At first glance, simple products like metal baskets or paint brushes should not be made in America. These should be simple to make, the product should be standard, so production should go to a low-cost location. But that ain’t necessarily so. A pair of recent articles discusses how some small US manufacturers are managing to compete in seemingly staid, boring industries.
The first story is from Fast Company and focuses on Marlin Steel, a firm that once focused on wire baskets for bagel shops (The Road To Resilience: How Unscientific Innovation Saved Marlin Steel, Jul/Aug). That’s a business that eventually went to hell as cheap imports came into the market. The fortunes of the company changed with an order from Boeing.
The job that rescued Marlin Steel was small–20 baskets, a $500 order. Greenblatt was handling sales in 2003, so he took the call himself. “It was an engineer from Boeing,” he says. “He didn’t think I was in the bagel-basket business. He just needed custom wire baskets.” The Boeing engineer, who had seen a Marlin ad in the Thomas Register, a pre-Internet manufacturing directory, wanted baskets to hold airplane parts and move them around the factory. He wanted them fast. And he wanted them made in a way Marlin wasn’t used to–with astonishing precision. For bagel stores, says Greenblatt, “if the bagel didn’t fall out between the wires, the quality was perfect.” The Boeing engineer needed the basket’s size to be within a sixty-fourth of an inch of his specifications. “I told him, ‘I’ll have to charge you $24 a basket,’” says Greenblatt. “He said, ‘Yeah, yeah, whatever. No problem. When are you going to ship them?’”
It turns out that the guy from Boeing was not alone in wanting custom baskets for use in a factory. Further, lots of other buyers were much more concerned with getting just the right basket really soon than with whether the price was as cheap has possible. The image above is something used in a GM factory to hold pump housings when they are being cleaned. (more…)