Instances of manufacturers relocating back to the U.S. from China are increasingly easy to find. Most recently, I came across an article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel about Master Lock Co. bringing back numerous jobs and reviving operations at its flagship industrial campus to capacity for the first time in 15 years.
Some of the reasons driving this re-shoring strategy, as reported in the Journal Sentinel, are:
- Labor unrest rippling across China is pushing wages higher in a nation with a supposedly inexhaustible supply of cheap workers. Thirty provinces have raised their minimum wages in the past year, some more than 20 percent.
- Further inflating prices of Chinese imports, Beijing engineered a 20 percent weakening of the dollar against the yuan in the last five years.
- Shipping rates from Chinese ports spiked fourfold in the 12 months through August to their highest levels in maritime history, according to Universal Cargo Management Inc. in Los Angeles.
Of course, no one is suggesting that these instances of re-shoring mark a return to the levels of manufacturing seen in the U.S. years ago. In Master Lock’s case, for example, the company is not exiting China completely. The company is keeping some production facilities in place there, principally to serve the Asian market.
Even if companies were entirely uprooting their manufacturing operations in Asia and returning them to the West, advances in automation over the past two decades have likely erased as many, if not more, manufacturing jobs as have offshoring strategies.
Mechatronic advances in assembly, material handling and process control now handle much of the manufacturing work that people often recall when they cite the glory days of American manufacturing and the jobs it provided.
As design engineers, your job depends on the most effective use of automation to not only streamline a given system’s operation for utmost throughput, but also to make it as cost efficient to operate as possible. And that typically means more automation with as little human interaction as possible.
The question is: As more manufacturing jobs trickle back to the West, will automation be looked upon as a saving grace that helped make it feasible for at least some of those jobs to return? Or will sentiment revert to the concerns typically seen in the 1980s and early ’90s, before offshoring really kicked into overdrive, where many eyed automation warily?
Note: The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article on Master Lock can be accessed here: http://www.jsonline.com/business/112759524.html