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Category Archives: Imports to the US

Hoverboards are very popular holiday gifts this year, but the stories about the boards that explode are all over the news.  Many retailers including Amazon.com and Target stopped selling them, and several commercial airlines banned them aboard their aircraft.

So what happened in the manufacture of these items to make them so dangerous? In the reported incidents, the lithium ion batteries in the hoverboards caught fire while charging or just riding them. The reasons for the combustion process is well-known when a battery is defective. The problems with these batteries were identified in laptops and cell phones a few years ago.  What isn’t so transparent are the sourcing and manufacturing processes for the boards being produced in China.

Hoverboards are new, exciting and popular products and this combination creates a frenzy of manufacturing opportunity for Chinese manufacturers. Because of the popularity and the potential for high volumes and high profits, knock-off brands proliferate very fast in the extremely competitive changed to avoid patent infringement laws. The raw  materials sourcing for knock-offs may come from completely different suppliers. Cheaper knock-off products means cutting corners in the factory to keep production costs low.

US safety standards are not all in place yet for these new products. US Customs may be allowing imports to enter the US based on safety standards for similar products, following the current requirements for imports. Some manufacturers may have obtained UL certificates on certain component parts, but not for the hoverboard as a whole. Raw materials such as the actual batteries may be knock-offs, too. You cannot trust the  well-known top brands either. The high demand is likely to cause sourcing from multiple Chinese factories with limited experience and untested component suppliers. No Chinese agency is overseeing the quality of exports from China.

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Montgomery County Fire and Rescue

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I can’t get that hit rock song by the Clash, “Should I Stay or Should I Go” out of my head.

“Should I Stay Or Should I Go” by the Clash
Darling, you gotta let me know
Should I stay or should I go?
If you say that you are mine
I’ll be here ‘till the end of time
But you gotta let me know
Should I stay or should I go?

I’ve been talking to companies that are now making decisions about keeping their manufacturing and supply base in China or bringing manufacturing back to the US. They are asking the question, “Should I stay or should I go?” and that triggers the song playing in my brain…over and over and over. I wake up hearing it and it plays in my head all day long.
In the 1990s and 2000s, companies went to China out of fear of being left behind, not necessarily because they had made an informed decision based on data about the Total Cost of Ownership (TCO). Now it seems they are coming back for fear of being left behind again.
Total Cost of Ownership is an all-encompassing estimate that helps business people determine direct, indirect and consequential costs of one decision versus another. The idea was developed in the 1980s and applied to the costs of implementing software over its entire lifecycle. But when using TCO in a manufacturing or sourcing decision to stay in China versus moving back to the US, there are many more components to monetize and compare.
For example, you may find additional factors that must be considered beyond simple labor costs, import and logistics costs, such as supply base considerations, automation opportunities, supply chain latency, cost of travel, IP theft, quality and so on.
There are also costs associated with leaving China such as buying out employment contracts, obtaining permits to shut down operations, and the tools and dies left behind. The legal ramifications of these things can add up quickly. There is a lot to consider and trying to monetize all of the hard and soft benefits can be very challenging.
Nonetheless, it is important to consider all costs for a true comparison before you decide, “Should I Stay of Should I Go?’

tppThe TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership and Trade Agreement) is at best, difficult to understand. There are a lot of arguments to be made on both sides of the agreement and it can be tough to wade through all of them and read the long associated text in articles for and against. So let me simplify why I am for it.

