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.

One key difference between the U.S. economy today and that of 15 or 20 years ago is the labor environment—not just wages in factories, but the degree of flexibility displayed by unions and workers. Many observers would say these changes reflect a loss of power and leverage by workers, and they would be right. But management, more keenly aware of offshoring’s perils, is also trying to create a different (and better) factory environment. Hourly employees increasingly participate in workplace decision making in ways that are more like what you find in white-collar technology companies.

In late 2008, Dirk Bowman and Rich Calvaruso, both manufacturing managers at Appliance Park, were looking to shake up the place, desperate to keep it relevant. Bowman oversees all manufacturing at Appliance Park. He started there 29 years ago, fresh out of college, as the second-shift foreman on the dishwasher line. Calvaruso has worked for years in manufacturing at GE, and now helps other people at Appliance Park invent and then reinvent their work on the assembly lines.

“The dishwasher line was extremely long,” Bowman says. “It went from the back of the factory to the front, and back again. It was very loud. It was very expensive—each operator was surrounded by parts, a lot of inventory. It was a command-and-control operation.” It was the kind of operation Chinese companies could readily out-compete, and the kind U.S. factory managers were happy to outsource.

Both Bowman and Calvaruso knew something about “lean” manufacturing techniques—the style of factory management invented by Toyota whereby everyone has a say in critiquing and improving the way work gets done, with a focus on eliminating waste. Lean management is not a new concept, but outside of car making, it hasn’t caught on widely in the United States. It requires an open, collegial, and relentlessly self-critical mind-set among workers and bosses alike—a mind-set that is hard to create and sustain.

In the simplest terms, an assembly line is a way of putting parts together to make a product; lean production is a way of putting the assembly line itself together so the work is as easy and efficient as possible.

“We thought, ‘We gotta try something new,’ ” says Bowman. “ ‘We have to be competitive.’ ” Calvaruso put together a group that included hourly employees and told it to completely reimagine dishwasher assembly. The group was given this crucial guarantee: regardless of the efficiencies it created, “no one will lose their job because of lean.”

So the dishwasher team remade its own assembly line. It eliminated 35 percent of the labor.

What happened to the workers who were no longer needed for dishwasher assembly? Bowman and Calvaruso created another team and asked them to pick a dishwasher part they thought Appliance Park should, once again, be making itself. The team picked the top panel of the door—appliance people call it the “dishwasher escutcheon.” It’s the part you grab to open and close the dishwasher, where all the controls and buttons are. If you use a dishwasher, you touch the escutcheon.

“The escutcheon is a high-interface part with the consumer,” says Bowman. “We wanted to control the quality. We can deliver it more easily right here. And we actually thought we could do it cheaper.” And now they do.

That’s how the outsourcing cycle starts to turn. Once you begin making the product itself, you get the itch to make the parts, too.

The dishwasher’s initial assembly-line redesign was a primitive version of lean. The full-blown, sophisticated version has spread across Appliance Park, into the work of the engineers, the designers, the salespeople, the bosses. Another team took a design for a new dishwasher into a room and pulled it apart. As originally designed, the door had four visible screws. The marketing people on the team wanted the door to have no visible screws—they wanted it iPhone-sleek. The operators loved that idea—four screws is a lot of assembly-line work. The engineers and designers came up with a design that holds the door together with one hidden screw and a rod.

“It’s easier to assemble,” says Calvaruso. “It’s cheaper. And the fit, feel, and finish are better.”

If the people who design dishwashers sit at their desks in one building, and the people who sell them to retailers and consumers sit at their desks in another building, and the people who make the dishwashers are in a different country and speak a different language—you never realize that the four screws should disappear, let alone come up with a way they can. The story of the four disappearing screws on that dishwasher door is why Jeffrey Immelt has the confidence to spend $800 million to bring Appliance Park back to life.

At the public event in September, Immelt captured the lessons of the new Appliance Park. “I think the era of inexpensive labor is basically over,” he said. “People that are out there just chasing what they view as today’s low-cost labor—that’s yesterday’s playbook.”

GE is rediscovering that how you run the factory is a technology in and of itself. Your factory is really a laboratory—and the R&D that can happen there, if you pay attention, is worth a lot more to the bottom line than the cost savings of cheap labor in someone else’s factory.

Outsourcing and the disappearance of U.S. factory jobs were the result of what often seemed like irresistible market forces—but they were also the result of individual decisions, factory by factory, spreadsheet by spreadsheet, company by company.

Appliance Park will end this year with 3,600 hourly employees—1,700 more than last year, an increase of more than 90 percent. The facility hasn’t had this many assembly-line workers in a decade. GE has also hired 500 new designers and engineers since 2009, to support the new manufacturing.

GE’s appliance unit does $5 billion in business—and today, 55 percent of that revenue comes from products made in the United States. By the end of 2014, GE expects 75 percent of the appliance business’s revenue to come from American-made products like dishwashers, water heaters, and refrigerators, and the company expects that its sales numbers will be larger, as the housing market revives.

What’s happening in factories across the U.S. is not simply a reversal of decades of outsourcing. If there was once a rush to push factories of nearly every kind offshore, their return is more careful; many things are never coming back. Levi Strauss used to have more than 60 domestic blue-jeans plants; today it contracts out work to 16 and owns none, and it’s hard to imagine mass-market clothing factories ever coming back in significant numbers—the work is too basic.

Appliance Park once used its thousands of workers to make almost every part of every appliance; today, every component GE decides to make in Louisville returns home only after a careful calculation that balances quality, cost, skills, and speed. Appliance Park wants to make its own dishwasher racks, because it can, and because the rack is an important part of the dishwasher experience for customers. But Appliance Park will likely never again make its own compressors or motors, nor is it going to build a microchip-etching facility.

And of course, manufacturing employment will never again be as central to the U.S. economy as it was in the 1960s and ’70s—improvements in worker productivity alone ensure that. Back in the ’60s, Appliance Park was turning out 250,000 appliances a month. The assembly lines there today are turning out almost as many—with at most one-third of the workers.

All that said, big factories have a way of creating larger economies around them—they have a “multiplier effect,” in economic parlance. Revere Plastics Systems, one of GE’s suppliers, has opened a new factory just 20 minutes north of Appliance Park, across the Ohio River in Indiana, and has 195 people there working in three shifts around the clock. The manufacturing renaissance now under way won’t solve the jobs crisis by itself, but it could broaden the economy, and help reclaim opportunities—and skills—that have been lost across the past decade or more.

It’s possible that five years from now, everything will have unraveled—that the return of factory jobs will have been a temporary blip, that Appliance Park will be closed. (Business practices, after all, are prone to fads.)

But that doesn’t seem likely. Bringing jobs back to Appliance Park solves a problem. It is sparking a wave of fresh innovation in GE’s appliances—every major appliance line has been redesigned or will be in the next two years—and the experience of “big room” redesign, involving a whole team, is itself inspiring further, faster advances.

In fact, insourcing solves a whole bundle of problems—it simplifies transportation; it gives people confidence in the competitive security of their ideas; it lets companies manage costs with real transparency and close to home; it means a company can be as nimble as it wants to be, because the Pacific Ocean isn’t standing in the way of getting the right product to the right customer.

Many offshoring decisions were based on a single preoccupation—cheap labor. The labor was so cheap, in fact, that it covered a multitude of sins in other areas. The approach to bringing jobs back has been much more thoughtful. Jobs are coming back not for a single, simple reason, but for many intertwined reasons—which means they won’t slip away again when one element of the business, or the economy, changes.

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