The companies selling these products are not idiots, the factories creating these products are not idiots. We are not drones and not a single one of us is as righteous as our rants.
I am revved up for some finger pointing and mine is directly aimed at Quality Control and Sourcing. “Mistakes” are made by factory workers that have absolutely no cultural connection to the products they’re making, and why should they know? A small sample of products are reviewed to confirm quality while countless products are loaded onto shipping containers that nobody with any working knowledge lays eyes on until they’re found on retail walls.
Quality Control and Sourcing needs to do a better job transcending communication barriers to convey the important attributes to expect from manufacturers in long term factory relationships. You could say, DUH that’s what drawings are for, just follow the drawings and everything will be fine. That sounds so nice!
And reviewing product quality… companies should have a good idea of the quality of factory they’re working with A, B, C quality and have constant review for the more suspect factories. There’s just so much stuff, and what do you do when the quality of your factories are D, E, F grade?
I agree. It was lazy journalism. Obviously it is all part off the same system. Capitalism is far from perfect; a bit of an idiot if we are honest, but atleast it is our idiot. Bad business practice results in bad products. The factory isn’t going to request such quality from their workers if they are not made to, why would they? They get the contract and make a product as quick as possible so that they can get the next contract rolling. If Foxconn push out as many of Apple’s products as they feasibly can then why is any other factory going to be any different? Why would they decide to take more time over craftsmanship? Their workers turn up, do their job and pay their bills. If anything it is more the fault of the designer for excepting the poor quality of the final product. For all we know he/she is American/European. It is too easy to see a poor product with ‘Made in China’ as being the fault of the Chinese factory. Many quality products are made in China. If capitalism worked a little better then many more designers and factories would be forced to have tighter quality control.
Good, I am glad someone else thought this was a rather naive story.
But the story isn’t complete.
My initial knee-jerk reaction is to avoid Chinese-made goods altogether, drawing the simplistic conclusion that Chinese factories are just no good. As we’ll see in the next two parts of this series, the full story is a bit more complicated.
I am certainly all for keeping manufacturing jobs in the US and it does bother me how much work gets sourced out, not just to China, but elsewhere, just because it is cheaper. For a very long time manufacturing was one of the US’ greatest strengths, we had some of the best skilled labor in the world and demands for product quality were extremely high. Unfortunately, I think a lot of companies have worked hard at lowering those quality standards with consumers so they could increase their margins and in doing so shifted markets into price competitive models rather than quality competitive models. This has eroded the value of skilled American manufacturing and enabled many companies to seek the lowest bidder outside our borders without giving any consideration to cultural perspectives in their respective countries. I would go so far as to suggest that the erosion of the middle class in the US is directly linked to the erosion of product quality perceptions in the US market. With lowered quality perceptions you can more easily market inferior product made with cheap labor and in turn US consumers can consume the same, if not more goods, albeit of inferior quality than those goods may have had decades ago. I might also suggest that this is the beginning of the equalization of world markets, and in some markets the buying power of the consumer is going to diminish, such as in the US, and increase in countries like China.
All that said, stepping away from the geo-political part of the discussion, if I look at this topic outside of borders and cultures and look at this from a purely humanistic viewpoint, I find much of this very disconcerting in terms of the future of the human race. Producing inferior products with shortened life/use cycles to satisfy a price drive mass market model is ultimately unsustainable. Products of the highest quality will almost always cost more, but high quality products that require less maintenance, repairs, or replacement are arguably the most sustainably friendly products due to longevity. So, as I realize this is quite an altruistic viewpoint, I would love to see more marketing campaigns in the US turning up the volume in terms of quality, not as a competitive argument against China and cheap labor, but as an argument for sustainability and why people should care.
I find much of this very disconcerting in terms of the future of the human race. Producing inferior products with shortened life/use cycles to satisfy a price drive mass market model is ultimately unsustainable. Products of the highest quality will almost always cost more, but high quality products that require less maintenance, repairs, or replacement are arguably the most sustainably friendly products due to longevity.
