Bringing It All Back Home

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Bringing It All Back Home

by George Schaub


Can Anyone Make a Camera Here in the Good Ol’ USA?

Can you name the last camera made here in the USA? I have been at this game for a while and am hard pressed to come up with an answer. You might think it was a Kodak, but they gave up the work years back when they outsourced their digital camera manufacturing to Flextronic, a Singapore based company with manufacturing lines in various developing countries. You might guess Polaroid, but they outsourced their manufacturing many years back, and they now exist in licensed-brand name only. You might guess Zone VI (now that’s an obscure reference), which I know made hand-built wooden 4x5 cameras in Vermont back when Fred Picker was in charge. In fact, aside from some accessory and strobe manufacturers, the only thing photographic that remains manufactured here in the States is film.

I pose this quiz in light of what’s happened to this country’s manufacturing base. It is obvious that we have been made into a nation of consumers rather than producers, and that is not a good formula for success. It just strikes me that in a multi-billion dollar industry we should have more to offer than just importing everything we use rather than rolling our sleeves up and actually making product we, and hopefully the rest of the world, can buy.

Now, many folks reading this might think me naïve, especially in this world of globalization, where the buck chases the cheapest production and companies are in constant pursuit of ever-lower labor costs. Not to single Kodak out, as they still, after all, do a good deal of high-tech manufacturing here, but here’s a tidbit from their digital camera supplier’s web site.    (Flextronic) “…have established fully-integrated, high-volume Industrial Parks in Brazil, China, Hungary, Mexico, Poland and India. By co-locating manufacturing and logistics operations with suppliers at a single low-cost location, our Industrial Parks provide a total supply chain management solution, where we provide complete end-to-end product services across all segments and customer categories. This strategy increases our customers’ flexibility and reduces distribution barriers, turnaround times, and overall transportation and product costs.”

Camera manufacture, at least on a large scale, left our shores many years back and many say it’s unlikely to return. But that doesn’t mean that bringing production, at least some of it, back home isn’t a bad idea. I’m not talking about a super-megapixel, advanced DSLR, but a good, solid meat and potatoes digicam, one that would appeal to the family and vacation photographer. If it would be a DSLR, perhaps one for the student trade, a sort of Pentax K1000 for the digital age. Kodak already makes sensors for some of the biggest and best digital cameras in the world, so the tech is there. What’s to stop them from applying that skill to a more family-oriented item that would be made here?

Yes, there are certainly competitive reasons for naysaying this idea. Globalization, the movement that got us into this fix in the first place, led to the outsourcing of manufacture, where parts are obtained from numerous suppliers. And to qualify for “Made in USA” status, according to the FTC, something has to follow the “all or virtually all” standard of creation. What “virtually all” represents in the entire process of creating a product has been the subject of some debate, but there is a common sense guideline that would indicate whether something was indeed “Made in the USA” or merely re-packaged in US trade dress. For example, to use Kodak as an example again, their film made in the USA might be shipped in long rolls overseas to be repackaged with foreign trade dress, yet still bears the “Made in USA” mark, and rightfully so. But their cameras, made outside the USA, bear the Kodak trade dress but do not imply that they are made here.

Then there’s the trans-shipping issue, to put it politely. Corporations with global reach have outsourced almost everything but marketing in the areas into which they sell, with trademark holders in the various countries supposedly having control over quality, distribution and servicing. But gray market in this and other industries has been undercutting even this attempt at gaining control over products and their distribution. Look at the ads and you still see “non-US warrantee” product on offer, something that drives both buyers and in-country trademark holders to distraction. Many manufacturers void any warrantee on such goods, but many folks still bite for the lower buck and then, if something goes wrong, get angry at the local distributor for not backing up their goods! (See Jon Sienkiewicz’s article on gray market goods in the Feb 2009 Shutterbug.)

The truth is, dear reader, both you and I could source and create a lower-end digital camera. There are numerous concerns that will be happy to build one for us. Then all we’d need to do is go out and find a trademark or brand name that will license their name for our product, or we can create our own, and bingo, we’re in the digital camera business. We could do the same with any number of products, find a distributor and roll the dice. But this course reminds me of the old joke about how you make a million bucks when you move to (insert any small city)—bring two million. Clearly that’s not my drift.

What I am proposing is that someone (are you listening, Kodak) take up the challenge and stick their neck out and start producing a camera here in the States. This would not only benefit us in terms of jobs, but if done right could even lead to some export business and even some side benefits for other suppliers and entrepreneurs who might see some niche areas to fill. I am quite certain that given the current climate there are plenty of folks who would buy this camera, even one with a bit of a premium on the price. And if Kodak isn’t interested perhaps one of the foreign camera makers could be induced to build an assembly line here ala the auto industry—hey, Rochester certainly has a lot of skilled workers for the jobs.

We have the brains, the labor force and certainly the technology to do this. All it takes is the will to change course and the capital to get it going. It looks like the new administration is going to encourage such activity with tax breaks for companies that create facilities to keep jobs here and grow the labor force. What better way to start than in our own industry? I don’t think that this would harm our steady industry performers who have certainly got a lead in certain levels of cameras. But we should seriously consider making a camera that those who make the camera can afford. I know I’d buy one—would you?  

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