Made in the U.S.A.

By
(Clockwise from top left) An AO employee does a final inspection, the frame and component cleaning area and Mary and Alan McKinley, owners.
​ (Clockwise from top left) The current Shuron logo, the classic Ronsir frame from Shuron, a vintage ad.
(Clockwise from top left) Art-Craft factory workers doing presswork today, workers doing presswork in the first half of the 19th century, three generations of Eagles.
The Randolph Engineering HQ, factory worker making frames today and co-founder, Jan Waszkiewicz in the 1950s.
(Clockwise from top left) The Kala Eyewear factory, Daniel Lau, the “Made in California” Opera frame from Kala.
(Top to bottom) Frieze Frames Ventura, Calif. factory and workers. Marc Franchi, right.
NEW YORK—Manufacturing is the backbone of the U.S., and something our nation was built on, but in the 80s and 90s we all learned a new “dirty” word—outsourcing. As manufacturing and labor costs became cheaper in developing countries many American companies took their factories elsewhere. But, to quote a great American, “the times they are a-changin.”

There is a growing trend to bring manufacturing back to the U.S. and more and more consumers are seeking products stamped “Made in the U.S.A.” What started as a cottage industry with words like “small batch,” “artisanal,” and “locally sourced,” has become a bonafide movement that crosses industries.

Companies that never left and have a heritage of being American-made are once again gaining popularity, while new companies see their ability to keep their product, and the jobs making their product creates, in the U.S. as a badge of honor and distinction.

In the optical industry we have both; decade, even century old, companies that never stopped manufacturing here and upstarts looking to establish their U.S. manufacturing bravura, that are seeing an increase in demand for their “Made in the U.S.A.” eyewear.

“Without question, the interest in U.S. manufacturing has experienced a meaningful spike, from automobiles to industrial eyewear,” said Charlie Eagle, vice president of operations of Art-Craft Optical, based in Henrietta, N.Y. “We receive numerous inquiries each month, asking us to look at new ideas, or to manufacture products for outside companies that are explicitly American-made.”

Marc Franchi, co-founder of Frieze Frames and president of Independent Eyewear Manufacturing (IEM), a new venture formed after Europa International’s recent acquisition of his company, agreed. “There is no doubt that ‘Made in America’ has made a resurgence. After the financial crisis in 2008, there definitely seemed to be a shift by consumers; they wanted to support our economy and do their part to help create jobs here.”

“We have seen an increase in the number of people contacting us to produce their product here over the last few years,” confirmed Peter Waszkiewicz, president and CEO, of the Randolph, Mass.-based Randolph Engineering. “I do believe it’s because of our U.S.A. made position. The trend started about two years ago and just seems to be increasing and demand is rising.”

“I think ‘Made in U.S.A.’ has always been important to the U.S. consumer but more so recently,” stated Alan McKinley, president, AO Eyewear in Southbridge, Mass. “We regularly receive requests from designers and licensed brand companies to manufacture their frames, most probably because of our reputation for high quality and of course, now for our renewed commitment to U.S. manufacturing.”

But as Daniel Lau, owner of Kala Eyewear in Hayward, Calif., acknowledged, “Being Made in America has 100 percent for sure increased demand for our product but it is only a starting point. After that you have to back it up with style, value, customer service, etc.”

Which makes it clear that manufacturing in the U.S. is not without its challenges. “I think I lot of people think it is a lot easier than it is,” continued Lau. “We get almost all our raw material overseas, so the shipping cost for raw material can be very costly. To make a bespoke pair of glasses, one to 10 maximum, may be easier. But to make a lot more is difficult. You need a lot of people and machines and connections.”

Materials are an obstacle agreed Franchi. “One of our biggest challenges is that virtually all the raw materials required to make high quality eyewear has to be imported from Europe. Since eyewear manufacturing all but left the U.S. in the 80s and 90s so did the raw material suppliers. Fortunately, we have partnered with some of the very finest suppliers of eyewear raw materials in the world to ensure we will have a continual flow of goods,” he said.

