BENTON HARBOR, Mich. - Who is the biggest exporter of German-made washing machines to the United States? Not Miele or Bosch-Siemens, or any other German manufacturer. It is the American appliance maker, Whirlpool, the company proudly reports.
Never mind the higher labor cost - $32 an hour, including benefits, versus $23 in the United States. The necessary technology existed in Germany when Whirlpool decided to sell front-loading washers to Americans. So did a trained work force and a Whirlpool factory already making a European version of the front loader.
"We were able to expand the capacity in Germany at a very incremental investment," said Jeff M. Fettig, Whirlpool's chairman and chief executive. "It was the fastest way to the American market."
Globalization is often viewed as a rootless process of constantly moving jobs to low-wage countries. But the issue is more complex, as illustrated by Whirlpool's worldwide operations. What attracts Mr. Fettig and other chief executives is a relatively new form of globalization that emphasizes first-rate centers of production and design in various countries - including the United States.
Whirlpool's global network, a work in progress, includes microwave ovens engineered in Sweden and made in China for American consumers; stoves designed in America and made in Tulsa, Okla., for American consumers; refrigerators assembled in Brazil and exported to Europe; and top-loading washers made at a sprawling factory in Clyde, Ohio, for American consumers, although some are sold in Mexico.
"The really sophisticated multinationals," said Diana Farrell, director of the Global Institute at McKinsey & Company, the management consulting firm, "are taking advantage of the different locations in their global networks without worrying about whether they also sell in the countries where they produce."
The advantage of Whirlpool's approach to globalization is that it allows the company to put the earnings of overseas affiliates to their best use anywhere in the world, Ms. Farrell argues. The larger consequence, she adds, is that parent companies "invest in new technologies and business opportunities that will eventually create new jobs at home and abroad."
At the moment, the job growth and the expansion are mainly abroad. As its turns out, more than 40 percent of the nation's imports are from the overseas subsidiaries of American companies, contributing to the lopsided trade deficit, but also making companies more competitive. Whirlpool is a typical example: its employment in the United States has not risen in years while it has tripled abroad.
The "global production footprints," as Ms. Farrell calls them, draw on a growing network of first-rate suppliers in Mexico, China and elsewhere that allow manufacturers to go beyond mere assembly overseas into complex production. And the investment, once made, becomes an anchor; a sunk cost, as economists put it.
Sunk cost figured in Whirlpool's decision to ship front-loader washing machines to the United States from its factory in Schorndorf, Germany, which Whirlpool acquired in 1991 with the purchase of the appliance operations of Philips N.V. for more than $1 billion.
Almost two million of the front loaders have been sold in the United States since 2001, at $1,200 apiece, and as demand rises, so do the shipments across the Atlantic. The German-made washers load laundry from a door on the front that opens into a basket that spins at high speeds. Front loaders, long popular in Europe, in part because they use less water and electricity, are gaining ground among American consumers, who have traditionally favored top loaders that circulate the laundry and water using an agitator fitted with fins.
The Maytag Corporation got into the front loader market first, in the 1990's, but soon stumbled. Its Neptune model, engineered and made in the United States, suffered from a high repair rate. That gave Whirlpool's Duet front loader an advantage, Mr. Fettig said; his company avoided the pitfalls by adopting the already kink-free German technology.
Maytag, in a statement, said that it, too, has now resorted to globalization to get back into the game. The newest model "is made in South Korea through a technology and manufacturing partnership with Samsung," Maytag said.
Whirlpool's executives take issue with analysts who declare that low foreign wages, particularly in China and elsewhere in Asia, combined with generous subsidies from those countries, will keep the global production networks mobile. Company executives say the manpower required to make its appliances is declining, diluting the drawing power of lower wages. One hour of labor, for example, goes into each of the 20,000 top-loaders coming off the line daily at Clyde, down from 2.5 hours five years ago.
