The Ailing Ceiling Fan Industry in America and Why Almost All Ceiling Fans Come From China

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The Ailing Ceiling Fan Industry in America and Why Almost All Ceiling Fans Come From China

Here we discuss the history of ceiling fans and why they are no longer made in America and what can be done about it. Since America was one of the first countries in the world to make and use it, it is a sad legacy that we have lost that ability, but there is hope. Read on for more information.

Electric ceiling fans were first manufactured in the 1890s primarily by General electric, Westinghouse and Emerson Electric. These companies were the largest of the electrical appliance companies at that time and at the forefront of the development of new electrical products. In the beginning, the fans were very expensive for the era and used almost exclusively in commercial applications such as bars, restaurants, hotel lobbies and meeting rooms. They were very heavy and made of solid metal castings with bearings that needed to be filled with oil on a regular basis. But they worked fine and ran almost forever. Many are still running today in restored condition. The fans in general are very simple and clear by today’s standards, but they were very much considered a utility device to be felt and not heard or seen. There was no air conditioning at that time, so the ceilings were quite high and fans kept the air moving. Fans continued in this way essentially unchanged, but gradually decreased in price to become more affordable (and lighter) from the 1960s. At this point they became less popular as air conditioning and central heating became the norm and the height of the ceiling has fallen to the standard of 8′ height. In the late 1970s, there was a resurgence in fan popularity with the “energy crisis” and a renewed interest in saving electricity, although it faded again in the 1980s as ‘ and the energy became again. There was a major change in the evolution of fans in the 1980s and 1990s, as cheaper production factories in Taiwan came online. But first a little background on the manufacture of ceiling fans.

Ceiling fans are fairly simple devices, a motor, an attached stick and 3-5 bladed arms that hold the usually wooden blades. Engines are usually made by a number of large companies and used in a variety of brands, keeping costs down. You could have a choice of two engine sizes, but otherwise they were pretty similar. The decorative outer housing and blade weapons were the expensive part to develop. They require very expensive dies and other castings and often take years to pay off development costs. So, few companies wanted to take risks on the development and payment for new forms, styles and designs when there was no need for perception. So, the fan style was pretty simple and boring. Remember when the upgrade for headlights were blades with textile cane inserts? That all changed with Taiwan initially than China in the late 1990s. Its much lower cost of labor and tools did two things; 1. It allowed existing fan companies to create more effectively than the cost of creating entirely new models and 2. It created an opportunity for new companies without any factories of their own, to immediately become fan companies. Examples of the latter are Craftmade, Minka Aire, Concord, Fanimation, Quorum, Regency, Copper Canyon, Ellington, Hunter and many others. In fact, only Emerson remains of the original companies that make fans. GE went out of business and Westinghouse went bankrupt and sold the name to a start-up company.

This was the first major explosion in fan variety and popularity. As more and more choices are available, consumers have discovered that the fans were no longer just for air movement, they are now decorative items that jazz up the room. Then the housing boom hit in the 1980s increasing sales even more and the choices became almost unbelievable. The downside to all of this was that companies that manufactured ceiling fans in the United States had to close or move overseas to keep up with the radical changes in style and demand from an increasingly finicky consumer. After about 10 years, all the American companies were either out of business or now just importers. Once this happened, all the support industries that used to make the parts of the fans, also moved to different areas or even collapsed. For a while, a few companies like Emerson assembled fans here from parts made overseas or in Mexico, but they eventually gave up and now strictly import all their fans. This scenario worked well for many years, as the housing boom continued in 2007, from the disaster.

One of the “deals of the devil” that the fan companies had to sign with the big foreign factories was to buy large quantities of these fans, usually 500 to 1000 at the time of each model. It was great as long as there was a lot of market. What happened now is that these companies suddenly had warehouses full of fans that no longer sold and could no longer afford to create new models or even order inventory of good selling models until the ‘inventory was sold, which was not happening very quickly. The next major issue was that prices began to rise dramatically as the cost of crude metals and petroleum products increased in 2007-10 due to massive demand in Asia. Since the business of lighting and fans went on a dramatic boost, many companies have merged or acquired and this trend is expected to continue for a while to come. So the question now is how do companies survive in a shrinking market with costs rising and consumers still expecting new and different styles? This is a very difficult order that will have to be a dramatic decrease in fan companies and therefore the capacity, or companies will have to be much more agile and able to produce smaller quantities and still be profitable. In reality, both happened and in 2011 the market began to stabilize, although there are still purchases like the one anticipated between Ellington and Craftmade.

An additional complication in all of this is the shift in retail distribution through the internet and “Big Box” stores. Traditionally, lamps have been sold through local lighting showrooms with hardware stores carrying some very basic models at best. With the advent of the internet and the growth of mega hardware stores throughout the county, that has completely changed the landscape of sales of fans. You can shop and check the price of thousands of models from any computer connected to the Internet. Big Box stores are now importing lights directly from China and can sell them for less than the lighting showrooms that can often buy them. The normal 2 times and more marked that the showroom previously enjoyed is also eroded due to the internet, so the lighting of the showroom activity that was the traditional mainstay of these fan companies is failing. Traditional fan companies have been forced to embrace Internet companies and try to sell to Box stores with mixed success. Big box stores are notorious for letting smaller fan (and other product) companies take all the risk in developing new designs, then take proven hits and make them in their factories in China for less.

There is another option that only one specialty lighting and ceiling fan company has embraced; reassemble and end fans in the US. Copper Canyon is known for its artistic western and rustic style ceiling fans. Even in this very limited and low volume market, they have grown dramatically over the past 5 years, keeping inventory low and offering more variety even as other companies cut back. They bring in partially completed ceiling fans from overseas, then add their own US-made decorative panels and accessories and hand-finish the fans as ordered. The cost is higher per fan this way, but it allows for less inventory, provides jobs in the United States and more choices for customers.

As more and more companies grapple with the rising costs of manufacturing and doing business in China, this trend is likely to continue, benefiting everyone. Making ceiling fans at the consumer level completely here in the US will probably never happen again, but like the car companies, why not assemble and finish fans here from imported and domestic parts? The tremendous profits of the past can never be the same, but this is the price of staying in business and we have to start assessing the real cost of losing so many jobs to overseas suppliers.

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