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Is Made in USA Actually Remaking Its Mark?

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Optimism about Made in U.S.A. was high at the latest edition of Texprocess Americas, with more companies looking for ways to make domestically and more seeking solutions for improving their product without the aid of anything from abroad.

The Atlanta, Georgia-based show held earlier this month played host to leaders in equipment and technology for the sewn products sector, and attendees hungry to reshore.

For the last handful of years, reshoring has been a buzzword in the industry as brands started looking closer to home to help with speed to market and for greater quality control in an increasingly lowest-cost-wins world.

Though there was talk, American manufacturing hasn’t quite yet seen the uptick many had hoped for.

The most recent Markit Manufacturing Purchasing Manager’s Index (PMI), which gives a read on the U.S. manufacturing sector’s economic health, showed PMI for April ringing in at 50.8, just a touch over the 50 that serves to separate contraction from expansion. The number was down from 51.5 in March and the country’s lowest since 2009, as both production and job creation grew only marginally. Subdued demand and economic uncertainty weighed on output volumes and overall new work.

By comparison, manufacturing PMI from 2012 through April this year, according to Markit Economics, which puts out the index, averaged 53.83, reaching an all-time high of 57.90 in August 2014, and its lowest point, April’s just-recorded 50.8.

“The April PMI data suggest there’s no end in sight to the current downturn in manufacturing activity. The survey indicates that factory output is dropping at an annualized rate of approximately 3 percent, and factory headcounts are being culled at a rate of around 10,000 per month,” Markit chief economist Chris Williamson, said. “Destocking is also very much in evidence as companies often reported weaker than expected demand and exports are slumping at the fastest rate for one and a half years.”

Apparel production, however, could be a bright spot for American manufacturing, albeit likely a small one.

Mark Burstein, president of sales, marketing and R&D for NGC Software, which exhibited at Texprocess, said interest in American manufacturing was certainly up this year and there is some resurgence, just not of the scale we might have expected.

“Manufacturing is coming back to the U.S., but in smaller factories with 20-50 operators,” Burstein said.

The problem, he added, will be where to set up shop as states like California and New York are looking to raise their worker wages. The other issue will be the lack of skilled labor since the current work force is aging and young people entering the work world aren’t gunning for factory jobs.

Exhibitors at the show’s Supply Chain USA Pavilion, hosted by SEAMS, the National Association for the U.S. Sewn Products Industry, overwhelmingly agreed that interest in making domestic was higher than at shows past.

“Several cut and sew U.S. brands are really trying to complete their domestic supply chain, figure out where to get stuff,” PJ McCord, director of sales (Americas) for Buhler Quality Yarns, said, adding that it’s up to American suppliers to provide the platform, the capabilities and the knowledge about making here or the resurgence will never gain traction.

For Contempora Fabrics, synthetics were the lure for attendees as many were looking to ride the athletic wear wave but with product worthy of a Made in America label. The company makes circular knits—all domestically—for companies like Majestic Athletic, which outfits Major League Baseball players, and had visits from Nike and Adidas at the show.

Will Duncan, owner of Will Duncan Consulting, which provides business advice for companies in the apparel and sewn products industries, said those who want to make here are looking for ways to improve their efficiencies and cycle times more than anything else.

“There has been quite a bit of interest from domestic manufacturers, which I think is a good sign,” Duncan said.

Cost has long been the roadblock barring most brands from making product in the U.S., and with labor a major element in garment cost, the key to more American manufacturing may be in innovative solutions to curbing the costs of workers.

Like robots.

A Texprocess Americas panel on automation and robotics delved into the technology’s role in revamping the apparel industry, touching on a vital consideration: If American manufacturers can cut back on labor, they’ll cut back on garment costs and perhaps find less of a need for outsourcing.

As Frank Henderson, CEO of Henderson Sewing, an Alabama-based industrial sewing machine distributor, noted, automated machines—like sewing bots that can load and unload garment parts and sew them with limited supervision—will increasingly take over the jobs workers are doing today.

And if that’s what helps reduce labor costs, Henderson said, American manufacturers will be more competitive in the global market.

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