  1. Increased trade helps create more jobs, including manufacturing jobs that pay more. In our quest to reshore manufacturing, we are trying hard to rebuild manufacturing in the US and the TPP will help. One out of every five jobs in the US can be tied to international trade (about 38 million jobs).
  2. Manufacturing jobs pay better (about 18% better than other jobs). In the US, manufacturing jobs pay between $65K and $85K – squarely in the middle class. And middle class people buy houses, cars, big-screen TVs; they shop at Walmart and send their kids to college. They are the heart and soul of the United States and keep our middle-class economy going strong.
  3. 95% of consumers live outside of the US and with the middle classes growing worldwide, particularly in Asia, our US export markets can be expected to grow. Manufacturing products in America for export put US residents to work, and that is good for all of us.
  4. Trade agreements level the playing field. It’s no secret that foreign governments offer incentives and subsidies to their own manufacturers and exporters. And because the US has such an open-economy, allowing for all kinds of imports, we are seen as a big, red target market for foreign products. Trade agreements put equal rules in place so that all signatories have to play by the same rules and regulations. This will help our exporters and slow or stop unfair imports into the US. We will have legal recourse when the rules aren’t followed.
  5. Small and medium-sized exporters benefit the most because the regulatory hurdles and challenges of foreign countries are standardized or removed. In addition, we see the most reshoring activity happening in small and medium sized companies, so growth in manufacturing is in the US, plus an improved ability to export. The projections say that 98 percent of these companies will benefit from TPP.
  6. Those countries participating in TPP will be required to abide by environmental and labor conditions oversight. While this may not fix the pollution and human rights issues in all participating nations, it is a very strong step in the right direction.

If we sit back and do nothing, surely China will step in with an overriding agreement of their own and it may not be so favorable toward US manufacturers. With TPP passage, we will continue to play a leadership role in Pacific trade.

The bottom line for me is the test of rebuilding the middle class in America through manufacturing. TPP will do that by giving access to export markets for small and medium-sized manufacturers. And that is good for America.

I spoke at the Global Supply Chain Council’s Sourcing Shift Conference in Shanghai last week. The audience was a mix of c-level executives and very senior sourcing people. These folks have been running international sourcing and manufacturing operations throughout China and across Asia for many years. They are savvy business people with amazing international experience.
So I was astonished that almost no one in the crowd had heard about America’s Reshoring movement. A 2014 Boston Consulting Group report says that 52% of American corporations over $1B in revenue are considering Reshoring. And with Walmart’s new pledge to spend $250B on US-made goods over the next 10 years, Reshoring is all over the news.
We listened to various speakers talking about the shift of manufacturing from China to even lower cost countries including Indonesia, Vietnam, Myanmar and Bangladesh. The cost per hour comparisons were remarkable. They quoted “cut and sew” and assembly operations in Myanmar at $.35/hour and Bangladesh at $.33/hour. Yes, you read that right…thirty-three cents per hour. These sourcing folks and the multinationals they represent are still chasing the lowest labor cost to produce their products.
Then it was my turn to talk about how Reshoring will affect China and specifically, how it will change these people’s jobs. I asked for a show of hands to see how many people were familiar with the American Reshoring movement. Only three or four raised their hands.
So as I described the Reshoring movement in America, they were fascinated. “How can it be that Americans will pay so much more for American-made goods?” they asked. I explained about the new “economic patriotism” that has enveloped the country. Americans want to rebuild the economy and believe that bringing back manufacturing is one way. But products must also be cost competitive. To achieve this, reshored manufacturing must be very automated including the use of robotics, 3D printing and 5-axis milling. “This is not a return to 1960’s manufacturing,” I said. “It is an evolution. And, in fact, the costs can be very competitive with China, when production is fully automated and when the total cost of ownership is considered.”
That got their attention. They are used to dealing with total cost comparisons. They have seen amazing changes in China over the past 25 years and understand the potential for evolution. And suddenly they understood. Their sourcing jobs are going to change, too.
Sourcing Shift Conf

Cof O UkraineIf you are an importer, you know the importance of US Customs regulations regarding Country of Origin markings. The regulations are in place so that US consumers can be informed about the origin of the products they buy. You can find C of O markings on adhesive stickers attached to products, on imported food labels, on soft labels in apparel and on the outside of a shipping carton or crate. But what happens when one country takes over another? How should the rules of origin apply?

