Two things happened to the American auto industry over the past 15 years.
One, new competition working with new methods arrived from Japan when the US industry was weak.
Two, the US industry used some of those new methods to regain its position as a pre-eminent auto-building superpower.
European automakers were a bit slower to accept the competition, and react to it. Until the retirement last fall of Jacques Calvet, PSA in France was still calling for trade barriers against Japanese competition. Today in Europe, Toyota and Honda are expanding their production capacity, and Europeans, like Americans, are now using methods adapted from the Japanese.
In the USA, the industry is fitter for competition than it has been in a generation. Its factories are more efficient. Its workers are better trained. Its products are of a better quality. And its whole approach to getting the job done is as good as anyone's in the world.
This series of articles on New American Manufacturing is the story of the US turnaround.
In the spring of 1982, the US industry was in bad shape.
Some 200,000 autoworkers had been laid off. More than a dozen assembly plants were preparing to shut down. Industry sales were fewer than 12 million units a year for two years. Chrysler had narrowly averted bankruptcy. Ford had feared for its life. General Motors, the largest industrial corporation on the planet, sat by helplessly as its market share and profitability eroded.
But this was more than a recession - it was a turning point.
GM, Ford and Chrysler were showing that they were out of touch with a changing US market. Consumers had grown angry. They were throwing around words like 'dependability,' 'quality' and 'fuel efficiency' and making demands.
Annual sales of imported vehicles were 2.6 million units, roughly the equivalent of 10 American auto plants. On a global basis, little Japan was outproducing the US industry by nearly four million vehicles a year.
... and now
The USA this year will outproduce Japan by nearly one million vehicles. The best factory technologies of Germany's luxury builders and the most sublime production systems of Japan's market leaders are embodied in a network of young plants scattered across the country.
The same automakers that swamped the US markets with imports in the mid-1980s have invested more than $12 billion in US factories. They now build some 2.4 million vehicles a year, representing one-fifth of US auto sales. Japanese and European automakers now rely on US factories as the world source for key vehicles. Many international vehicles are designed and engineered in the USA.
Inside those factories, fear has given way to confidence. Ideas like involving employees in decisions and making tiny gains in efficiency were once dismissed by industry veterans. Today continuous improvement is written into supplier quality standards, and efficiency teams are everywhere.