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A Shinola bicycle.

Shinola/Detroit LLC

"You can't import a vision … you can't duplicate legacy. You can't import the heart and soul of every man and woman workin' on the line," Bob Dylan said in a Chrysler commercial earlier this year.

Maybe so, but how can we bring some manufacturing back to the shores of North America, or at least slow the decline of that sector?

The climate in Canada is more favourable now, with a declining dollar, cheaper natural gas to power factories and rising labour costs in Asia, which makes North America more competitive.

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In April, the Canadian manufacturing sector enjoyed a second consecutive month of solid gains, with sales rising 1.1 per cent month over month to a record $54.4-billion, according to Statistics Canada, although that was mainly because of improving numbers for oil, coal and metal products. The agency said that 13 of 21 industries showed manufacturing-sales gains, representing 62 per cent of the sector.

The U.S. picture is less clear, as businesses and consumers hold their breath waiting to determine what moves the Trump administration will make on trade and whether the Federal Reserve will raise interest rates as it has been suggesting for some time.

But there's ample evidence that green shoots are sprouting in the manufacturing sector in places once left for dead, however, such as Detroit.

Shinola/Detroit LLC, which has opened a store in Toronto's trendy Queen Street West area, is perhaps a precursor of a turn toward the return of manufacturing – at least some types – to North America.

"We certainly think there's plenty of opportunity to do something like this," said Steve Bock, who until last year was the chief executive officer of Shinola, which has grown from employing about 10 people two years ago to hundreds.

The company, which makes high-end watches, bicycles, leather products and journals, has set up shop in a bleak, postapocalyptic city where streetlights don't necessarily work, calls to police can go unanswered and there are blocks and blocks of abandoned stores and homes.

"The negatives of Detroit are many," said Mr. Bock, who has since moved to head C.C. Filson Co., a Seattle-based outdoors wear and accessory firm. But Shinola has appealed to consumers who want products that are not made overseas.

While much Canadian manufacturing managed to hang in longer than in the Rust Belt of the United States, the sector north of the border was ultimately squeezed by the high Canadian dollar, which pushed up wages and costs. The dollar's subsequent fall, with the price of oil, has improved things, but not as much as experts had hoped.

While there are promising developments for North American manufacturing, they should nevertheless be taken with a grain of salt, says Ron Babin, associate professor at Ryerson University's Ted Rogers School of Management and an expert on the flow of labour. Even so, there are positive developments.

He explains that around the turn of the 21st century, China began to create a low-cost manufacturing capability. "Now there's a counterbalancing factor – for heavy goods it's costly to have them delivered from overseas, so companies are rebalancing to bring their manufacturing closer to the customer."

Other factors at work are increased productivity, particularly in the United States, as well as the need to protect intellectual property, Dr. Babin adds.

"You can buy a lot of labour overseas, but the productivity may not be as good," he says. With even the most mundane products now containing sensors and microchips, companies also worry that outsourcing their manufacturing abroad leaves them vulnerable to copying or theft of key ideas.

Any bump in North American manufacturing won't result in a job bonanza, however.

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"If there's a renaissance in Canadian manufacturing I haven't seen it," says Rolly Kiehne, president of Unifor Local 112, which represents Canadian aerospace workers. "The auto industry is improving, but five or 10 years ago those workplaces were twice the size of what they are today."

The Canadian government is partly to blame for the current state of manufacturing, he says. "We don't have any industrial policy for growing jobs. In my own area, the aerospace sector, there's a patchwork of funding and money for research, but there's no strategic plan."

One thing that could boost manufacturing is a change in management style.

In a recent blog on iPolitics.ca, business and management professor Paul Boothe of the University of Western Ontario's Ivey Business School wrote that many successful manufacturing firms have decentralized organizational structures, giving local managers authority not just to run the operation but also to look for new business.

Leading firms also anticipate their customers' needs "and respond quickly when those needs change," he says. Some firms also develop their talent from within and offer profit sharing as an incentive.

One Canadian company that has been manufacturing at home all along is Roots Canada.

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The company employs about 200 people and this has been part of the Roots DNA since the company's inception in 1973, a spokesman says. The retailer makes all of its shoes, boots, leather jackets, purses, leather bags and some luggage in Canada.

Mr. Bock and his co-investors purchased the Shinola name from a company that made shoe polish from 1907 to 1960 — a name that inspired both a gritty Second World War expression ("you don't know s--- from Shinola!") and a Dolly Parton song. They liked the traditional, retro sound of the name, Mr. Bock says.

The company's marketing promotes the made-in-America ethos. Parts for Shinola watches come from Switzerland, and some bicycle parts are from Asia, but the company is proud that everything is built in Detroit, Mr. Bock said.

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