When President Donald Trump first vowed to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement, industry executives were understandably worried.
Automakers and suppliers have built complex networks of factories in Canada, the U.S. and Mexico that can’t easily be rejiggered to suit Trump’s Made-in-the-USA vision.
And some components with a high labor content — such as wire harnesses, small motors and cut-and-sew seat covers — can’t be produced profitably in the U.S.
But Gentex Corp. — maker of self-dimming mirrors — shows how it might be possible for suppliers to move some component manufacturing to the U.S.
The company makes all of its mirrors, garage door openers, backup cameras and other products at its headquarters in Zeeland, Mich. To be sure, the company does so with a heavy dose of robotics.
Self-dimming mirrors are finicky products packed with electronics. They are easily damaged during production, so Gentex has invested heavily in automation to improve productivity, reduce scrappage and improve quality.
And since its mirrors are easy to pack, Gentex can ship them to Asia and Europe at reasonable cost.
Of course, there are many components that simply can’t be produced profitably in the U.S. — with or without automation.
So if Trump’s team successfully negotiates a higher minimum U.S. content for vehicles produced in North America, we shouldn’t expect a return to the days when U.S. factories employed endless rows of workers.
Which is fine, since automated plants still need workers. The Gentex plant, for example, has 4,000 employees.
Such plants require engineers and skilled employees, and German manufacturers have something to teach us about this.
In Germany, manufacturers attract new employees with the help of apprenticeship programs offered with local schools. Now, some companies are transplanting this tradition to the U.S.
ThyssenKrupp offers apprenticeships to high school students in Danville, Ill., and Hamilton, Ohio, where its factories produce crankshafts, shock absorbers and other products.
Factories of the future will need math-savvy workers who acquired STEM skills in high school or college. If the auto industry wants to preserve NAFTA, then automakers and suppliers ought to offer something in return: good jobs for skilled workers.
Gentex and ThyssenKrupp have shown the possibilities. It’s time for other companies to step up.