There’s always going be a range of products for different price points and users. I don’t see the issue. Not everything is cheap and disposable, it’s your choice as a consumer to decide what you want. Are we saying here that there should be no crappy small cars and everyone must buy a BMW? That you shouldn’t be able to buy a $20 DVD player but only have $400 b&o available?
Some people want cheap. That drives the low labor costs and outsourcing. Personally I try to buy for life and while it costs more the lifetime costs are less. I also often buy vintage quality pieces and would rather spend $5000 on a 25 year old sofa that originally cost $20000 for the quality than a new $5000 Ike’s sofa that is garbage after 5 years.
Are we complaining about the consumer choice? Only way to change it is to keep making better products to raise the bar. US consumers if anything caused their own production’s demise by flocking to Walmart but that’s maybe a different argument on the flip side of the coin.
Some people want cheap. That drives the low labor costs and outsourcing.
Some people can’t afford “better”.
Excellent point. Walmart is the demise of American society, in my opinion.
I think it took more than little ol’ Walmart…
I would go so far as to suggest that the erosion of the middle class in the US is directly linked to the erosion of product quality perceptions in the US market. With lowered quality perceptions you can more easily market inferior product made with cheap labor and in turn US consumers can consume the same, if not more goods, albeit of inferior quality than those goods may have had decades ago.
And with the demise of the “American” manufacturing machine, and the jobs it created, fewer, and fewer, people will be able to afford “better”. Henry Ford recognized the value of that in 1903, when he raised his employee’s wages so that they could afford to purchase what they were building. But “we” are hooked cheap now, and turning it around will be a tough row to hoe.
I’d bet a buck that if “quality, ease of maintenance, and customer support” was emphasized, the move toward companies offering it would be pretty strong. Honestly, I’m fed up with seeing the constant “redesign” of everything from automobiles to cellphones, in the name of keeping consumers salivating for mediocre products (which they don’t understand are mediocre). i.e. All the automobile commercials are essentially the same … what’s the difference between any of them. If I see one more pickup truck shushing down a mountain slope and doing a barrel I’m gonna freakin’ scream…
Yes. An economy ultimately requires its participants to “make” something. We can’t have 300 million web developers and restaurant workers. For a while you could argue that the US and China were symbiotic economies, where they do the “making” and we do the design/sales/support/consuming. But China is rapidly moving beyond that, and won’t need our services much longer. They are bringing a billion consumers up from poverty into the middle class, and that domestic market will easily absorb most of their production capacity. What do we do then?
I just want to point out that there was a lot of cheap crap made in the past, it just fell into disuse and is difficult to find today. All of the glorious “old” products we love were the best of their day, that’s why they are still around.
So does the cheap stuff from the past become more valuable in the present because it is rarer?
I haven’t read part three yet; it looks like a slow build. In America’s heyday of manufacture there were some “bad practices” going on (child labor, poor craftsmanship, you name it…), but only the strong have survived. We’ve seen a lot of Chinese factories closing over the past few years, and the better ones aren’t the ones where employees start their day to find chained entry gates.
One thing though. Does it really need “much more” = double to build a product to
a quality standard and to treat the worker well? I’d like to think, that history
has proven that wrong. Was the T-model double the price of a competitive
product? Were the fridges, that were made in US and Europe non affordable?
No they were not.
They were just the product of a different generation with a different mind set.
I see many people in need of getting their priorities fixed.
On a side note: do you have manufactum.com in the U.S. ? They take pride in finding
only the best offerings for every category of consumer product imaginable (and
unimaginable) and try to source it at the original maker. Sometimes putting things
back into production, that are all but forgotten.
They are focused very much on “quality” but also look firmly into the rearview
mirror, only. There must be products of equal ethitical strenght, that are made for
today and tomorrow. I’d like to know about them!
And the vision of many small factories starting all over again sounds just about right.
But how do you “fix” capitialism for the restart? How do we prevent everything going
global oligopoly vs. humans vs. nature, again?
