Swiss Artisans Automate to Survive

by eggplant in BFI

Forster is co-chief executive officer of Forster Rohner AG, a 113-year-old company in the eastern city of St. Gallen that produces fabric that can cost thousands of dollars per yard—including material he says was used in the dress British socialite Pippa Middleton wore at her wedding in May. Forster Rohner is among dozens of Swiss textile producers that have managed to survive, and even thrive, despite wages that are among the world’s highest and a currency that’s risen 50 percent against the euro since 2008. “It’s clear that we don’t think the strong franc is great,” says Forster, a great-grandson of the company’s founder. “But our creative brainpower really comes from our site in Switzerland.” The key is combining the country’s history of quality workmanship with its tradition of innovation: automating where it makes sense and doing only the most intricate pieces by hand—while exporting lower-value work to less expensive locales. The company employs 250 people in St. Gallen—where unemployment is just 2.5 percent—and has 640 workers in factories in China and Romania crafting material for lower-cost clothing. “It is encouraging to produce something unique in Switzerland that you can’t find elsewhere,” Forster says. “You can’t have China without St. Gallen, and vice versa. It’s a system in which each part has its own function. And the function of Switzerland is clear: driving innovation and design.”

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