Manufacturing Loss Costs More than Just Jobs

An ex Photocircuits engineer says the gutting of US manufacturing has led to a huge shift in ownership of US assets, with dire consequences for all Americans.

“With only a very small manufacturing base left, there is a small need to make capital investments in these businesses. Capital investments are what drive productivity,” writes Jason Tillberg.

He’s preaching to the choir, no doubt, but I always find it interesting when folks support their  with details. In this case, Tillberg points to the massive transfer of ownership of US assets to foreign entities — remember Ross Perot’s “giant sucking sound” metaphor? — as a real cost paid by Americans through its inability (unwillingness?) to compete in manufacturing.

I find his thesis a bit incomplete and scattered, but he makes an important observation on capital investment and the disincentives to invest in a shrinking manufacturing base.

(As an aside, Tillberg talks about his experiences at Photocircuits in another piece on productivity written a few years back.)

US Commitments

When I heard early this month that Foxconn (Hon Hai) chief Terry Gou offered to train Americans in electronic manufacturing I recalled one of Apple’s excuses for putting its production in Asia, much of which went to Foxconn which now has over a million workers. Apple stated that America just did not have a sufficient number of qualified and trained technicians and engineers (tens of thousands Apple said) available to build its products here.

Then I thought, why would Gou make this offer? He certainly has not shown himself to be a good Samaritan in the past. The only conclusion I could reach was that he was planning to establish assembly operations in the US and would need a qualified work force to achieve this. Note that production of iPad minis are behind schedule and market demand. Labor costs have risen rapidly and continually in the PRC over the past five years. Hon Hai has been plagued with labor problems and a high factory worker suicide rate in China during the past few years. Gou reportedly is reported to be conducting evaluations in cities such as Detroit and Los Angeles where there is a large available labor pool. It should be noted that Foxconn has debunked the stories associated with the possible establishment of a US manufacturing base. But then, is it possible that Mr. Gou has become a good Samaritan when it comes to helping the US’s manufacturing capabilities?

Meanwhile, Gou, at a recent public event, noted that the company is planning a training program for US-based engineers, bringing them to Taiwan or China to gain first hand experience in the processes of learning product design and manufacturing. He has already been in touch with MIT regarding the program. They will also be in an environment to learn Chinese.

All this begs the question: Where are the American companies, government agencies, and elected officials that claim that they want to bring manufacturing jobs back to the US? Where is the commitment? Where is the investment? What steps are being taken to entice American manufacturers to the table? What motivation is being offered? If a foreign company can find it attractive to do so, why can’t an American company find it so, too? Even more interesting is the question, “What is the U.S. government doing to keep its current manufacturing base viable and growing?”

Is Japan’s interconnect future on shaky ground? Third-quarter results from Taiwan’s leading board makers (suppliers to Apple, automotive companies, and tablet makers) indicate that the center of HDI manufacturing has already undergone a major shift from Japan toward Taiwan and China. Taiwan’s government has been extremely supportive of this and other high-tech activities and investment by its “native” electronic (and other) companies.

“Rumors” persist that Taiyo is attempting to buy Goo Chemical in Japan. Goo owns 51% of OTC, Taiyo’s leading solder mask competitor in greater China.

US to China: Ours is Bigger

Two things jump out in this article about the the US manufacturing economy and the world’s greatest engineering school, MIT*.

First, that manufacturing as a percentage of US economic output is on a short-term rise, albeit a slight one, growing to 13% of the GDP in 2009 from 12% in 2002. (Annoyingly, this chart shows up only in the pay version of the online article.)

Second, in whole numbers, at $1.854 trillion, the US manufacturing output in 2009 actually was larger than that of China’s, which weighed in at $1.695 trillion. This backs up what proponents of US manufacturing have been saying all along: that the domestic manufacturing sector remains bigger — in this case, by some $159 billion — despite the general perception.

Ironically, the point of the article — that, as it did in the early 1990s, MIT has formed a blue-chip committee to study the role of manufacturing in the US economy — falls short by acknowledging no one knows whether the original study had any impact.

*Said with disdain appropriate of a University of Illinois graduate.

**GDP per World Bank figures.

Grove on Manufacturing

Andy Grove’s article today in Business Week on revitalizing manufacturing is a must-read.

Happy July 4th!