The Boston Consulting Group came out with an excellent piece last year, entitled, “Made in America, Again: Why Manufacturing Will Return to the United States.” An excellent summary of that article can be found here, from which I pull the following:

Within the next five years, the United States is expected to experience a manufacturing renaissance as the wage gap with China shrinks and certain U.S. states become some of the cheapest locations for manufacturing in the developed world, according to a new analysis by The Boston Consulting Group (BCG).

With Chinese wages rising at about 17 percent per year and the value of the yuan continuing to increase, the gap between U.S. and Chinese wages is narrowing rapidly. Meanwhile, flexible work rules and a host of government incentives are making many states—including Mississippi, South Carolina, and Alabama—increasingly competitive as low-cost bases for supplying the U.S. market.

“All over China, wages are climbing at 15 to 20 percent a year because of the supply-and-demand imbalance for skilled labor,” said Harold L. Sirkin, a BCG senior partner. “We expect net labor costs for manufacturing in China and the U.S. to converge by around 2015. As a result of the changing economics, you’re going to see a lot more products ‘Made in the USA’ in the next five years.”

After adjustments are made to account for American workers’ relatively higher productivity, wage rates in Chinese cities such as Shanghai and Tianjin are expected to be about only 30 percent cheaper than rates in low-cost U.S. states. And since wage rates account for 20 to 30 percent of a product’s total cost, manufacturing in China will be only 10 to 15 percent cheaper than in the U.S.—even before inventory and shipping costs are considered. After those costs are factored in, the total cost advantage will drop to single digits or be erased entirely, Sirkin said.

All well and good, but what does all of this mean now for YOUR manufacturing and what will it mean five years from now and what should you do about it?

I have always been fascinated by economics and the differences between the macro and micro sides of it. When we read that sales of cars are expected to increase 3% next year, I think our first cursory presumption is that this likely will mean that VW, Honda, GM and Ford will all likely see their sales increase about 3% next year. But of course, nothing could be further from the truth.

I remember during the Asian crisis of 1997 hearing a news report of how exports from the United States to Korea were down about 20% (I admit I am guessing on this number) but that exports of quinces (I think it was quinces) had fallen from $20 million a year to zero. In other words, Korea’s tough economic situation had completely ended their buying of quinces.

I am seeing the same sort of disparate impact when it comes to manufacturing costs. It is all well and good to say that China’s wage increases are reducing or eliminating its cost advantage as compared to the United States, but that means almost nothing for each individual business. I am always asking our clients about their costs and about their decisions on where to manufacture and here is some of what I have been hearing:

  • Company that makes a high end but fairly simple wood pet product wanted to manufacture in the US, but the cost to do so was four times higher than in China. His explanation was that the manufacturing was very labor intensive and so China had a clear edge.
  • Company that makes a very complicated, very large, and very expensive piece of equipment told me that its costs to make this equipment are “about the same in the US as in China.” The reason is that so many American engineers need to be in China to oversee things and to check quality. The company wants to retain its dual-country manufacturing capacity but unless it can raise productivity in China it expects to shut it down within the next five years.
  • Company that makes environmental equipment is moving “some” of its manufacturing to China. It expects production costs to be “a lot” higher there during the first few years but is doing it anyway because of the “psychological and political importance of being able to say they manufacture in China.” They believe that their manufacturing in China will greatly increase their sales in China.
  • Clothing company that was making 100% of its items in China is in the process of moving about half of its production to Vietnam and to Cambodia. It is doing so because its labor costs will be considerably less in those two countries, even accounting for any productivity differences.

I could go on and on, but the point here is that the macro numbers are just the starting point for an individual business.

What are you seeing/hearing/doing out there by way of manufacturing? Is this really the end of cheap China?

For more on the end of cheap China and where else to go for manufacturing, check out the following:

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Dan Harris

I am a founder of Harris Bricken, an international law firm with lawyers in Los Angeles, Portland, San Francisco, Seattle, China and Spain.

I mostly represent companies doing business in emerging market countries. It has taken me many years to build my network and it takes constant communication and travel to maintain it. My work has been as varied as securing the release of two improperly held helicopters in Papua New Guinea, setting up a legal framework to move slag from Canada to Poland’s interior, overseeing hundreds of litigation and arbitration matters in Korea, helping someone avoid terrorism charges in Japan, and seizing fish product in China to collect on a debt.

I was named as one of only three Washington State Amazing Lawyers in International Law, I am AV rated by Martindale-Hubbell Law Directory (its highest rating), I am rated 10.0 by AVVO.com (its highest rating), and I am a SuperLawyer.

I am a frequent writer and public speaker on doing business in Asia and I constantly travel between the United States and Asia. I most commonly speak on China law issues and I am the lead writer of the award winning China Law Blog (www.chinalawblog.com). Forbes Magazine, Fortune Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, Investors Business Daily, Business Week, The National Law Journal, The Washington Post, The ABA Journal, The Economist, Newsweek, NPR, The New York Times and Inside Counsel have all interviewed me regarding various aspects of my international law practice.

I am licensed in Washington, Illinois, and Alaska.

In tandem with the international law team at my firm, I focus on setting up/registering companies overseas (via WFOEs, Rep Offices or Joint Ventures), drafting international contracts (NDAs, OEM Agreements, licensing, distribution, etc.), protecting IP (trademarks, trade secrets, copyrights and patents), and overseeing M&A transactions.