FORT WORTH, Texas — The mobile phone in Dennis Woodside’s hand looks like something Captain America would carry, with a cherry red back, glossy white front and thin rings of metallic blue around the side buttons and camera lens.
“There are 150 million smartphones in the U.S. today, and not one of them is built here,” said Woodside, chief executive of Libertyville, Ill.-based Motorola Mobility.
The patriotically hued device is Motorola’s attempt to change that status quo and venture a comeback in a market.
Here, on a former cow pasture turned into a massive industrial park, workers at a 480,000-square-foot facility are snapping the final components into place for the Moto X, the company’s first major new product under Google ownership and, officials said, the first smartphone assembled in the U.S.
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In opting to retrofit a Fort Worth plant, Motorola became the latest big technology company to recognize that China’s low-cost wage advantage was slipping as the Asian giant’s economy heated up, opening the door for a return of some manufacturing to the states.
This year, Chinese computer company Lenovo started producing desktops and laptops at an expanded facility in Whitsett, N.C., where it added 115 manufacturing jobs. And Apple is investing $100 million to build a line of Mac products in Texas.
The Fort Worth facility is operated by Flextronics International, a Singapore equipment-maker. Full production of the Moto X was launched in early August, and the 2,500 employees at the factory are shipping 100,000 phones a week.
When measured against the number of workers in China and Taiwan churning out electronic gadgets, the several thousand jobs represented by these tech giants don’t amount to much. But experts say the companies’ moves go beyond patriotic window dressing, instead speaking to larger economic dynamics at work that could gain momentum.
“The arc does seem (headed) toward more production in the United States,” said Scott Paul, president of the Alliance for American Manufacturing, an industry group representing U.S. manufacturers and the United Steelworkers.
The basic business logic underpinning Asia’s dominance in electronics manufacturing is that U.S. companies can produce goods more cheaply there than they can at home. But that calculation is beginning to change as wages in China continue to rise.
The Boston Consulting Group projects that by 2015, average manufacturing costs in China will be just 5 percent lower than in the U.S.
“A lot of what I’ve seen is based on real economics and good business, not PR,” said Hal Sirkin, a Chicago-based senior partner at the consulting group who co-authored a 2012 book about the return of the U.S. manufacturing sector.
“A fundamental shift is happening faster than we thought,” Sirkin said. “And companies that three years ago would never even have thought about it are not just thinking about it, but building the plants.”
Companies have motivations beside costs for bringing manufacturing closer to home, such as the ability to assert better quality control and protect intellectual property. In the case of the Moto X, the need for speed and flexibility was a crucial factor. During the development process, Motorola designers could travel easily to Fort Worth to make product tweaks or troubleshoot issues.
And Dallas-based AT&T has a facility in the same industrial park, allowing the carrier’s officials to offer in-person feedback on the device by simply driving down the street.
The company committed to getting customers their phones in four days or fewer — an impossibility if production were located overseas.
On the cavernous factory floor, production workers outfitted in white coats and blue pants build the smartphones in long lines.
When it comes time to snap on the colorful back plate, workers scan each incoming order.
With a market share that lags that of Samsung, the industry leader, as well as Apple, Motorola has a lot of catching up to do.
“I don’t think the test of (the product’s) success rests on whether it’s made by American workers or workers somewhere else,” said Paul, of the manufacturing group. “A lot of it is about marketing, distribution, the customer experience, what kinds of features you’re offering. It goes beyond what any individual puts into it.”