Reshoring has captured the imaginations of politicians and economic developers for years, particularly in parts of the country hit hard by the loss of manufacturing jobs. The COVID-19 crisis gave reshoring advocates another rallying cry, as supply chain disruptions rippled through the economy and the general public awoke to the fact that we are dependent on Chinese manufacturing for most of our medical supplies.
Some will no doubt call for a response in the form of tougher trade policies – tariffs that aim to level the playing field and to deter Chinese “dumping” of cheap, below-profit goods with which US manufacturers can’t hope to compete.
But while tariffs can be an effective weapon in the short term, they won’t help revive American manufacturing. In fact, they might do serious damage, especially amid an economic downturn. Most economists now believe the 1930 Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act, which leveled crippling tariffs on US imports from all over the world, played a significant role in sinking the country deeper into what would become the Great Depression.
Fortunately, tariffs aren’t the only way. We can reverse the decline of domestic manufacturing and return factory jobs and investment to US soil, but the key isn’t policy – it’s technology.
American manufacturers can regain their global competitive advantage by widely investing in and deploying automation and robotics that will enable them to produce everything from auto parts to cellphone screens cheaper, faster and better than factories in China and elsewhere.
The technology won’t replace workers. They’ll be needed to operate and maintain the sophisticated machinery involved. Much of the investment I’m calling for will be in people – training Americans to work with the kind of technology that can transform and revive our manufacturing sector. We call this Industry 4.0.
Doing What Americans Do Best
Before I explain further, I should lay some groundwork. Even as wages for Chinese workers have risen in recent years, they remain much lower than US workers’ pay. Other countries can undercut China, leaving Europe as the only part of the world where American manufacturers have any sort of cost advantage.
That means we must do what America does best: innovate. If we can get ahead of the curve by investing technologies such as robotics, Internet of Things and 3D printing, we can automate shop floors in a way that speeds production, sparks new-product development and creates new high-skilled factory jobs. We can also produce competitively priced goods that enable our local manufacturers to grow by taking market share from rivals overseas.
Jergens Inc. is a 78-year-old company in Cleveland, with a campus on an abandoned railyard site. The company, one of the world’s largest manufacturers of standard tooling components, vises and other workholding equipment, has fully embraced automation – but not as a way to eliminate jobs.
“With every robot, more jobs at Jergens are created,” says Jack Schron, the company’s president. “We use one robot to get higher production on one of our popular items. Right next to that robot are skilled technicians assembling these same items for small-run, custom applications. Because of the one, the other follows.”
Automation has actually increased headcount in some Jergens departments; because the robots helped increase production and broaden its offerings, Jergens has hired more sales, marketing and shipping workers.
A Technological Cold War
Jergens is far from alone, even among the subset of Northeast Ohio manufacturers I work with. What we learn from them is that automation is more affordable, more accessible and more effective than ever.
Unfortunately, far too many small and mid-sized companies in our industrial heartland understand this. That’s partly why few have taken the first steps toward automation. In a February survey by our organization, 94 percent of manufacturers in Northeast Ohio said they were actively innovating – but more than 60 percent said they weren’t using or just starting using automation, and half said they didn’t plan to increase automation spending.
Too many American manufacturers don’t understand the technology, or how their shop floors or market strategies could benefit from automation. Others see the potential but don’t have the funds to invest, or see the investment as too risky, or fear the lag between investing and seeing a return would destroy their balance sheets.
None of those things is true, but various combinations of flawed perceptions, lack of knowledge, lack of funding and risk aversion prevent factory owners and leaders from investing in technology that would make them more profitable and competitive.
Meanwhile, China has been investing in automation technology for years. The country has now become the world’s largest and fastest-growing market for industrial robotics, according to the International Federation of Robotics. The mental image of Chinese sweatshops is no longer accurate (though other countries still use those methods). Google “manufacturing process” and you’ll see highly automated, high-tech manufacturing facilities in China.
Put simply, we’re in a cold war of technological advancement that very few people – including many manufacturing leaders – see and even fewer understand. And we’re losing. Could COVID-19 provide the motivation we need to fully embrace innovation, advance toward Industry 4.0 and win the innovation war? It absolutely could. Or perhaps American manufacturers will embrace Industry 4.0 for simple business reasons – it will undoubtedly make them more profitable.
Whatever it takes, investment in technology is a critical step toward a new, sustainable era of reshoring. And at the very least, widespread investments in technology will create better-paying, safer, more stable jobs in parts of our country hit hardest by the deindustrialization of the last 30 years.
That is the promise of Industry 4.0.
Dr. Ethan Karp is an expert in transforming companies and communities. As President and CEO of the non-profit consulting group MAGNET, he has helped hundreds of manufacturing companies grow through technology, innovation, and talent. He is passionate about driving economic prosperity in his home region of Northeast Ohio. Dr. Karp is a recognized thought leader on manufacturing issues and a frequent media commentator on the future of manufacturing in America. Prior to joining MAGNET in 2013, Dr. Karp worked with Fortune 500 companies at McKinsey & Co. He received undergraduate degrees in biochemistry and physics from Miami University and a Ph.D. in Chemical Biology from Harvard University.
MAGNET is part of the NIST and Ohio Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP) program to support small and medium manufacturers across the US.