At Siemens AG' high-voltage equipment plant about two hours' drive from Mexico City, workers move about the polished floor, assembling and testing parts of circuit breakers for use in electrical substations.
Until a few months ago, the 160 parts for these enormous devices, with protruding poles that give them the appearance of stage props from a set of Frankenstein's workshop, were assembled in India or China.
But today, the assembly is carried out in Mexico. By March next year, most of those 160 parts, which currently come from Germany and Asia, will be produced there too. The company has also chosen Mexico as the location for a new surge-arrester project instead of investing to expand production in China.
"We are moving towards local hubs," explains Claude Steffen Raab, general manager of the German company's high-voltage division in Mexico. "The idea is to respond more quickly to each of our markets."
The shift in production at Siemens is part of a little-publicized manufacturing revolution in Mexico taking place across a range of industries from cars and aircraft to refrigerators and computers. For the first time in a decade, Latin America's second-largest economy has become a credible competitor to China.
During the first half of this year, Mexico accounted for 14.2 per cent of manufactured imports into the U.S., the world's s largest importer. In 2005, Mexico's share was just 11 per cent. Surprisingly, China, which gained huge chunks of the U.S. import market for many years, has started to lose ground. From a high of 29.3 per cent of the total at the end of 2009, it has now shrunk to 26.4 per cent.
While winning a bigger slice of the U.S. market, Mexico has diversified its customers. A decade ago, about 90 per cent of the country's exports went to the U.S. Last year, that figure fell to less than 80 per cent. Suddenly, it seems, Mexico has become the preferred centre of manufacturing for multinational companies looking to supply the Americas and, increasingly, beyond. Today, Mexico exports more manufactured products than the rest of Latin America put together.
The result of this turnaround can often seem counter-intuitive. Chrysler, for example, is using Mexico as a base to supply some of its Fiat 500s to the Chinese market. During last year's inauguration of the U.S. company's $500-million (U.S.) investment in Mexico, Felipe Calderon, the country's president, told the nation: "I think it is the first time that a Mexican vehicle, at least in recent times, is to be exported to China … we always thought it was going to be the other way around."
But the U.S. car manufacturer is not alone. Audi, the German car maker, is deciding whether to use a factory in Mexico to manufacture the kits for Q5 cars that are assembled in China to supply the domestic market.
Mexico's new-found competitiveness has become so clear that Marco Oviedo of Barclays concludes: "After lagging Chinese manufacturing exports for a decade, Mexico has taken the lead post-2008-09. We believe this change is likely to be structural and persistent."
Go back to the beginning of the century and none of this seemed possible. Back then, as China burst on to the global stage following its accession to the World Trade Organisation in 2001, Mexico seemed to be in serious trouble.
For much of the rest of Latin America, China was a voracious customer of agricultural and mineral commodities. By contrast, Mexico saw China as an unstoppable competitor that produced exactly the same sorts of cheap manufactured goods at a tiny fraction of the cost.
Against that backdrop, it is hardly surprising that Mexico was the last WTO member to vote for China's accession – a vote that it gave only after a long and bitter negotiation.
But several important shifts have taken place since then that have improved Mexico's comparative advantages, giving it a new and dynamic role as a global manufacturer. The first is that Mexico has embraced trade and openness like few other countries in the world.
Its free-trade agreements with 44 countries – more than twice as many as China and four times more than Brazil – have given companies based in Mexico the ability to source parts and inputs from a wide range of nations, often without paying duty.
Partly as a result, the sum of Mexico's imports and exports as a percentage of its gross domestic product, a strong indicator of openness, rose to 58.6 per cent in 2010. In the case of China, it was 47.9 per cent, and just 18.5 per cent in the case of Brazil. HSBC in Mexico City estimated recently that the figure for Mexico could increase to as much as 69 per cent this year.
There is also an increased confidence inspired by agreements, particularly the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement, which binds Mexico with the U.S. and Canada. "Nafta creates a rule of law, which is not perceived to be a particularly Mexican concept … it forces you to do what is right, and to do it for ever, " says Luis de la Calle, an economist and trade expert who helped negotiate NAFTA for Mexico.
