Here’s an interesting projection for you: given annual increases in labor and manufacturing costs in China, in five to six years it could cost the same to produce that same product in the United States. Think about that for a second. Sure, we probably won’t be producing iPhones in the US given the amount Apple has invested in China’s supply chain, or because of the fact that they can be so responsive to spikes in consumer demand. But electronics aren’t the only opportunity. Perhaps, however, the ace in the hole is our ability to produce consumer goods locally that are already seeing a spike in American production– things like soap, ceramics, ethically sourced and produced clothing, etc.
Today I had a meeting with Janet Lees, director of programs and communications for SFMade– an organization in San Francisco that is building a robust network of companies that manufacture consumer goods within the city limits. 300 companies within their network make everything from iPad cases, handbags and beer to electric motorcycles. All in, it’s equating to roughly 2,500 jobs and 80% of San Francisco’s total manufacturing sector– two very impressive figures. Aside from that, it provided 10.5% more new jobs in 2010, so it’s also a growing sector. All of this completely revamps the idea of modern urban manufacturing– for San Francisco most definitely, but how can we learn from this in Detroit?
We have the space. We have the supply base– that is, hundreds if not thousands of people and businesses making stuff. We have the infrastructure to support light and heavy manufacturing. We even have low business barriers. The two hurdles we need to jump in Detroit are two of the things that make San Francisco’s manufacturing sector so successful: an able and willing consumer base that demands the goods and a mayor’s office that supports their growth and activity. All of which presents interesting options and ideas for Detroit’s forward progress. One, let’s try to align public and private resources around cultivating the growth of what is already a robust network of makers (perhaps by starting a task force that funnels resources in to infrastructure improvements to already vacant properties). Two, consider the creation of an organizational body similar to SFMade.org to give the Detroit-based companies a unified voice. Three, let’s put politicians in office that support this kind of activity and want to build it in as part of Detroit’s identity. Four, let’s tell the world about it and get these goods sold in every city in America.
China will grow, it already is. As Americans and Detroiters, however, we have to figure out how to make that liability an asset. We can still have our niche. And of course, let’s not forget that the idea of Detroit’s manufacturing base has already revolutionized the world once.