The Future of Manufacturing in North America

Do you remember toy soldiers?  The little green ones bought in bulk, some with plastic parachutes.  How about plastic airplane, boat or train models?  When we were younger we’d play with such toys unaware of where and how they were made. In the time that we’ve grown we have seen the trend of manufacturing such items move from Europe and North America to places like China and Taiwan.  Though the tried and tested way to manufacture, ship and sell those beloved items within Europe and North America to global buyers may be shifting back. New technology, increased social awareness and changes in labour laws in foreign countries can be attributed to the pendulum returning. A recent Globe and Mail article suggests that Canadian manufacturing is looking up with two major contributing factors, “a single-minded focus on specialized, high-value-added products, and the targeting of high-growth markets both at home and abroad,” it quotes senior economist Adrienne Warren of the Bank of Nova Scotia.  It continued, “Anecdotal evidence indicates a growing cluster of successful ‘niche’ manufacturers, even in hard-hit sectors like clothing.” The world renowned arctic wear company Canada Goose, who for more than 50 years have held a strong position in Canada’s manufacturing sector, is a perfect example of how a company can produce and export a quality product utilizing a local workforce and materials purchased from local companies.  In Canada Goose’s case their coat factory is located in Toronto, the feathers they fill their jackets with are purchased from the Canadian company Feather Industries and the coyote fur used on their hoods come from Canadian coyotes taken by Canadian trappers with a sustainability-driven trapping method. Unfortunately the decades that have passed following the industrial revolution and the birth and subsequent overuse of the assembly line has bred the more for less is the best culture.  So when places like China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Indonesia and India with their almost nonexistent environmental regulations, poor labour laws and undervalued currency (in China’s case at least), come along it is hard for big business to resist when it only has its bottom line to consider. As discussed in The Economist two weeks ago even the seemingly socially-conscious multi-billion dollar company Apple has their ubiquitous devices partially manufactured in China where facilities have, “230,000 employees, many working six days a week, often spending up to 12 hours a day at the plant. Over a quarter of Foxconn’s (company that runs the complexes where Apple products are made) work force lives in company barracks and many workers earn less than $17 a day.” When mass production of everything from furniture to clothing to tools to toys and electronics is the norm and profit margins are measured against efficiency it is, from a capitalist perspective, an understandable, though quite obviously unsustainable practice.  But a new movement, something I like to call micro-manufacturing, is emerging. When there isn’t a million dollar budget available outsourcing assembly line jobs overseas just isn’t an option.  This is where 3-D printing technology comes in handy and in my opinion lends itself quite well to micro-manufacturing, allowing a small business to produce products in their own “backyard”.  Companies like Pennsylvania-based Industria Mechanika are utilizing the new technology to produce limited edition hobbyist models in North America, designed by collaborating artists from around the world.  Other items made with 3-D printers, which produce individual objects by printing from a digital file layer upon layer of metals or polymers, include prosthetic limbs and design prototypes for companies like Boeing. Bearing all this in mind it seems the future can be bright for the manufacturing sector in North America, as a percentage of the industry is alive and kicking.  This is said however with caution.  Manufacturers producing quality continue to be blighted with the notion that they have to keep prices down in order to compete – a challenging feat for someone that is trying to maintain socially conscious business practices. We really must remember more for less isn’t the best. This isn’t news Lucius Annaeus Seneca, 4-65 CE, stated that, “It is quality rather than quantity that matters”. That’s 2000 years ago. | Raymond Matt, CFP, CLU, TEP, CHS | The Ontarian, Writer, Editor

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