Today’s American manufacturing is a shadow of what it once was. The industry has lost millions of jobs and thousands of factories.
Many of us know what some of those factories looked like in their heyday — not because we visited the factories ourselves, but because we watched them on TV, with Mr. Rogers as our tour guide.
Mister Rogers Neighborhood, the public television show, began showing factory videos in the early 1970s, and lasting through the late 1990s.
Kids across the country watched how all kinds of things in the world around them were made, such as construction paper and graham crackers.
Many of the factories were full of dated equipment and conveyer belts lit by florescent lights. They were also full of people, who were busy pumping out things like trumpets and shoes and flashlights. I wanted to know if the factories in some of these videos had survived all the upheaval in manufacturing over the last few decades.
In 1998, Mr. Rogers visited Hedstrom Entertainment in Ashland, Ohio to find out how people make those swirly colored plastic balls preschoolers love to roll and throw. The factory was steadily producing them then. But what about now?
“Well, you know we moved our factory to China in 2004 out of just sheer need,” said Jim Braeunig, who runs Hedstrom Entertainment. “Wages and things had gotten to the point-and benefits-where it made it impossible to compete with the Chinese product.”
Braeunig says he did what he could for years to keep his factory in the U.S. He introduced automation, increased efficiency and cut $1 million a year in costs. He felt the only way to keep his company out of bankruptcy was to move his factory to China, and reluctantly did so. He still had to cut hundreds of jobs.
The real problem with making toys in the U.S is that customers expect things to be cheap, Braeunig said. When the Ohio factory closed people were only willing to pay around 99 cents for his cheapest ball. That’s less than people paid for the same product in 1967. Braeunig says he just can’t make products for that price in the United States any more.
But in Oak Park, IL, one factory is running virtually unchanged from when Mr. Rogers visited in 1985.
The factory is really a huge wood shop, called Link Bass and Cello. It makes upright basses and cellos.
“It’s old school,” said the owner, Tom Link. “People come back and are surprised we’re still around as an instrument maker, because we are a dwindling number.”
Since the video was made, China has moved to dominate the cello market. Link’s production is down about 80 percent. Staff is down too, from around 15 to 3 people.
An uncertain future
Even with the changes in the market, Link’s company has been able to adjust and stay healthy. It now concentrates on selling the pricier upright basses, versus the smaller basses orchestra players sit down to play, because it’s a niche market with loyal customers.
And, in general, smaller manufacturers of specialty products have done better than others over the last decade. Link says something else is important too. It’s really expensive to ship a bass from China.
Saving on shipping costs alone can’t bring back factories and jobs lost over the years. Analysts say that these shipping costs, combined with falling American wages and a shift to higher-tech products could mean American factories can once again compete.
But analysts say, it’s a tough road ahead. It might also be tough to interest a new generation of kids to watch how these high-tech products are made. Lithium ion batteries and artificial hips are very different from instruments and plastic balls.