For McKinley, one of the biggest challenges has been securing funding for the equipment to bring his manufacturing back to the U.S. “Luckily, for us, we contracted with Mass Development who arranged for a bond issue to cover our initial program costs. And we have also found that local banks like Southbridge Savings Bank are eager to participate in the regional economy stimulation. There are a number of programs out there to assist the manufacturer, the challenge was to select the right program that worked for us.”

“The challenges are no different than any other industry,” explained Waszkiewicz. “Money and talent. Talent in the manufacturing sector, especially in optical, is next to nil in the U.S. So we are dedicated to hiring and training great talent.”

Jon Rogers, president of Shuron Optical in Greenville, S.C. concurred that skilled labor is a challenge, as is government regulations regarding manufacturing in the U.S. and the perception that “price is still ‘god’ with consumers.”

“The biggest misconception is that for the optical frame industry there is parity,” added Eagle. “We are still talking about a labor intense product. From the receipt of large spools of eyewire from our German supplier to the final packaged product on the shelf, there are over 100 operations on each frame. From strictly a cost position, it is not an apples-to-apples comparison with Far East wages that must be reflected in the final pricing. The difference is value.”

IEM’s Franchi, however, feels some of the challenges may be misconceptions. “A big misconception is that it’s too expensive or we don’t have the skilled laborers required to do it. I can tell you that just isn’t true and we are proving it. One thing that cannot be argued is the drive, determination and pride Americans take in their work.”

AO’s McKinley agreed. “One common misconception is that producing here is too expensive. While that may have been the case 15 years ago, it is not the case today. There are many domestic companies eager to do business with us because of what we are trying to do here.

“Because of that, costs are quite reasonable when compared with overseas costs. Another misconception is that U.S. quality lags behind the quality of European manufacturers. I don’t feel that is true at all. Especially since our frames meet rigid 23-page military specifications and are manufactured by people who care about the products they produce,” he said.

Randolph’s Waszkiewicz added, “The biggest misconception about American manufacturing is that it can’t be done. We’re living proof it can be. We’ve not only survived, we’re thriving.”

So the challenges and misconceptions may be many but according to the guys doing it, the rewards of manufacturing in the U.S. far outweigh them.

“Our production and support staff have an average of 22.4 years of employment with Art-Craft,” said Eagle. “Our employees have always been family and we are committed to growing the business with this third generation of leadership. Manufacturing in America is a shared passion that has resonated through Art-Craft since 1918.”

“Knowing that American workers are being used to produce a highly recognized iconic American brand is a huge reward, as well as the fact AO is back in control of its destiny,” confirmed McKinley.

“I think the greatest reward is to see the company grow,” stated Lau. “When I watch T.V. or see a magazine of someone wearing our glasses, it feels so good. Someone wearing something you produce is whole different feeling. Your heart and soul is in there.”

“There are several rewards to producing eyewear in the States but I think the biggest will be the benefit to the consumer,” added Franchi. “With the entire process being done domestically, styles will go from concept to dispensary faster. No more waiting to see what the hot new colors or shapes will be after they hit the shelves in Europe and Asia. U.S. consumers will have access to the latest in eyewear fashion immediately.”

And so, it begs the question, are these guys open to more optical companies bringing their manufacturing back to the U.S.?

Waszkiewicz of Randolph Engineering had a ready answer. “We consider ourselves a front runner to bringing manufacturing back to the U.S. We’re supporting the economy and our country but competition is great for everyone. Competition makes everyone better.

“It keeps the team drive going, and keeps one honest in the sense that we have a competitive benchmark to measure our own progress. Competition is what drives the needle forward, to always be raising the bar, and to always maintain a sense of urgency within your organization, otherwise by nature we become complacent,” he concluded.

And in the end, it seems competition is as natural to Americans as our entrepreneurial spirit.