Friday, November 30, 2012

Made in America. No, Really!

Ladies and gentlemen, it's the rare happy blog. I know, where the hell did this come from? Well, a wonderful lady I know posted this article a few days ago. Very short synopsis: the manufacturing industry has come to the realization that outsourcing wholesale is probably not a good idea. 

Normally, this would be a "point and laugh" moment, around four hundred words that all boil down to "holy gods, you idiots." But in this case, the realization comes not from catastrophe or bankruptcy, or the slow bleed of the economy. It comes because someone had a freaking brilliant epiphany and actually tried doing it the other way.

General Electric, that venerable old house of absolutely everything that can be designed and built (no seriously, they've built just about everything at some point) is the proud owner of this monstrosity:

This is Appliance Park. That's a factory so big it has it's own zipcode. The five manufacturing plants and the warehouse take up 103 acres, or 4.5 million square feet. And that's just the buildings. We're not including the freaking parking lot, which, you may notice, is nearly as big as the buildings. Appliance Park has it's own fire fighting station, for gods' sakes.

It's been pretty much dead or dying since 1973. A great big chunk of wasted space. Between the "death" of the American manufacturing industry, and the outsourcing boom, this massive facility had a whopping 1,863 people working there in 2011.

And then, someone realized the innovative, brilliant designs they'd been sending overseas had two major problems: 

FIrst, once you send something out of sight, it gets a lot easier to steal. I mean, if you designed a brilliant device that enhanced the consumer experience and market, and was worth millions of dollars, would you then promptly ship it off to another country where the only thing between your million dollar idea and a thousand cheap knockoffs was some guy whose only concern is making sure he hits production quota?

Second, there's no way to ensure any of the following: quality of product, design viability in manufacturing, stable shipping costs, and receipt of intact product. In order to get those things, there has to be lots and lots of little checks and balances that add up to a lot of money when there's an ocean between you and your product.

What does this all boil down to? 

GE started bringing their products back state-side. And not just "power up the lines and crank it out." They grabbed people off the line and asked them "what would make this easier to build?"

They had a dishwasher assembly line that went from one end of a building to the other end and back. Remember, these are huge buildings. So they asked the guys building them how to fix this. They then guaranteed to all employees working to streamline production that they wouldn't lose their jobs. 

And when they did, in fact, cut production time by 10 hours, GE asked the guys on the line what piece of the dishwasher they thought would be better off being built in the states. They chose the control panel, and the whole team sat down and figured out an efficient production line for building that

Their new, incredibly efficient water heater? Brought it state side. Assembly dudes took one look at it and went, "Dafuq. Were. You. Thinking?"

It had this weird coil thing that had to be welded perfectly. The whole water heater depended on it being welded perfectly. The tiniest screw up, and that water heater would either not work, or not perform to spec. And it would die faster. 

Assembly dudes sat down with design dudes to try and fix the problem. They ended up redesigning the water heater from the ground up, this time taking manufacturing process into account. It's now 60% more efficient, and 20% cheaper. Not even kidding.

This. Is. Fabulous!

So what is it? 

It's called lean manufacturing. And until GE started in on it, the only stateside companies taking advantage of it were car manufacturers. Why should you care?

Partly because manufacturing and skilled labor jobs could make a comeback. Not enough to turn the economy around by itself, but any jobs are good jobs in an economy as fragile as ours is right now. 

But mostly because it's the best freaking thing I've heard in the news in a long time. One of the oldest and largest companies in the U.S. has just come to the sudden realization that assembly line guys and gals are valuable resources that can make their products better. You know all that crap that falls apart on you every day? 

That could conceivably go away in the next few decades. Products might not only become more innovative, they might actually start to look cool. Manufacturing and assembly might become a viable U.S. industry again. We might go back to being a nation with a real industrial contribution to the world, instead of being an exporter of our crappy pop culture. 

In short, "Made in the U.S." might, some day in the relatively near future, actually mean Made in the U.S.

Not "partially assembled in the U.S. after a dozen or so parts were built elsewhere by people we can't talk to cause we only speak English due to ethnocentrism." 

We might be able to visit a foreign country and see "Made in America" labels on products. We could flip a microwave over and not try to pronounce the place name of some country in Euarasia or South America. 

We…could be proud of the products our fellow citizens built. With their hands. On our soil. In our factories

Holy. Fucking. Shit. We could actually have something to be proud of beyond being one of the richest nations, with the greatest excess, and the best equipped military. 

I could stand here and say, honestly and with a straight face: 

"Damn. Look at that awesome thing. That got built here. I'm so freaking proud to be an American right now."

1 comment:

  1. yes! I love this! I really hope other companies follow GE's lead on this :)