Analyzing reshoring’s impact on the market

August 3rd, 2015

In the past three to four years, one of the commonly observed trends in North America manufacturing has been reshoring or repatriation of the manufacturing industry.

Nexant defines repatriation or reshoring as bringing back of manufacturing from overseas to North America, resulting in the displacement of process imports into the region.

Nexant conducted a survey of the plastics industry, in collaboration with Plastics News, to understand reshoring trends and the effect on the North American market. Nexant received about 200 survey responses from compounders, fabricators, equipment suppliers and toolers.

About 70 percent of the survey responses mentioned that they had either reshored or were planning to reshore in the near future.

One of the major reasons quoted for reshoring is the rising labor costs overseas, particularly in China. Wages in China have almost doubled in the past decade, while U.S. wages have stayed relatively flat.

Low cost natural gas and the diminishing price gap between the U.S. and Southeast Asian polyethylene prices is making North America more cost competitive for manufacturing. However, about one third of the fabricators mentioned that they would not consider reshoring to North America as they supply Asian markets and the logistic costs would not make sense if manufacturing was moved back to North America. Also, it is not critical to reshore in cases where the product quality is not crucial, which has been identified as another driver to reshoring.

Cost competitive

Nexant compared the cost of production plus logistics cost for delivering polyethylene blown films and polypropylene injection molded items in the U.S. market in 2014 and 2019 for manufacturing in the U.S. Gulf Coast, Mexico and China. Repatriation activities are being observed in blown films and injection molding segments particularly.

In 2014, for polypropylene injection molded utensils, even though the cost of production was the lowest in China, when transportation cost was added, Gulf Coast becomes more attractive as a manufacturing location for supplying the domestic U.S. market.

By 2019, the Gulf Coast and Mexico is expected to become more cost competitive for manufacturing, as a result of rising labor costs in China and declining price gap between the Gulf Coast and China polypropylene prices.

U.S. propylene markets have tightened appreciably in recent years aggravated by the rush towards lighter feedstock at crackers and reduced availability of supplies from the refinery. New investments in propane dehydrogenation units by companies such as Ascend Performance Materials, Enterprise Products, Dow Chemical and Formosa in the U.S. are set to lengthen supplies by 2020, restoring markets to a more balanced position and bringing U.S. prices on par with Asian polypropylene prices.

Demand growth?

The impact of reshoring on domestic polyolefin demand in North America will not be significant; with about 10 percent of the total 4 million tons demand growth from 2014 to 2020 driven by reshoring activities.

Polyethylene accounts for the lion’s share of polyolefin reshoring. The majority of the growth will be in the injection molding segment as it is an automated process, and requires less labor; providing manufacturing advantage to the United States. Repatriation is occurring in the automotive, packaging and appliances sectors of injection molding.

NexantThinking’s recently published report “Impact of Reshoring on North American Polyolefin Demand” provides an in-depth analysis into Nexant’s reshoring survey results, reshoring drivers and challenges, reshoring measurement indices, North America’s manufacturing cost competitiveness and impact on polyolefin applications growth.

Mexico transitions to high-value manufacturing location

August 3rd, 2015

Mexico is no longer the low-wage sourcing location for low-value consumer products for the U.S. market that it was two decades ago when the North American Free Trade Agreement with the U.S. and Canada was implemented. True, average wages have risen higher in coastal China, where so much export production is based, than in Mexico. But with an increasingly skilled Mexican workforce and a rapidly growing middle class, many international companies are investing in facilities that manufacture higher-value products for the U.S. and Mexico’s domestic market, and still more are planning to invest in sourcing there.

The near-sourcing trend is fueled by the desire to reduce turnaround time from order to delivery, cut transportation costs, and, increasingly, to avoid any repetition of the West Coast port congestion and delays that plagued so many supply chains in late 2014 and early this year.

One U.S. importer, for example, responded to a survey about shippers’ supply chain plans in the wake of the West Coast longshore labor agreement in May by saying he wanted to shift as much production as possible away from China to Mexico.

“The whole near-shoring trend is based on ‘How do I make sure I don’t have my supply chain cut off because of lack of capacity or longshoremen’ and all of the issues you have when you’re bringing in product by boat from around the world,” said Troy Ryley, managing director of Frisco, Texas-based third-party logistics provider Transplace Mexico. “In Mexico, you’ve got multiple points to enter the U.S. via truck, and trucks are a lot more consistent on the highway than vessels on the open ocean. It’s a matter of days by truck, rather than weeks at sea.”

Over the past several years, there has been a continuous move of production to Mexico for the North American market. Some of that has come at the expense of Asia, but more often the investment in Mexican production may be in addition to Asia. “Investment going forward may be in Mexico, which doesn’t mean it’s being relocated from Asia,” said Foster Finley, a managing director of logistics consulting firm AlixPartners who specializes in supply chain performance. “Plants that in years gone by may have gone to Asia are going to Mexico now.”

In a survey last year of the near-sourcing plans of 143 senior manufacturing and distribution executives, AlixPartners found that 86 percent plan to increase their foreign manufacturing capacity closer to the U.S. in the next two or three years. The chief reasons behind these plans were the desire to cut the landed cost of imports, lower freight costs, improved speed to market and improved customer service.

The survey, conducted before the severe congestion that began to clog West Coast ports last fall, also found that 30 percent of those surveyed said near-sourcing of production would result in fewer supply chain disruptions.

“After NAFTA was implemented in 2004, many companies located in Mexico to take advantage of low wages and duty-free access to the U.S., but when China joined the WTO, they moved there to get even lower wages,” said Christopher Wilson, deputy director of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. “Over time, companies have become more sophisticated about the way they make site-selection decisions and are looking at a much wider range of factors. What that has done is push Mexico into its proper niche into areas where it has important competitive advantages vis-à-vis other countries.”

AlixPartners uses local wage costs as one of seven factors in measuring the competitiveness of global supply locations. The other six factors include availability of raw materials and cost, regulatory overhead, inbound transportation costs, inventory cost tied up in product flow, exchange rates, and tariffs or duties.

“Although Chinese wages are on average lower than Mexico’s, wages have risen rapidly up and down the coast of China that has historically been the factory of China, and they continue to go up,” Finley said. “China has made a concerted effort to tap into lower wages in inland China, but the problems are the lack of infrastructure to get product to and from the coast. The number of qualified workers also is still well behind the coast.”

The Mexican government is moving to enhance its competitive position by investing heavily in road, rail and aviation infrastructure improvements and by streamlining its customs procedures. As a result, it has become a major source for U.S. imports of bulky products such as automobiles, aerospace products and components and appliances that don’t fit easily into a container, but can be shipped by road or rail to the U.S.

Mexico is also the second-largest source of high-value, high-tech products such as cell phones, gaming consoles and computers, after China.

In the past, the Mexican government spurred the growth of these industries by providing incentives for them to group in clusters around cities that have an abundance of skilled engineers graduating from universities and the infrastructure to support shipments to and from the plants. It has since ended those incentives for all but the aerospace industry.

“Mexico has a very well-educated workforce that has the expertise to produce more technical products, like the aerospace industry,” said Derrick Johnson, vice president of segment marketing for UPS. “It is graduating 230,000 engineers every year.”

UPS is working with the Mexican government to identify the areas that have the infrastructure to support the transportation needs of industry clusters. “We look for good roads and rail infrastructure, but also the people with the skills to support these clusters,” Johnson said.

The aerospace industry is clustered around Chihuahua, which boasts plants by Hawker Beechcraft, Honeywell, Pratt & Whitney and Zodiac Aerospace. Bombardier, Eurocopter and Messier-Bugatti-Dowti have plants around Queretaro.

Although the government has scaled back on incentives to other industries, the incentives it provided in the 1980s and 1990s resulted in a cluster of more than 600 high-tech plants in the state of Jalisco around Guadalajara, which is known as Mexico’s Silicon Valley. Foxconn, Jabil Circuit and Flextronics assemble products there with components imported from Asia for the local and the U.S. market. Other plants are clustered around Chihuahua, Monterey and Mexico City.

“One of the big concerns for these highly technical products is intellectual property,” Johnson said. “Mexico’s IP protection is as strong as or stronger than other areas of the world, such as China.”

The automotive industry is far more spread out. Ford Motor Co. has plants in Chihuahua and Sonora in the north and Toluca in the south. Audi and Volkswagen have plants in Puebla near Mexico City. Honda has a number of plants. Chrysler, General Motors and Mercedes Benz have plants in Saltillo. BMW plans to build a plant in San Luis Potosi by 2019.

Approximately 1,100 top-tier parts makers also have opened production facilities in Mexico to supply these plants. Mexican automotive plants export about 80 percent of their production and account for 11 percent of all new car sales in the U.S.

Some cars are transported by rail to the U.S., and others by ocean. “Over the last two years, we’ve been seeing an increase in the traffic of car carriers transporting cars from Lazaro Cardenas through the canal to the U.S. East Coast,” Panama Canal Administrator Jorge Quijano said. “That may change if Mexico improves the roads and rail transport to Veracruz so cars can be shipped directly from there to the East Coast.” He said car carriers have told him they are building post-Panamax vessels that can carry 8,000 to 8,500 cars, compared with the current maximum capacity of 5,000 to 5,500 cars. “So for the next three years, we see strong performances for cars moving from Mexico through the canal to the U.S. East Coast.”

