Posted on 20 February 2013.
Here there and everywhere
After decades of sending work across the world, companies are rethinking their offshoring strategies, says The Economist’s Tamzin Booth
Early next month local dignitaries will gather for a ribbon-cutting ceremony at a facility in Whitsett, North Carolina, USA. A new production line will start to roll and the seemingly impossible will happen: America will start making personal computers again. Mass-market computer production had been withering away for the past 30 years, and the vast majority of laptops have always been made in Asia. Dell shut two big American factories in 2008 and 2010 in a big shift to China, and HP now makes only a small number of business desktops at home.
The new manufacturing facility is being built not by an American company but by Lenovo, a highly successful Chinese technology group. Founded in 1984 by 11 engineers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, it bought IBM’s ThinkPad personal-computer business in 2005 and is now by some measures the world’s biggest PC-maker, just ahead of HP, and the fastest growing.
Lenovo’s move marks the latest twist in a globalisation story that has been running since the 1980s. The original idea behind offshoring was that Western firms with high labour costs could make huge savings by sending work to countries where wages were much lower (see article). Offshoring means moving work and jobs outside the country where a company is based. It can also involve outsourcing, which means sending work to outside contractors. These can be either in the home country or abroad, but in offshoring they are based overseas. For several decades that strategy worked, often brilliantly. But now companies are rethinking their global footprints.
The first and most important reason is that the global labour “arbitrage” that sent companies rushing overseas is running out. Wages in China and India have been going up by 10-20% a year for the past decade, whereas manufacturing pay in America and Europe has barely budged. Other countries, including Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines, still offer low wages, but not China’s scale, efficiency and supply chains. There are still big gaps between wages in different parts of the world, but other factors such as transport costs increasingly offset them. Lenovo’s labour costs in North Carolina will still be higher than in its factories in China and Mexico, but the gap has narrowed substantially, so it is no longer a clinching reason for manufacturing in emerging markets. With more automation, says David Schmoock, Lenovo’s president for North America, labour’s share of total costs is shrinking anyway.
Second, many American firms now realise that they went too far in sending work abroad and need to bring some of it home again, a process inelegantly termed “reshoring”. Well-known companies such as Google, General Electric, Caterpillar and Ford Motor Company are bringing some of their production back to America or adding new capacity there. In December Apple said it would start making a line of its Mac computers in America later this year.
Choosing the right location for producing a good or a service is an inexact science, and many companies got it wrong. Michael Porter, Harvard Business School’s guru on competitive strategy, says that just as companies pursued many unpromising mergers and acquisitions until painful experience brought greater discipline to the field, a lot of chief executives offshored too quickly and too much. In Europe there was never as much enthusiasm for offshoring as in America in the first place, and the small number of companies that did it are in no rush to return.
Firms are now discovering all the disadvantages of distance. The cost of shipping heavy goods halfway around the world by sea has been rising sharply, and goods spend weeks in transit. They have also found that manufacturing somewhere cheap and far away but keeping research and development at home can have a negative effect on innovation. One answer to this would be to move the R&D too, but that has other drawbacks: the threat of losing valuable intellectual property in far-off places looms ever larger. Also, a succession of wars and natural disasters in the past decade has highlighted the risk that supply chains a long way from home may become disrupted.
Third, firms are rapidly moving away from the model of manufacturing everything in one low-cost place to supply the rest of the world. China is no longer seen as a cheap manufacturing base but as a huge new market. Increasingly, the main reason for multinationals to move production is to be close to customers in big new markets. This is not offshoring in the sense the word has been used for the past three decades; instead, it is being “onshore” in new places. Peter Löscher, the chief executive of Siemens, a German engineering firm, recently commented that the notion of offshoring is in any case an odd one for a truly international company. The “home shore” for Siemens, he said, is now as much China and India as it is Germany or America.
Companies now want to be in, or close to, each of their biggest markets, making customised products and responding quickly to changing local demand. Pierre Beaudoin, chief executive of Bombardier, a Canadian maker of aeroplanes and trains, says the firm used to focus on cost savings made by sending jobs abroad; now Bombardier is in China for the sake of China.
Lenovo, as a Chinese company, has its own factories in China. The reason it is moving some production to America is that it will be able to customise its computers for American customers and respond quickly to them. If it made them in China they would spend six weeks on a ship, says Mr. Schmoock.
Under this logic, America and Europe, with their big domestic markets, should be able to attract plenty of new investment as companies look for a bigger local presence in places around the world. It is not just Western firms bringing some of their production home; there is also a wave of emerging-market champions such as Lenovo, or the Tata Group, which is making Range Rover cars near Liverpool, that are coming to invest in brands, capacity and workers in the West.
Such changes are happening not only in manufacturing, but increasingly in services too. Companies may either outsource IT and back-office work to other companies, which could be in the same country or abroad, or offshore it to their own centres overseas. Software programming, call centres and data centre management were the first tasks to move, followed by more complex ones such as medical diagnoses and analytics for investment banks.
As in manufacturing, the labour-cost arbitrage in services is rapidly eroding, leaving firms with all the drawbacks of distance and ever fewer cost savings to make up for them. There has been widespread disappointment with outsourcing information technology and the routine back-office tasks that used to be done in-house. Some activities that used to be considered peripheral to a company’s profits, such as data management, are now seen as essential, so they are less likely to be entrusted to a third-party supplier thousands of miles away.
Coming full circle
Even General Electric is reversing its course in some important areas of its business. In the 1990s it had pioneered the offshoring of services, setting up one of the very first “captive”, or fully owned, offshore service centres in Gurgaon in 1997. Up until last year around half of GE’s information-technology work was being done outside the company, mostly in India, but the company found that it was losing too much technical expertise and that its IT department was not responding quickly enough to changing technology needs. It is now adding hundreds of IT engineers at a new centre in Van Buren Township in Michigan.
This special report will examine the changing economics of offshoring in the corporate world. It will show that offshoring in its traditional sense, in search of cheaper labour anywhere on the globe, is maturing, tailing off and to some extent being reversed. Multinationals will certainly not become any less global as a result, but they will distribute their activities more evenly and selectively around the world, taking heed of a far broader range of variables than labour costs alone.
That offers a huge opportunity for rich countries and their workers to win back some of the industries and activities they have lost over the past few decades. Paradoxically, the narrowing wage gap increases the pressure on politicians. With labour-cost differentials narrowing rapidly, it is no longer possible to point at rock-bottom wages in emerging markets as the reason why the rich world is losing out. Developed countries will have to compete hard on factors beyond labour costs. The most important of these are world-class skills and training, along with flexibility and motivation of workers, extensive clusters of suppliers and sensible regulation.