Globalization The Global Toothbrush

How many employees does it take to manufacture a toothbrush? Forty-five-hundred employees, 10 countries, five time zones. The making of one electronic toothbrush illustrates capitalism's global reach.

By Ralf Hoppe

Philips's Sonicare Elite 7000

Philips's Sonicare Elite 7000

It features a pearly white finish and streamlined neck, purrs like a kitten, weighs in at 161.034 grams, and costs €130. Presenting the Elite, the perfect toy for the affluent of our world. The sun never sets on its empire. When it comes to the Elite, an 8 percent market share is too little, some 20 million users not nearly enough. Those who serve this plastic icon must do battle in places like the Philippines. On the outskirts of Manila, for example.

In a little yellow house, for example.

Mary Ann Cole turns off her alarm clock and slips from between the covers. Quietly, so as not to wake her two sisters - Amy and Emelin - with whom she shares her bed.

Mary Ann has about seven minutes.

It's 4:25 a.m., first light. It's her week on the early shift. That means she clocks off at 2 p.m., arrives home by 3, and has time to look after her own small business in the afternoon. Most recently she's begun dealing in blue jeans: investing, buying, selling - it's all very exciting.

She tiptoes to the kitchen. Mary Ann likes this house. They rented it when they first came to Manila, she and her six brothers and sisters, for 8,000 pesos a month, about $140. Their father back home can't understand - a sin, so much money, and for what? Just for a place to sleep?

But the father lives far away on the island of Cebu. He knows nothing of the swing-shift rhythms of the factory; he doesn't know that you must never, ever show up late. He also knows nothing of the new age, in which money has to be earned constantly - only to be spent again. You either swim or sink, Mary Ann's brother said recently. He has now gone into the mineral water business, in addition to his day job at the wig factory in San Pedro. He buys a bottle for 25 pesos and sells it for 35 pesos - i.e. roughly half a dollar. Once you achieve a certain volume, he explains, it starts to make sense. The problem is reaching the breakeven point. There are eight siblings in all. One brother stayed behind in Barangay Guiwanon, their home village, to help their father.

Mary Ann dons a fresh T-shirt, pink with a cartoon dragon, and ties back her hair. She is a slip of a thing. When she laughs she covers her mouth with her hand. Her cheeks are pockmarked with what look like the scars of severe acne. From the refrigerator she takes a bowl of tuyo, salted fish. Adds a spoonful of cold rice and a cup of water. They have a coffee machine, but it is reserved for special occasions.

The house has a small garden, four by five meters. They grow papaya, camote and sweet potatoes. She looks at the sky: clouds are scudding past, lightening flashes behind San Pedro. The monsoon season has begun. Mary Ann hails a jeepney, an inexpensive ridesharing taxi. Time is short.

Mary Ann Cole, 28, is an assembly operator at Integrated Microelectronics Inc., a Philips supplier. She is but a foot soldier in the empire of the toothbrush, one of 4,500 workers of two dozen nationalities. But she understands the meaning of globalization. Globalization means business. And business means competition. Every day, you need to swim. Or you sink.

Is globalization unfair, Mary Ann?

"How so?" She lowers her gaze.

Isn't it unfair, for example, that you earn less than your counterparts in the United States or Germany for doing the same work?

"Unfair?" She fidgets in her chair, and glances toward the interpreter. She is probably thinking: What a strange question. Unfair? What's the point?

"I like my work. It's a very big opportunity."

The globalization process began 600 years ago, when Europeans discovered the world in order to appropriate it - by means of cartography, religion, violence, economics and transportation. What we are now experiencing is the final act of this drama: a world completely conquered, in which commodities, goods and information circulate freely with no place beyond their reach. It is the heyday of the outsider.

38 components, 12 factories

Philips and its suppliers produce the electronic toothbrush "Sonicare Elite 7000" and its sister models at 12 locations and in five time zones. Once or twice a week, some 100,000 fully-functioning circuit boards leave the Manila factory where Mary Ann works. From Manila's cargo airport they are flown via Tokyo to Seattle. A half day's delay can wreak havoc in the entire system, which operates with a minimum of inventory and extremely tight timelines.

A tour through the precision machine that is "Oral Healthcare Philips" is an odyssey through a globalized universe - a realm almost purged of Europeans with their romantic ideals of justice and ugly, expensive strikes. The relocation to Asia is nearly complete.

The toothbrush is essentially comprised of 38 components. The parts for the energy cell, a rechargeable nickel-cadmium battery, are supplied by Japan, France and China. The circuit board, its electronic heart, comes pre-etched from Zhuhai in the Pearl River delta of southeastern China. The copper coils originate from the Chinese industrial city of Shenzhen, not far from Zhuhai. They are wound by armies of women with bandaged fingers. Globalization is largely a female phenomenon.