Lots of slightly disconnected thoughts, sorry. I am ill and so is our little one…
How do we prevent everything going global oligopoly vs. humans vs. nature, again?
Again? I don’t think it’s stopped. Just like the Great Depression and the recessions of the late 1700’s. Both resulted in widespread reform leading to unheard of rates of growth after a very long social struggle. I predict we are about 17 years from starting to fix capitalism. Buckle your seat belt.
Doc - “No wonder this circuit failed; it says ‘Made in Japan’.”
Marty - “What do you mean, Doc? All the best stuff is made in Japan.”
A little perspective courtesy BTTF 3.
(note: I watched all three BTTFs with my daughter on the weekend, don’t try to explain to a 5 year old about alternate 1985’s, two Biffs, two Martys, etc. unless you want your head done in, though it’s cute when she enters a room and dramatically addresses me as ‘Futureboy’!)
I’m going to take a step back here and look at things from another viewpoint.
I think industrialization is good and moving away from manufacturing is also good.
I don’t have all the numbers, and am not a history major (Lew, this is normally where you come up with the details), but prior to the industrial revolution 1850 or so, the majority of people lived in non-urban centers and did farmwork. it was hard and mosts families were very poor. People made their own things or if lucky traded with a few people who lived miles away. During the industrial revolution (in the UK), things changed. More and more people moved to cities, living and working conditions were poor but personal and family wealth increased and the nation as a whole became a superpower because it was making things in better, more efficient ways and for more people. More people could now also afford these goods that were cheaper as they were made on a mass production scale rather than by a craftsman by hand. Thus, it was a win win for the consumers, the economy and the workers.
The manufacturing sector in the US mirrors this. Ford didn’t make a car that was better than the other cars, he made it cheaper. I’d bet inherently it was worse and more disposable than the hand crafted motor coaches that were previously being made. But, it made it affordable for more people. Ditto for all the other mass produced things. It built the economy of the US and transformed it into a economic superpower just as the UK was 150 years ago at the time.
Likewise the manufacturing sector in China is giving jobs to poor rural families and offering more for less and changing the economic power and model of the country.
Cut to today and of course manufacturing jobs are gone. Typically those are the jobs with the least skill and pay and things that people really don’t want to do. Like the farmers that moved to cities to work in a factory (because farm work is hard), factory people move to offices because factory work is hard. The very nature of the mass production system is to make the most amount of things the cheapest. This means finding the cheapest labor and offering jobs nominally easier for better pay than the alternative.
We shouldn’t be upset about losing manufacturing we should be moving on to the better jobs that produce more wealth and are easier. If our education system would recognize this and the people would be open to adapting we would have a far stronger economy based on intellectual production rather than physical production. Why would we want our country to be full of assembly line workers making $20/hr when it could be full of engineers and scientists making $200/hr?
The challenge is not trying to make more jobs, but trying to make better jobs and changing our expectations of what kind of jobs should drive our economy.
As designers I think we are in a good place. We make money for companies by using our brain, not our brawn. If we can further empower others to do the same and help be an icon of smart, efficient and productive work, more companies can thrive and our economy can improve.
Great point. It always bugs me when people get up on a high horse and make it a point to not buy goods that weren’t manufactured in US*, even if the company is American. Meaning that the products were designed, engineered, marketed, distributed, sold, delivered, supported, serviced etc etc in the US. So by not buying those goods those people are doing a major disservice to their country long term. But I guess it’s the same reasoning that says a product should not cost more than the cost of raw material… People simply don’t realize what goes into making a product and getting it into their hands, and that everything in the economy is connected somewhere along the line.
*I said US, but you can insert any country you like here that has a company who has outsourced production.
I hear this sort of thinking a lot. “we don’t want those jobs. We can be the innovators.” etc.
Why do people here think that China will be content to just be the world’s manufacturers when all the signs say they are actively and effectively moving more towards becoming the creators?
