February 19, 2019

How to Make Manufacturing Cheaper and More Sustainable

The future of manufacturing remains the compelling question of the 21st-century economy: How will we continue to innovate, create jobs, and ensure regional economic success — all while meeting the pressing needs of environmental sustainability? This race for the success of the U.S. manufacturing sector comes into heightened focus as raw materials become scarcer and more expensive. Meanwhile, the harmful effects of man-made climate change mean manufacturers must reinvent their craft to minimize environmental impact.

We cannot continue on the same path. I fiercely believe in the future of U.S. manufacturing, but also know that it must be sustainable. If we want to continue to lead the world in this industry, we must move away from the traditional production model of using only raw materials as inputs and disposing of used products. This approach will inevitably fail as we run out of raw materials and places to safely store waste.

The answer could lie in the burgeoning practice of remanufacturing — the process by which products are returned to good-as-new (or better) condition. During the remanufacturing process, products are disassembled into individual components and each worn-out part is repaired or replaced, resulting in a “remanufactured” machine that meets the same standards and specifications as a brand-new product.

Remanufacturing generates a larger demand for skilled labor relative to conventional linear production, potentially increasing skilled labor by up to 120 percent.

Over the last several decades, we have seen a steady uptick in the remanufacturing of aerospace products, automotive parts, electronics, and furniture. Despite these successes, there are massive untapped opportunities to expand remanufacturing as customers, dealers, and policymakers embrace and champion the benefits of the practice.

One of the most important benefits of remanufacturing is the reduced strain on the environment and our finite natural resources. It takes less energy and fewer raw materials to produce a remanufactured product, and there is less waste to dispose of at the end of the process. As remanufacturing becomes more popular, we can also expect a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions. Remanufacturing and comprehensive refurbishment can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by between 79 percent and 99 percent in appropriate sectors.

Remanufacturing doesn’t just ease the impact on the environment, but also creates jobs and heightens the need for a skilled workforce. Remanufacturing generates a larger demand for skilled labor relative to conventional linear production, potentially increasing skilled labor by up to 120 percent. The International Trade Commission estimates that remanufacturing has already added over 180,000 jobs in the U.S., with an enormous potential for growth.

Remanufacturing is also cost-effective. I meet with manufacturers in my district every chance I get, and they are enthusiastic about the opportunity to create good-as-new products at a lower cost. For businesses in an industry with razor-thin margins as it is, remanufacturing could make all the difference. Consumers also stand to benefit since products that are cheaper to make are also cheaper to buy. In essence, customers are paying significantly less for a product that meets all the same standards and specifications as a brand-new one.

Remanufacturing is a uniquely American opportunity. The United States is far and away the remanufacturing capital of the world, in large part due to the American spirit of innovation and persistent drive to find new and better ways of doing things. Embracing this cheaper, more sustainable method of production will not only create hundreds of thousands of good-paying domestic jobs, but will also help solidify our standing as the world’s leading economy for generations to come.

The time is now to promote remanufacturing in the United States. The environmental and economic benefits of this industry are simply too good to pass up. We need our government to set an example by procuring remanufactured goods — everything from furniture in government office buildings to the vehicles employed by our military. And we need new and better strategies for incentivizing manufacturers to develop and invest in their remanufacturing capacity.

I’ve seen the power of manufacturing innovation firsthand. Prior to serving in the U.S. Congress, I had the privilege of working in a highly innovative advanced manufacturing research lab charged with developing new technologies in the industrial internet of things space and addressing the future of work in the digital age. I now have the privilege of serving Michigan’s manufacturing-rich 11th District in Metro Detroit, which is arguably home to the most robust supply chain in the country. I can say with absolute certainty that a flourishing remanufacturing industry is within our grasp.

I am excited to use my voice as a member of Congress and as a woman in manufacturing to advance remanufacturing in Michigan and across the country, and am eager to partner with anyone who wants to be a champion for cheaper, more sustainable products that help us compete with the rest of the world. The United States will continue its role as a worldwide leader in manufacturing, but it will require that we do what we have always done: finding new and better ways of making products for the world’s consumers.

Congresswoman Haley Stevens (MI-11) is the first millennial federal representative from Michigan. Prior to serving in Congress, Congresswoman Stevens worked in the Obama administration, including as Chief of Staff of the U.S. Auto Rescue.

By:  Rep. Haley Stevens