Outsourcing is common for modern factories. Whether in search of lower overhead or increased capacity, American manufacturers increasingly rely on offshore plants.
Photo by Jim Blaylock
Not even Santa is immune.
By most accounts, the magic number was 6 billion. When the world population crossed that threshold, estimated by the United Nations to have occurred sometime around October 1999, North Pole Industries Inc., finally was forced to outsource some of its assembly operations.
Actually, much of the North Pole's manufacturing had been handed off nearly three decades earlier, coinciding with a general move toward Asian manufacturing plants worldwide, said Harvik Sunblom, the operations chief for North Pole Industries' toy-assembly plant.
But it wasn't until about five years ago that Sunblom's fellow elves ran out of room for assembling Christmas toys. When the United Nations made its population projection that the 6-billion mark was coming, Santa himself made the call.
"We had to outsource," Sunblom said. "There was just no way we could get everything ready for the big night without help."
There has long been demand for outsourced Santas, he added.
Thousands of look-alike "helpers" - under contract with North Pole Industries - have long been accepted as Santa surrogates for children needing a lap to sit on and an ear in which to whisper their Christmas requests.
Those helpers provide valuable assistance to the North Pole, Sunblom said.
"Without them, we'd have an even more difficult time processing the year's orders," he said. "I mean, you can't expect a 6-year-old to file a written report."
One thing many of those children request each year, whether to a surrogate Santa or the real thing - the big guy himself still makes thousands of appearances each year - is a new bicycle. And bikes, with the critical need for safe assembly and adjustment, were among the first items outsourced for assembly.
"We got our first contract with North Pole Industries two years ago," said Gene Whitaker, a longtime mechanic at Chain Reaction Cycling and Fitness in Martinez. "The elves who handle the business are really easy to work with, and they're always apologetic about dumping the last-minute orders in our laps."
The store sells hundreds of bicycles to the public each year, and Whitaker and his fellow mechanics often put in long hours to accommodate the crush of orders from NPI.
"Usually, we have about six weeks to assemble about 1,200 bicycles," he said. "The elves loaned us some really good tools that help speed things up, but it's still a lot of work."
Those hush-hush tools, unfortunately, have to be returned to NPI after the contract is completed each year.
"It's real high-tech stuff, unbreakable, very lightweight, and we have to sign all sorts of forms promising not to let anyone outside the shop see them," Whitaker said. "They're afraid the military or someone would get them, I think."
Whitaker and his fellow assemblers get other benefits from the contract. To help with the increased physical demands, the elves enlist the assistance of Mrs. Claus - Santa's personal trainer - in designing a diet for energy and endurance.
"Some of the food is pretty weird, and some of the stretching exercises are, well, embarrassing, but it really does help," Whitaker said, flexing his well-toned muscles.
"I just wish they could figure out a way to manufacture these things so we don't have so many nuts and bolts left over when we're finished putting one together," he said, laughing.
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