Graphic: Division of labor

Graphic: Division of labor

The 49 components on the board - transistors and resistors the size of match heads - hail from Malaysia. They are soldered and tested in Manila by Mary Ann and her coworkers. Then they are flown to Snoqualmie on the West Coast of the U.S., the site of the parent plant. Meanwhile, back in Europe, the more complicated plastic parts are trucked from Klagenfurt in Austria to Bremerhaven in Germany. Klagenfurt also supplies blades made of special steel produced in Sandviken, Sweden. A freighter from Bremerhaven takes the half-finished brushes across the Atlantic to Port Elizabeth, New Jersey. From there they cross the continental United States by train. And in Snoqualmie, a 40 minute drive from Seattle, the final product is assembled and packaged.

By this time the components have traveled a full 27,880 kilometers, two thirds of the Earth's circumference.

Philips is a Dutch corporation. But there are only two Dutch citizens among the 120 people on this carousel of cultures and continents. The foreman in Snoqualmie comes from Gambia. Bernard Lim Nam Onn, the boss in Zhuhai, is Chinese, but was born in Malaysia and raised in Singapore. There are Irish, Ukrainians, Indians, Cambodians, Vietnamese, Thai. Globalization is carving out new biographies and cross-referencing them around the world. By now Mary Ann Cole is sitting in the jeepney en route to the pickup point where the company bus departs at 4:45 a.m. sharp. Meanwhile it is quarter to eleven in the evening in Klagenfurt - the previous day - and Peter Heindl, an engineer at the local Philips plant, is packing his rucksack for the next morning. Come rain or shine, he rides his mountain bike to work. Four kilometers from Wurzelgasse to Koningsberger Strasse, a distance he covers in less than 15 minutes.

Heindl's wife will be having their baby very soon now, and he himself has the job of a lifetime. He is an excellent engineer. At least that's what his superiors say. He says he has always enjoyed tinkering and building crazy contraptions. So he runs the test lab where they design the machines that measure how often an electric razor can be dropped from a first-story window, or how long a toothbrush will last at the North Pole. Saharan conditions prevail in the "Libya" climate chamber; in the rain forest simulator the toothbrush is exposed to years' worth of tropical humidity. Peter Heindl and Mary Ann Cole have never met. But if Heindl's tests revealed a flaw that could be traced back to the circuit board, the Philippine supplier, Integrated Microelectronics Inc. (IMI), could lose the contract - and Mary Ann would probably lose her job. Meanwhile, her cheap labor enables the global player Philips to hire expensive, creative boffins to staff its R&D and testing facility in Klagenfurt. People like Heindl, who are given license to experiment in the hopes that they will happen upon good ideas.

Sundown in Europe, sunrise in America

When Heindl goes to bed, Wayne Millage is still sitting at his desk in Renton, on the U.S. West Coast. He is wearing a short-sleeved shirt. It is one of those rare Seattle days when the sun is shining. Millage is 47 years old and has intelligent brown eyes; he speaks and thinks quickly.

Renton is situated east of downtown Seattle, a nondescript neighborhood with an industrial park along 27th Street: home to the Allpak/Trojan cardboard and packaging works, named for the ingenious camouflage packaging gag the ancient Greeks used to smuggle their soldiers into enemy territories. It is lunch time, but Wayne, as always, just picks up a large coffee to go from the Starbucks at Pine Lake Mall. No sugar. He pops grapes into his mouth. He saves a couple of bananas for later. That's his noon meal.

Wayne gets up every morning at 5:15 a.m. By 5:30 he is at the Pine Gym for an hour of exercise and muscle training. Shaved and showered, he is at his desk by seven. He supervises 247 employees, eats only fruit during the day, and drinks beer or wine at most on weekends. His father was an air force officer.

His fingers rest on the laptop keyboard. He is reading the monthly report e-mailed by Les, his financial director. They have purchased a new printing machine from the German company of Koenig & Bauer in Würzburg, a Rapida 142 that is three times faster than the Japanese model they have used to date. Wayne is looking to expand.

Wayne sees the big picture; he is a man of vision. His company has grown along with the computer industry. Allpak/Trojan's clientele include Intel and Microsoft, the most demanding customers on the West Coast.

"This toothbrush is not just a toothbrush. And our box is a lot more than just a box," he says. "We now print in seven colors. Besides the four standard shades there are two metallic colors, a laminated coating, plus embossed printing. We make the most sophisticated box in the world. It has to be perfect. Our job is to give the box a voice."

But Wayne, the box just gets thrown away. Sevencolor printing, embossing - why all the fuss?

"Because the world has changed."

How so?

"The supermarkets and department stores don't have sales clerks anymore. Consumers wander down the aisles alone. Shopping habits have changed. In the U.S., 70 percent of all purchases are made on impulse. So who is to know what consumers will buy? And because there are no longer any clerks saying, 'Hey, mister, how about a toothbrush for 120 bucks?' we need the box. So that it speaks to consumers all over the world, and does it in a split second. The consumer either buys spontaneously - or not at all. If the product doesn't get sold, the supermarket chain tosses it off its shelves. And then Philips has a problem, and then I have a problem."

  • Part 1: The Global Toothbrush
  • Part 2

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