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OM in the News: Still Made in America

June 30, 2013

paintbrushesChinese manufacturers long ago wreaked havoc on the U.S. textile, apparel, toy and electronics industries. But disruption has come more slowly to the brush business, writes The New York Times (June 18, 2013).  There are simply so many types of brushes for so many applications that many Chinese manufacturers thought the business wasn’t worth the hassle. Despite the recession, there are still more than 200 brush, broom and mop makers in the U.S. These companies have employed two strategies to stave off Chinese competition: 1) change everything all the time, or 2) don’t ever change a thing.

Kirschner Brushes hasn’t changed a thing. The Bronx, NY company makes brushes the very same way, employing many of the same machines it bought 50 years ago. Kirschner sticks with the old ways because, unlike with toys and T-shirts, a big chunk of the brush business caters to professionals who aren’t merely shopping for price but rather for quality.

At the other end of the business is Braun Brush, which is constantly creating innovative brushes so that it never has any competition. Bruan makes a beaver-hair brush that’s solely for putting a sheen on chocolate, an industrial croissant-buttering brush, a heat-resistant brush that can clean hot deep fryers, and a tiny brush that helped Mars rovers dust debris from drilling sites. When Braun sees other firms making one of it brushes, it often drops the product rather than enter a price war. Braun has grown at 15-20% annually for the past 5 years.

Despite all the doom-and-gloom US manufacturing stories, there are still more than 200,000 small factories, like Kirschner’s and Braun’s, that provide a solid, if rarely heralded, base line of American business. Very quickly though, the US is becoming a nation of Brauns–one in which a product faces extinction, or a rebooting, shortly after it is unveiled. This flexible economy has many advantages–and over time, it delivers more economic growth to the US.

Discussion questions:

1. Which operations strategy will be more successful in the long run–Kirschner’s or Braun’s?

2. Why will customers stay loyal to Kirschner Brushes?

One Comment leave one →
  1. July 4, 2013 5:25 pm

    I believe both of these firms are differentiators. Kirschner will retain customers that value consistency and predictability in their processes. These customers can not risk change or deviation in performance of their tools. Braun will attract customers that are innovators, ones that are continuously looking for improved methods for tasks. Who would think of a custom brush for croissants?

    And similarly, the U.S. economy is only competitive as a differentiator. If we wish to command a premium price for our labor, we must add an intellectual contribution to our work.

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