Friday, December 16, 2016

The Ghost of Manufacturing Past

By Evan Robertson, Senior Project Associate

I have fond memories of the excitement building up to the holiday season. As a child, it was as if the entire world was building up to a particular day or set of days where humanity slowed down, however briefly, for a moment. As an adult, you discover that there are a lot of people responsible for creating this air of mysticism around the holiday season. Retail employees and, increasingly, delivery drivers are the front face of the entire operation. 

What we typically don’t think about however is the cadre of individuals who were directly involved in the production of what we give or receive. Whether it is a new smartwatch or new gadget, there were a lot of hands that went in to making it. That may not be the case for much longer, especially if the product is stamped with the words “Made in the USA”. Increasingly manufacturers are turning towards automation to solve production issues and lower labor costs. We as economic development professionals have long talked about the new, automated face of manufacturing. But, you never really grasp the concept without experiencing it or seeing it first had. 

By happenstance I recently came across a video that perfectly exhibits the new face of American manufacturing. The video was release by Valve, a video game developer and digital distribution company. Valve hosts a popular video game marketplace called Steam® and recently decided to dip its toe into computer hardware with a video game controller aptly named “Steam® Controller.” A video game company entering the hardware market isn’t a huge story I’ll admit. But what struck me is that the company chose to produce their controller right here in the United States. What also struck me is how few people are actually involved in making the controller. From packaging to quality control, there is little human intervention in the production process. 

This only reinforces my experience at a KIA plant in West Point, Georgia a few years ago as well as numerous other manufacturing facilities I’ve had the opportunity to tour. Machines are everywhere, humans only dot the production line. As we debate and devise new approaches to revive manufacturing in the United States and attempt to bring back jobs lost during globalization, it is important to realize that cost above all else will determine the extent of the manufacturing sector’s capability to create jobs here in the United States. This is to say that reshoring manufacturing jobs here in America from China will not be a one for one trade. A U.S.-located Foxconn factory will not in any way resemble a China based Foxconn facility. If we are successful in bringing back manufacturing to the United States, who knows, the next iPhone you give or receive as a gift may not have ever touched a human hand.