This is a column about Weber barbeque grills, but the story came from a friend who is an engineer from Purdue University and I can’t let that pass without comment. There are other engineering schools but there is only one Purdue. It’s a place where student curiosity inevitably results in every piece of machinery being disassembled and some being reassembled, too. At Purdue it’s not that tearing stuff apart is a school requirement, the kids just can’t help themselves. This characteristic appears in varying degrees at other schools like Georgia Tech and Texas A&M, but Purdue does it with elan, they take stuff apart for fun.

Which brings us to Weber Kettle grills, which are proudly made in America. Weber gets away with this in a world where everything else is manufactured in China because grills — especially kettle-shaped grills — have a lot of air in them, occupy a lot of volume for their weight, and are therefore too expensive to ship from Asia. Weber Kettles are shipped unassembled, too, which means Weber’s labor rates (that would be you and me, working for free) are lower than China’s. It’s an American manufacturing success story. But it may be an endangered one.

Here’s how my friend explained it:

My charcoal grill has a propane starter.  I put in the charcoal, turn a knob, push a button, and 10 minutes later my charcoal is lit.  It is very nice.  My grill uses the small 14 oz propane bottles.  One summer I noticed my bottles were running out too fast.  There was a small leak in the control valve.  Weber sent me a new valve, for free.  It was a different type and design of valve.  They sent me some other parts to fit it to my grill properly.  One of the makers of their valves had sent their production overseas and the quality was suffering. Weber found another domestic maker of valves and had redesigned their products to use them. You know me, I have an insatiable curiosity.  I examined the old, leaking propane valve from my grill.  I did some Google’ing and found the manufacturer.  Most of their products go into small propane heating products, like the stoves in RV’s.  Weber was smart enough to figure out this supplier was now making lower quality products.  

While this sounds like a success story (bad valve discovered and replaced) what prompted my friend to write me was the notice he received yesterday of a class action lawsuit concerning these defective valves, which you’ll note have already been replaced. If he chooses to join the class, my friend has a chance to get as much as $5 back from Weber in addition to the parts he has already received. Reading the fine print he noticed that the law firm pressing the suit will earn up to $1 million for its trouble.

Here’e the key to this class action suit: the suspect valves were of foreign origin while Weber advertised its grills as made in America. They have have been made here, but one part was of foreign origin, hence the claim of false advertising.

Lawyers in the audience will argue that Weber shouldn’t have cut corners and this experience will make them both more careful and more honest in future. Maybe. Or Weber could go the other way entirely and do what every other American manufacturer seems to be doing and reincorporate as a holding company in the Cayman Islands with a separately-incorporated operating company in Hong Kong and a sales and distribution corporation in the U.S. that I guarantee will never — ever — report a dollar of taxable profit.

I don’t have a solution to offer here. I’m not suggesting that we first kill all the lawyers. Nor am I saying that manufacturers shouldn’t have to stand behind their products or advertise them honestly. But the system as it is running right now doesn’t seem to be working as well as it should at helping U.S. manufacturing employment.

What do you think?