Is American Manufacturing On Its Way Home?

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.

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About middleagecranky

The Middle-Age Cranky blog is written by baby boomer Howard Baldwin, who finds the world, while occasionally wondrous, increasingly aggravating.
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11 Responses to Is American Manufacturing On Its Way Home?

  1. Catherine Stern says:

    I ordered a bench from Tidewater Workshop in New Jersey. I called and called and they kept telling me it was on the way. It never came.

    • That’s terrible, Catherine. You have to wonder how people like that stay in business, but the answer is: they don’t.

      • Catherine Stern says:

        On the positive side, I needed some wooden cubes and found a company in Maine that makes them and sent them almost immediately. Same for a company that makes display components for artists/craftspeople. There are good companies out there. This wasn’t manufacturing, but I wanted a new date book for 2012, yes, I still use and love the annual paper book, and I wanted one made by Caspari. I emailed the company and got a fast response with addresses of local merchants. It was personal and quick and I thanked the woman for her excellent customer service.

  2. Sabrina says:

    Oh lord, this brought back memories of buying my first car. I wanted a Mustang, but I had this big hill on the way home and the previous year’s very different Mustang model (driven as a rental) always made me feel like I could make better time pushing the darn thing. So I wanted to test drive cars up that hill. The foreign car dealers fell all over themselves getting me into a car for a test drive, including the guy who ran his personal car through a car wash to make it nice for me to try when they had none on the showroom floor.

    The Mustang dealer sales men sat in their chairs and when I asked about a test drive said “Look, lady, either you are going to buy or you are not.” “I’m going to buy if this car has more power than last year’s model.” “It does.” “I need to test drive it.” “No, we don’t have one outside and we won’t move one of these out. Are you buying or not?”

    So I bought my beloved Toyota Celica GT. Several years later I test drove a Buick something or other and discovered that trim pieces were missing throughout the car and oh, by the way, I should slow down because the speedometer was broken and I was probably speeding. That was it. My husband and I have owned Nissans, Hondas, BMWs, Audis and Toyotas (and a Mini) since then but I won’t even test drive American cars (unless it raises money for our school) because I have never forgiven those Mustang salesmen for the way they treated me. Oh, and the kicker: at the time, I did not know that you negotiated car prices: I was prepared to pay the full sticker price!

    I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read one of your entries and found myself nodding every step of the way. Keep it up.

  3. Thoroughly Entertained in Midwest says:

    I’ve worked for an “American Manufacturer”, albeit not in the manufacturing dept, for the past 15yrs. I have personally seen an increase in the effort and $$ spent attempting to improve our creative/production processes geared toward building a better “widget” on time, and at a targeted cost. However, I’ve seen very, very little effort or $$ spent towards improving our customer service, identifying what customers really want, or service for customers after the sale. As a matter of fact in these areas we appear to have reduced our efforts.
    As a “consumer” myself, there is NOTHING that turns me off faster than poor customer service – either prior to or after a purchase. Yes I don’t like it when something is shoddily made, but I generally chalk that up to experience – won’t buy that thing again but might buy something else from same manufacturer. However, piss me off with poor service & not only will I NOT BUY ANYTHING from you in future, I’ll tell all my friends, post on facebook, tweet my displeasure, etc. I don’t think my reaction is too out of the ordinary either. The comments to your post above point to an agreement with my own attitude.
    I think America has an opportunity to reverse our economy – not necessarily just in manufacturing, but overall – if we would recognize AT THE TOP Management levels that we need to become “service oriented” in EVERYTHING we do. Service is not a dirty word, it’s not the same as “servitude” which seems to be the prevailing opinion. But the change has to start and be championed at top management levels or it won’t become widespread – and I don’t hear anyone in government or economics sprouting this theory so I’m not too confident American jobs will grow.

    • Wise words, indeed. It’s sad, because providing good customer service is not that much more expensive than providing bad customer service. And I suspect that one of the reasons there’s so much distaste toward financial institutions is not so much the money they make, but how they treat people (though admittedly the two are intertwined).

  4. Dave Flack says:

    Let me assure you that if you have enough money you will receive all the customer service you ever need. In the past, if you didn’t have all that much financial clout, you might have been able to go to a competitor of the one who slighted you. The decline of customer service and customer satisfaction go hand-in-hand with declining competition. “We don’t care. We don’t have to. We’re the phone company.” — Lily Tomlin

  5. gingerR says:

    Competition is important. American cars have improved greatly. Why? Becuase they’ve got competition. Your tarp place sounds like it produces custom goods. You ordered it all the way from Atlanta. Doesn’t sound like there is too much competition except with cheezy imported goods. If you’d wanted something cheap you wouldn’t have ordered from them. So you wait and put up with poor service.

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