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Tag Archives: China Sourcing

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

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RESHORINGFor the past 15 years or so, I have been helping companies offshore their manufacturing.  There have been, and continue to be, pretty significant cost savings in low-cost labor markets.  But with the waning US economy, it’s time we wake up and put some Yankee ingenuity into bringing some manufacturing back. We think it is possible to bring 15-20% of offshore manufacturing back to the US.

I am not saying we can or should bring it all back.  There are still global cost advantages to low-cost labor markets.  And China represents the largest single target market in the world to sell goods to.  Companies should continue to  manufacture in China to serve the Chinese market.

The U.S. manufacturing sector has added 430,000 jobs since 2010; a small trickle of what we need to recover, but still a move in the right direction. Companies that are reshoring include some of the nation’s largest manufacturers: Apple, General Electric, Ford, Caterpillar and NCR.  A 2012 study concluded that reshoring could add 2 million to 3 million jobs and an estimated $100 billion in annual output to a range of industries by the year 2015.

But bringing manufacturing back isn’t as easy as you may think.  There are a host of considerations and analyses that companies must do to determine the costs and feasibility of reshoring. Several of the important factors in the original offshoring decisions have dramatically changed. Consider these 5 factors as the initial steps in determining your need to rebalance global manufacturing and reshore some activities back to the US.

1)      Cost Increases, Taxes

2)      Innovation and Automation

3)      Market Access and Localization

4)      Skills

5)      Political Environment and Public Sentiment

We are helping clients evaluate the possibilities now.  For more information go to www.BlueSilkConsulting.com/Reshoring

I visited a State Owned Enterprise (SOE) machine shop near 5th Ring Road in Beijing one very hot and humid August afternoon.  The machine shop was located among a cluster of buildings that didn’t seem very remarkable from the outside.  But inside was a different story.

We were greeted by the Plant Manager and the Operations Manager, who were expecting us for a visit that afternoon.  After the greetings were exchanged, the two managers disappeared to take a phone call and we were left to wander the plant by ourselves, unescorted. 

We walked down the center aisle of the machine shop, surrounded by giant drilling and cutting machinery making thunderous noise and throwing off metal shavings.  We were offered no eyewear protection, no foot/toe protection and no earplugs.  The Chinese machine tool operators were wearing black cloth shoes with rubber soles; not the steel-toed boots you would expect in a US factory.  About half way down the center aisle, a chemical smell was so overwhelming, that I looked for an open window or door to gasp some “fresh Beijing air”.  I was allowed to take as many photos as I liked.

The lack of safety standards and allowing us to walk through the factory unescorted was a dose of reality regarding Chinese manufacturing.  China’s steady climb in the industrial world has not been paralleled with world standards for safety.  The climb to achieve these standards in China is extremely steep.

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.

On Nov. 8, 2011, the Senate Armed Services Committee held a hearing on counterfeit parts in the defense supply chain, including electronic parts used to manufacture weapons and other defense department equipment. Investigators found that counterfeit or suspect electronic parts were installed or delivered to the military for several weapons systems, including military aircraft such as the Air Force’s C-17 and the Marine Corps’ CH-46 helicopter, as well as the Army’s Theatre High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile system. Legislation is being proposed to require defense contractors to certify all parts for authenticity.  This will place a tremendous burden on defense supply chains in terms of authentication process verification

But of course, counterfeiting is not limited to defense goods.  Any electronic gadget or equipment is likely to include some counterfeit parts, and the counterfeiters are getting better and better at it. It is so difficult to tell counterfeit from legitimate parts, that industrial buyers are often fooled.  Even the price of counterfeits may be equivalent or close to legitimate parts, thus eluding suspicion about parts origins.  This is a problem of such magnitude, that we are just beginning to unravel the stories.  Counterfeit parts may cause your iPOD to fail early or not work properly at all.  But think about the real danger in counterfeit parts in machinery, automobiles and aircraft.

The only way to control counterfeiting is to maintain control over your entire worldwide supply chain.  This means verifying and monitoring all parts suppliers, distributors, subcontractors and manufacturers.  Take nothing for granted. Know your supply chains from start to finish. Verify and monitor every step of the way.

The Lunar New Year started on Feb 3 and lasts about 2 weeks.  This is the time that Asian families across the world gather to celebrate family and good fortune.  This year is the Chinese Zodiac Year of the Rabbit or The Year of the Cat in Vietnam.  The Rabbit or Hare is the 4th animal in the 12-year cycle.

Happy New Year wishes are expressed as:  “gung hau fat choy” (Cantonese) or “gong xi fa cai” (Mandarin) which generally means “Congratulations, may you be prosperous”

The Year of the Rabbit is expected to be a placid year and very much welcomed and needed after the ferocious year of the Tiger.

Here’s the prediction from the Chinese Cultural Center in San Francisco: Good taste and refinement will shine on everything and people will acknowledge that persuasion is better than force. A congenial time in which diplomacy, international relations and politics will be given a front seat again. We will act with discretion and make reasonable concessions without too much difficulty.

If you have manufacturing sites in China, you should expect delays in shipping as most of the factory workers return home for the long holiday.  During Chinese New Year, there may be no one left in the factory to answer the phone or check email. 

Be vigilant in checking the quality of products made just before and just after the New Year.  Before the start of the holiday, factories rush to complete all orders and ship everything possible.  Quality may be overlooked in anticipation of the holiday.  Just after the New Year, a significant number of new migrant workers (30% to 40%) start jobs or change jobs in factory towns and there may be a significant learning curve, causing quality deterioration.

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.

Since my book, 42 Rules for Sourcing and Manufacturing in China, was published, it has done very well on www.amazon.com .  It continues to be a top seller in the US, UK, France and Germany.  My publisher also sent out a press release to TV and radio stations and over time, I have been interviewed on several radio stations.  I was also interviewed for CCTV (China’s CNN).

But when NPR called me, I was truly honored and thrilled.  I have listened to and been a fan of and member of NPR for years.  I respect NPR’s approach to programming and enjoy the feature clips.  So the opportunity to be interviewed was fantastic.  The link to the audio story is here http://www.npr.org/player/v2/mediaPlayer.html?action=1&t=1&islist=false&id=130258250&m=130260491   

Adam Davidson, and NPR reporter called me early on Thursday morning and asked me several questions about the cost differential on Chinese-made products if the RMB was allowed to freely float against the dollar.  One of the examples I used was of the industrial springs I have written about in this blog on May 26, 2009.  That was the anecdote he chose for the story.

The story aired on Friday, Oct 1, 2010 on the Morning Edition show.  My 15 seconds of fame!