Customs and Border Protection support the US government’s political position in this matter with the enforcement of C of O regulations. Take for example, the current and very serious dispute over the Crimean Peninsula between Russia and the Ukraine. The US government has taken a clear stand against Russia and one of the ways is through C of O marking requirements. CBP requires products of Crimea to be marked with Country of Origin: Ukraine. This is a very significant point being made by the US government. Goods coming from the Crimea cannot be labeled “Made in Russia” because the US government does not recognize the Russian government there.

On April 28, 2014, the White House issued a press release announcing the implementation of further sanctions against Russia including export restrictions for high-technology goods, subject to the Export Administration Regulations (EAR), which could contribute to Russia’s military.

The U.S. Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS) also announced that, effective immediately, they will “deny pending applications for licenses to export or re-export any high technology item subject to the EAR to Russia or occupied Crimea that contribute to Russia’s military capabilities.” Existing export licenses meeting these conditions will be subject to revocation.

Supply chain professionals often discover that the real reason for a trade law or country regulations is political, not economic. The laws are enforced to further the agenda of the importing country, in this case the US. For the US and Ukraine, this means supporting the Ukrainian government in their fight to keep Ukraine independent.

Recent stories in the Western press describe impending doom for Chinese manufacturing, relating the Chinese demise to Japan in the 1990’s.  But to real China-watchers and experts, this is a naïve view.  It assumes that the Chinese government will sit back and do nothing to correct the trends and that the Chinese economy will stagnate.

While Chinese manufacturing is not known for innovation, it really is just a matter of time.  With 700,000 graduating engineers per year, China is quickly becoming the world’s powerhouse in manufacturing engineering and in continuous improvement.  The next phase is innovation and optimization. 

To address innovation, the Chinese government advocates student exchange programs and invites thousands of visiting US professors into its universities to infuse creativity into the education systems. Over time, this will reignite the creative innovation spark that the Chinese displayed over thousands of years, inventing printing, gun powder, deep water bridges, massive sailing ships and irrigation to name a few.  While US politicians tell us not to worry because China cannot innovate, the Chinese are busy proving them wrong.

To address optimization, China has started on the journey to automation.  Automation and the adoption of software systems will dramatically increase productivity at the factory level and will drive continuous improvement and optimization.  Although this is a long road to travel, it is nonetheless the road Chinese manufacturers are on.

It’s time to wake up and smell the green tea.

Mike Daisey, a journalist and feature writer, delivered a radio show about Chinese factory workers on NPR “This American Life” in January.  I listened to the show one Sunday morning with a friend and kept thinking how odd it was that the things he was saying about his interviews with workers outside of Foxconn, just didn’t ring true.  I remarked to my friend throughout the broadcast that his examples weren’t true, or were odd. For example, he claimed he talked to several young girls who told him they were 12 and 13.  If they were underage workers at the Apple factory, why on earth would they say so and risk losing their jobs in one of the best factories in China?  In another example he talked about guards at the factory gates toting guns.  I have never seen anything like this in the factories I have visited.

Well, it turns out that Mike Daisey lied and embellished his story for NPR and for his off-Broadway monologue called “The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs”.  Only a few parts of his story were true…enough to make it sound real.  NPR has broadcast a retraction and the world press has skewered Mike for lying.

It’s not that those of us with China experience don’t believe there is room for improvement.  Chinese factories in general have a long way to go to improve working conditions and address human rights issues.  Conditions are not consistently up to world standards yet.  But the Foxconn factories are some of the best places to work.  Apple, HP, Dell and other companies have taken pains to monitor the production environments to make them humane and safe.

What bothers me most about Mike Daisey’s lies is that he has incited people to believe more fiction about China.  It’s time we dig deeper and question stories like this in the Western press and demand that our news companies verify all facts prior to printing or broadcasting.

The Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) Single Windows Project is a USAID-funded initiative to facilitate trade between the 10 member states.  This includes developing standard documents and processes across the member states of Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar, Brunei and Cambodia.