"We may pay $23 an hour in Clyde, including benefits, versus $3 in Mexico versus $1 in China," Mr. Fettig said. "But for one hour of labor, the difference won't begin to cover the shipping costs, let alone the investment it would take to build a new factory in Mexico or a new factory in China."
The Clyde factory, which employs 2,000 people, is billed as a jewel in Whirlpool's production network - an efficient, partly automated operation whose experienced workers possess a "tribal knowledge" of their product that pays off in quality and cost saving. But if the Clyde factory did not already exist, Mr. Fettig would not put it there. "I'd probably put it in Mexico," he said.
Whirlpool's total of 23,000 employees in this country has not changed in a decade, while the overseas work force has tripled, to 45,000. Yet, American consumers, not foreigners, account for two-thirds of Whirlpool's annual revenue, which was $13.2 billion last year, up from $10.3 billion in 2000.
Parts suppliers - the small companies that mold plastic parts or machine metal ones, for example - play a big role in determining where new factories are put, or existing ones are expanded. In the last 15 years, suppliers have set up shop in growing numbers near the new production centers in China, India, Southeast Asia and Latin America. Without their presence, Whirlpool says, it would not have been able to concentrate the manufacture of microwave ovens in southern China.
"It is much more difficult to operate outside of an industrial country without that supplier base," said Mark Brown, senior vice president at Whirlpool for global sourcing.
The concentration of suppliers in northern Mexico helps explain why Whirlpool has decided to produce a less-costly front-loading washing machine at its existing manufacturing complex in Monterrey.
The high-end, $1,200 model will continue to come from Schorndorf. The smaller Mexican front loaders, on the other hand, will be for the majority of American consumers and will be priced several hundred dollars less, too low to absorb the $50 in freight to cross the Atlantic, the company says.
"We looked at making them in the United States," said David L. Swift, Whirlpool's executive vice president for North America, "but since we did not already manufacture any front loaders here, this country did not have an advantaged position. Because of the shipping cost, we knew we had to make them in Mexico or America, and since the suppliers were already in Mexico, we thought we might as well go there."
Using Mexican workers, Whirlpool could have matched the efficiency of Schorndorf's labor force, said Roy Armes, Whirlpool's vice president for Mexico. Indeed, Mexican engineers, foremen and supervisors have gone to the German plant for 18 months of training, and line workers are also getting special instruction.
But Whirlpool calculated that it could afford more workers at Mexican wages, so it did not purchase the most advanced automated machinery for Monterrey. "When you have lower labor costs, it is hard to justify that higher investment," Mr. Armes said.
Companies like Whirlpool differentiate between skills that can be taught in a few weeks or months, and those that take longer to acquire. The harder-to-acquire skills anchor the one last Whirlpool factory in Benton Harbor, where the company got its start in 1911 and still has its headquarters.
The company closed a washing machine plant in Benton Harbor in the mid-1980's, consolidating production in Clyde, but kept open a parts factory that makes the steel gears that are the heart of the washing machine's agitation mechanism. The machining to make the gears, and the nickel plating to prevent corrosion require a skill level not easily duplicated.
"You can find lots of machine shops and some plating operations, but you rarely find the two together," Jim F. Spicer, the plant manager, said. "And when you do find them together, you almost never find the volumes that we require."
The gears are trucked to the Clyde plant, four hours away. The 208 hourly workers (many of them long-termers; there has not been a layoff in more than 15 years) earn $14 to $20 an hour. At the low end of the scale are the 178 operators of the automated machining equipment, a skill that can take up to a year to master.
The remaining 30 employees are mechanics and electricians who repair the machinery, having acquired these skills during a four-year apprenticeship that costs $200,000, a sum that Whirlpool pays, Mr. Spicer said, when it cannot find people already trained. One apprentice is in training; three recently graduated.
"In my opinion, the reason we are here and not outsourced," Mr. Spicer said, "is that we do excellent quality work. If we don't have that, we don't have anything."