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|Thursday, May 01, 2008|
MADE IN OREGON
Companies find it pays to keep manufacturing local. Take that, China.
By Michelle V. Rafter
When Les de Asis shows a visitor the carbon dioxide lasers and computer-controlled machines in the factory of his Oregon City company, Benchmade Knife Co., he’s like a proud father showing off his kids.
De Asis and his wife Roberta started making pocket knives and hunting knives 17 years ago in a 2,000-square-foot space. Today, Benchmade’s 45,000-square-foot facility is bursting, with close to 90 machinists, assemblers and other factory workers producing high-end knives that sell for as much as $2,000. In the factory, state-of-the-art robots burn knife blades out of premium-grade stainless steel and titanium. Assemblers attach finished blades to knife handles and embellish them with accessories. Master sharpeners hone blade edges just so. Finish workers package knives in color-coded boxes: red for the least expensive up to gold for the most.
Benchmade could make knives in China. In fact, some low-end products are made there, though they comprise just 3% of sales. Instead, the family decided to keep the majority of its production in Oregon — a decision they say has been the key to their success.
There was a time when shipping production overseas seemed like the best answer for rising labor costs at home. But with oil prices driving up transportation costs, and prices for raw materials and labor rising in China, going offshore doesn’t seem like the end-all, be-all answer it once was. Businesses looking to keep their factories here — or bring them home again — can look to companies such as Benchmade for how it’s done.
In addition to maintaining tighter control over production, keeping factories in Oregon allows companies to quickly respond to changes in the marketplace and do a better job guarding proprietary information, say de Asis and other company owners. The “Made in the USA” label is a big boost at a time when U.S. consumers worry about lead-tainted products made overseas and when the weakening dollar is making American-made goods more attractive as exports.
Though wood products, computer and electronics manufacturers are suffering, job losses have been buffered by an upswing in food, metals and machinery factory jobs, according to a March report from the Oregon Employment Department. While they won’t reverse the declines completely, growth in those and smaller sub-sectors is expected to fortify and diversity manufacturing employment over the next 10 years, according to the report.
Scott Dawson, dean of Portland State University’s School of Business, agrees small pockets of manufacturing job growth are helping the state during current hard times. “It stands to reason we’ll have somewhat of a downturn,” he says. “But I’ve lived here most of my life and I don’t think we’ve ever weathered a downturn this well.”
SOME COMPANIES KEEP their factories in Oregon because they get financial incentives to stay. One is Triad Speakers, which makes high-end home entertainment systems. In 2004, Triad secured $216,000 in loans and grants from the Portland Development Commission to help finance a new production facility in Portland’s Airport Way urban renewal area, according to PDC spokeswoman Anne Mangan. In exchange, Triad committed to keep all 60 of its employees and add jobs, all in Portland. As of March, Triad’s workforce was up to 74 and wages for factory jobs have increased, says Larry Pexton, the company’s president.
“The program is quite well conceived and produced exactly the intended results: higher-paying manufacturing jobs,” says Pexton, who in mid-March was in China setting up a showroom that will sell Triad equipment.
The state also has programs to help keep factories here. Since 2002, the Oregon Economic and Community Development Department has awarded close to $2 million to more than 120 companies through Oregon Manufacturing Extension Partnership, an industry group that trains companies in lean manufacturing methods, says Fox, the OECDD business development officer. The 3-year-old Oregon Innovation Council, or Oregon Inc., is in the process of awarding $28.2 million in grants approved by the 2007 state Legislature to manufacturers and consortia working in emerging industries.
Industry groups are doing their part. Lake, with Warne Manufacturing, is head of the Oregon Manufacturing Workforce Strategy, a four-year initiative backed by $500,000 in state grants to help manufacturers train workers. The organization started a website called Oregon Manufacturing to share data on resources and funding for training workers and developing business plans. Private businesses have also teamed up with government agencies and community colleges on a project called Worksource Oregon to help train high school and community college students in the kind of modern manufacturing skills employers need.
Now de Asis is starting a second company to capitalize on expertise he’s developed in rapid prototyping and other 21st century manufacturing processes. “If we’re going to be world class,” he says, “we can sell that to other companies.”
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