Closer, cheaper, friendlier. That might have been the formula underlying moving to or opening manufacturing operations in Mexico. The United States' southern neighbor offers transportation distances a fraction of those from Asia, a labor force a good deal cheaper than domestic workers, and a country causing fewer headaches about intellectual property and other trade concerns. But in recent years, drug-related violence along the border has caused some manufacturers to be more cautious about making the move to Mexico.

Even with those concerns, Mexico continues to benefit from U.S. companies and other foreign investors who see it as an attractive manufacturing destination. In fact, 63% of those surveyed by AlixPartners, a business advisory firm, named Mexico the most attractive country for siting manufacturing operations closer to the United States. Only 19% of the companies reported supply-chain disruptions in Mexico as a result of security issues. And 50% reported they expect things to improve over the next five years.

Mexico's proximity to the United States solves the most pressing issue facing manufacturers, which is speed to market, according to Rich Bergmann, global lead for manufacturing for Accenture. "The stability of the time schedule of supply has become paramount in manufacturing. Whether we like it or not, a 12-month forecast, steady-state demand is no longer a reality. Everyone is running lean supply chains and inventories. Being close to customers is key to reducing lead time. Add to that the overall total landed cost and that explains why reshoring is occurring in Mexico," he says.

In fact, Mexico helps multinational firms cope with a variety of factors stemming from intense global competition, says Arnold Matlz, an associate professor at the W.P. Carey School of Business, Arizona State University. They include the pressure to reduce and control operating costs, the need for operational flexibility, the need for different service outcomes for different customers, and shorter product/service development cycles.

Precision manufacturing is critical to aerospace-industry needs.
Photo Courtesy of The Offshore Group
To date, manufacturers operating in Mexico have been largely shielded from the drug-related violence. "As reports have indicated, Mexico's violence is characteristically cartel versus cartel. It is something that has not had a very large amount of leakage into civil society, nor has it affected, in a noticeable way, the companies that are already doing business there. As a matter of fact, in spite of what is in the news, Mexico's manufacturing economy is humming along," says Steve Colantuoni, director of corporate marketing for the Offshore Group. "Companies that are already in Mexico are increasing their numbers and their production."

Foreign direct investment in Mexico rose 9.7% in 2011 compared to 2010 to reach $19.44 billion, indicating that violence is not chasing away dollars. This faith in Mexico is helping to fuel strong economic growth there. After a 5.5% growth rate in 2011, the Mexican economy is expected to grow 4.5% in 2012. Manufacturing has been a significant driver of the economy, growing 8% over the past year and creating 1.8 million jobs.

A High-Flying Aerospace Cluster

One industry flocking to Mexico for its lower cost structure and ample workforce is aerospace manufacturing. Between 2010 and 2011, total sales in Mexico's aerospace cluster increased by 25% to $4.5 billion, according to the Aerospace Industries Association, far outstripping the industry's overall annual growth rate of 15%, according to data from the World Bank.

More than 250 aerospace companies and suppliers, including Aernnova, Bombardier, Cessna, Eurocopter, Hawker Beechcraft and Messier Dowty, now operate in Mexico and employ 29,000 people. As large OEMs set up shop, suppliers follow. Qubec-based Heroux-Devtek, a manufacturer of aerospace and industrial products, made the move after prompting from some of its biggest clients. "Customers such as Boeing were saying, 'If you want to be a key supplier, then you should consider Mexico'," says Michael Deshaies, general manager of the firm's Quertaro operations. Quertaro is one of the top states in Mexico for the industry along with Chihuahua and Sonora.

In fact, in Sonora alone, located in Northeast Mexico, manufacturing has been growing at 25% a year for the past five years. The number of companies serving the aerospace supply chain has grown from 21 in 2007 to 45 in 2011; and employment in the sector has more than doubled at the same time, from 2,520 to 7,000. The city expects employment will exceed 10,000 jobs by the end of 2013.

One employer contributing to the growing industry is INCERTEC, a specialty plating, metal finishing and engineering-solutions company based in Fridley, Minn. The company will be investing $1.2 million to move some processes to Mexico from Minnesota, where both capacity and labor constraints make it difficult to fulfill demand.

"In the industries we serve, precision is critical," says Tim Meador, INCERTEC's chief executive officer. "By adding this location, we can provide manufacturers doing business in Mexico the same consistency, quality and delivery provided by our U.S. location."

