The Secret to Manufacturing in the United States

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I'm a big fan of "The Arsenal of Democracy" by A.J. Baime. The book documents the historic WWII effort behind manufacturing the B-24 Liberator bomber at scale. In 1941, President Roosevelt recognized America's industrial might was critical to repel the Nazi invasion of Britain. Ford responded to the call by creating a mile-long production line at Willow Creek. The factory was just the beginning though. The logistics of rallying workers from upwards of 100 miles away required building a small city to make production practical. Zoom and telecommuting weren't options. The efforts paid off handsomely. The Willow Creek Factory churned out a B-24 every 63 minutes and contributed to success on both the European and Pacific fronts.

With every discussion of trade and tariffs, there's an accompanying stream of articles on overseas manufacturing trends. High US labor costs are frequently cited as justification by the press and executives alike. While true, the narrative is inherently simplistic. We always wanted to manufacture our helmets here in the United States. To truly innovate, design and manufacturing had to be next to each other*. The question remained, "Is it practical to manufacture in the States?" The reality is that manufacturing requires the right mix of competitive advantages, consistency and motivation. 

Competitive Advantages. Skilled labor is a significant factor but so is the supplier ecosystem. Suppliers located themselves around Willow Creek to simplify logistics and facilitate collaboration. You see the modern equivalent with automotive factories clustered in Detroit, Kentucky and Ohio. The B-24 went through variants E through H at Willow Creek. These included improvements like adding a second turret but also refinements to improve production and reliability. 

Consistency. The ability to deliver a game-changing product is necessary but insufficient. Each customer expects an equally high-quality experience with their product. Traditionally Japanese manufacturers mastered this through a combination of engineering excellence, culture and Kaizen. The latter is the mindset and process for iterative improvements. These qualities are not uniquely Japanese. Honda and Toyota produce high-quality automobiles in their Kentucky plants. Since 2015, domestic brands have topped the JD Power awards. The notion of iterative improvements is a core value at KAV.

Motivation. The most subjective attribute, but the most significant. Who hasn't watched the movie Miracle chronicling the 1980 USA vs. Soviet Union triumph? With a motivated team, all of the above fall into place. The workers at Willow Creek knew the importance of their work. The planes would carry their neighbors, sons and friends to fight an enemy bent on subjugating the world. The same Ford company brought mass production mainstream with the Model T. It provided salaries twice the norm so that workers and the company alike would thrive.

 Modern Manufacturing

So why are we building our helmets in Redwood City, CA:

  • We're on a mission to accelerate safety and performance through personalization. We believe that this is not only an engineering problem but one of adoption and therefore design. Every employee has an ownership stake in participating in both the financial and societal benefits. An employee at a contract manufacturer 10,000 miles away doesn't have the same motivation.
  • It's easier to achieve outstanding quality of a custom product domestically. That over time, our expertise in software and automation will lead the industry in quality. Our proximity to our customers, and knowing them by name, motivates us to add a personal touch to each unique helmet.
  • Our proprietary manufacturing process doesn't exist anywhere else in the world. So unlike injection molding, there's no inherent advantage in manufacturing overseas. We have domestic suppliers for our raw materials, 3d printer components and develop all our software to run production. So when we started, it was a level playing field. Of course, that's not the case anymore - we're uniquely positioned to deliver a one of a kind experience to you.

Thanks for reading,

Whitman

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* https://www.wired.com/story/teslas-secret-second-floor/


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