Here’s an interesting video on making guitar strings at D’Addario.
The punch line is that like many other firms they are attempting to boost productivity by (among other things) implementing lean operating techniques in order to remain competitive while producing in the U.S. (See for example this post.) I, however, have a quibble with the story. The claim is that lean production “relies heavily on automation.” That is simply not true.
Lean does not have to mean increased automation. Indeed, early champions of lean campaigned against “islands of automation” that broke up product flows and seemed to require batch production. If anything, automation in lean is tied to greater standardization. One of the tenets of lean is to have production system that make problems self-evident. That may ultimately justify greater automation either to automate inspection or to more consistently execute a particular task.
Watching the video, it seems that making guitar strings requires a fair amount of machinery. They are after all pulling and shaping metal and machinery can do that much both more easily and reliably than humans. If D’Addario upgraded its equipment or introduced more automation I suspect it was straightforward substitution of capital for labor. D’Addario might have more automation than a comparable firm in China but that is more about wage rates than being lean or not.