Last Year, my school program was listed as one of the top thirty design programs in the world by Businessweek. Also on that list were the China Central Academy of Fine Arts, Hong Kong Polytechnic University, and Shih Chein University in Taiwan. Like many of the top US programs, these schools teach cross functional conceptual skills. Skills I believe you would consider high concept and high touch.
In China there is a national push to move beyond the reliance of being merely industrial and knowledge workers. The dean of one of the previously mentioned Asian design schools, the CAFA, says, “With almost a million students studying design in universities, design education is a national issue.”
Despite that, every day I hear people hanging their hats on innovation as the key to America’s future as if it is something that only we are capable of. Even the president, in the State of the Union last year, touched on this notion and said “What we can do – what America does better than anyone – is spark the creativity and imagination of our people.” As evidence of America’s superiority in this regard, the President stated that, “No country has more successful companies or grants more patents to inventors and entrepreneurs." But guess what, Thomson Reuters is predicting that this year, for the first time, China will outpace the US in the number of patent filings. I strongly disagree that we are special in any way in terms of these high touch and high concept abilities that drive innovation.
It’s silly to think that Indians or Chinese will be content to do routine work for the next 30 years. Why? Because it’s not that interesting. Why else? Because there’s ferocious downward pressure on the wages for these tasks. (We hear lots and lots about India and China, but workers there are glancing over their shoulders at even less expensive places such as Malyasia and the Philippines.)
I do think that Americans have a slight edge due to a culture. We enjoy a freedom of expression, which China obviously doesn’t and which I think is going to crimp its long-term vitality. Still, I’m guessing that the utlimate effect will be that these other countries race us to the top, rather than race us to the bottom.
Also, I do not believe the notion that innovation alone has the ability to create jobs in our country. I have read compelling articles that make a strong case for the idea that without the corresponding competencies for manufacturing, innovative companies will not see much benefit. It will be the low cost manufacturers that see the greatest profits. One such article is “Profiting from Technological Innovation” by D.J. Teece.
David Ricardo, the English Economist and creator of the concept of comparative advantage said:
"The first man who knew how to soften metals by fire is not the creator of the value which that process adds to the melted metal. That value is the result of the physical action of fire added to the industry and capital of those who availed themselves of this knowledge”
The US achieved its powerful economy because it had both the innovators, as well as, the producers.
Now we’ve gotten WAY off the original topic. Sorry for supporting the derailment, but I felt I needed to respond.
Why would we want our country to be full of assembly line workers making $20/hr when it could be full of engineers and scientists making $200/hr?
Want it, or not, everyone is not suited for a “college education”, to be blunt, they aren’t smart enough or inclined to do so; some folks just want “a job” and a family. But that isn’t inherently a bad thing, because we, as a society, still need all of their “worth”; tradesmen like plumbers, electricians, HVAC techs, auto mechanics, food service employees, hospitality industry workers, construction workers, roofers, house painters, mill wrights, utility workers, barbers, hair dressers, dental techs, agricultural workers, sanitation workers, factory workers… etc., etc.
If everyone were an engineer or scientist, I would imagine that the value of that “commodity” would drop very quickly to something akin to “phone marketer”? Crikey, there are too many industrial designers for the market now.
So what is the answer?
More entrepreneurial training at earlier stages of education perhaps? Teach young people how to employ themselves and those who “need” to work for others? Junior Achievement Programs were extremely popular from the 1950 through 70s; kids were taught how finance and manufacturing work together. I grew up in a factory town so our advisers were drawn from that environment; most of the projects in our JA program centered around “inventing” a product, funding the development ( a bake sale, car wash, etc.), manufacturing it, and distributing it locally. The little “company” I was involved with made heavy duty coat hangers. JA influence obviously set the stage for my life as an industrial designer.
I doubt anyone of high school age now has even heard of it. And with educational budgets slashed to the bone there isn’t likely to be much volunteer effort by faculty on the local level … they’re already over-involved just to get the kids the basic curricula.