A friend recently gave me a book, Made in America, that tells the story of 200 products, inventions and brands that give a definitive snapshot of American manufacturing. The list of things the author thought were noteworthy contained everything from the practical: barbed wire, Cellophane (yes the plastic), Kleenex (bless them), the Wonderbra (bless them too ... hey ... all I am saying is they proved to be very popular among both men and women), and maglite flashlights (my father can't sleep soundly without at least four in his nightstand). Me? I just use my cell phone in the dark. There is the edible: Cream of Wheat Cereal, k-rations, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Kool-Aid. The lethal: the M-16 semiautomatic rifle and Marlboro Cigarettes. The English-language-honorific-for-men category: "Mr. Coffee" Coffee Maker and Mr. Potato Head (special thanks to Wikipedia for providing the "Mr." Synonym). Among the others on the list are the Daisy Red Ryder BB Gun, Formica, the Kazoo, Post-it notes, Q-tips, Barbie dolls, Scrabble, Scotch tape, and the Sawzall (Do an internet search on that last one if you don't know it. Trust me. It's worth it).
I know what you're thinking -- I thought you were better then that America. In all fairness, the book does include Eames Chairs, the Nike Air Jordan, Hobie Surfboards, Burton Snowboards, the Apple iPod, Levi jeans, and Google (although not too popular in China these days, an icon none-the-less).
America's roots as an industrial superpower are well established. The question now is what we will produce going forward? It's often said that America simply cannot compete with cheap labor pools in Asia and there are many people who believe that isn't such a bad thing. They ask -- why should we even aspire to compete? Do we really want to make plastic G.I Joe figures and fake dog poo? Personally, I think those who frame the issue in this light are missing the point. The United States lack of manufacturing libido is more an issue of "Won't" and not one of "Can't." How we produce is just as important as what we produce.
America does make some pretty wicked denim and ripped t-shirts and I have no doubt that Europe, along with David Hasselhoff, is grateful that we cut them such a sweet syndication deal for Baywatch. Weak dollar and all, the world still greets many American brands with apathy. So while our cruise missiles hit their targets far more often than the competition, outside of our arms and technology exports (which may or may not threaten our national security) there is a stunning lack of products the world holds in high esteem. Germany is known for their cars, Italy is synonymous with Fashion and the French are famous for their wine and condescension. When it comes to manufacturing, many European countries have built a national brand mystique that transcends the reality of the global supply chain -- Mercedes makes great cars in Alabama after all. "Made in the U.S.A." is a polarizing topic that yields vastly different points of view depending on what cable channel you happen to be watching or what state a politician is from. Our capabilities have never been in doubt. Rather it is the path we have chosen to take that raises questions.
Work has taken me to factories all over the world -- everywhere from denim plants in Kentucky to quaint European workshops (the kind where artisans practice the trade handed down by their Grandfathers) and on up to the sprawling industrial complexes in mainland China that represent the other end of the spectrum. By and large the one truth I have learned is this: factories are not sexy. Sure, Italy is a beautiful country -- just not inside a leather tannery.
But there was one place I saw that was breathtaking in its precision, the beauty of its setting, and most importantly, what it symbolized. The country was Switzerland and I went there to visit the Breguet watch factory and interview Nicolas Hayek, the chairman and co-founder of the Swatch group. Set among pristine lakes and mountains (Watch making has the benefit of having a much lower carbon footprint than a coal mine) the technical mastery displayed in the factory was astounding. Yet what stood out to me was the age of the workers -- they were either over fifty or in their twenties and no-one was in between. There was a missing generation of Watchmakers. The reason was that the Swiss watch industry almost disappeared during the 1980's in the face of withering competition from Japanese manufacturers (as work slowed many Swiss opted to make chocolate or go to work at one of their legendarily discreet banks). Hayek reorganized and rallied the financially broken brands and factories while refocusing on specific areas of the industry. With the launch of SWATCH, he successfully competed with inexpensive Japanese watch brands. The mechanically based Swatches allowed the Swiss factories that produced parts to stay afloat and when luxury mechanical watches began to boom later in the decade, the Swiss brands were able to utilize their existing parts suppliers for production. Today they enjoy a virtual monopoly over producing the world's most expensive mechanical watches.
Lets think about that for a moment -- Switzerland -- among the most expensive labor forces in the world, competed with what was at the time the lowest cost producer's in the world and they beat them into the ground. The question I pose is this: If they could do it, why can't we?