Having your goods “Made in the U.S.A.” may be getting a little bit easier for America’s entrepreneurs.
Referred to as in-sourcing, on-shoring, reshoring, or just simply “bringing jobs back home,” business news outlets are trumpeting the return of manufacturing to the U.S., including corporate giants like General Electric, Apple, and Whirlpool.
But smaller fish hunting for domestic production sites are often frustrated by time-consuming and sometimes-fruitless searches at trade shows.
Now a new infrastructure is taking shape that can help connect entrepreneurs with an idea and the motivation to make a product here at home. The ironic twist: The Internet, which once made long-distance manufacturing seem so simple, is being harnessed to link up designers and makers, sometimes in each others’ own backyard.
For example, in the apparel industry there’s now Maker’s Row, a website that’s helping to link domestic designers and manufacturers. Factory owners create a profile that includes their facility’s capabilities, turnaround times, videos of their work, and all information necessary to make production decisions. Customers can even leave reviews. There’s some 1,400 manufacturers listed, in all 50 states, with everyone from emblem-makers and furriers to knitters and shoemakers and people making any kind of accessory you can imagine. It’s a U-turn for the highly offshored industry.
Cofounders Matthew Burnett and Tanya Menendez got the idea for Maker’s Row after discussing his frustrations with overseas manufacturing and the difficulties he encountered in finding a domestic producer for his Brooklyn Bakery line of leather accessories. They’ve created a site that adds much needed transparency and connectivity to some of the nation’s old-world craftsmen.
“As a small business, I found there’s a lot of inhibiting factors about creating products overseas, like language barriers, cultural barriers, and time differences,” Burnett says. “Small businesses are seeing these big companies coming back as a signal right now. They’re trying to find American resources and manufacturers, too.”
“But there is no real, comprehensive database of manufacturers out there,” he adds. “That’s where we saw a huge challenge in our prior companies—and that’s where we see a huge opportunity for Maker’s Row.”
Burnett says the U.S. manufacturers they’ve approached have been very receptive and have opened them up to their entire networks. Menendez adds that designers have been referring their clients through the site, as the feedback system for each manufacturer gives them a built-in vetted audience ready to jump at new opportunities.
Their timing may be right for many reasons. Cheaper U.S. energy from new natural gas sources and rising global transportation prices are altering supply chain calculations. Alarming news reports of human-rights abuses in overseas factories have raised concerns; increasing labor costs are a factor there, too. And there are the perennial issues of dealing with the unknown: long-distance shipping delays, sustainability, and intellectual-property and security worries.
Since the recession, many U.S. manufacturers have become more willing to take on smaller-scale projects, as a supplement to bigger contracts and as a way to diversify their revenue streams.
Roberto Torres leads one small company dedicated to domestic manufacturing who’s tapping into Maker’s Row. He’s president of the Black & Denim Apparel Co., a Tampa-based clothing line that produces high-end jeans, custom T-shirts, and accessories, all from American-sourced materials. He grew up in Panama, and immigrated to the U.S. in the early 1990s, which he says influenced the desire to make his goods here, too. “We wanted to make it here. For men who understand what American-made means,” he says. “In the ’80s in Panama, if you wanted something to last, it had to be made in America.”
Tampa doesn’t have a Garment District, so Torres’s team was somewhat isolated in getting started. Finding suppliers and manufacturers was a slog, from phone books and trade shows to the Internet and word-of-mouth references, Torres says.
And that’s why he calls Maker’s Row a “game-changer” for his industry. When Black & Denim recently decided to add a women’s line, within two days they had found all the manufacturers they needed to get started, Torres says. “Anything that can bridge a gap between two brick-and-mortar stores is paramount right now.”
If you’re looking to make your goods closer to home, here are a few other sites worth a look:
Here’s a matchmaker for the 3D printing world. Got a MakerBot sitting idle? List your desktop factory here to get on the radar of other designers looking to fabricate something closer to home than at one of the bigger 3D printing sites like Shapeways. For creators looking to print, simply search by ZIP Code for machines available to make your doodad, upload your file, and select your colors or materials. You can either arrange to have the printer ship your item to you, or just swing by to pick it up. MakeXYZ takes a five-percent commission on your project and turnaround times are generally swifter than the big 3D printing services, and cheaper, too: prices start at 25 cents per cubic inch. Launched by Austin-based programmers Chad Masso and Nathan Tone in November 2012, the site has nearly 600 printers signed up so far.
Here’s an all-in-one resource for manufacturers large and small. This industry-funded group has several worthwhile tools, from its definitive library of white papers and case studies about in-shoring companies and news coverage to its built-in Total Cost of Ownership Estimator calculator, which allows users to do the math on the array of costs and freight expenses in order to compare how much they might save by using local manufacturing. They’ve also got a smart Twitter feed.
This is a rapidly expanding open-source display of the world of makers, from hackerspaces and tool-sharing sites to bigger name fabricators and startup incubators. What started out as a Bay Area guide to local listing has recently gone global, but the majority of the entries are right here in the U.S. Manufacturers and parts suppliers that cater to this inventive group can create their own entries.
Many still have experiences like Sheila Duncan’s in trying to find a domestic manufacturer for her Trouble the Dog project. At first, Duncan was using a Chinese company to make the plush toy, which is a therapeutic tool for kids experiencing stress. After a round of frustrating back and forth, she decided to try to bring that work closer to home.
From her Marblehead, Mass., headquarters, Duncan says she spent “all day for six months” looking for a manufacturer willing to take up her initial run of 1,500, hopeful-eyed dogs at an affordable price. She traveled all over New England searching for a spot. In Maine, she encountered a sewing-factory owner who told her outright that “she couldn’t afford my price,” even though he was also sending out blanket emails soliciting new business. “So many I encountered just could not step out of the box of the way they were thinking to get something done,” she says.
Ultimately, Duncan did find her U.S. manufacturer, in Arizona. And although the costs are about 4.5 times what her Chinese vendor charged, she says she’s “glad she went through the hoops” to land a domestic source. “And I mean we are talking hoops.”
Why was it worth it? Duncan points to the reports of poor working conditions overseas that made her uneasy, and a bigger selling point these days: differentiation.
“Look in a child’s room and all the stuffed animals are made somewhere else,” she says. “What this is going to do for me, I believe, is give Trouble a way to stand out from everything else out there.”