I was laughing half the flight to the US, after watching this movie from 2016, Outsourced (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Outsourced_(film)), about an American guy, whose entire call center, selling American patriotic products, was off-shored to India (a place, hours away from the closest burger joint), that in order to preserve his stock options, had to protect his employment by relocating to India.
The purpose of my travel to the US, was to explore the investment casting industry (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Investment_casting), to find out how additive manufacturing could add efficiency to this ancient process, by replacing molded wax patterns, with printed ones. There, I learnt, that the entire golf club manufacturing ($7.4B in 2019) has been off-shored to China. Being a labor intensive product with, relatively, low added value, it wasn’t economically feasible to further manufacture it in North America. Investment casting in the US still exists, but only for high added value products and products in which confidentiality matters.
It is not only about (simple?) products such as golf clubs. At the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and related economic crisis, different companies and states, experienced a total break of their supply chains, as China immediately went into a complete lock down. This was a clear indication, that the threat, embedded in the dependency upon one remote supply source, is dangerous, no matter who and where that major manufacturing hub is.
A very alarming example for this, was the Paracetamol (a very much needed and common medication) shortage in Europe, during the COVID-19 first wave (currently 72% of the medications consumed in the US are manufactured abroad). Only then, the leaders of a few leading economies, got a clear illustration of how dependent their countries are on off-shored manufacturing.
The opposite of off-shoring, is, of course, re-shoring. The idea of re-shoring is not new;it was not invented by President Trump, it is not against Chine, South East Asia countries and India, and the COVID-19 related crisis in only showing one aspect of it. It is about jobs, communities, health, security and what not. A nation cannot afford to off-shore and outsource its entire manufacturing sector. Economies such as the US, Japan and the EU, decided to focus on their re-shoring efforts, as well as, in certain cases, regulate the level of off-shoring and types of products that may be off-shored.
There is no real reason to off-shore the manufacturing of Paracetamol, as it is not labor intensive. There is no urgency in the re-shoring golf clubs’ manufacturing, as it is not a strategic product (unless you ask golf addicts, such as some recent US presidents). However, there are many products that were off-shored for a reason – it is much cheaper to manufacture them in China, India & South East Asia, as they are labor intensive products. So, if we re-shore them, say, to the Mid-West, or the Southern parts of the US, and no one intends to open sweatshop factories with illegal emigrants, then, how will we supply the demand while keeping the “made in China” prices? Everyone will vote for the creation of new jobs, but what about the salary and standard of living of the American/Japanese/European worker?
It might be that the answer will be found by looking at the automotive industry. Cars are manufactured everywhere; in low labor cost economies, such as Turkey, Mexico and South-East Asia, but also in the US and in Europe. In the US and Europe, they manufacture American cars, but also Toyotas and Hondas. How come? Did they find low-cost American and European assembly workers? Is this industry dominated by poor immigrants? No. A U T O M A T I O N. Not as many new jobs were created, as those lost when off-shoring, but these are great new jobs, operating automated manufacturing solutions.
Automation is not all about robots and robotics. IoT, Industry 4.0 and Additive Manufacturing are all important elements of advanced manufacturing – the type of manufacturing, that will allow wide re-shoring without return to the 20th century.
Let’s go back to the golf club, or tennis racket, or bicycle, or eyewear frames, or any other consumer, or B2B product that is currently mass manufactured, but could add significant value, if was mass customized to the needs of different users, all the way up to the level of personalization. Not only whole products, but also parts, sub-assemblies, covers, product upgrade elements etc. These things are
already being done today, using additive manufacturing (printed personalized eyewear: https://www.fitzframes.com/the-difference, bikes & tennis rackets: https://arevo.com/, lenses: https://www.luxexcel.com/, electronic boards: https://www.nano-di.com/, sport shoes: https://www.materialise.com/en/cases/adidas-futurecraft-ultimate-3d-printed-personalized-shoe), but, in many instances, not in an industrial manner. These are still high-end and even luxury products. What we see being done today are the
alds and early birds of our future.
In order for this to happen, additive manufacturing will need to be significantly more productive than today, materials should be further developed, metal 3D printing should become simple and affordable, and regulators should adapt quality and health & safety standards to product that are “additively manufactured”. Additive manufacturing solutions will have to integrate with the rest of the production floor and supply chain, to enable a smooth workflow.
Customized and personalized product provide better value, than mass manufactured products, thus allowing for a premium on their price. Therefore, on one hand, we have the automation, mitigating the low labor cost, and the added value to justify premium pricing, on the other hand. It seems like the western economy can survive the change.
So, what about creating more jobs in the so called, developed world? We are not about to see many American, European & Japanese workers doing the work Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times. New types of jobs will be created, of people who will have much better time, operating these innovative manufacturing flows. Customization and personalization will be data driven, but human controlled.