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QUALITY MADE IN CHINA?
© 2006 KenRockwell.com
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INTRODUCTION

50 years ago it was important to see where an item was made.

Today it makes no difference if your camera is made in Japan or Thailand or Malaysia or China. Of course I prefer Made in Germany or Swiss Made for emotional reasons, but at any similar price point it no longer matters.

What matters is the brand and how much you paid. Each manufacturer and the competitive marketplace works long and hard to ensure that whatever you get is as good as it can be for the price. The manufacturer has to make the hard choices of where to build or contract for a factory so you don't have to.

As explained to me by a reader who's been to these factories all over southeast Asia, the factories moved into China are typically near-exact duplicates, with the same equipment and processes and standards, as used in Japan. The only difference is the people watching the production lines. Local management is Japanese. Typically, the more expensive and larger profit margin products are made in Japan and moved to China as time passes and profit margins thin.

This same reader learned from his talks with Japanese management that the defect rate in Chinese factories is routinely better than Japanese factories. He personally noted that the Chinese workers were much more focused on their work than in other countries. For instance, when walking into a Chinese factory, assembly line personnel quickly glanced up from their work to see that a Gweilo (him) had entered the factory floor. Once seen they got a glimpse, they almost immediately returned their attention to their work. In other factories outside of China, he noticed workers typically allowed their attention to wander for very long periods of time.

Chinese workers aren't taking three-hour lunches like I did back when I had a real job. (Then again, I got paid to socialize - I wasn't working an hourly job.)

50 years ago industrial items made in India were crude pieces of crap and the Japanese usually made iffy products. The French, Swiss and Germans made the world's best precision products in every possible category. This is because the much more important question of who made something was easily seen by where something was made.

This was because every company made their products in their own country. German companies built precision optics in Germany and Chinese companies built primitive Communist crud in China. Some companies might import merchandise from other countries made by companies in those other countries, and likewise the country of origin still meant everything for quality or lack of it.

People made things in their own countries because shipping and communications were primitive. Even in the 1970s telephone calls overseas were prohibitively expensive, much less trying to ship things all over. There were no digital cameras or email. There was no easy way to send anything electronically; you had to put it in a box and wait. You certainly couldn't save money by exporting your manufacturing or design operations, thus where something was made was the same as who made it, and thus products were made to the standards of living of each country.

Today that's all changed. Communications are free today (witness you reading this website) and shipping likewise is easy. I can email a digital photo of an expensive designer suit to Hong Kong and have a tailor made copy in my hands next week. I can email CAD data incorporating firmware developed in India to Taiwan and have complete circuit boards back overnight for product development and then email the layouts and everything to China for volume manufacture, all from a laptop on a free bootlegged wi-fi connection while sitting in my car parked in front of any apartment building. It's trivial to build a factory and run it wherever you want to. You can get better and more consistent work from a government-sponsored prison in China instead of trying to manage a group of creative, unruly free-thinking Americans for volume manufacturing.

Manufacturing is about consistency, not creativity. Once it's designed it needs to be built as consistently as possible. My cheap Casio watch, bought at a warehouse store for $69, is a zillion times more accurate (-1.5 seconds per month) than a hand-made Rolex, which can vary as much in several hours as my Casio varies in a month. My Casio isn't atomic; it free-runs this well. I don't want to buy products manufactured by creatives, I want it made in a prison by robots so it's done exactly right each and every time. When I want art, I buy art from artists. When I want a tool like a camera, I just want a tool.

Of course today major companies build and own their own factories in the countries of their choice, or at least use modern contract manufacturers who are set up in each country to make things to modern standards. Even in Communist countries the governments want a cut and let outsiders do as they please to build competitive factories to employ local workers. It's a new factory of a private owner or company working without the restrictions of the real world's unions or safety regulations. My dissident brother showed us a TV program exposing the horrors of Chinese TV factories versus an established US maker. Hah, the bright new Chinese factory was loaded with happy, subservient, clean workers dressed and acting alike doing careful work, and the old US factory was way behind the times and loaded with sloppy, disgruntled whiners just sitting around. The Chinese factory had the very latest video test equipment and techniques, and the US factory was totally obsolete and resting on its former laurels. My brother's attempt to convert me backfired; it merely underlined how foreign manufacture has eclipsed domestic manufacture. The creative minds and spirits of Americans and Europeans are too valuable to waste as drones in some dangerous manufacturing plant.

The key question always has been who made something, not where it was made. In the old days the "where" was always the same as "who," but not today. Who made it is important, but where it's made isn't.

Thus if Nikon's manufacturing engineers decide they can build a better product in Thailand, they make it in their very own factory there to their own standards. You or I trying to guess quality from where it's made clouds the real issue: how well it works.

You are far better off looking at the images made by a camera or lens and not wasting time looking where the "made in" sticker says.

US law is funny and based back in the 1940s when shipping and communication was primitive. "Made in" applies to the final assembly point. If I have all my subassemblies built in a prison in China and have final assembly (or maybe just the label popped on) here in the USA, I may mark it MADE IN USA.

Thus ignore old folks who are paranoid about where something is made. Personally I always look at the "made in" label and pay premium prices for anything marked MADE IN GERMANY or other first world countries, but that's just personal preference. Look at the images, not the stickers.

In fact making something abroad often results in better products for a given price. Paying US wages, complying with environmental and safety regulations and all the crippling US FMLA regulations that let workers walk off the job with full pay for three months just because they're stressed (just have your doctor use the legal phrase "a serious medical condition, "not "stress") does nothing to make me a better camera.

Thankfully other countries with more progressive corrections programs are stepping up to the plate to have skilled forced prison labor in places like Liaoning Province, China assemble the products we need. The money not spent paying people to stay home is money that camera makers put right back into the camera for you and me. You and I can do our part to help the Chinese rehabilitate their criminal population into decent citizens by voting with our dollars. Here in the USA the government subsidizes dissidents to teach history in our universities; in other countries they're sent to prison to make shoes, clothing, cameras, machine tools and shopping bags for the rest of the world.

Take this article as you may. I'm just trying to point out tongue-in-cheek that people like me have personal issues with where things are made and always prefer to pay a steep premium for MADE IN GERMANY or SWISS MADE, but the quality for any given price is better when you just ignore the "made in" label.

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