Last Wednesday ABC News reported that the uniforms to be worn by Americans in the opening ceremonies of the Summer Olympics were designed in the US and assembled in China. Politicians from both parties fell over themselves to condemn this. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said they should “put [the uniforms] in a big pile and burn them.”
Some of this can be dismissed as election-year politics. But I wonder to how many people this outrage seems even remotely reasonable. After working in hardware electronics for the past 15 years, the globally interconnected supply chain is just a fact of life.
When I started playing with electronics in the late 80s, boards were hand-stuffed and soldered by wave soldering. At that time I was under the impression that high-volume electronics assembly was frequently happening in Japan, while most low- and mid-volume electronics were assembled in the US. Electronics have gotten less expensive, even on a nominal (non-inflation-adjusted) basis. Automation, foreign trade, and increasing technology are all responsible for the falling prices.
Foreign trade affected me directly about ten years ago when my boss asked me to train an engineer from Shanghai on my job functions. His name was difficult for English-speakers, so he went by Charles. He was their Chinese version of me. Shortly after that my projects were moved to a China office, and my job was eliminated. This led me to move back to my hometown where I worked on many exciting projects.
My colleagues and I working on these projects are always aware of when the Chinese New Year is, the time difference to India, and when there’s a disruption in the global supply chain as in the 2011 earthquake/tsunami in Japan. One project around the time of the earthquake/tsunami involved equipment whose hardware I was doing, with software from a team in India, using parts affected by the earthquake/tsunami, assembled in the US, and shipped to customers all over the world, including Brazil, China, Iraq, and India. It would be impossible to do our job without noticing we are living in a globalized world.
As much as globalization has turned our world upside down, automation has had more of an impact. Automation has only occasionally been a focus of political rhetoric. It would get much more attention of if robots and PLCs had faces and funny accents.
There is room for smart people of the world to disagree on the rules governing international trade and how to help people whose work is displaced by trade or automation. Engineers who live this issue daily should make their views known to policy makers and should also make it known that the righteous indignation act regarding foreign trade is transparent and unproductive.