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OM in the News: Can Sneaker Makers Come Home?

February 13, 2017

robot“A new Trump administration has industry players who import almost all their sneakers from low-cost locales in Asia talking about their efforts to switch more production to the U.S.,” writes Businessweek (Feb. 6-12, 2017). They already know that manufacturing closer to home would lower the time it takes to get products to market. Now, sneaker makers’ efforts to manufacture here could also help deflect attention from the fact that they overwhelmingly are in the business of designing and marketing made-in-Asia footwear for American consumers.

Nike’s products are made by 1.1 million workers in 645 factories located across 42 countries. About 400,000 of the workers are in Vietnam, with 202,000 in China. Only 7,000 are in the U.S. Footwear companies are hoping for incentives for manufacturing onshore to speed up their made-in-America ambitions. But as they look to bring production back to the U.S., shoemakers are embracing a new kind of worker: robots. Sneakers, with lots of pieces stitched or glued together, are labor-intensive. That’s one reason so many plants are located in low-wage nations. So automating is key for any shift.

Still, getting U.S. production to account for more than a tiny fraction of their global totals will be tough. Nike employs 1,300 at factories in Oregon and Missouri, and says it plans to invest in advanced manufacturing to bring production to the U.S. Even if many shoe factories were to get built in the U.S., most of the jobs they’d bring would likely go to industrial robots or 3D printers, not people. Adidas, for example, says its upcoming “speed factory” in the Atlanta area will initially employ only about 160 people. And Under Armour uses just a dozen workers to make its 3D-printed shoes in New Hampshire.

Classroom discussion questions:

  1. Why does the U.S. want shoe jobs back?
  2. Will Nike ever leave its plants in China and Vietnam?
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