U.S. companies that source products in Mexico find it much easier to manage the engineering and quality control processes than in Asia because it is more cost efficient and easier to visit plants south of the border than across the Pacific. “The ability to supervise your engineering at a plant in Mexico is a lot less expensive than in Asia, and companies are starting to realize this,” said Phillip Poland, director of international trade compliance for DHL. “If I was making strategic decisions for a U.S. company, I would seriously consider building a plant in Mexico.”

Mexico has eased its customs procedures on imports of components for assembly in plants by moving all customs transactions onto a single electronic platform of window for export. “Mexico is ahead of the U.S. in that a single window increases compliance, decreasing the arbitrariness of customs from port to port,” Poland said. “It really streamlines and helps the movement of imports through customs.”

Mexico is working closely with the U.S. and Canada to harmonize their customs procedures under NAFTA. It signed on to the Wassenauer Agreement on export controls last year and is implementing an export control system, which together with its single platform on imports creates greater trade compliance.

Security is less of an issue in Mexico today than in the past, when theft of truckloads in transit was not uncommon. “That’s less frequent now, as the government has been cracking down on cartels to improve transportation safety,” Poland said.

The flow of trucks moving across the U.S. border promises to become easier as a result of changes in U.S. regulations introduced this year. For years, Mexican trucking companies with Mexican drivers could haul cargo only into a narrow commercial zone across the U.S. border, despite the provisions of the NAFTA treaty. In response, Mexico imposed retaliatory tariffs on U.S. imports estimated to cost $2 billion annually.

After a three-year pilot program, the U.S. Department of Transportation started allowing Mexican motor carriers to apply for authority this year to conduct long-haul, cross-border trucking services. Under this program, Mexican trucks must be inspected and meet the same safety regulations as those for U.S. motor carriers.

“You’re starting to see Mexican equipment go farther and farther north,” Ryley said. “What’s defining how far north they go is not any restriction by the law, but is more how much deadheading time they can afford to take on or whether they have the complementary southbound loads that allows for a round trip.”

Capital Investment, Technology Upgrades to Bolster Mexico’s Diverse Manufacturing Sectors

August 3rd, 2015
Capital Investment, Technology Upgrades to Bolster Mexico’s Diverse Manufacturing Sectors
Whether they are manufacturing vehicles, airplanes, electrical cable, or something else, companies are finding the resources they need to compete in Mexico.
Dan Emerson (Q3 2015)

Just over a decade ago, when Quebec-based Bombardier Recreational Products Inc. (BRP) decided to try Mexico as a manufacturing market, the off-road vehicle manufacturer took a measured approach. In 2003, BRP tested the waters by leasing a facility in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, to assemble outboard engines for export. Two years later, the Canadian firm decided to transfer all of its ATV assembly and engine manufacturing operations to Juarez.

Building on its first, successful ventures south of the border, over the last decade BRP has steadily increased its stake in Mexico to more than $190 million worth of manufacturing facilities in the states of Chihuahua and Querétaro, and an extensive distributor network.

Investments Continue to Rise
Business expansions like BRP’s have become “the story” in Mexico, as the country has developed into one of the world’s manufacturing powers.

“Mexico has really burst on the scene as a legitimate player in the global manufacturing sector,” says Bob Cook, president and CEO of the El Paso, Texas-based Cook Strategies Group, LLC. “Every trend I look at indicates that rise is going to continue.”

Mexico – Global Manufacturers

  1. Bombardier Recreational Products Inc. (BRP), Flextronics Manufacturing, Lexmark Internacional and Johnson & Johnson

    Juárez, Chihuahua

  2. Bombardier Recreational Products Inc. (BRP)

    Querétaro, Mexico

  3. Ford

    Chihuahua City, Chihuahua

  4. BMW


    San Luis Potosi, Mexico

  5. Toyota

    Guanajuato, Mexico

  6. Mazda

    Guanajuato, Mexico

  7. Hundyai/Kia

    Monterrey, Nuevo León

  8. Nissan/Daimler

    Aguascalientes, Mexico

  9. Honda

    Celaya, Guanajuato

  10. Audi

    San Hosé, Chiapa

Agreeing with that prediction, the Boston Consulting Group estimated in a 2013 report that Mexican manufacturing exports will increase up to $60 billion annually by 2018.

According to Banco de Mexico data, Mexico has received over $135 billion in foreign direct investment (FDI) over the last five years — almost $86 billion of that within the past three years. The largest share of FDI in Mexico comes from the United States, representing over one third (34 percent) of total FDI over the past three years. Canada has been the source of another 10 percent of FDI in Mexico over the same period.

More than half (58.6 percent) of the FDI coming into Mexico was invested in manufacturing enterprises, with the top five sectors being food and beverages; transportation equipment; chemicals; electronics; and electric equipment. The automotive sector alone added more than 93,000 jobs in 2014, growing nearly 15 percent.

However, the growth trend has also been “pretty diverse,” Cook says. “We’ve seen a lot of growth the across the board,” a trend which bodes well for the country’s economic future. The most pronounced growth has taken place in “high value” categories such as aerospace, automotive, and electronics.

Mexican manufacturing exports are estimated to increase by up to $60 billion annually by 2018. An Automotive Powerhouse
This tsunami of foreign investment has transformed Mexico into the world’s seventh-largest automotive producer and the fourth-largest exporter after Germany, Japan, and South Korea. Mexico has usurped Japan to become the No. 2 supplier of vehicles to the U.S. market, behind Canada. By 2018, industry analysts predict Mexico’s current annual production of 3.2 million cars and light trucks to increase more than 50 percent to five million vehicles. Earlier this year, The Wall Street Journal reported that seven Asian and European automakers have opened new Mexican assembly plants, or announced plans, in just over a year. Other car companies have bankrolled major expansions in Mexico, including Nissan, General Motors, Ford, Volkswagen, and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV.

In total, automakers and parts suppliers have earmarked more than $20 billion of new investments, Mexican officials say. The automakers’ presence has also spawned major growth of smaller vendors who supply the auto plants, according to Cushman and Wakefield’s Gonzalo Gutierrez, who is the firm’s senior director of Industrial Brokerage Services for the Northeast Region of Mexico, based in Monterrey. These vendors come from all over the world, but most hail from the U.S., Japan, Germany and, more recently, Korea, Gutierrez says.

Meanwhile, recreational vehicle maker BRP has gradually upped the ante on its Mexican investment. In 2013, BRP opened a $100 million manufacturing facility in Querétaro, which employs 1,100 people. Last year, BRP decided to build a second plant in Juarez, to expand its Can-Am product offering and meet future demand for off-road vehicles. When completed in late 2017, the $55 million facility is expected to employ about 900 workers.

Aerospace, Electronics, and Medical Devices
The aerospace sector in Mexico has also been growing rapidly. Last year, Mexico exported an estimated $1.9 billion worth of aerospace products to the U.S., an amount that has quadrupled since 2009, Cook notes. In that sector, “Mexico is rapidly moving up the global rankings.”

Regarding regional distribution of FDI, just over half accrues to Mexico City and the surrounding state, according to Cook. About a third of the balance goes to the four states of Chihuahua, Jalisco, Puebla, and Nuevo Leon.

In addition to being an automotive center, the border city of Juarez has become a manufacturing center for electronics and medical devices. Its electronics manufacturers include Electrolux, Flextronics, Foxconn, and Lexmark. Its medical device companies include Cardinal Health, GE, and Johnson and Johnson. Other northern states have benefited from the growth of the electronics industry, including Chihuahua, Baja California, and Tamaulipas.

Mexico’s developing manufacturing clusters have also drawn smaller companies. One example is Greatbatch Inc., which plans to move 170 jobs from its Electrochem Solutions Inc. manufacturing facility in Beaverton, Ore., to a new plant in Tijuana (Baja California) by year’s end.

The southern Mexican region has also benefited from lower labor costs, which have helped attract clothing and textile manufacturers to cities including Campeche and Veracruz.

Boosting Mexico’s Natural Advantages
There have been a multitude of reasons for Mexico’s manufacturing boom, including both indigenous advantages, and efforts by the government in recent years to make the country a more desirable trade partner and place to do business. Over the past decade, Mexico “has been pretty aggressive in liberalizing trade with companies around the world,” and has the most free-trade agreements of any country in the world — 44, Cook points out.

The Mexican government has been proactive in modernizing the country’s business climate to 21st century standards. Mexico’s homegrown business advantages include lower transportation and warehousing costs, an improved ability to respond to customer demands, improved control of intellectual property, the availability of proximate time zones between management and production locales, and the cultural similarities between the U.S. and Mexican markets.

Augmenting Mexico’s expansive, free-trade policies, the government has also been proactive in modernizing the country’s business climate to 21st century standards. Investing in education has been a major thrust to ensure a well-prepared, bilingual workforce.

According to the United States Embassy in Mexico, more Mexicans — almost 100,000 more — earn engineering degrees annually than Canadians and Germans. And during the past decade, Mexico has doubled the number of its public two-year colleges and four-year universities. The government financed 140 new colleges and universities, with 120 of those emphasizing science and engineering.

BRP facility in Querétaro

BRP facility in Querétaro

Another priority has been improving Mexico’s roads, bridges, and utility infrastructure to help expedite the flow of materials and manufactured goods. Revisions in the country’s energy policy have encouraged private-sector investment in new natural gas pipelines and power lines. Additionally, earlier this year, AT&T announced plans to invest $3 billion to extend its high-speed mobile Internet service to Mexico and cover 100 million consumers and businesses by year-end 2018.

