Today, Princeton Tec once again makes and assembles everything in New Jersey and has managed to double its manufacturing capacity. Small teams of workers produce headlamps in batches of roughly 500 per day, each unit assembled in about 30 seconds. “There are so many things that happen in a production run,” says Armendinger. “If we do a run in China of 100,000 pieces, let’s say, and there’s a problem in the process, that’s 100,000 pieces that have now been affected.”
Daniel Emerson, the CEO of Monterey, California-based Light and Motion—which also manufactures headlamps and bike lights and has recently doubled its U.S. production—knows full well the hazards of committing to a big production run overseas. In the 1990s, Emerson helped the snowshoe companies Atlas and Tubbs move factories from the United States to Shenzhen. Then, in 2008, at Light and Motion, he decided to return to China to produce a lower-priced bike light, the Vega. The Chinese company would pay to build the molds, tools, and machines. “Tooling on a new bike light is $50,000,” he says. “They were able to absorb that.”
There was just one problem. The light didn’t sell, which Emerson blames on his own company’s poor design. But Light and Motion had committed to the factory for a 10,000-lamp order. If he’d produced it in the U.S., he says, Light and Motion could have done a midstream redesign.
“It’s a false economy,” says Emerson, though he still hasn’t written off China as a manufacturing option. “The product was 10 percent less in China, but what’s the total cost of that product if, at the end of the year, I didn’t make any money on it?” I heard this sort of thing often—people focused too much on labor instead of myriad other cost factors. This is why Harry Kazazian, CEO of Exxel Outdoors, moved production of its high-end sleeping bags from Mexico to Alabama. In his case, it was because of the costs imposed by local officials. “People don’t look at corruption; they just look at the labor. But they’re not thinking that there are people above those factory workers, that they are leeches and drive up your cost indirectly.” Whereas in Alabama, he notes, when the state’s tax officials visited, they said, “We’re here to help you figure out what not to pay.” With new equipment installed, Exxel now plans to make roughly 95 percent of its bags domestically. “Obviously, not every product can be made in the U.S.,” Kazazian says, “but you need to look at those formulas, because they could tip the scale in a different direction.”
IBEX, AS IT happens, is bringing more than just production back to the U.S. It’s bringing sheep. While most of its wool is sourced from New Zealand and some from Uruguay, about eight percent now comes from the Lehfeldt family ranch in Lavina, Montana. A short film on Ibex’s website shows Bob Lehfeldt, the creased and tan patriarch of the ranching family, presiding over a pastoral landscape upon which Rambouillet sheep, bearing ultra-fine 21-micron wool, languorously graze.
While it might seem like an image campaign, studies have shown that American consumers aren’t willing to pay more for a product just because it’s made in the USA. No, the move to bring raw materials closer to factories has to do with an industrial process called superwashing—preshrinking yarn to make it laundry safe. Superwashing wasn’t available in the U.S. until the late 2000s, when French textile processor Chargeurs opened a facility in South Carolina at the behest of the U.S. military.
Why the Pentagon’s sudden interest in wool? The answer is surprising—and grisly. “The military is changing its stance on synthetics,” says Keith Anderson, Ibex’s VP of marketing. “So many guys were coming back with synthetics literally welded to their skin,” he says, due to the intense heat of IEDs and other explosives. Wool, says Anderson, offers a superior melt point. This accidental fact, as well as the 2009 Kissell Amendment—which requires that all military apparel be made in America—is why, for the first time ever, wool can be superwashed domestically.
The superwashing story underscores a larger issue: industries are like ecosystems, comprising many symbiotic parts. Just as the U.S. military’s shift in materials can help kick-start a domestic supply chain, when you take one key piece away, like highly educated workers, you can begin to lose entire networks that are hard to rebuild when companies want to bring production home.