High-Tech Heads Home

As the economy recovers from the Great Recession, high-tech manufacturing is seeing a rebirth in the United States.

Seagate Technology bought former Solyndra solar factory in Fremont, Calif.

As the economy recovers from the Great Recession, high-tech manufacturing is seeing a rebirth in the United States.

According to new research by Jones Lang LaSalle Inc., access to specialized expertise has started to outweigh the costs of real estate and labor as a site selection factor. Total high-tech manufacturing employment in the United States now stands at more than one million. And while the U.S. represents only 5 percent of the world’s population, the country employs a third of global high-tech researchers and accounts for 40 percent of high-tech R&D, according to economist Richard Freeman, of the National Bureau of Economic Research and Harvard University.

“People have forgotten that we (the U.S.) do manufacture, it is a key component of our GDP and our country, and these jobs are higher paying, requiring greater skilled laborers than manufacturing jobs in the past,” said Greg Matter, vice president at Jones Lang LaSalle. “So in many cases you really do need an engineer and top engineering talent to be part of the equation.”

Of course, these capabilities exist in other countries, which have carried the added attraction of lower labor rates. But the labor arbitrage offshore has been shrinking as workers demand higher pay. According to JLL, wages in China’s eastern manufacturing centers have risen from around 60 cents per hour to between $3 and $6 per hour, and the prospect of further inflation remains high. Combine that with several natural disasters, such as the 2011 Thoku earthquake and tsunami in Japan, and manufacturers are starting to learn about the risks of over-locating in one country. Higher fuel costs are also helping to reduce the cost gap between manufacturing overseas and domestically.

Meanwhile, the fact is that American universities produce the greatest high-tech capabilities, and the need to protect intellectual capital in new product manufacturing provides a further argument for locating onshore. Plus, proximity of operations to executives, designers and engineers helps in perfecting the final product; U.S. locations tend to respond more quickly to consumers’ needs; and automation-savvy workers who possess technical skills to operate highly complex systems tend to live in U.S. urban areas.

The result is that, increasingly, American high-tech manufacturing firms are locating in clusters close to their suppliers, close to technology companies’ headquarters, in prime real estate. For industrial real estate owners, that means absorption, rental rate escalation and more build-to-suits coming to an urban cluster near you.

“The facility itself doesn’t need to be anything else but a box (for high-tech manufacturing). This presents an opportunity for some distribution space to become manufacturing, or some call it flex, space,” said John Morris, industrial leader for the Americas with Cushman & Wakefield Inc. “Manufacturing has the ability to absorb existing, available space that may not have been manufacturing space to begin with.” TREND_SOLYNDRA1

Even so, with the current national distribution vacancy rate at 8.9 percent, new space will be needed.

In 2010, about 79 percent of moderately high-tech manufacturing jobs and 95 percent of very high-tech manufacturing jobs were located in the 100 largest American metropolitan areas. Lower-level technology jobs are most concentrated in the southern states, while more than a third of the highest-tech positions reside in companies on the West Coast.

High-tech manufacturing jobs are expected to proliferate in California’s Silicon Valley, still the world’s largest high-tech corridor, with technology companies looking for both industrial and traditional office space as they grow. Austin also remains a magnet for high-tech manufacturing expansion. Other markets with high-tech cluster growth opportunities include Los Angeles; Binghamton, N.Y.; Portland, Ore.; Boulder, Colo.; Phoenix; Boston; and Boise, Idaho.

Some companies that have recently expanded in the U.S. include Flextronics, a third-party manufacturer of Motorola phones that has added to its manufacturing presence and headquarters in places such as Austin; Milpitas, Calif.; and most recently in Alliance near Fort Worth, Texas. Another high-tech company, Foxconn, a third-party manufacturer of multinational electronics, continues to expand in the Silicon Valley. Seagate Technology recently bought the former Solyndra solar factory building in Fremont, Calif., which it intends to use for research and development in the manufacture of its next-generation disk drives. Also in Fremont, Tesla maintains its sole production for its electric vehicles.

“The bigger driver here is that manufacturing ultimately becomes a regional decision,” Morris said, “and instead of rightshoring, reshoring or offshoring, as population around the world grows and there’s an ability to get manufacturing scale in a market where everything we make will be consumed in that market, that’s a significant driver here.”

Read this article in its original format in the August 2013 issue of CPE.