Mexico also continues to benefit from the near-shoring trend among some American companies — i.e., moving manufacturing operations to Mexico from China and other low-cost countries. Average manufacturing labor costs in Mexico are now almost 20 percent lower than in China — a sea change from 15 years ago, when Mexico’s labor costs were 58 percent more expensive than China’s, according to

Are there other supply chain issues in Mexico companies need to be aware of? “There are no critical issues related to transportation inside Mexico,” Gutierrez says. “Since the last five years, the 3PL companies, such as the companies with distribution centers in multiple (Mexican) states, have handled their operations with no inconvenient events, while they have significantly increased their operations, every year.”

Some Challenges Ahead
Of course, crime and violence, much of it related to the illegal drug trade, remain a concern. However, media reports may exaggerate the hazards. Gutierrez notes that companies doing business south of the border have developed effective, operational planning strategies to minimize risk and avoid travel related hazards in problematical regions.

Yet, with such a rapid economic expansion, some growing pains are to be expected. There are several challenges facing the country, which the current Mexican administration is working to address, according to Cook, in order to help promote continued economic growth.

BRP facility in Juarez

BRP facility in Juarez

To capitalize on Mexico’s abundant energy resources, the country will need new capital investment and technology upgrades in the processing and distribution of energy. “That’s opening up as we speak,” Cook says. This year, Mexico opened its oil industry to foreign investment for the first time since the 1930s, offering for auction exploration rights to 14 shallow-water fields. And this summer, Mexico’s Federal Electricity Commission began taking bids on 24 projects that will enable the generation of an additional 1,442 megawatts of power, along with adding nearly 1,500 miles of natural gas pipeline and almost 2,000 miles of power lines.

Competition for skilled labor can be expected to heat up, along with the overall economy. “If you need specialized engineers and technology, you will not find them along the border; you need to go closer to Mexico City,” notes Sylvain Blanchette, BRP’s VP of Mexican operations. Generally, the average cost of labor increases moving south from the border to the country’s interior. That may be due to more competition for skilled labor, due to the increased number of auto, aerospace, and other manufacturers, says Blanchette.

To sustain its manufacturing expansion, Mexico is going to need “to have an even greater emphasis on skilled labor,” Cook says. However, in spite of the challenges ahead, Mexico’s ascendance as a global economic power should continue, Cook believes, citing its globally competitive cost structure, young workforce, and friendly trade policies.

Mexico’s richest resource — and the real driving force behind the growth boom — may be its people, says Blanchette, who praises the knowledge, enthusiasm, and initiative of the Mexican workforce. “When we have come to Mexico with projects, the people we work with have been extremely eager to learn and improve what they do,” Blanchette concludes.

Mexico’s maquila boom extends across the border

April 19th, 2014

Kevin Robinson-Avila And Lauren Villagran / Journal Staff Writers

Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal

Seamstresses sew car upholstery at the Tecma Group, which operates 18 of the more than 350 maquilas in the Ciudad Juarez area. (Journal File)

SANTA TERESA — Mexico’s maquila industry has become a raging bull that’s busting up the competition in China and other Asian nations for the first time in decades.

Rapidly rising costs to produce and ship goods from Asia, especially heavy industrial items such as cars and home appliances, are encouraging the world’s major producers to ditch overseas manufacturing and instead set up operations in Mexico, where proximity to U.S. markets helps to lower costs and increase operating efficiencies.

That’s good news for New Mexico, and for all U.S. border states, because the rapid growth of Mexico’s maquilas, or assembly factories, is creating huge business opportunities up and down the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border. And that, in turn, is creating new industrial hot spots in places such as southern New Mexico, where companies are flocking to set up new facilities to supply goods and services to the maquila industry.

A technician repairs computer monitors at Amcor Service Solutions, a part of the Tecma Group. These assembly-for-export plants that crank out everything from brake pads to plasma TVs for U.S. companies are opening new facilities, expanding existing ones and hiring more employees.

“We’re seeing a steady ‘re-shoring’ of industry investment from China to Mexico that’s creating huge opportunities here for everything from manufacturing and transportation to warehousing services and technology-related enterprises,” said New Mexico Economic Development Secretary Jon Barela. “We believe a wide array of businesses can flourish along the border as the maquila industry continues to grow.”

Huge ‘re-shoring’ underway

A technician repairs computer monitors at Amcor Service Solutions, a part of the Tecma Group. These assembly-for-export plants that crank out everything from brake pads to plasma TVs for U.S. companies are opening new facilities, expanding existing ones and hiring more employees. (Journal File)

“Transportation costs have been on the rise since 2003, and they’re still very elevated,” Coronado said. “That’s made it far more expensive to move goods from Asia to the U.S.”

Other pressures include the strengthening of Chinese and some other Asian currencies against the U.S dollar, which makes exports from those countries more expensive, and the length of time it takes to transport goods from those places to North America, Coronado said.

As a result, global producers of everything from cars and auto parts to aviation technology, medical devices and home appliances are establishing maquilas in Mexico to be closer to U.S. markets. It’s an emerging re-shoring strategy that not only reduces transportation expenses, but allows for “just-in-time” manufacturing and delivery of products to increase operating efficiencies, Coronado said.

All of that is providing huge competitive advantages to Mexico.

“It’s a revolution,” Russell said. “For the first time in 50 years, the lines have crossed from a cost standpoint to favor producing in Mexico rather than producing in China.”

Foreign investment is flooding into Mexico’s maquila industry from all over, including the U.S., Europe and Asian countries to better position themselves for sales in North America.

Foreign direct investment in maquilas reached nearly $13 billion last year, up from just $7 billion in 2012 and its highest level since before the recession in 2007, according to Mexico’s national statistics institute. The value of maquila exports has jumped nearly 50 percent from pre-recession levels.

Sophisticated, diverse

Santa Teresa's industrial Park is booming because of trade with Mexico, particularly serving the maquila industry. Here, a shipment of steel is prepared for shipping at the Southwest Steel-Coil facility in Santa Teresa earlier this year. (Journal File)

The maquilas themselves have grown much more sophisticated and diversified in recent years, with Mexico now ranking as the world’s No. 1 exporter of flat screen TVs and refrigerators with freezers, and the fifth-largest auto-parts producer globally.

“Today, Mexico is the second-largest exporter of autos to the U.S.,” Coronado said. “It displaced Japan two months ago, and it will soon displace Canada.”

That’s a sea change from the 1960s, when the maquilas first emerged in Mexico to provide final assembly of simple products destined for U.S. markets using inexpensive Mexican labor. In those early years, the maquilas were often called “draw-back industries.” They were generally located just across the border so that U.S. companies could send things such as shirts and sweaters there for low-wage workers to sew on buttons before shipping the finished product back to markets in the U.S.

The growth and diversification of Mexico’s maquila industry is a boon to the U.S. border economy, and to U.S. manufacturing in general, given its deep-rooted connections to U.S. production and investment. Only about 10 percent of the inputs used in the maquilas – including raw materials, parts and services – are actually produced in Mexico. Most come from U.S. businesses.

U.S. maquila support

The Foxconn maquiladora, which sits just over the New Mexico border across from Santa Teresa, is a major player in the electronics manufacturing industry and is planning a major expansion. (Journal File)

“On the U.S. side, we provide every type of service related to maquila manufacturing and trade,” Coronado said. “That includes transportation, warehousing, logistics, real estate, insurance and staffing.”

It also includes raw materials and semi-processed goods.

The lion’s share of trade with Mexico is based in Texas, especially in Laredo, which accounted for 40 percent of the $500 billion in exports and inputs that crossed the border by land last year. El Paso accounted for another 18 percent, making Texas the number 1 gateway for U.S. trade south of the border.

“More than 50,000 jobs in El Paso are attributed directly to the maquila industry in Juarez,” Russell said. “More than 70 buildings in El Paso are occupied, or exist, because of the maquilas.”

Now, a significant chunk of trade and maquila-related border business is building as well in southern New Mexico, where an industrial boom is underway.

The number of maquila-connected businesses located in Santa Teresa grew by 50 percent in the last two years. And, land trade passing through the Santa Teresa-San Jerónimo border crossing has increased dramatically.

“Santa Teresa accounted for about 5 percent of all U.S.-Mexico land trade last year,” Coronado said. “That’s up from less than one-half a percent seven or eight years ago.”

Good N.M. prospects

A Union Pacific train refuels at Union Pacific's new $400 million intermodal complex near Santa Teresa. The facility was built to support, in part, cross-border trade with Mexico and its booming maquila industry. (Journal File)

As Mexico’s maquilas expand, prospects are good for capturing a lot more business in southern New Mexico. That’s because the New Mexico and Chihuahua state governments are working together to build needed infrastructure to turn the Santa Teresa-San Jerónimo crossing into a major binational land port.

That could attract a lot more supply businesses to Santa Teresa to provide goods and services throughout Chihuahua, where 420 maquila plants currently operate.

It could also bring more maquilas directly to San Jerónimo, providing greater opportunities for Santa Teresa-based businesses. Taiwanese electronics giant Foxconn, for example, which already operates two factories in San Jerónimo, wants to eventually open 14 more plants there.

In fact, private investment in Santa Teresa and San Jerónimo is likely to grow faster than public infrastructure, given the rapid expansion of maquila activity in Mexico.

“Demand for industrial space on both sides of the border is up,” said Octavio Lugo, chief operating officer for Corporación Inmobiliaria, which owns 47,000 acres of land in San Jerónimo. “We can’t sit around and wait for the federal government to finish building border crossings, because real demand is growing by businesses to operate in the area.”



