The shifts to the United States are fledgling, and some industry experts say the companies are motivated less by long-term manufacturing needs than by public relations strategy. At a time of rising governmental scrutiny of technology companies, analysts say, there are few better ways to acquire allies on Capitol Hill than to create manufacturing jobs in lawmakers’ home districts.
But Motorola Mobility officials said they see significant business logic to having a factory close to the engineers who are designing a new flagship smartphone and the customers they hope will buy it. Officials say it aids innovation while allowing for leaner inventories and lower shipping costs.
“Doing that work of actually assembling the phone close to home will allow us to fix things faster, innovate faster,” said Dennis Woodside, chief executive of Motorola Mobility, a division that was bought by Google last year for $12.5 billion.
The new smartphone, the Moto X, will be the first designed entirely under Google’s ownership. It also will allow the company to capitalize on rising consumer preference for U.S. manufacturing; nearly two out of three Americans said they would pay more for an American-made product, a Gallup poll found in April.
The Moto X will be the first smartphone assembled in significant numbers in the United States since the launch of the iPhone made sophisticated mobile devices a key driver of growth in the technology industry, Motorola officials said. Americans are estimated to own 130 million smartphones, overwhelmingly built in East Asian factories. Many of the Moto X’s roughly 1,100 component parts will still be made overseas, the company said.
The competitiveness of American factories is helped by rising labor costs in East Asia — though wages there are still much lower than in the United States — and falling energy costs.
East Asia remains home to most suppliers of electronics components, a long-term advantage that will make it difficult for a large percentage of high-tech manufacturing jobs to move to the United States, some analysts say. Previous pushes to attract more factory jobs have largely fizzled in the face of competition from East Asia and Latin America.
“This is Groundhog Day, big time,” said Timothy Sturgeon, an MIT researcher on globalization. “On the other hand, this doesn’t mean that this isn’t significant news.”
The United States lost 5.5 million manufacturing jobs, about one third of the nation’s industrial workforce, between 2000 and 2009, said the Alliance for American Manufacturing, an advocacy group founded jointly by industry and the United Steelworkers union. The outward flow of jobs has stabilized in recent years, with the numbers of factories opening and closing roughly equal.