirkin says if this trend continues, he believes 20 to 25 percent of products now offshored will return to the U.S. But there are challenges in bringing back manufacturing, says professor Arie Lewin, the director for the Center for International Business, Education and Research at Duke University. He says one issue is finding skilled labor. He points to Apple's decision to open a plant in Arizona.
ARIE LEWIN: It's one thing to open up a specialized facility, in this case, you know, the special glass for displays, but it's another thing to be able to put together 10,000 people in one week who will start manufacturing an iPhone.
NORTHAM: Harry Moser is the president of the Reshoring Initiative, which helps companies figure out if it's worth bringing manufacturing back to the U.S. He agrees reshoring can be a challenge. Some companies have to relearn how to make their product and it's tough getting Americans on board.
HARRY MOSER: There's challenges of getting the consumer to understand that the product is made in the USA and to give a little extra preference to that product.
NORTHAM: Moser says the decision by Wal-Mart's to put $50 billion of American-made goods on its shelves over the next 10 years is dramatically important. Still, Wal-Mart has stipulated any of those products have to come in at the same price. Moser says it's a challenge, but it's doable. Jackie Northam, NPR News.
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