More U.S. companies opening high-tech factories in Mexico

December 5th, 2013

Faced with rising wages in China and high shipping costs, many businesses are finding manufacturing close to home more appealing. But despite its advantages, Mexico has problems.

By Shan Li

4:37 PM PST, November 29, 2013

Manufacturing in Mexico

Oceas Verona Orocio inspects the latest-model drone at the 3D Robotics manufacturing plant in Tijuana. The company’s drones were formerly made in China. (Don Bartletti, Los Angeles Times / November 30, 2013)

TIJUANA — In an industrial park five miles east of downtown Tijuana, Ariel Ceja toils in a white room bustling with assembly workers hunched over blue tables.

A master scheduler, Ceja is in charge of all steps of production at this factory nestled inside a cavernous warehouse. A cluster of anonymous buildings surround the facility. Nearby are pitted roads, and just a few minutes away by car is the Tijuana airport and a university.

San Diego-based 3D Robotics moved into this once-vacant spot in June, producing affordable drones and electronic parts destined for customers in the U.S. and around the world.

It is just one of many American companies streaming to Mexico to open high-tech factories in a reversal of the outsourcing trend in years past. Called nearshoring, businesses are moving production to Mexico, Canada and other nearby countries to take advantage of their proximity to the U.S.

“Recently I have been seeing more American companies bringing production here,” said Ceja, who started working for 3D Robotics a month ago. During the 1990s, “there were more Asian companies coming in, Japanese, Korean, but that has changed.”

It’s not just in Tijuana. Manufacturing plants are also opening in Mexican cities such as Guadalajara and Mexico City, bringing a wave of new jobs to a country recovering from the economic downturn and still fighting constant drug violence.

From 2009 to 2012, foreign investment in Mexico jumped more than 50% to $7.4 billion, and exports from foreign-owned factories also grew 50% to $196 billion, according to one industry group that tracks maquiladoras, or assembly plants in Mexico that are owned by foreign companies. After plunging during the economic recession, employment also has jumped 25% to more than 2 million. According to an economic study from South/East San Diego, themaquiladora industry is one of Tijuana’s biggest employers, behind businesses linked to its border crossing.

“Sometime in the last year, we reached a crossover point where it became cheaper to make a lot of goods in Mexico than in China,” said Hal Sirkin, a senior partner at Boston Consulting Group. “A lot of American companies are looking or moving.”

The global recession and its aftermath led companies to rethink their supply chain. Faced with rising wages in China and high oil prices, many are reconsidering the appeal of manufacturing close to home, especially small and medium-size businesses without the bargaining clout of Apple and Wal-Mart.

Those businesses are finding a skilled workforce for high-tech manufacturing in Mexico. The country has doubled the number of post-secondary public schools, many devoted to science and technology. Former President Felipe Calderon last year bragged that Mexico was graduating 130,000 technicians and engineers a year, more than Germany or Canada.

The educated labor pool has attracted the car industry. Mexico has gained at least 100,000 auto-related jobs since 2010, according to a Brookings Institution report. Nissan, Honda, General Motors and Ford have all announced plans to expand in coming years.

3D Robotics, which makes drones and parts priced up to $730 for civilians and tech enthusiasts, is among the start-ups drawn to Mexico’s low costs and proximity to the U.S. The company once manufactured its drones and kits in Southern California and China.

But Chief Executive Chris Anderson said making products overseas was a lengthy process that meant waiting for months for merchandise to come on ships. Chinese factories also required bulk orders that tied up a lot of the company’s capital and prevented engineers from innovating quickly, which is vital in a tech sector such as drones.

“We decided it didn’t make sense at our scale and pace of innovation to ramp up in China,” Anderson said.

Instead, the company looked south.

3D’s first Mexico factory in 2011 was in the three-bedroom Tijuana apartment of general manager Guillermo Romero, who spent the first months of the test run in Mexico soldering parts and assembling drones in his living room along with one employee.

“We started with some benches and soldering stations you can buy anywhere,” Romero said. “We were like, ‘Let’s see what happens.'”

Sales of drones assembled in Mexico quickly grew after Romero got the hang of putting them together, and 3D moved into its first manufacturing space last year.

The last of the manufacturing equipment was trucked to Tijuana this spring, when the company moved to its current 12,000-square-foot facility. American engineers in San Diego design drones that are crafted almost completely by about 60 assembly workers in Tijuana.

A walk through the cavernous warehouse that houses the factory shows 3D’s quick expansion. On the second floor, a newly completed call center opened about a month ago, bringing customer service in-house for the first time. Inside the assembly room, workers solder circuit boards, attach plastic arms and test the flying machines.

“Mexico is very flexible. You can start projects here and grow them,” Romero said. “It’s very good for start-ups.”

For California companies, Mexico can be an especially attractive bet, analysts say. The ability to order in small batches means that designs can be changed quickly and production can be revved up and slowed down in a matter of days instead of months.

That can be invaluable during the holidays, as San Bernardino-based Cannon Safe learned.

On Black Friday in 2008, the safe manufacturing company received a panicked call from a major retailer that had drastically slimmed down its inventory in response the financial crash, President Aaron Baker said. But shoppers were scooping up their safes, prompting the chain to issue thousands of rain checks that it had to quickly honor.

Cannon’s Mexico facility was able to increase production and deliver new merchandise within four days, compared with weeks or months if the safes had come from China, Baker said. “That was our ‘aha’ moment.”

Today, about 60% of the company’s safes are made in Mexico, nearly double the production levels five years ago. Meanwhile, its China production has dropped by half, Baker said.

Although wages are higher in Mexico than in China, the relative ease of doing business and proximity can bring costs on par or even lower. Companies find that they don’t lose valuable time waiting for shipments. Deliveries can also be routed to another port or simply brought by truck when problems crop up, such as the eight-day strike that paralyzed the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach last winter.

Companies looking to bring production closer to home rank Mexico as their No. 1 choice, according to a survey from consulting firm AlixPartners.

The tipping point may have come last year when manufacturing costs in Mexico, when adjusted for productivity, dropped below those in China, according to a Boston Consulting Group report. Within two years, the average cost of production in Mexico will be 6% below China and as much as 30% lower than countries such as Japan and Germany.

“Companies are bringing back parts of manufacturing to Mexico. They are saying, ‘We want our manufacturing process close to our engineers, we want our inventory next to our customers so it’s easier to ship,'” said Joe Mazza, a partner at advisory and accounting firm McGladrey in Los Angeles. “There are also many companies in China that are not exiting China, but reducing their manufacturing and bringing some to Mexico.”

With all its advantages, Mexico still has its fair share of problems. Companies that don’t produce their own goods can have a hard time finding the right third-party manufacturer in a country that can’t compete yet with China’s dense supplier base and strong manufacturing infrastructure. Mexico also just passed fiscal reforms that include raising taxes on U.S.-owned companies and other businesses, increasing worries that foreign firms might leave the country.

Despite these challenges, more U.S. companies will consider locating factories in Mexico in the coming years, analysts said.

“This is the return of manufacturing in Mexico,” said Scott Stanley, senior vice president of NAPS, which aids companies setting up factories in Mexico. “Every month it seems like there are more and more companies moving. There is no sign of that trend slowing down.”

Copyright © 2013, Los Angeles Times

In Middle of Mexico, a Middle Class Rises

November 20th, 2013
The New York Times
November 18, 2013

GUANAJUATO, Mexico — A decade ago, Ivan Zamora, 23, might have already left for the United States. Instead, he graduated in May from a gleaming new university here, then moved on to an engineering internship at one of the many multinational companies just beyond the campus gates.

His days now begin at dawn inside the new Volkswagen factory a short walk away, and when he leaves at night, he joins a rush of the upwardly mobile — from the cavernous new Pirelli plant next door, an array of Japanese car-parts suppliers and a new Nivea plant on a grassy hillside.

“There’s just a lot more opportunity to study and to succeed,” Mr. Zamora said at the factory, surrounded by robots, steel, glass and young technicians. “Both my parents are teachers. They lived in an entirely different era.”

Education. More sophisticated work. Higher pay. This is the development formula Mexico has been seeking for decades. But after the free-market wave of the 1990s failed to produce much more than low-skilled factory work, Mexico is finally attracting the higher-end industries that experts say could lead to lasting prosperity. Here, in a mostly poor state long known as one of the country’s main sources of illegal immigrants to the United States, a new Mexico has begun to emerge.

Dozens of foreign companies are investing, filling in new industrial parks along the highways. Middle-class housing is popping up in former watermelon fields, and new universities are waving in classes of students eager to study engineering, aeronautics and biotechnology, signaling a growing confidence in Mexico’s economic future and what many see as the imported meritocracy of international business. In a country where connections and corruption are still common tools of enrichment, many people here are beginning to believe they can get ahead through study and hard work.

Mr. Zamora’s new job, for example (he was hired by VW at summer’s end), started with his parents prioritizing education, not emigration, and scrimping to give him a computer and, more recently, German lessons. The state of Guanajuato added to their investment by building the affordable polytechnic — part of a public university system that offers technical degrees as well as undergraduate and graduate degrees — and a sprawling interior port to lure the international companies that hire its graduates. And now Mr. Zamora has a job that pays enough to help his sister pursue her dream of studying marine biology.

