· By Patrick Raymond
It's official: we will manufacture version 2 here in the USA! In the next week or two, I will visit our newest factory partner in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. I expect your units to ship before Christmas.
A bit of background ...
In update #16, I described my visit in May to factories overseas. But as I wrote in update #17 last month, that collaboration was ultimately not a success because the samples did not pass all 12 testing criteria. In the end, I lost many months and thousands of dollars. And you are all still waiting, I know.
I thought all we needed was a simple material change. But the problems ran deeper. I never shared with you how I was feeling uneasy with the 3 E's of the situation: Ethics, Economics and Ecology. On the Ethical front, I was rather shocked by working conditions overseas. But I dismissed my misgivings as naive. I was a Westerner, a city-dwelling snowflake, unaccustomed to factory floors in Asia. That's all.
Then over the summer, the Economic picture began to darken. Not only did double-digit trade-war tariffs inject needlessly stressful uncertainty to our financial plans, but the manufacturing numbers themselves didn't add up! Our product was being made in an all-manual way: multiple workers lined up to perform mind-numbingly repetitive tasks, 6 days a week, 9 hours a day, paid $200/month. This struck me as not only ghastly, but also supremely wasteful. Our panels are just a repeat pattern. Why not complete repetitive steps with well-designed, high-capacity machines instead of a line of unskilled workers? Some products (like fashion and textiles) are unavoidably labor-intensive, because milling and sewing are still inescapably manual. Machines can't do those tasks well (yet). But an all-manual assembly line is nonsense for our product. I was told by my broker not to worry about it, because labor is "so cheap" over there. But I disagreed. It was just bad economics to employ army of unskilled workers: too expensive, too slow and too inaccurate.
And finally, from an Ecological standpoint, well... I felt uneasy, gazing from the 22nd floor of my "luxury" hotel, factories sprawling into the horizon, all powered by coal-generated electricity, belching what looked like raw exhaust. It was Dickensian. Now don't get me wrong, I'm no ideologue. I am an inventor and lover of free-markets. And I had a job to do (for you). But too many things seemed off. I had a choice to make.
Because the material was being changed last month, production was halted anyway. So I read up on polymers. Turns out they are a global commodity, traded on global markets. So buying raw resin to make plastic is the same price here as overseas. Next is the high-capacity machinery. Some of these behemoths run 3,000 feet per minute. It's incredible. But could it work for our product? The creases in our panels are the key. And our material is unusually thick for these machines. We couldn't run it that fast. So I read up some more, learned about things like "molecular orientation" in plastics. Then I contacted American equipment manufacturers. They could tell I was an amateur. Some weren't very receptive. But some were. One in particular (the biggest, surprisingly) agreed to run tests on their machines with our material. Success! The folds are perfect "living hinges" that don't break, and the panels don't buckle.
Last step was to find a domestic factory that could make plastic sheets ethically, ecologically and economically, with skilled American workers paid fair wages to run the high-capacity machine. I'm happy to say our partner factory has been found. The high-capacity machine will take 6 weeks to make, and a week or two to test. Then, hundreds of units can be made in a single day. It's the speed, precision and low worker-count that brings the unit cost down to acceptable levels.
So in the end, 15% of the product will be made in China (textile liner & curtain) while 85% of the product and value will be made in the USA (panels, hoops, box and final assembly).
More news in November ...