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Tag Archives: Chinese manufacturing

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 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

St Basil's Church

St Basil’s Church

This week I am in Moscow and overall, I find Moscow to be a bit bleak – miles of low-slung beige and gray block-style buildings reminiscent of the Cold War Soviet government. The exceptions include a small group of new downtown skyscrapers and Red Square.

With my China sourcing consulting business, I have been to Beijing and Tiananmen Square many times but this is the first time I’ve been to Moscow and its famous Red Square.  Both cities are heavily industrialized, the seat of their respective governments, and both have famous Squares.  So how does Red Square compare to Tiananmen Square?

First, they are both enormous.  The Chinese claim that Tiananmen can hold a million people and being there, it seems possible.  While not as big, Red Square is quite impressive, with the attached Kremlin grounds and several churches and museums.  Both have picturesque historical buildings including the Chinese Forbidden City and the Russian St. Basil’s Cathedral with the colorful onion domes. On the sides of both Squares are the seats of government: The Chinese Communist Party and the Kremlin.  Both Squares have remarkable museums with extensive and awesome collections. Both Squares have monuments to workers.  Tiananmen has Mao’s Mausoleum and Red Square has Lenin’s Mausoleum.

But the more important thing is that these two Squares were built as places of powerful governments and a show of might and strength. Both Squares are often used for military parades and other official government business. The message seems to be tops-down with leadership and power at the pinnacle and the people at the bottom.   You can “feel” this in both places to the point where it is a bit intimidating.

Contrast that with American monuments such as the Washington Mall.  The Mall seems to have a totally different feel, more egalitarian, more “Of the People.”  Even the White House is surrounded by an open fence, unlike the high walls of the Forbidden City and the Kremlin.

It serves us well to remember and respect these distinctions when we are dealing with global commerce.  Most nations of the world maintain tight control over capitalist ventures and international commerce.   We need to be aware and sensitive to cultural and governmental differences in our Supply Chain planning and execution.

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 am in China again this week and it seems everyone wants to know about the US elections.  They watched the Presidential debates and the election news with great interest and a kind of wondrous amazement.  “We heard what your politicians believe and what they will do,” one executive told me.  “In China, we have no idea what the policies of the leaders will be.”

I hadn’t really considered the difference in politics this way.  Americans have access, information and a fundamental understanding of what the leadership is planning.  Chinese people have none of this.  Most people have no clue about what is in the new Chinese 5-year plan, or how the new Communist Party Chief Xi will lead the country.

With the US elections now over and Obama reelected, the new President Xi assuming the leadership of China and Putin in Russia, we should all be wondering what will change in the world.   These three super-powers will surely bring dynamic change in the world order.

The Chinese Communist Party began its leadership transition as the 18th National Congress opened in early November.  This transition in leadership happens only once every 10 years. The new President Xi will be charged with executing the new Chinese 5-year Plan, developed earlier this year.  This plan includes a heavy emphasis on the environment, and from what I have observed in China, whatever the government decides to do, gets done.

In the US we have had the privilege of watching the Presidential and Vice Presidential debates, listened to endless TV advertising and news reports.  We have a pretty good idea about the President’s agenda.  But how that agenda will interact with Xi’s and Putin’s is a big unknown.

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.

I taught a 2-day workshop on Sourcing and Manufacturing in China on Sept 16-17.  This is the second time I have taught this workshop, but the first time in the US.  The last workshop was in Shanghai in April.

This time it was in Atlanta and the students were all Americans.  This was a great group of people who were anxious to learn and discuss the possibilities of doing business in China.  I was impressed with them.

More importantly, I keep learning, too.  I have started to examine the ways Chinese culture affects the Chinese manufacturing environment.   Of course, 5000 years of Chinese culture is behind everything that’s said, behind every dinner that’s hosted, behind every ride, every cola offered to you, every small gift, behind every business deal.

One of the most important things I teach my students about is the disparity between East and West cultures regarding contracts.  In the Western world, we rely on contracts to spell out the terms and conditions, expectations and approach for doing business together.  If the contract is violated; we file a law suit and go to court. 

In China, the contract should be seen as no more than a way of communicating the end-state of production.  After the contract is signed, you may be the only person to ever look at it again.  If there is a problem with production or the agreed-to terms in the contract, you are likely to be told, “this is not the way we do it in China.”  The business relationship you have with your Chinese supplier is based on “guanxi” – personal relationships – not on written legal contracts.

If you were to take your supplier or manufacturer to court (and generally, I advise against this because it is a waste of time and money), you are unlikely to get a favorable judgment.   This is because Chinese laws are immature with little precedent history.  Everything is subject to interpretation by a Chinese judge.  In the rare case you might get a favorable judgment, it is probably not enforceable.  Your Chinese manufacturer will simply go out of business.