This is a Mexico far different from the popular American conception: it is neither the grinding, low-skilled assembly work at maquiladoras, the multinational factories near the border, nor the ugliness of drug cartels. But the question many experts and officials are asking is whether Mexico as a whole can keep up with the rising demand for educated labor — and overcome concerns about crime and corruption — to propel its 112 million people into the club of developed nations.

“We are at something of a turning point,” said Eric Verhoogen, a professor of economics and international affairs at Columbia University. “The maquila strategy has been revealed not to have been successful, so people are looking around for something new.”

The automotive industry has been Mexico’s brightest spot so far. In many ways, central Mexico has already surpassed Detroit. There are now more auto-industry jobs in Mexico than in the entire American Midwest. At least 100,000 jobs have been added in Mexico since 2010, according to a recent Brookings Institution report, and General Motors, Ford, Chrysler, Honda, Mazda, Nissan, Audi and Volkswagen have all announced expansion plans, with nearly $10 billion to be invested over the next several years, mainly in a 400-mile corridor from Puebla to Aguascalientes.

The work tends to be better paid than what could be found in the area before the companies arrived. It is still a fraction of the salaries of American workers — many employees on the factory floors in the interior port make around $3.65 an hour — but higher-paid professionals make up about 30 percent of the employees at many auto plants here, roughly twice as much as in the maquiladoras near the border.

And although robotics and other changes have kept overall employment in the industry somewhat limited, more of the industry has moved to Mexico as the car business has recovered. Around 40 percent of all auto-industry jobs in North America are in Mexico, up from 27 percent in 2000 (the Midwest has about 30 percent), and experts say the growth is accelerating, especially in Guanajuato, where state officials have been increasing incentives.

The 2,600-acre interior port, for example, has become a draw because, in addition to the polytechnic, the state built customs facilities, a railroad depot and a link to the local airport. Guanajuato also helps find candidates for companies to hire and, in some cases, gives them free classes to help them pass standardized tests required for employment. At Volkswagen, many of the young men and women flowing in and out of test-taking sessions said they benefited from the assistance.

Guanajuato even pays companies a small bonus for sending workers abroad for training. Mauricio Martínez, 29, an engineer at the Italian tiremaker Pirelli, which was one of the first companies to take up residence in the port, said he and his wife, Mariana, still saw their trip to Prague after his training in Romania as a fairy tale.

“I’m a small-town guy,” he said one day after work, in his kitchen with a beer. “But there I was; an Italian company from Milan hired a small-town guy from Mexico.”

He said he now makes $2,250 a month ($27,000 a year), far more than at his old job at a tow-truck company and roughly double the median household income nationwide. That’s more than enough for a middle-class life here. Both husband and wife drive to work, and this year they bought a three-bedroom townhouse in a new development for about $80,000. On a recent visit, “The Big Bang Theory” played on their flat-screen TV as a neighbor watered her patch of lawn no bigger than a beach towel.

While cooking dinner, Mrs. Martínez said that her husband’s job had given them the credit and stability they needed to start her own business — a gourmet salad shop in a colonial village nearby. And as is common in other countries with an expanding middle class, such as Brazil, their economic rise has led to demands for better government.

When someone recently stole Mrs. Martínez’s cellphone, she said she went straight to the police over the objections of her father, who warned her nothing would be done. “He was right,” she said. “But next time it happens, I want my complaint to be there. I’m trying to make a living here, and I want a legal life.”

“My generation, we’re more prepared,” she added. “My parents, they never even finished school; we know if something is going to change, it has to start with us.”

Many young, middle-class Mexicans are coming to similar realizations, propelled by 13 years of democracy and the Internet. But their ranks are small. As the auto industry rebounds and wage inflation in China makes Mexico more attractive for global manufacturers, many foreign employers say that skilled employees are harder to find and keep, while the mass of Mexican workers do not measure up to what many companies need.

Only 36 percent of Mexicans between 25 and 64 have earned the equivalent of a high school degree, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Despite a rapid rise in foreign investment, with 2013 shaping up to be Mexico’s best year on record, the country is still struggling.

The Mexican economy has slowed significantly this year, and even when it was doing better, the nation’s poverty rate fell only 0.6 percent to 53.3 million people — roughly 45 percent of the population — between 2010 and 2012. Crime and a notoriously weak justice system continue to undermine the economy, with Mexico’s minister of health recently estimating that it costs 8 to 15 percent of the country’s annual gross domestic product. “It’s all the stuff we hear about again and again: Mexico has an education system that is not on par with its peers; a banking system that’s not lending; it has rule-of-law issues and public-security issues and corruption being a huge issue,” said Christopher Wilson, an economics scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. “The list goes on and on.”

Many economists and business consultants are keeping a close watch on President Enrique Peña Nieto’s efforts to improve education, open the energy sector to private investment and overhaul taxes.

Kevin P. Gallagher, an economist at Boston University, said Mexico also needed to prioritize innovation. “South Korea and Taiwan spend over 2 percent of G.D.P. on research and development; China spends almost 2 percent,” he said. “Mexico spends 0.4 percent.”

But on a smaller scale in Guanajuato, individual success is creating a sense of possibility. Some of Mr. Zamora’s friends are studying German, too, hoping to land work at Volkswagen, and a similar sense of momentum pervades the polytechnic, where students in pristine industrial labs, like Javier Eduardo Luna Zapata, 24, have begun to dream of more than work at an auto plant.

He and a few classmates won a prestigious design award this year for a scanner that would check airport runways for debris. “We want to start a company,” he said, displaying a video of the project on his cellphone. “We’re going to look for investors when we graduate.”

His classmates, representing a new generation of Mexicans — mostly geeks in jeans carrying smartphones — all nodded with approval.

Mexico stakes claim as hottest hub for auto production

November 12th, 2013 | Monday, 11 Nov 2013 | 1:17 PM ET

Most people outside of Mexico have never heard of Aguascalientes. But in the auto industry, this city of 1 million residents is known as ground zero for Nissan‘s expansion plans in the Americas.

This week the Japanese automaker is opening its second final assembly plant in Aguascalientes, giving Nissan as many final assembly plants in Mexico as it has in the U.S.

“Mexico is quickly becoming the fastest export hub in terms of vehicle production virtually anywhere in the planet,” said Michael Robinet, a director with IHS Automotive.

Nissan is not the only automaker expanding production in Mexico.

Honda, Mazda and Audi are adding assembly lines in the country, which has shot past Canada to become the second-largest auto producer in North America.

Mexico is on pace to build 3.15 million vehicles this year, which represents 19 percent of all cars and trucks made in North America.

Ford‘s assembly plant in Hermosillo is among the company’s most productive in the world.

“Mexico has proven for a long time [that] … it’s a fantastic world-class-quality operation,” said James Farley, Ford’s executive vice president of global marketing, sales and service.

Lower costs fuel Mexican auto boom

Mexico is one of the fastest-growing locations anywhere for auto assembly and parts production.

Calsonic Kansei, which supplies control panels and exhaust systems for Nissan, Mazda and General Motors, has just expanded its operations in Aguascalientes. The Japanese company is increasing to 3,100 workers from 1,400 to keep up with demand from Mexico’s auto production.

“The growth here reminds me of China in the early ’90s,” said Bharat Vennapusa, chief operating officer at Calsonic.

Why the surge?

A combination of low costs, a perfect location and a slew of free trade agreements make it advantageous to build and ship in Mexico.

“Mexico over the next decade will likely control more than half of the North American auto employment base,” said Mark Muro, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “It is an extremely desirable place for labor-intensive assembly, with …. enough engineers and trained workers. And it’s got … superior trade connectivity to the rest of the hemisphere.”

For example, Mexico is one of the few countries with a trade agreement that allows automakers to ship vehicles to Brazil at a cost lower than from plants in the U.S. or Europe.

Meanwhile, Mexican auto workers’ wages are much lower than those in the U.S.

“Somebody in northern Mexico might be making $3 or $4 an hour at an auto plant. An autoworker in Ohio might be making five to eight times that,” said Harley Shaiken, a labor relations professor at the University of California at Berkeley. “It is a very large disparity, which is critical, since the productivity and quality is the same or even higher in Mexico.”

Mexico limiting U.S. auto expansion?

More production of cars and trucks in Mexico raises the question: How will it impact plants elsewhere in North America?

“Mexico very clearly is going to press down on production in the U.S., and in particular in Canada,” Shaiken said. “So far we have seen a much larger hit in Canada, but it is truly affecting both countries.”

Given that most U.S. plants are close to capacity, the location of expanded production will become an urgent question over the next four to five years.

However, Robinet said, the U.S. auto industry can still be competitive with that of Mexico.

“If the U.S. is able to gain an EU trade agreement and some other trade agreements, and continue to work through the process of reducing costs … there is no doubt that the southeastern United States and Mexico can be really competitive on an equal basis,” he said.

—By CNBC’s Phil LeBeau. Follow him on Twitter @LeBeauCarNews.

Made in Mexico: An Increasingly Viable Alternative to Chinese Outsourcing

November 9th, 2013
By Mark A. Bogar, CFA and Michelle Donley Holmes | Posted: 11-07-13 | 01:13 PM
Executive Summary
Amid evolutionary changes in economics, leadership and policy, Mexico has emerged as an appealing alternative to China for U.S. companies looking to expand or relocate their manufacturing facilities. Wages have been sharply and steadily rising in China over the past decade, just as Mexico’s manufacturing landscape has undergone a dramatic shift, marked by high-tech manufacturing hubs that are synchronous with American manufacturing needs.The erosion of China’s comparative advantage over Mexico has resulted in global investment implications, with multiple industries positioned to benefit — or suffer — from the shift. In this paper, we highlight the economic, political and manufacturing climate in both countries, address relevant energy-supply and safety concerns, and identify emerging winners and losers from an investment standpoint.

