March 8, 2013

Factory work returns to altered U.S. landscape

The onshoring trend brings some manufacturing back, but machines replace workers in many plants.

By ALANA SEMUELS Los Angeles Times

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factory workers
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Karen Pias sews the finishing edge on a towel at 1888 Mills in Griffin, Ga. Walmart will sell 1888’s Made Here towels, as part of the onshoring trend moving some manufacturing back to the U.S., but technology advancements mean fewer workers are needed for production.

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A walk through the spacious 1888 factory in Griffin shows why job gains have been slow, despite some onshoring.

Machines spin threads of cotton into yarn, a process once done by hand; they weave the yarn into thick rolls of fabric, cut the fabric into towels and sew the hems. Where a whole factory was once needed to bleach and color the towels, a Rube Goldberg-like machine does that work with minimal labor; another machine dries the towels.

"It's all automated," Douglas Tingle, founder of 1888 Mills, said on a tour of the factory. "Some of this is the latest technology advancements."

That automation is part of the reason that although labor costs are higher in the United States than in other countries, it can make sense to make towels and other products here.

But there are other reasons as well. If 1888 needs to make changes to towels, it can get the finished product to Walmart more quickly from Griffin than it could from China.

The rising price of oil is increasing shipping costs, and again could provide some cost savings for locally manufactured products.

One characteristic of those new manufacturing jobs is that they are rarely unionized. Companies tend to locate their operations in Southern right-to-work states and in more rural areas where people are "maybe a little more appreciative of the job," said Harry Moser, founder of the Reshoring Initiative, which helps companies looking at bringing manufacturing back to the U.S.


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