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Tariffs provide a clarifying moment. What we do next is the true test.

By Bart Taylor June 3, 2019, 08:43 am MDT

If tariffs have accomplished anything, they've brought into focus the manufacturing strategies of American companies and vulnerabilities of sourcing and manufacturing offshore.

For American brands built on Chinese contract manufacturing, it's a reminder that managing massive production operations offshore carries risk. For others it's been an affirmation of decisions made to rethink manufacturing in China or Asia. Still for others, like small manufacturers who work global supply chains out of necessity, the topic can be maddening. A single trade tactic would never realign their global network of suppliers and manufacturers. Replicating services or replacing suppliers is hard; they're in China for a reason. They pay anyway.

Regardless of the outcome of this round, tariffs are forcing some brands to reassess Asian supply chains and for many, accelerate efforts to move out of China or back onshore. The question for those considering U.S. manufacturing, is how, and it's the industrial issue of our time.

If, in the next decade, we create the conditions for some American brands to return jobs to the U.S. or keep them here in the first place, we'll witness a new era of U.S. industrial accomplishment.

Isn't that what the tariff discussion is all about? If it isn't, it should be.

America has the requisite pieces to enable brands to manufacture more products here. It just doesn't have enough of some, like qualified employees. They lead a long list of much-needed resources.

But there's a community of people and companies working to change the future of manufacturing in the U.S. If you believe in domestic manufacturing, helping these players thrive is a worthy calling:

  • OEM's innovating to develop domestic sourcing and production capabilities -- new domestic supply chains that promise growth. Those shoe brands feeling the pain of tariffs? Many endeavor to establish more prototyping and small batch manufacturing (to start) in the U.S., closer to transformative technology and to customers.
  • Contract manufacturers – companies that make things for other companies across a dozen industries. They’re more capable than ever. Ensuring brands find fabricators and producers, or cultivate new relationships, is imperative.  
  • Engineers and designers improving the manufacturability of parts and products, a process that often works to speed prototyping and keep short production runs local. It's a step in the right direction. 
  • Integrators bringing technology and production together; they're contemplating new ways to fabricate products with new tools and processes.
  • Early-movers in growth industries -- brands and manufacturers -- that value local supply chains and means of production.
  • Community leaders trying hard to pull the pieces together, understanding as they do the value of manufacturing jobs.

These are among the shareholders in a new domestic manufacturing economy, along with consumers who want more locally made products, brands who'd rather manufacture here and families who want options for their kids.

Let’s move from tariffs to a robust strategy that supports these shareholders in their quest. To do so will strengthen trade agreements but more, fulfill the promise of a new U.S. industrial sector. It's the outcome we all can support.

Bart Taylor is publisher of CompanyWeek. Email him at btaylor@companyweek.com.

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