The Economic and Political Backdrop

Although China has been a key driver of global growth over the past several years, it has recently experienced a slowdown,particularly within the manufacturing sector. At an April meeting of the International Monetary Fund’s International Monetary and Financial Committee, Gov. Zhou Xiaochuan of the People’s Bank of China said that his country’s 7.7% year-on-year GDP growth for the first quarter represented “a reasonable growth track,” with expected 2013 growth of 7.5%.1 While that outshines the tepid economies of many developed nations, it pales in comparison with the 10%-plus growth rates that China has enjoyed over much of the past decade. Many investors are also monitoring the monthly Purchasing Managers’ Index,which has been hovering precariously near the 50 level of demarcation between expansion and contraction.Also during April, China was the target of pessimistic comments from two major ratings agencies. Moody’s lowered its outlook on China’s government bond rating to stable from positive, while Fitch Ratings downgraded China’s long-term local currency credit rating to A-plus from AA-minus, both noting risks associated with excessive local government borrowing.2

The Chinese government, under the new leadership of President Xi Jinping, is well aware of these risks and is attempting to mitigate them, in part by increased austerity. Most recently, it tightened its controls over bond sales by local government financing vehicles, requiring them to have a rating above AA-plus.3 But other issues in the country, including suspected cyber attacks on the U.S. and renewed emphasis on strengthening China’s military, have stirred some concerns in the West.

Across the ocean, Mexico’s economy has also been struggling. For the first quarter, its GDP edged up a mere 0.8%, well below the 3.2% growth experienced in the fourth quarter of 2012. However, the slowdown was largely attributable to a calendar effect from an early Easter holiday and a 10% drop in public spending in the wake of December’s leadership transition.4 The country also posted a 4.9% drop in industrial output in March,in tandem with an easing in U.S. manufacturing growth.5 This has prompted speculation that Banco de Mexico (Banxico), the country’s central bank, will lower interest rates again this year; it last reduced its key rate by a half-point to 4% in March, the first cut in more than three years.

Nevertheless, sentiment about Mexico remains largely optimistic, at least over the long term. While growth expectations have been widely tempered for 2013, many investors are looking beyond that for compelling potential. In early May, Fitch lifted its rating on Mexico’s sovereign foreign currency credit rating to BBB-plus, the country’s first ratings upgrade since 2007, buoyed in large part by optimism about the country’s reform agenda.6

It is that ambitious reform strategy, promoted by Mexico’s new president, Enrique Peña Nieto, that has helped to strengthen the peso and underlined the country’s favorable investment climate. He has tackled labor reform, reining in some powers of the teachers’ union, and he has proposed to open the energy and telecommunications industries to more competition and private investment, thereby breaking up monopolies. If all of these reforms indeed reach fruition, Banxico estimates that GDP could hit 6%.

Manufacturing Climate

Amid these evolutionary changes in economics, leadership and policy, Mexico has emerged as a viable, appealing alternative to China for U.S. companies looking to expand or relocate their manufacturing facilities. According to the World Bank’s 2013 Ease of Doing Business Index, which measures business regulation environments across 185 economies, Mexico ranked No. 48, up from No. 53 in the previous year, while China held steady at No. 91.7A crucial factor in determining companies’ outsourcing decisions is wages, which have been sharply and steadily rising in China over the past decade, as shown in Exhibit 1.

Most of China’s manufacturers are situated along the coastal provinces, which offer ready access to ocean transport as well as supply-chain logistics, but with a costly labor pool and expensive land. The government has been taking aggressive action to rein in soaring real-estate prices; for example, Beijing recently began imposing a 20% capital-gains tax on existing-home sales. Moving facilities inland will not solve the issue of rising costs, as wages are not significantly different there and transportation infrastructure is inadequate, as it can cost more to ship goods from China’s interior to its coast than from Shanghai to New York.8

By contrast, Mexico’s manufacturing landscape has undergone a dramatic shift in geography. As assembly-for-export plants, called maquiladoras, in the border states suffered from the effects of economic recession and rising drug-related violence,companies nimbly shifted their focus to Mexico’s interior,supported by an attractive cost of living as well as by decent infrastructure and transportation. In fact, in the past three years, manufacturing jobs in the central states of Guanajuato, Aguascalientes, Queretaro and San Luis Potosi have climbed 30%, largely on the back of growing auto and aerospace businesses, which have in turn committed to providing those local communities with relevant educational opportunities.9

In tandem with this change, the importance of Mexico’s once-dominant textile industry has diminished significantly,replaced by high-tech manufacturing hubs for the automotive and aerospace industries, clearly synchronous with American manufacturing needs. The U.S. is now using its neighbor to the south as “a just-in-time, conveniently located and inexpensive sourcing partner, rather than a competitor,” according to Morgan Stanley Research.10

Comparatively speaking, there are other notable differences between the two countries’ workforces. Mexico’s laborers generally work no more than 48 hours a week, as mandated by federal law, and then go home at night, in contrast to many Chinese workers, who live in on-site dormitories, work lengthy shifts and return home only for the New Year holiday.

Demographics are another contrast, as Mexico’s population skews young, while China’s one-child policy has effectively shrunk the upcoming labor pool.

Energy Supply
Another potential advantage for Mexico’s manufacturing sector is its proximity to cheap natural gas, as the country uses the fuel for 46% of its energy, according to Morgan Stanley Research. However, much of this is virtually untapped, as the production monopoly of Petroleos Mexicanos, also known as Pemex, has left as much as 1 trillion cubic feet of gas reserves sitting idle, as private-sector development is prohibited.11Meanwhile, Mexico’s demand for the fuel has continued to soar, forcing Pemex to effectively ration limited supplies to its largest customers because of capacity constraints.This could all change if Peña Nieto has his way, resulting in a constitutional change to allow for asset sales in shale gas and deepwater exploration and downstream petrochemical auctions. That could unleash substantial foreign direct investment in the country’s energy sector, as Mexico has one of the world’s largest shale gas resource bases, according to the Energy Information Administration.12

On the other hand, China is the world’s largest energy consumer,and its largest producer and consumer of coal, which powers much of its electricity generation. Natural gas accounts for only 4% of China’s energy consumption, according to the EIA. The country also pays more for natural gas: an average of $10.77 per million Btu on LNG imports in 2012, compared with the recent benchmark Henry Hub price in Louisiana of $3.80 per million Btu. However, China is pursuing cleaner energy sources to combat rampant pollution concerns.

Safety Concerns
Both Mexico and China have a bit of an image problem when it comes to safety. For Mexico, it’s been the alarming rise in violence since former President Felipe Calderon’s war on drug cartels began in 2006. According to a travel warning issued by the U.S. State Department in November 2012, citing Mexican government data, “47,515 people were killed in narcotics-related violence in Mexico between Dec. 1, 2006, and Sept. 30, 2011,with 12,903 narcotics-related homicides in the first nine months of 2011 alone.” The warning also cited gun battles occurring “in broad daylight on streets and other public venues” as well as the prevalence of carjackings and highway robbery in the border regions.13 However, February 2013 marked a three-year low in the country’s murder rate, which remains below that of Brazil.Yet Mexico’s violence problem can be a scary proposition for companies looking to locate facilities there. This isn’t lost on government officials, although Peña Nieto’s plan has amounted to little beyond naming a security adviser and targeting economic improvement to reduce crime. Something else must be done. In fact, in an article published last year by, Andrew Selee, director of the Mexico Institute, a Washington think tank, summarized the resulting chilling effect on business: “It’s like the Mexican economy is driving with the emergency brake on. You can only imagine if the violence weren’t going on,its growth could be extraordinary.”14

China has encountered challenges of a different sort when it comes to worker and consumer safety. Its labor problems have come to the forefront in recent years, after a number of incidents, including explosions and improper use of toxic chemicals, resulted in many injuries and even deaths at Chinese factories tasked with producing iPhones and iPads. One manufacturer made headlines in 2010 after a spate of employee suicides prompted the company to install worker hotlines and even safety nets on some of its buildings to catch people who jumped. A much-cited New York Times article detailed the working conditions at some of these plants, citing 12-hour workdays, six-day workweeks and dormitory accommodations of 20 people in a three-room apartment.15

Product safety has been another ongoing concern, peaking in 2007 with the Food and Drug Administration’s ban on imported Chinese toothpaste because it may contain harmful levels of diethylene glycol, which is used in antifreeze, and a massive recall of more than a million Chinese-made toys that may contain high levels of lead. As recently as this year, though,China has faced related issues, such as the discovery of cadmiumin its rice supply and more recalls of infant formula because of contamination problems. China’s leaders have been attempting to respond to concerns more transparently, especially those related to environmental issues.16

Less imminently dangerous, but also problematic for business in China are counterfeit production and a perceived lack of court enforcement for intellectual property rights. The advantage here goes to Mexico, according to Morgan Stanley, which noted that, “Mexico offers a more attractive environment for multinational corporations concerned about piracy, copyrights and protection from industrial espionage than some of its Asian competitors.”17

A Matter of Convenience
Beyond economic slowdowns, leadership transitions, labor costs, safety concerns and energy sources, some decisions comedown to what is easiest for a company and its executives. When choosing between Mexico and China as an outsourcing partner, American business leaders may decide that all else being equal, Mexico is simply more convenient. Travel times and expenses are markedly lower, work visas are easier to obtain, and the language and cultural barriers are not as high. Currency is also in Mexico’s favor, as the peso floats along with the U.S. dollar, while China’s currency manipulation has been a sore spot in international trade talks. Mexico also operates on similar time zones and holiday schedules as the U.S., meaning fewer overnight conference calls and better-aligned availability.

