The Insourcing Boom

After years of offshore production, General Electric is moving much of its far-flung appliance-manufacturing operations back home. It is not alone. An exploration of the startling, sustainable, just-getting-started return of industry to the United States.
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Thomas Porostocky

For much of the past decade, General Electric’s storied Appliance Park, in Louisville, Kentucky, appeared less like a monument to American manufacturing prowess than a memorial to it.

The very scale of the place seemed to underscore its irrelevance. Six factory buildings, each one the size of a large suburban shopping mall, line up neatly in a row. The parking lot in front of them measures a mile long and has its own traffic lights, built to control the chaos that once accompanied shift change. But in 2011, Appliance Park employed not even a tenth of the people it did in its heyday. The vast majority of the lot’s spaces were empty; the traffic lights looked forlorn.

In 1951, when General Electric designed the industrial park, the company’s ambition was as big as the place itself; GE didn’t build an appliance factory so much as an appliance city. Five of the six factory buildings were part of the original plan, and early on Appliance Park had a dedicated power plant, its own fire department, and the first computer ever used in a factory. The facility was so large that it got its own ZIP code (40225). It was the headquarters for GE’s appliance division, as well as the place where just about all of the appliances were made.

By 1955, Appliance Park employed 16,000 workers. By the 1960s, the sixth building had been built, the union workforce was turning out 60,000 appliances a week, and the complex was powering the explosion of the U.S. consumer economy.

The arc that followed is familiar. Employment kept rising through the ’60s, but it peaked at 23,000 in 1973, 20 years after the facility first opened. By 1984, Appliance Park had fewer employees than it did in 1955. In the midst of labor battles in the early ’90s, GE’s iconic CEO, Jack Welch, suggested that it would be shuttered by 2003. GE’s current CEO, Jeffrey Immelt, tried to sell the entire appliance business, including Appliance Park, in 2008, but as the economy nosed over, no one would take it. In 2011, the number of time-card employees—the people who make the appliances—bottomed out at 1,863. By then, Appliance Park had been in decline for twice as long as it had been rising.

Yet this year, something curious and hopeful has begun to happen, something that cannot be explained merely by the ebbing of the Great Recession, and with it the cyclical return of recently laid-off workers. On February 10, Appliance Park opened an all-new assembly line in Building 2—largely dormant for 14 years—to make cutting-edge, low-energy water heaters. It was the first new assembly line at Appliance Park in 55 years—and the water heaters it began making had previously been made for GE in a Chinese contract factory.

On March 20, just 39 days later, Appliance Park opened a second new assembly line, this one in Building 5, to make new high-tech French-door refrigerators. The top-end model can sense the size of the container you place beneath its purified-water spigot, and shuts the spigot off automatically when the container is full. These refrigerators are the latest versions of a style that for years has been made in Mexico.

Another assembly line is under construction in Building 3, to make a new stainless-steel dishwasher starting in early 2013. Building 1 is getting an assembly line to make the trendy front-loading washers and matching dryers Americans are enamored of; GE has never before made those in the United States. And Appliance Park already has new plastics-manufacturing facilities to make parts for these appliances, including simple items like the plastic-coated wire racks that go in the dishwashers.

In the midst of this revival, Immelt made a startling assertion. Writing in Harvard Business Review in March, he declared that outsourcing is “quickly becoming mostly outdated as a business model for GE Appliances.” Just four years after he tried to sell Appliance Park, believing it to be a relic of an era GE had transcended, he’s spending some $800 million to bring the place back to life. “I don’t do that because I run a charity,” he said at a public event in September. “I do that because I think we can do it here and make more money.”

Immelt hasn’t just changed course; he’s pirouetted.

What has happened? Just five years ago, not to mention 10 or 20 years ago, the unchallenged logic of the global economy was that you couldn’t manufacture much besides a fast-food hamburger in the United States. Now the CEO of America’s leading industrial manufacturing company says it’s not Appliance Park that’s obsolete—it’s offshoring that is.

Why does it suddenly make irresistible business sense to build not just dishwashers in Appliance Park, but dishwasher racks as well?

In the 1960s, as the consumer-product world we now live in was booming, the Harvard economist Raymond Vernon laid out his theory of the life cycle of these products, a theory that predicted with remarkable foresight the global production of goods 20 years later. The U.S. would have an advantage making new, high-value products, Vernon wrote, because of its wealth and technological prowess; it made sense, at first, for engineers, assembly workers, and marketers to work in close proximity—to each other and to consumers—the better to get quick feedback, and to tweak product design and manufacture appropriately. As the market grew, and the product became standardized, production would spread to other rich nations, and competitors would arise. And then, eventually, as the product fully matured, its manufacture would shift from rich countries to low-wage countries. Amidst intensifying competition, cost would become the predominant concern, and because the making and marketing of the product were well understood, there would be little reason to produce it in the U.S. anymore.

Vernon’s theory has been borne out again and again over the years. Amana, for instance, introduced the first countertop microwave—the Radarange, made in Amana, Iowa—in 1967, priced at $495. Today you can buy a microwave at Walmart for $49 (the equivalent of a $7 price tag on a 1967 microwave)—and almost all the ones you’ll see there, a variety of brands and models, will have been shipped in from someplace where hourly wages have historically been measured in cents rather than dollars.

Outsourcing, says Jeffrey Immelt, is quickly becoming “outdated as a business model for GE Appliances.”

But beginning in the late 1990s, something happened that seemed to short-circuit that cycle. Low-wage Chinese workers had by then flooded the global marketplace. (Even as recently as 2000, a typical Chinese factory worker made 52 cents an hour. You could hire 20 or 30 workers overseas for what one cost in Appliance Park.) And advances in communications and information technology, along with continuing trade liberalization, convinced many companies that they could skip to the last part of Vernon’s cycle immediately: globalized production, it appeared, had become “seamless.” There was no reason design and marketing could not take place in one country while production, from the start, happened half a world away.

You can see this shift in America’s jobs data. Manufacturing jobs peaked in 1979 at 19.6 million. They drifted down slowly for the next 20 years—over that span, the impact of offshoring and the steady adoption of labor-saving technologies was nearly offset by rising demand and the continual introduction of new goods made in America. But since 2000, these jobs have fallen precipitously. The country lost factory jobs seven times faster between 2000 and 2010 than it did between 1980 and 2000.

Until very recently, this trend looked inexorable—and the significance of the much-vaunted increase in manufacturing jobs since the depths of the recession seemed easy to dismiss. Only 500,000 factory jobs were created between their low, in January 2010, and September 2012—a tiny fraction of the almost 6 million that were lost in the aughts. And much of that increase, at first blush, might appear to be nothing more than the natural (but ultimately limited) return of some of the jobs lost in the recession itself.

Yet what’s happening at GE, and elsewhere in American manufacturing, tells a different and more optimistic story—one that suggests the curvature of Vernon’s product cycle may be changing once again, this time in a way that might benefit U.S. industry, and the U.S. economy, quite substantially in the years to come.

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