As if to prove the point, Mr. de la Calle devised an unorthodox index based on how many alphabetical letters appear about a given country in the U.S. Trade Representative's annual report on barriers to U.S. exports and investment, divided by U.S. exports to that same country. Last year, from a list of 22 countries, Mexico beat Canada to the top place of best-behaved countries. Pakistan was the worst offender and China was 10th worst.
Of course, Mexico is not without its problems. While the country is making strides in its attempts to diversify, it is still heavily beholden to the ups and downs in the U.S.
But perhaps the most alarming concern of foreign investors and the general population alike is the deterioration in security.
The murder rate has almost tripled to about 22 per 100,000 inhabitants from just over eight when Mr Calderon declared an all-out offensive against the country's drug cartels at the end of 2006. The war, which has claimed at least 55,000 lives over the past six years, has dominated headlines about Mexico as the press reports on a seemingly endless flow of horror stories involving beheadings, kidnappings and massacres.
This year, it also prompted the U.S. state department to issue a travel advisory telling U.S. citizens to put off "non-essential travel" to many areas of Mexico, warning that nearly half of the country's 31 states are so dangerous that travellers should avoid them if possible.
So far, the violence has had little impact on multinationals, which generally operate in safe industrial parks around the country. But there are no guarantees that organized crime will not try to extort large foreign companies in the future – in the same way it has been doing with smaller, domestic companies.
Until that happens, foreign companies continue to eye Mexico – in part because China has not turned out to be quite the manufacturing nirvana that it once appeared. While executives long complained of Chinese red tape and the threat to intellectual property there, they were willing to balance those risks against cheap labour and transport.
But rising wages and higher fuel prices have made it increasingly expensive to export from China to the U.S. market. This is all to Mexico's advantage. In 2009, Mexico overtook South Korea and China to became the world's leading producer of flat-screen television sets. The bulkier the item, the more Mexico makes sense. According to Global Trade Atlas, the country is also the leading manufacturer of two-door refrigerators.
Thanks to a 3,200-kilometre border with the U.S., and extensive rail and road links, it is not only cheap but fast and easy to ship goods north. Shipments from China to the U.S. typically take between 20 days and two months. From Mexico, they take a week at most and usually just two days.
For many industries operating in today's cost-conscious environment, "Made in Mexico" is becoming a serious consideration in their attempts to shorten supply chains, which potentially allows them to cut costs because quicker delivery times mean that they can minimize the amount of money invested in inventories. As Bruno Ferrari, Mexico's economy minister, told the Financial Times recently: "The proximity that Mexico offers industry allows companies to reduce their financing costs."
Rising labour costs in China have presented Mexico with an additional opportunity. According to HSBC, Mexican wages were 391 per cent higher than those of China a decade ago. Today, they are just 29 per cent more. Experts predict that Chinese wages will even overtake those of Mexico within five years.
Mr. de la Calle argues that demographics are behind this. China is experiencing a squeeze in its working-age population. By contrast, more than half Mexico's 112-million population is under 29, so there will be an abundance of cheap labour until at least 2028.
"Right now, you have to look at Mexico and conclude that it has the best demographics in the world," says Mr. de la Calle.
At the same time, Mexico's plentiful working population is becoming more skilled. According to Unesco, the number of engineers, architects and others in disciplines related to manufacturing graduating from Mexican universities has risen from almost 0.4 per 1,000 people in 1999 to more than 0.8 today. To set that in a regional context, the number for the U.S. over the same period has remained roughly flat at 0.6 per 1,000.
Skilled workers are providing an increasingly attractive environment for high-tech companies – Mexico has in recent years become a world leader in the production of computers and mobile telephones – as well as for car companies, almost all of which are now using Mexican engineers to design parts.
None of this means that Mexico is going to replace China as the world's first choice for manufacturing. With more than a quarter of the share of U.S. imports, the Asian colossus out-punches Mexico in terms of volume.
It also has deeper supply chains than Mexico. From the manufacturing hub of Ciudad Juarez on the Texan border to Queretaro in central Mexico, international companies say that they have trouble finding local suppliers for parts and packaging.
Siemens, for one, says that it has been trying to source its pressure-tight aluminum castings from Mexico but is still using companies based mainly in Europe because of the difficulty in finding local partners.
But from what appeared a dark future just over a decade ago, Mexico has moved into a position that, for now, has made the next few years look potentially very bright.
As Mr. de la Calle says: "Things are good and they are going to get even better."