I was invited to lead a Business Process Design Workshop for this group in Singapore in August.  What an honor it was to participate in this event with policy makers and customs officials from the member states.  There were 2-3 delegates from each country plus representatives from the ASEAN Secretariat in attendance.

I started off the day with a lecture about Business Process Design and then introduced a toolkit to assist in developing or revising processes.  The challenge was to use examples that were relevant to import/export and logistics as well as those things that are specific to ASEAN regional trade.  As a consultant and coach, I also like to add colorful examples to drive home the points I want to make.  I chose some images such as an elephant to enrich my stories.

Lecturing and coaching in a very diverse cross-cultural meeting was one of the more difficult things I have ever done….and also one of the most rewarding and enriching.  I hope they invite me back for more.

I visited a toy factory in Guangdong Province, China on Friday.  This factory manufactures plastic toys and represents other manufacturers that produce radio-controlled toys and dolls.  It was quite amazing to see so many plastic toys in one place.

I noticed though, that the Chinese staff was less enthusiastic than usual about selling to me.  I wondered about this, but didn’t say anything.

Then I saw an article in the South China Morning Post about toy manufacturers at the Canton Fair, the largest trade show in the world, going on now in Guangzhou.  The article reported that toy manufacturers were rejecting large orders and those that were more than 3 months out, for fear of RMB currency adjustments.  Apparently, toy manufacturers typically operate on a 2-3% margin and fluctuations in currency can result in losses.  Western toy buyers, however, are still demanding lower prices.  This double-whammy is causing toy manufacturers to reject orders or cautiously proceed.

I am not sure if this is good or bad.  I do know that the low-end toys are sold at low-end retailers such as Wal-Mart where the shoppers cannot afford to pay more.  If there is a shortage of cheap plastic toys, will family lifestyles be affected?  Will this begin to happen with other products?  Is this a vicious cycle?

Currency adjustments to the RMB not only affect the price of imports into the US but they will also affect the razor thin margins that Chinese manufacturers earn.  We must proceed with caution and gently allow the RMB to adjust.  Otherwise, we may be faced with whiplash economic peril in the East and in the West.

There is a lot of discussion in Congress, the domestic Press and the international Press about the Chinese RMB (yuan) appreciation against the dollar and other world currencies.  China is being pressured to take action by the US Government, WTO and IMF. 

But Chinese Prime Minister  Wen Jiabao  and others in the Chinese government are fighting back.  If the RMB is re-valued, they say, it will cause full scale recession in China.  In America and other Western importing countries, it would cause an automatic rise in prices for imported Chinese goods by 5-15%.  If China goes into recession, the whole world will suffer.  The cost of goods to American consumers would increase, theoretically causing us to buy less, thus ordering less from China…and so on.  It’s a vicious cycle that hurts both US consumers and the Chinese economy.  There’s a new world financial order and China can tip the delicate balance if the RMB suddenly increases in value.

But our American politicians on both sides of the aisle argue that millions of jobs will return to the US because it will no longer be cheaper to manufacture in China.  HA!  No way!

Consider the lowly industrial spring.  As I discussed in my recent interview on NPR Morning Edition http://www.npr.org/player/v2/mediaPlayer.html?action=1&t=1&islist=false&id=130258250&m=130260491  even if the price of Chinese-made goods increases by 5% or 10% or 20%, it is still much cheaper to produce goods in China.  The biggest effect will be increases in costs to low-end US consumers.  Consider Wal-Mart.  When low-end goods increase in cost, the Wal-Mart shopper, (probably the least able to afford an increase) gets the brunt of the increased price.  It will cause low-income American citizens to suffer…and it will put low-paid Chinese factory workers out of their jobs as demand decreases.

The same is true if the US Government slaps import tariff increases on Chinese goods.  The effect will be shoved off onto consumers who must now buy the same goods at higher prices.  Again, not a brilliant idea with so many people struggling in this economy.

This is a serious no-win strategy.  I agree the RMB should be re-valued gently over time to create a more level global playing field.  But making revaluation happen rapidly will cause big, ugly repercussions.