When visitors arrive at the office of America Knits in tiny Swainsboro, Ga., the first thing they see on the wall is a black-and-white photo that a company co-founder, Steve Hawkins, discovered in a local antiques store.
It depicts one of a score of textile mills that once dotted the area, along with the workers that toiled on its machines and powered the local economy. The scene reflects the heyday — and to Mr. Hawkins, the potential — of making clothes in the rural South.
Companies like America Knits will test whether the United States can regain some of the manufacturing output it ceded in recent decades to China and other countries. That question has been contentious among workers whose jobs were lost to globalization. But with the supply-chain snarls resulting from the coronavirus pandemic, it has become intensely tangible from the consumer viewpoint as well.
Mr. Hawkins’s company, founded in 2019, has 65 workers producing premium T-shirts from locally grown cotton. He expects the work force to increase to 100 in the coming months. If the area is to have an industrial renaissance, it is so far a lonely one. “I’m the only one, the only crazy one,” Mr. Hawkins said.
But as he sees it, bringing manufacturing back from overseas — a move often called onshoring or reshoring — has found its moment. “America Knits shows it can be done and has been done,” he said.
Some corporate giants are keen on testing that premise, if not for finished goods then certainly for essential parts.
General Motors disclosed in December that it was considering spending upward of $4 billion to expand electric vehicle and battery production in Michigan. Just days later, Toyota announced plans for a $1.3 billion battery plant in North Carolina that will employ 1,750 people.
In October, Micron Technology said it planned to invest more than $150 billion in memory chip manufacturing and research and development over the next decade, with a portion of that to be spent in the United States. And in November, the South Korean giant Samsung said that it would build a $17 billion semiconductor plant in Texas, its largest U.S. investment to date.
Bringing manufacturing back to the United States was a major theme of former President Donald J. Trump, who imposed tariffs on imports from allies and rivals, started a trade war with China and blocked or reworked trade agreements. Still, there was little change in the balance of trade or the inclination of companies operating in China to redirect investment to the United States.
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Since the pandemic began, however, efforts to relocate manufacturing have accelerated, said Claudio Knizek, global leader for advanced manufacturing and mobility at EY-Parthenon, a strategy consulting firm. “It may have reached a tipping point,” he added.
Decades of dependence on Asian factories, especially in China, has been upended by delays and surging freight rates — when shipping capacity can be found at all.
Backups at overwhelmed ports and the challenges of obtaining components as well as finished products in a timely way have convinced companies to think about locating production capacity closer to buyers.
“It’s absolutely about being close to customers,” said Tim Ingle, group vice president for enterprise strategy at Toyota Motor North America. “It’s a big endeavor, but it’s the future.”
New corporate commitments to sustainability are also playing a role, with the opportunity to reduce pollution and fossil fuel consumption in transportation across oceans emerging as a selling point.
Repositioning the supply chain isn’t just an American phenomenon, however. Experts say the trend is also encouraging manufacturing in northern Mexico, a short hop to the United States by truck.