There are rumors flying that manufacturing may be returning to America. According to an article in the October 10, 2011 issue of Time, Made (Again) in the U.S.A., not only are wages in China rising rapidly, but prices for both ocean containers and marine fuel have spiked so much recently that the vaunted cost advantage of doing business in China may be diminishing.
I’m all for more jobs in America, but just like any Baby Boomer, I was witness to the vivid decline of American manufacturing. When we were young, foreign cars, with the possible exception of Volkswagens, stood out. I still remember when a Toyota Corona was an oddity. And so it went, from cars to power tools to shoes to computers (disclosure: this is being written on my second Lenovo ThinkPad).
Why did that happen? Did unions bring American wages up too high? Did manufacturers demand output over quality? A friend of mine from high school once toured the GM plant in Fremont, California, and witnessed workers using mallets to smack bumpers into place that didn’t fit properly.
I don’t know all the reasons manufacturing fled, but based on my recent experience with an Atlanta-based company called MyTarp.com, which prides itself on manufacturing in America, it’s too soon to start celebrating its return. Several years ago, I purchased a plastic tarp made in China and at a local hardware store, and used it to cover my wood pile. It lasted no more than three seasons and eventually disintegrated, a waste of both petroleum resources and money. I found MyTarp online, bought a canvas tarp for the wood pile, and have been delighted with it.
We are lucky enough to have a fairly large backyard, and a 12-foot-long oval teak table on the patio. Just as with the wood pile, we had a table cover that had been manufactured somewhere overseas, and it began to disintegrate after only a few years of California weather (I can only imagine how short the lifespan of such things are where there’s real weather). Because MyTarp also offered custom tarps, I asked them to create a waterproof cover for the patio table. This was in August, four months ago.
I won’t bore you with the timeline of events, but suffice to say that once I sent them the measurements, getting responses was like prying a ball out of a playful dog’s mouth, only less fun. I had to incessantly prod them for information – did they get the measurements, how much would it cost, when would it be ready? My queries sometimes took a week to answer, and some of the replies were insipid enough to ask for information that had been in previous e-mails. It took them a week to determine they’d written my credit card number wrong. I was promised shipment three times in three successive weeks. Finally, four months after I’d first submitted the order, and two months after I’d been told MyTarp would put a rush on it, the table cover arrived.
As it happens, it fits perfectly, covering both the table and the chairs skooched under it. I asked for grommets every three feet so I could use bungee cords tie it down, and there they were. So maybe American manufacturing has a chance of recovering. But if MyTarp is any indication, clearly work remains to be done on the other things associated with manufacturing: efficiency, customer service, responsiveness. What made us start buying foreign goods in the first place was a distasteful customer experience overall, of which the finished product is only part of the equation.