Manufacturing in the USA, and Why Organizations Often Don’t

Manufacturing in the USA continues to do well. But it could do better. There are reasons manufacturing that could be located in the USA is not. And addressing those can increase USA manufacturing. Some reasons are sensible, based on the existing economics and realities of comparative advantage. Some reasons are just flawed thinking, such as the “spreadsheet management” taught at many business schools that Deming and lean thinkers can understand the flawed thinking that leads to outsourcing.

Typical wall street thinking (also driven by “spreadsheet management think” rather than an actual understanding of value stream of a potential investment) also hampers raising investment capital for USA manufacturing. The broken USA health care system also is a big problem driving up costs of doing business in the USA enormously.

Fighting for ‘made in the USA’

Safer and longer-lasting than conventional lithium-ion car batteries, the 52-year old MIT professor’s invention packs 600 cells into a case the size of an airplane carry-on bag. His technology has transformed the batteries used in many cordless power tools. So why are Chiang and his company, A123 Systems, having trouble moving to full-scale commercial production and creating thousands of new American jobs with his better mousetrap?

Despite the promise of Chiang’s batteries, many on Wall Street and in Silicon Valley were incredulous when he and other leaders at A123 asked for capital to build factories in America — Asia, yes, but Michigan, why would you want to?

Even more daunting, nearly all of the world’s battery manufacturing industry is in Asia, where plants can be built faster and supplies and equipment are much easier to get than in the United States. These days, it’s hard to find Americans who even know how to build a battery factory.

That’s why A123 had to give in and build its first plants in China, where the company could move into production quickly to show auto industry customers that it could deliver on future contracts.

“Without question, we would rather have done it all in the U.S.,” said Chiang, who left Taiwan as a 6-year-old with his family, earned degrees at MIT and has been a materials science professor there since the mid-1980s. “I’m an American citizen. We’re an American company. It’s an American-born technology.”

Despite the obstacles, A123 and a few other advanced battery producers are building plants in Michigan and other states, thanks to massive government support that has offset Wall Street’s skepticism and should help domestic producers narrow cost disadvantages with Asian rivals.

A123 is getting $250 million in aid from the Obama administration’s stimulus program as well as tax incentives from Michigan. Its first U.S. plant opens in June in an abandoned brick building near Detroit that once made VHS tapes for Disney.

A123 has five plants in China, coincidentally located in Chiang’s father’s hometown of Changzhou, about two hours’ drive west of Shanghai. Bart Riley, an A123 co-founder and chief technology officer, figured it took about nine months to get a Chinese factory up and running, one-third the time typical for the U.S.

The quicker launch helped A123 make a name for itself through Black & Decker, which in early 2006 began putting A123 batteries in its DeWalt power tools.

Since then, A123 has been supplying batteries and battery systems for New York City buses built by Daimler, among other customers, and the company has agreements to develop products for Chrysler, Navistar and American green-car maker Fisker Automotive.

By the end of next year, A123 expects to have two plants in Michigan employing 400 people, with plans to go up to 2,000 workers able to produce about 30,000 battery systems a year. The company’s sales reached $91 million last year, and it has about 1,700 employees, two-thirds in Asia.

The success of science and engineering university based research is still a huge advantage to the USA. Though other countries have seen the value in this and have invested in building their own capacity. The economic value of such is increased many fold by manufacturing the innovations created in your country.

Related: Manufacturing and the EconomyEconomic Strength Through Technology LeadershipRhode Island ManufacturingBig Failed Three, Meet the Successful EightToyota in the US Economy

3 thoughts on “Manufacturing in the USA, and Why Organizations Often Don’t

  1. “Too often we’ve done the innovation and we’ve outsourced the manufacturing,” said (some Obama-administration bureaucrat)

    This kind of thinking is a huge part of the problem. “Manufacturing” and “innovation” are not opposites. Innovation involves a lot more than “R&D,” although academics and bureaucrats tend to conflate the two.

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  2. The health care system “fix” is illusory, the difference lying merely in whether it comes out of the company or the employees’ income taxes.

    I think part of the problem with A123 is that are primarily a political entrepreneur. Since their inception, most of their research has been done at K Street, trying to figure out how to get tax rebates, subsidies, etc. Manufacturing is tertiary at best.

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  3. Pingback: Curious Cat Management Blog » Manufacturing Jobs Increasing for First Time Since 1998 in the USA

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