Made in China

The following bit was originally posted to the listserv of the Chesapeake Area Metalworking Society (CAMS), a great group of metalworking enthusiasts in the D.C.-Maryland-Virginia area.  More info at
In response to this article describing a growing trend dubbed "backshoring", wherein American companies "bring home" production they had previously outsourced overseas, several listserv members took the opportunity to reaffirm their preference to buy American-made products.  This is an attitude I've anecdotally observed more often in metalworking circles than in others, although a confounding variable may be the average age of metalworkers.

I don't necessarily despair when I see "Made in China".

Maybe corporations aren't as evil or incompetent as they sometimes seem.  Maybe they're reacting to the market forces they observe (and that their shareholders demand they respond to).

The fact is that most buyers are motivated by one thing more than any other: price.  Apples to apples, Chinese production gets the job done cheaper than US production.  That's due to a wide range of potentially problematic policies (e.g. labor regulation and environmental protection), but it's the world we live in.

We've all been there.  There are times when a cheap-but-serviceable product is exactly what's needed.  It's a universal thing.  And Chinese quality is actually pretty good sometimes.

Then again, there's times when I want the very best, and that usually means a non-Chinese tool.  I don't care so much about where it was made as I do about its actual quality.  I'm buying the tool to use it, after all.

Manufacturing isn't where the big bucks are anymore.  The margins are small, the jobs aren't great (I've worked one), and the processes are resource-consumptive.  Not to say that we'd be well served to outsource everything, but the real money is in innovation, not production.  Manufacturing stuff is relatively easy, and the Chinese are good at it.  Good new ideas are harder.  The US has long had a competitive advantage in innovation--although the Chinese are trying their best to beat us.  That's more scary to me than outsourced manufacturing.

Besides, American manufacturing may not be what it once was, but it's not in danger of disappearing entirely.  There are plenty of manufacturing jobs that will never be outsourced--military manufacturing, for example.  Maintenance, too--it's hard for someone in China to repair my truck here in North Carolina.

I teach a Metals class to college students these days.  I tell them on the first day that we won't be focusing on the techniques used in factory production.  Peter Drucker wrote that he quickly learned how to tell a well-managed factory from a badly-managed one: A well-managed factory is boring.

Instead I focus on prototyping and the design-build process, which is a whole lot more fun and challenging.  I want my students to be able to make the things they dream up, not just what a blueprint says they should make.  Knowing how things are made makes them better innovators and designers.  Those are durable career skills, no matter where things are being made.

Cheers and "Flame suit on",



Brian said...

No flames... great post.

Ken said...

I despair... But I'm coming from a different place. I'm a pharmacist who has lived through the largest outsourcing of raw materials in pharmaceuticals ever. First we have toothpaste sent worldwide from China with diethylene glycol instead of glycerine. Mind you, the Massengill company from Tenessee had a bit of a problem with this same adulterant in 1937 and this caused the Food Drug and Cosmetic act of 1938 (and the deaths of over 100 children). Almost 70 years later and a chinese company tries to take the same shortcuts? Then melamine in dog food and baby formula. Then chondroitin in Heparin solutions. All of these caused injuries and deaths worldwide. And don't spec a Chinese outsourced bike with CroMo... It won't be 4130. (yes, I had a weeklong visit with the BREWDude). Well written post but my mind is made up...