The Geography of Manufacturing

It’s a shame I’m not a geographer, because there are probably some interesting sociological nuggets hiding in the way manufacturing has dispersed across the USA over the past 40 years. This weakly reasoned article in Salon includes the point that auto manufacturers are locating their US plants in the South. Why so?

Union avoidance probably has something to do with it. But the price efficiency of a dependent labour force has to balanced against the inefficiency of being separated from a concentrated nexus of talent. Jane Jacobs, in the “Economy of Cities”, talks about the self-reinforcing nature of the skills networks that develop in cities, and you don’t have to look far to see them in action. Silicon Valley, Hollywood, the Research Triangle, etc, etc.

Oddly, the USA has some world class geographic nexuses of intellectual talent, while the manufacturing base has dispersed. Intellectual work is highly portable (I’m writing in a coffee shop, linked into a client’s VPN, and compiling a library on their machine) and virtual. Manufacturing work is heavy, with physical objects to move around. Why aren’t all the auto parts manufacturers, secondary assembly plants and final auto assembly still located in Michigan?

Clearly the cost of moving things around has fallen so much in recent years that factory sites can be chosen on other bases (prevailing wages, tax holidays) instead. I would also guess that the automation of parts of the assembly line has lowered the required skill specialization of line workers, so that having access to a pool of qualified talent in a factory hub has become less important too.

I wonder if increases in the cost of transport will cause some manufacturing to geographically re-integrate, so Boeing (for example) will stop shipping wings around the world, and their parts suppliers will find it more economical to set up satellite production closer to final assembly in Seattle.

Maybe if I beg, FortiusOne will dig up some cool maps on this topic. Please? Pretty please?