Almost everything we can buy today is made overseas, the result of a stampede that began in the 1990s towards lower manufacturing costs. The cost of manufacturing includes tooling, materials, quality control, consumables such as water and energy, inventory management, and of course labor. Although it’s not the only factor, the difference in labor cost, especially un-skilled or semi-skilled labor, is the engine that drove manufacturing out of this country. I find it amazing that a part that retails for 9 dollars can be made overseas, shipped to the U.S. and go through several layers of distribution, yet the cost of manufacturing it off-shore actually can be low enough to make the whole exercise worthwhile.
The effects of sending all our manufacturing overseas will ripple through our economy and our society for generations. The most commonly noted effect is a difference in quality, not just of any specific product but of every product. It’s been said that you “can’t get anything good anymore.”
Sometimes it certainly seems that way. No matter how much I’m willing to spend, I simply can’t buy plumbing fixtures that are made the way they made them in the 1940s, the kind that literally lasted a lifetime. But sometimes the perception of quality has nothing to do with the actual quality of the product itself.
For instance, I spoke with a shop owner who had parts delivered from a national chain store, and the order included a radiator cap for a specific vehicle. The OE cap had a spring-loaded vacuum return valve, but the replacement part had a weighted valve. This is not an insignificant difference: the spring-loaded valve was developed for specific vehicles, because in climates where the engine warms up quickly, the spring valve relieves pressure on other parts of the cooling system. The parts house has only one part number for that vehicle application, but the part in the box doesn’t match the OE part. The shop owner’s other parts supplier stocks radiator caps made by the same manufacturer but under a different brand name. It cross-references to the same part number, and it has the correct spring-loaded valve.
This is not a quality issue with the part itself, it may be the result of packaging errors, catalog errors, or simple ignorance of one person somewhere in the manufacturing or distribution chain. Or it may be intentional: by purchasing only radiator caps without the spring-loaded valve, that parts company may be saving a penny or two per unit.
There are many ways to define quality, but my favorite is “performs as expected.” I expect very different things from tools I found in the $7 clearance bin and those I buy from a tool truck. That’s because in this industry, quality doesn’t just come from the product. It comes from people too; you and your parts house and the tool distributor you see every week. If a service or a part or a tool you buy (or sell) doesn’t do what the customer was told to expect, it’s up to people standing behind what they sell to add that final measure of quality.
It’s not always easy to find, and sometimes it’s expensive, but when it comes to auto parts and tools and shop equipment, it’s comforting to know we still can get the good stuff.