Plotting the return of manufacturing

by Gautam Raja

At the recent Los Angeles Audio Show, an industry rep laughingly described a pair of wireless active speakers he’d seen at one of the rooms. “They’re powered by 18V batteries just like the ones you get at Home Depot for power tools. Right there, sticking out of the back.”

It’s not that he thought it a bad idea. If you must use batteries, he continued, it’s great that they’re a non-proprietary design, but surely the execution should be little less Ryobi?

Another rep, a long-time industry insider, seemed to step back a little by drily observing, “When your customer wants totally wireless speakers, your customer really doesn’t want totally wireless speakers.”

It’s true that a company can be too attentive, and perhaps forget how equating its luxury brand to a cordless drill can hurt it in the long run. Tone it down a little from there, and you have the all-in-one revolution in high-end audio. Reacting to the idea that customers want ease and convenience, many companies offer democratised products with as few boxes and cables as possible. They have slick apps, new streaming technologies, and lifestyle design touches, such as interchangeable speaker grilles in various colours.

Just a day before I write this, the Los Angeles Times had another article on the death of malls, and with it, the possible death of retail as we know it. Over and again in these articles you see glimmers of hope that retail will not die altogether, but move into a space of hand-made, curated, personalized, customizable. It means then that the very obduracy of high-end audio could be its selling point. That democratized all-in-one gear merely moves these luxury brands into a highly competitive lesser market.

What relevance does all this have anyway? Well, if you’re going to talk about bringing manufacturing back to a developed country, the niche luxury markets may be your best hope. Look at Shinola, the brand that’s promising to bring manufacturing back to Detroit. A skilled workforce of former automobile assemblers, welders, and upholsterers, now makes watches, leather goods, turntables, and bicycles. Shinola’s watches are proudly hand-assembled, with hand-stitched leather straps. These are all decidedly analogue products, sold under a name that’s a World War II shoe polish brand. (I know, I know, “Shinola” sounds like a Taiwanese knock-off store on eBay.)

Shinola has built its brand on the story of its manufacture. Beautiful photos show workers assembling turntables at a brightly lit factory. Product pages for watches unabashedly show the movements, and one photo shows a worker assembling a calendar function, using tweezers to pick up tiny parts from a tray.

“Of all the things we make, the return of manufacturing jobs might just be the thing we’re most proud of,” says the home page of the website. The Shinola story doesn’t resort to the cheap trick of jingoism, and by all accounts their approach is really working. Manufacturing jobs and bicycles… that’s some great bipartisan branding right there.

Surely niche luxury brands in dying sectors can jump onto this narrative? So many audio companies are primed to do so. Some of high-end audio’s most storied brands old and new are American designed and, often manufactured: Audio Research, Basis Audio, Cardas Audio, Grado Labs, Klipsch, Magnepan, Pass Labs, Rockport Technologies, Vandersteen, Wilson Audio, YG Acoustics, Zu Audio. I’m picking just a few names from across the alphabet.

Digging in and telling a “roll up our sleeves” story (look for Shinola’s #rollupoursleeves) has got to be better than sticking drill batteries into your product and pretending that extraneous cables are the root of all your problems.

First published in Gulf News, June 20, 2017