Another consideration for Meador was the available labor source in Mexico. The average age in Mexico is 29, which means it is one of the youngest nations on the planet. Every year, 90,000 engineers graduate from Mexican universities -- three times the number who graduate from U.S. schools. This contrasts to the company's Minnesota location, where there is a shortage of skilled labor.

Mexican manufacturing provides advantages for high-volume manufacturers.
Photo Courtesy of The Offshore Group
It is not only the skilled labor but also the low cost of investing that attracted Scott Livingston, CEO of Horst Engineering, to the region. "New England is a good area for knowledge, but it is a high-cost environment," says Livingston. East Hartford, Conn.-based Horst, a contract manufacturer of precision components and assemblies, has been in Sonora since 2006.

"We looked at environments all over the world and came back to the aerospace-manufacturing-in-Mexico option," Livingston explains. "We felt that for a high-mix, low-volume product in a high-precision environment with a significant North American customer base, that it would give us significant opportunity -- opportunity to transfer some product that we may not have been as competitive on in the U.S. that we were doing for existing customers; and it would give us access to a new labor pool that was manufacturing-oriented. We've seen considerable shrinkage of the manufacturing labor force in Connecticut, and we're training people from scratch here anyway. So we figured we could do that in Mexico."

Training is one of the many incentives offered to companies. "Government incentives, including training and infrastructure improvements, are key reasons that the aerospace cluster is growing. The government is also increasing resources to build up interior areas as opposed to the border towns," explains Jay Jessup, president, Mexico Services Group.

Becoming a Manufacturing Export Powerhouse

Aerospace isn't the only industry finding a manufacturing-friendly environment in Mexico. Automotive manufacturing in Mexico was on the rise in 2011, observes George Magliano, senior principal economist at IHS Global.

"It was a year of record production in terms of total vehicle consumption and export in the light- and passenger-vehicle market segments," he notes. "Mexico is becoming a magnet for supplier investment. This is due to announcements of sizable investment in the country in new production platforms over the last year by large automotive-industry OEMs such as Nissan, Mazda, BMW, Volkswagen and General Motors."

In 2008 Mexico became the largest supplier of auto parts to the United States. In 2010 Mexico ranked as the sixth largest automotive exporter in the world. The country exports 80% of its vehicles to the United States, and 11 of every 100 autos sold in the United States are made in Mexico. Predictions are that by 2014 automotive production will reach 2.4 million units. Eight of the 10 leading automotive OEMs have assembly plants in Mexico, and more than 300 Tier 1 suppliers have plants in Mexico.

The skill sets of Mexican aerospace-industry workers continue to advance.
Photo Courtesy of The Offshore Group
Heavy-truck manufacturers include Dina, Navistar, Kenworth, Daimler, Volvo, Isuzu and Scania.

On the supplier side, over 1,100 companies manufacture auto parts in Mexico, including: Robert Bosch, Denso, Delphi, Magna, Visteon, Eaton, Valeo, Bridgestone/Firestone, Johnson Controls, Michelin, Goodyear, Lear, ThyssenKrupp, Faurecia and Siemens.

In terms of exports of high-tech manufacturing, Mexico is the second largest supplier of electronic products to the United States. Exports of consumer electronics and devices reached $71.4 billion in 2010, an increase of 20% over the previous year. In fact, Mexico is the third largest global exporter of cell phones.

While Mexico is still heavily dependent on the United States for its exports, the country is starting to diversify its export markets.

"Mexico's exporting structure has been based on the U.S. market where 90% of the products land. But during the recent economic downturn, in the past three years, they have reduced this number to less than 80%. Their export markets are more diverse, with Latin America growing. In fact, trade with Brazil alone has increased fivefold," explains David Rutchik, a partner with Pace Harmon, an outsourcing advisory services firm.

Fueled by a young, increasingly educated population, low labor rates and aggressive promotion by Mexican government officials, Mexico appears well-situated for years of sustained growth. "We are predicting that by 2050 Mexico will be the eighth largest economy in the world," says Paul Cronin, a U.S.-based executive vice president with the international commercial banking firm HSBC."

See Also
Innovative Skilled-Labor Solutions in Mexico
What to Consider When Nearshoring in Mexico