Investment Implications
As outlined above, China’s comparative advantage versus Mexico has eroded on multiple fronts. This change in competitive positioning is resulting in global investment implications, with potential winners and losers dynamically emerging.We believe multiple industries are positioned to benefit from this shift, including:ƒƒ

  • North American resource companies. As Mexican manufacturing expands, factories there will consume more natural resources. To meet this rising demand, North American shale oil and gas may represent a material portion of Mexico’s energy supply, which would boost both infrastructure suppliers and hydrocarbon producers.
  • North American retailers and manufacturers. They can capitalize on both the cost savings of manufacturing in Mexico and shorter lead times in the supply chain. In particular, shorter lead times can be crucially important in helping companies respond to their customers’ needs in this increasingly competitive world.ƒƒ
  • Industrial automation companies. China needs to find ways to reduce its labor costs, and one proven method of doing so is by automating factory processing. The penetration of automated factories in China is low compared with the developed world.

Meanwhile, other industries will feel a negative impact from the change, including:

  • The ocean-transportation industry. As China loses market share to Mexico, fewer goods will be shipped from the Asia-Pacific region to the U.S. and other countries in the Western Hemisphere. As this industry has high fixed costs, any loss of volume will pressure margins.ƒƒ
  • Chinese retail plays. For years, Chinese consumer wages have grown at double-digit rates, fueling the retail industry. As wage growth slows, the risk is that Chinese retailers will expand too fast, leading to an oversupply of retail space.

We believe that U.S. and multinational manufacturers will continue to evaluate Mexico’s potential as a manufacturing center and likely come away with favorable conclusions. The country’s costs and wages remain reasonable, and its proximity to the U.S. offers numerous benefits. In addition, Mexico’s renewed reform efforts, if ultimately implemented, could significantly boost its economic growth. At the same time, China’s wages and real estate prices continue to rise, making it a less attractive alternative for American outsourcing. However, economic growth in both countries is rather tenuous, and safety is still a concern. As these dynamics evolve, we expect an ongoing shift in manufacturing from China to Mexico, with winners and losers emerging across the global landscape.

1Statement by the Honorable Zhou Xiaochuan, Governor of the IMFfor China, at the 27th meeting of the International Monetary and Financial Committee, Washington, D.C., April 20, 2013.
2Ian Chua and Pete Sweeney, “Moody’s lowers China outlook after Fitch downgrade,” Reuters, April 16, 2013.
3Jane Cai, “China tightens rules for local government debt sales,” South China Morning Post, May 8, 2013.
4Charles Roth, “Mexico’s First Quarter GDP Down, but Far From Out,”The Wall Street Journal, May 17, 2013.
5Alexandra Alper, “Mexico March industrial output contracts most in 3 yrs,” Reuters, May 10, 2013.
6Michael O’Boyle and Krista Hughes, “Fitch upgrades Mexico to BBB-plus on reform momentum,” Reuters, May 8, 2013.
7For information on the Ease of Doing Business Index methodology, please click here:
8“The end of cheap China,” The Economist, March 10, 2012.
9Krista Hughes, “Mexican manufacturing: from sweatshops to high-tech motors,” Reuters, April 9, 2013.
10“US Manufacturing Renaissance: Is It a Masterpiece or a (Head)Fake?” Morgan Stanley Research, April 29, 2013.
11Carlos Manuel Rodriguez, “U.S. shale glut means gas shortage for Mexican industry: Energy,” Bloomberg, Sept. 4, 2012.
12Mexico analysis, U.S. Energy Information Administration, last updated Oct. 17, 2012.
13“Travel Warning: Mexico,” U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Consular Affairs, Nov. 20, 2012.
14Deborah Caldwell, “Crime explodes — but an economy booms,”, Sept. 18, 2012.
15Charles Duhigg and David Barboza, “In China, human costs are built into an iPad,” The New York Times, January 25, 2012.
16Te-Ping Chen, “Threat to rice fuels latest Chinese uproar,” The Wall Street Journal, May 21, 2013.
17“US Manufacturing Renaissance: Is It a Masterpiece or a (Head) Fake?” Morgan Stanley Research, April 29, 2013.
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Tequila and Tacos: How this former Valley exec is poaching US talent for his Mexican startup lab

November 2nd, 2013

On November 1, 2013

It’s easy to get burnt out on the constant hustle of Silicon Valley. For Andy Kieffer, reaching for the pressure release valve after selling his Kleiner Perkins-backed startup in 2008 meant getting out of dodge. Despite having a young family, he didn’t move to Portland, San Diego, or Denver. Instead he packed up his life and moved 1,900 miles south to Guadalajara, Mexico. There he formed an incubator and contract dev shop called Agave Lab, hired some of the abundant and surprisingly skilled local talent, and began mixing innovation with margaritas to see what would come out the other end.

When we first reported Kieffer’s story, the closest he’d come to convincing another Valley veteran to join him was having his friends say on the way to the airport after a weekend visit, “You’re crazy man. How did you do this?” But things began to change as his story got out there more, first in PandoDaily, and then in the New York Times. Just a few weeks ago he got his first inbound inquiry.

The email came from out of the blue. A total stranger, Amazon engineer Eric Springer, wanted to know if there was room at Agave for another gringo with real technical chops but a growing distaste for the rat race. Kieffer invited him down to check out his operation with the promise that if he liked what he saw, there would a spot for him to join the team.

“I said to him, ‘It’s obvious why I’m interested in you, but why are you interested in me?’” Kieffer tells me in a phone interview.

The first step on any tour of the Agave Lab operation is tequila and tacos. Then, he introduces guests to the rest of his team and maybe takes them to a local meet up to give a sense of the community. Time permitting, he’ll squeeze in a trip to the company-owned beach apartment a few hours drive away. It’s a hard to turn down a combination that makes working in Mexico great, Kieffer says.

Springer’s tour was six weeks ago. He has been in living Mexico full time now for a little more than a month. Just a over a week ago he put an offer in to buy a house there. All signs point to him staying for the long term. Short-term, long-term or anything in between, Kieffer is just happy, if not a little shocked, to have someone this capable join his merry band of hackers. It also got him thinking about whether there might be more pent up frustration north of the border that he could tap into.

“Eric came down and has been awesomely productive and is having the time of his life,” Kieffer says. “I thought, why not see if there are more of him out there. I just posted this ad craigslist and, already, I’m getting tons of people who are interested.”

A little over a week ago, Kieffer posted a flippant job listing in the San Francisco section of Craigslist. The headline read, “Working vacation in Mexico’s Silicon Valley – Make almost NO money (guadalajara).” The listing went on to describe the Agave Lab operation and then dropped this offer in the laps of anyone crazy enough to join them:

We’re giving a few Bay Area developers the opportunity to rethink their life priorities and get out of Dodge for a while. You’re startup is flagging? Sick of the fog? Commute got you down? Just broke up with your partner? Why not pull the rip cord and come work with us for a while?

What do we have to offer?

-A vibrant, biggish (pop. 4M), student-oriented city, that’s full of hip bars, restaurants, and (really) beautiful, friendly people.

-A work environment that is, hands down, the hippest place to work in Mexico. Imagine programming in the hammock – poolside (yes, we have a pool).

-Use of the beach house. We have a 3 story beach house with all mod cons, 20 feet from a graceful, immaculate sandy bay in a small fishing village. Also, one of the premier left point surf breaks is 5 minutes away by boat (which we also have).

-A chance to learn (or practice your Spanish).

-An opportunity to be at ground zero for one of the most vibrant and rapidly expanding startup scenes in the world.

-Beef up your resume with experience in navigating the business climate in Mexico and Latin America.

-and, finally, ALMOST NO MONEY. Okay, not entirely true – you’ll be paid a very tidy wage (by mexican standards) which will allow you to live well here – most things are cheap here. However, if you compare what you’ll make here versus what you’re making now? It will be a disappointing exercise. Said differently, if money is what you’re after – then this is not for you. If you’re looking for adventure, fun, and to challenge yourself with something new – welcome to your new home!!!

It’s been just eight days and Kieffer has gotten a few dozen inquiries. Some were from recent college graduates with no experience and he’s likely to pass – this is a job offer, after all, and he’ll have to pay these people to work for (or with) him. But amid the riff raff have been six more senior engineers looking to leave town. None have made their exploratory visit yet, though two have booked plane tickets.

“Whatever the reason is, I seem to have hit a nerve. It’s great for me,” Kieffer says.

No one has asked about narco-terrorism or been too concerned with compensation or lifestyle, he adds. “Guadalajar isn’t even on the list of the world’s 100 most dangerous cities. It’s about the equivalent of living Denver, risk wise.”

He expects to hire two to four expats over the next 30 days and says he has a total capacity of six over the next six months. But as with Springer’s unexpected enthusiasm, the response to this latest posting has Kieffer once again thinking bigger.

