I download podcasts and listen to them on my drive to work. Today, driving my 16-year-old car which has any number of replacement auto parts keeping it on the road, listening to a 3-year-old Apple iPod, I heard two stories which described how electronics and auto parts are manufactured in China and America. Apart a clearer understanding about where the things I use in my daily life are made, I was struck by the diametrically opposed nature of Chinese and American manufacturing. Really, it was night and day. Click on the links below and listen to the podcasts for yourself. Both stories make for very compelling listening.
Mike Daisey was a self-described “worshiper in the cult of Mac.” Then he saw some photos from a new iPhone, taken by workers at the factory where it was made. Mike wondered: Who makes all my crap? He traveled to China to find out.
He visited the Foxconn assembly plant in Shenzhen, a city of 14 million that did not exist 30 years ago, the third largest city in China that almost no-one in the West has heard of. It’s where, Daisey says, “all our electronic crap comes from … Shenzen looks like Blade Runner threw up on itself.”
What he found there was the “back to the future” nature of Dickensian-style labor-intensive assembly plants where all the PCs, laptops, cell phones, tablets and MP3 players come from. These vast assembly plants employ tens of thousands of people in each building:
… a creature of the first world, I expect a factory making complex electronics will have the sound of machinery. But in a place where the cost of labor is effectively zero, anything that can be made by hand is made by hand. No matter how complex your electronics are, they are assembled by thousands and thousands of tiny little fingers working in concert. And in those vast spaces the only sound is the sound of bodies in constant, unending motion.
How often do we wish more things were hand-made? We talk about that all the time, don’t we? “I wish it was like the old days, I wish things had that human touch…” But that’s not true. There are more hand-made things now than there have ever been in the history of the world. Everything is hand-made. I know, I have been there, I have seen the workers laying in parts thinner than human hair, one after another after another. Everything is hand-made.
In American factories nothing is hand-made. Lacking cadres of rural migrants willing to work 16 hour days and sleep in cramped dorms, companies that are still manufacturing Stateside have replaced people with machines.
A decade ago, life in Greenville, South Carolina was organized around the cotton mills. Each mill had its own village, its own church, its own bar. These places were abandoned over the past decade as mill after mill went out of business. In the old Greenville the mills ran three shifts a day, and, as in China today, people with minimal education could work in a factory and make a living.
That was then, this is now.
There are still factories in Greenville, such as the Standard Motor Products plant that makes replacement parts for car engines. NPR reporter Adam Davidson expected to find a motor parts factory filled with big, noisy machines stamping out parts and spewing oil. Instead he saw workers hunched over microscopes. It looked more like a science lab than an assembly line.
The workers need an encyclopedic knowledge of metals and microscopes, gauges and plugs. They manage machine tools that create items like fuel injectors, which require precision engineering.
The few unskilled workers, in contrast, are trained to run the automated machines in minutes and can be replaced if the cost of “human capital” exceeds the capital cost of the machine.
The question is, can the 11 million unskilled manufacturing workers in the U.S. acquire the training they need, or will they have to take a slow boat to China to find work?
Adam Davidson explores life in Greenville in more depth in The Atlantic magazine.