GE Moves Manufacturing from China to the United States
For decades, General Electric has been at the forefront of the move to shift production offshore from high-cost locations inside the United States to cheaper locations, such as China. But there are now some signs that the relentless flow of production offshore may be slowing down and, in some cases, starting to reverse. There are several reasons for this. Wage rates in China and some other developing nations have been rising fast, closing the differential between costs in the United States and overseas. In dollar terms, wage rates in China were some five times higher in 2012 than they were in 2000, and they are still rising fast. Labour productivity has also increased significantly in the United States, further closing the gap in labour costs. Meanwhile, high oil prices have raised the cost of shipping products across oceans, while the abundance of cheap natural gas in the United States is helping to lower production costs. If this were not enough, there are signs that there are benefits to having product design and manufacturing co-located, and in some cases, this is driving a shift in production back to the United States.
A case in point is GE’s GeoSpring water heater. This was originally designed in the United States and manufactured in China. The finished product was then shipped back across the ocean for sale in the United States. In 2010, given the macro trends in labour productivity and energy prices, GE decided to see what would happen if it brought some of its appliance products back to the United States. The GeoSpring was one of its first attempts at this. GE established a team of engineers and production workers at its appliance plant in Louisville, Kentucky, to see what they could do with the GeoSpring. The team quickly concluded that the GeoSpring was not easy to manufacture due to poor design. They redesigned the product for ease of assembly, eliminating one out of every five parts and cutting material costs by 25 percent. As a result, GE cut the time required to assemble the product from 10 hours in China to 2 hours in Louisville.
The end result: Material costs went down, labour requirement went down, and product quality went up. Indeed, the cost savings were so big that GE was able to reduce the price of the GeoSpring 20 percent below that of the Chinese-manufactured product and still maintain a decent profit margin. Time to market also improved greatly. It used to take five weeks to get a GeoSpring from China into a U.S. retail store—now GE can do that in a matter of days, which improves inventory management.
Having learned from experiences like this, GE is now planning to ramp up production of other appliance products at Louisville. It has recently doubled the workforce there to 3700, and has also hired 500 new designers and engineers to redesign many of its products for ease of manufacture. A few years ago, less than half of the revenues of the appliance business came from products made in the United States. GE now plans to have 75 percent of the revenue of the appliance business to come from American-made products.
1. Do you see this as the beginning of a trend, or is GE’s experience unique?
2. What types of firms can you predict may eventually move back to North America?