The real opportunity in Mexico is to build an elite technical team and begin tackling the basic problems that are holding the nation back. For example, Mexico doesn’t have an Amazon or Gilt equivalent – or the opportunity to create one in the short term – because Mexico doesn’t have a reliable local postal service. Agave is addressing this, in its own small way, with an “Uber for bike messengers” courier service startup. But it’s barely fair to call this the tip of the iceberg.

Having lived in Mexico for nearly six years now, Kieffer has a laundry list of opportunities identified but is limited in his ability to address them all. He’s bootstrapped all of Agave Lab operations to date with his own money, adding in supplemental contract development work for cash-strapped US startups to help keep the lights on. But with a seemingly extensive supply of talent now beating a path toward his door, the thought of raising a few million dollar incubation fund is growing more and more interesting.

“$20 million?” Kieffer asks incredulously at my suggestion that he raise what would be considered a small pile of cash for a Silicon Valley incubator. “I wouldn’t know what to do with that much here. With just $3 million you could literally own Mexico.”

But all of this is just a shiny idea in Kieffer’s head today. At the moment he’s up to his eyeballs in job applicants and tequila tasting tours to schedule. Once he eventually fills out his six person expat A team, things should settle down, he says, and then he’ll be able to give some more serious thought to how to make the most of this opportunity.

Kieffer is brimming with excitement. After we got off the phone, he sent a follow up email that read:

Imagine raising a small fund ($2-$5M) and importing startup talent from the Bay Area, partnering them with local dev teams, and targeting the emerging LATAM market place. I think that combo of a bay area founder with a track record, the huge untapped market here, and the low go-to-market cost, would be attractive to investors that are seeing too many of their startups fighting over too little market opportunity.  

I can’t imagine how difficult it must be for a partner at, let’s say, True Ventures to find things to invest in.  Is there ANY unplowed field left in the US? In Mexico – it’s all green field.

There are challenges, of course. Mexico has limited institutional knowledge around startups and venture capital. For example, Kieffer recalls explaining to a local lawyer hired to draft an ESOP (employee stock option plan) agreement why on earth he would give a piece of his company to a newly hired employee. But people are learning quickly. Mexico also lacks a reliable exit market. It’s one thing to generate revenue, and lifestyle business opportunities grow on trees. But there’s no Google or Yahoo out there to scoop up middling successes, and at the same time no local hero company for newby founders to look up to in aspiration.

“One of the biggest challenges with these guys coming down from the US is recalibrating expectations,” Kieffer says.

I raised the possibility that Kieffer is letting the cat out of the bag, so to speak and alerting his potential competition to the combination of massive opportunity and hard to pass up lifestyle south of the border.

He shrugs this off saying, “It would be hard for a US founder to come here and build LATAM-focused products. There’s just too much local and cultural knowledge required. Besides the market’s almost too big to comprehend, there’s plenty of opportunity to go around.”

And so it is. Kieffer is looking to spread this opportunity around and to make a few new friends in the process. The only question is, who else will be crazy enough to join him.

Mexico drives North American auto investment, challenges China

October 26th, 2013

‘Level of activity in Mexico is insane’

Paul Lienert
Automotive News | October 26, 2013 – 7:29 am EST

DETROIT (Reuters) — The Mexican auto industry is about to go on a $10 billion factory building spree, illustrating the nation’s rising economic challenge to rivals from the United States to China.

Japanese and German auto manufacturers are spearheading the drive, say parts suppliers and researchers who see more auto factories built south of the border than in the United States between now and the end of the decade.

The United States will consume the vast majority of the new cars, but Mexico’s domestic market has rebounded from a long slump, and in a sign of Mexico’s growing global role, auto exports outside of North America will rise faster than those to the United States.

BMW AG, Toyota Motor Corp. and Daimler AG’s Mercedes-Benz are expected to announce at least $2 billion of deals in the next year or two, according to supplier and other industry sources. That’s on top of nearly $6 billion in announced plants by Nissan Motor Co., Honda Motor Co., Mazda Motor Corp. and Volkswagen AG.

U.S. automakers, all of whom have been building cars in Mexico since before World War II, will spend another $1 billion or more to upgrade Mexican plants. And Nissan and VW also are considering expansions at existing factories that could total $1 billion or more, according to sources familiar with their plans.

Mexico “is quickly turning into the China of the West,” said Joseph Langley, a senior analyst at Michigan-based research firm IHS Automotive, pointing to Mexico’s low wages, a strong supply base and a global web of free-trade agreements.

Mexican auto exports beyond North America are growing even faster than those within, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. They accounted for nearly 30 percent of the 2.4 million exported last year. Altogether Mexico built 3.0 million cars and trucks, according to Automotive News, compared with 10.4 million in the United States and 2.5 million in Canada.

By 2020, Mexico will have the capacity to build one in every four vehicles in North America, up from one in six in 2012, according to IHS.

The investment shift has implications for auto jobs and labor unions north of the border, particularly in Canada, which will see a 20 percent decline in production, IHS projects. Output will soar 62 percent in Mexico.

U.S. auto production will rise 12 percent, and Detroit-based automakers are expanding domestic production by ramping up the pace at existing factories to as many as three shifts running six days a week, said IHS. By those calculations, Mexico is building more auto plants than in the United States or Canada through 2020.

Lower costs

“It’s all about lower production costs and lower export costs,” said Michael Tracy, principal at the Agile Group, a Michigan-based auto consultancy. “That’s what Canada used to be — the place for low-cost manufacturing and shipping. Now, everybody is targeting Mexico.”

Mexico’s economy is seen growing faster than Brazil’s next year, underscoring the success of Mexico’s export-driven model versus regional economic powerhouse Brazil’s more protectionist policies. The promised auto investment could help Mexico challenge regional dominance by Brazil. Analysts are warning of excess Brazilian auto production capacity within five years.

Suppliers say the Detroit auto makers, with more than half the production capacity in Mexico, have not signaled any plans to expand vehicle output there. But General Motors and Chrysler this year have said they will install additional engine and transmission production capacity in Mexico.

In the competition for jobs with the United States and Canada, “Mexico’s momentum, combined with its increasingly dense and capable supply chain, its persistent cost advantage and its trading relationships may give it a leg up,” said Brookings Institution researchers in a report released last week.

Auto employment in the U.S. South, where Japanese, German and Korean automakers all operate non-union plants, is holding relatively steady at 18 percent of North American auto workers, according to Brookings.

$12 an hour

Pay ranges as low as $12 per hour for temporary workers at plants in the U.S. Southeast, compared with about $35 an hour for skilled union veterans at U.S.-owned plants. Union workers in Canada on average are paid even more. A year ago, GM CEO Dan Akerson described Canada as “the most expensive place to build a car in the world.”

But at around $2.50 an hour, manufacturing wages in Mexico are nearly 20 percent cheaper than in China, according to a mid-year Bank of America study. That study put U.S. manufacturing wages at just under $20 an hour, on average.

A shortage of trained engineers and concerns about crime and security may hold back Mexico, according to research firm PwC Autofacts.

Energy costs also are considerably higher than in the United States, but they are lower than in China, according to Boston Consulting Group. And because of Mexico’s proximity to the United States and Canada, transportation and logistics costs are lower than for parts coming from China.

Largest footprint

The largest producer in Mexico, Nissan, opens its third factory next month, the $2-billion Aguascalientes No.2. Nissan built 683,520 cars in Mexico last year, and the new plant will add capacity for 250,000 more, mostly compact models such as the Nissan Sentra for North America and other markets, company officials said.

Moreover, an expansion of Aguascalientes No.2 is already in planning, according to two sources familiar with Nissan’s plans. Slated to open in 2016, the sources said, it likely will be dedicated to production of compact luxury vehicles for Infiniti and Mercedes-Benz, which has a platform- and engine-sharing agreement with Nissan.

Nissan said it had nothing to announce, while a Mercedes spokeswoman said joint production of compact cars was an option, but that no decision had been made.

Nissan also is expanding a complex in Cuernavaca, which will take the automaker’s total capacity in Mexico to 1.1 million vehicles a year by 2020, two supplier sources said.

Nissan’s closest rival south of the border is Volkswagen, which opened a complex in Puebla in 1967. A new $550-million engine plant in Silao, as well as a $1.3-billion assembly complex in San Jose Chiapa that is slated to be opened in 2016 by VW’s Audi subsidiary, will raise total VW group annual capacity by 100,000 vehicles to 850,000 by 2020, according to IHS.

VW and Toyota are battling for global sales leadership, but the Japanese automaker lags well behind its rivals in Mexico, where it has only a small truck assembly facility in Tijuana.

Now, the automaker is scrambling to catch up with its competitors, according to two supplier sources who say Toyota is actively shopping for a site. Toyota executives in recent months have said the company needs additional production capacity in Mexico, without providing specifics. A Toyota spokeswoman said the company “would not comment on any potential plant announcement” in Mexico.

Luxury manufacturing

BMW, which operates a U.S. assembly plant in South Carolina, also is shopping prospective plant sites south of the border, according to Mexican government officials.

Supplier sources said BMW already has mapped out a production timetable for Mexico, with a tentative plan to begin assembly operations in late 2017, ramping up annual capacity to 200,000 by 2020.

A BMW spokesman said he had nothing to confirm.

Other vehicle and parts manufacturers are expected to set up shop or expand existing facilities in Mexico by 2020, said Tracy, of the Michigan-based auto consultancy.

IHS’s Langley summed it up: “The level of activity in Mexico is insane.”


Nissan Mexicana in July celebrated building 4 million vehicles at its plant in in Aguascalientes, Mexico. The plant started operations Nov. 13, 1982.