Wood Products Manufacturing Can Return to U.S. Soil if...                                    U.S. wood product manufacturers, who have closed domestic plants in favor of outsourcing products from China and elsewhere, have the potential to bring some of that production back stateside if they are willing to change their mindset.          

This was a recurring statement and sentiment heard and surmised from a variety of presentations made at the Woodworking Industry Conference, held May 4-6 in Marco Island.

David Rothwell of Stiles Machinery, who gave his last public speech as president of the Wood Machinery Industry Association, was the first to note an opportunity for an American woodworking renaissance.

Fresh off a tour of Chinese manufacturing facilities, that included a handful of U.S. wood products executives and my colleague Karen Koenig, editor in chief of Wood & Wood Products, Rothwell said, "I believe their will be a resurgence of U.S. manufacturing." 

Rothwell noted that several factors will greatly reduce the competitive advantages that helped catapult China into a wood products super power. Among them, he said the Chinese government has mandated that worker wages be doubled within five years and that China has started to raise the value of the yuan on worldwide currency markets.

In addition, Rothwell said, "China can’t control quality, quantity and lead times as well as U.S. manufacturers."

In a response to a labor shortage, Rothwell said, "Chinese wood product manufacturers are spending millions of dollars on technology."

He challenged U.S. wood product manufacturers to think more long term to justify capital investment programs, noting that while Chinese and European manufacturers are willing to accept paybacks of five and three years respectively, American manufacturers frequently require new machines to pay for themselves in one year or less.

“This is a mindset that we need to change here.”

During the Furniture Manufacturing Forum that I moderated, the four panelists mainly supported Rothwell's point that they require quick payback on machinery, the big exception being when new equipment is required to facilitate a new product line.

Speaking on domestic manufacturing opportunities, Reggie Propst of Kincaid Furniture, said his company produces the majority of its furniture stateside and is mulling over the possibility of bringing back some of what is being outsourced elsewhere .

Likewise, Art Raymond of Hooker Furniture, which only makes upholstered furniture in the U.S., is leaving open the potential of resuming some of its domestic case goods production under the right circumstances.

Keynote speaker Don Shultz, CEO of PremierGarage, noted another mindset that wood product manufacturers need to change. "The mindset of mass manufacturing is so ingrained in our systems” but today's consumers want to have more choices and in faster delivery times than ever.

He suggested that manufacturers need to continually evolve with the times and make it their mission to become experts at mass customization, something made more difficult because the industry has a deficit of professional engineers.

Nearly to a man, the 12 panelists of the three manufacturing forums held during WIC said the market has mandated that they become more efficient at producing one part or one kitchen at a time.

Now, as the economy slowly but steadily improves, we'll see if there exists a pent up demand for new machinery, processes and plants that will help launch a new era U.S. manufacturing productivity, growth and prosperity.

Read more of Rich Christianson's blogs.

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