Manufacturing: Can we do it locally?

Buy LocalThe retail market has long embraced the buy local concept, touting benefits to both company and consumer. However, retail isn’t the only industry that’s making a push to keep things local. Area manufacturers are now actively pursuing opportunities to source their needs locally, despite a number of challenges.

For example, GroEasy CEO Karl Wischnofske, whose start-up firm makes soft-sided planters, said he is “passionate about ‘made in the USA.’”

“We can feed several Clark County residents instead of feeding a factory in China,” said Wischnofske.

Although the GroEasy CEO said he had no trouble finding certain materials for his product, such as poly webbing for the handles, other resources, including the specialized fabric for the planters and affordable labor to assemble the product, he said are more challenging.

“The simple labor of sewing seams is very cheap in China but too costly in the USA,” said Wischnofske.

Richard Biggs, GroEasy’s director of sales, agreed.

“It’s easier for us to buy raw materials here, send them to China, produce it, then ship it back,” said Biggs. “That seems ludicrous.”

GroEasy is turning to automation to reduce labor costs, such as heat seam machines, print-on-demand packaging and computerized integration of machinery controls – taking a “high-tech approach to a low-tech product.”

Local ManufacturingOne local resource that Wischnofske lamented is in short supply is funding to support new firms like his.

“You have to show the banks you don’t need the money before you can get it,” he said. “How is our company going to fund the necessary tooling expansion in this hostile small business environment?”

Wischnofske said it would be helpful if Clark County had a micro-enterprise incubation center for something other than high-tech companies.

“Every job makes a difference, and the current business environment in Clark County needs to recognize that, adapt, and foster the growth of local manufacturing,” he explained.

More established companies seem to have better luck finding what they need in the region. For example, Jay Schmidt, vice president of business development at Silicon Forest Electronics Inc., said there were “really good” suppliers of sheet metal, plastic parts, machined parts and raw circuit boards in the Northwest.

Charlie Bishop, mill division manager at Pendleton Woolen Mills, said his company has long-term relationships with local suppliers of wool and detergents – some that have been in place for upwards of 100 years.

Of course, local has different meanings for different companies.

For Schmidt, local means West Coast. For Bishop, local includes wool from Utah and Idaho. In either case, area manufacturers pointed out that even if these are farther away than the standard definition of a 40-mile radius, they are still more local than China.

But how does a company go about finding what they need?

Bonnie Moore, director of business services at the Columbia River Economic Development Council (CREDC) and the Southwest Washington Workforce Development Council (SWWDC), reported that when the SWWDC helps deliver lean manufacturing training at various businesses, it often becomes apparent that companies aren’t aware of local sourcing opportunities, especially if they are a young company.

“They’ll say, ‘oh, I didn’t know I could get that here,’” said Moore.

Part of the problem, according to Will Macia, president of Last US Bag, a local manufacturing firm, is that not only are companies not looking locally, but local providers aren’t visible.

“Small companies with unique skill sets and capabilities don’t do a good job of marketing themselves,” said Macia. “It’s a challenge to find them.”

Macia said his firm sourced 60 percent of his output locally, and would like to grow that to 80 percent.

“Keeping those dollars circulating in the area is critical,” said Macia.

On the other hand, Bill Huseby, president of Sigma Design Inc., a Vancouver-based product engineering firm, said smaller companies who desire to be local resources for larger companies need to be focused on being cost-competitive and committed to quality.

“We have a longer list of local companies we don’t use than we do use,” said Huseby. “Many don’t have the same focus and commitment as we do.”

There are several resources available to assist area companies in keeping their dollars local. The PubTalk program, sponsored by the CREDC and SWWDC, is one way for companies to make their needs known and hook up with other companies. Google, business-oriented social media (such as LinkedIn and Biznik) and company directories such as www.nwconnectory.com, can also help.

Kelly Parker, president and CEO of the Greater Vancouver Chamber of Commerce and a member of the Southwest Washington Association of Business Leaders, said that in the end, people are the real key to finding local suppliers and products.

“Do good old fashioned networking,” said Parker.

Both Macia and Huseby said they turn to their employees regularly, to see if they know someone to fill a particular need. In addition, said Macia, “someone in every company needs to be active in the community. It’s the best way to connect.”

Moore recommended joining trade associations, such as the Pacific Northwest Defense Coalition, Oregon Bioscience Association and others.

"For area manufacturers and other businesses to increase utilization of local resources, we would need to increase opportunities for businesses to engage in a non-advertising way,” added Moore. “Bring them together, showcase what they do. The connections will happen very naturally.”

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