Apple’s turn of the screw

From Jack Nicas’ A Tiny Screw Shows Why iPhones Won’t Be ‘Assembled in U.S.A.’ in Tuesday’s New York Times.

In 2012, Apple’s chief executive, Timothy D. Cook, went on prime-time television to announce that Apple would make a Mac computer in the United States. It would be the first Apple product in years to be manufactured by American workers, and the top-of-the-line Mac Pro would come with an unusual inscription: “Assembled in USA.”

But when Apple began making the $3,000 computer in Austin, Tex., it struggled to find enough screws, according to three people who worked on the project and spoke on the condition of anonymity because of confidentiality agreements.

In China, Apple relied on factories that can produce vast quantities of custom screws on short notice. In Texas, where they say everything is bigger, it turned out the screw suppliers were not.

Tests of new versions of the computer were hamstrung because a 20-employee machine shop that Apple’s manufacturing contractor was relying on could produce at most 1,000 screws a day.

The screw shortage was one of several problems that postponed sales of the computer for months, the people who worked on the project said. By the time the computer was ready for mass production, Apple had ordered screws from China.

greenfield plaque tiny screwsMy take: Greenfield, Mass., where I live, once boasted the world’s largest tap and die industry. The region is still dotted with manufacturers making precision parts for the aircraft industry. Send us your business, Apple. We’ll make your tiny screws.

3 Comments

  1. Gregg Thurman said:
    Tests of new versions of the computer were hamstrung because a 20-employee machine shop that Apple’s manufacturing contractor was relying on could produce at most 1,000 screws a day.

    There’s a manufacturer with no vision. A contract from Apple should easily be worth the expense of two, three or more employees and the machines to make the parts. That is unless qualified employees aren’t to be found.

    It isn’t cheap labor that drives western manufacturers to China, its the availability of qualified employees.

    4
    January 28, 2019
    • David Drinkwater said:
      Qualified and willing.

      So our advantage at my work in a fab is that one wafer will eventually become many parts. For a small silicon chip, a 150 mm wafer can easily turn into 25000 sensors. One “piece” of work becomes many pieces of work. Which we ship (typically in solid wafer form, unsawn) to …China.

      As our business history has evolved, our initial, internal customer was in Freeport, Il. That got expensive over the years, so package production moved to Juarez, with a significant storehouse in El Paso. But over time, that became unsustainable. Worker turnover is much too great. (This is a key issue: the employees need to show up and stay a while. And this can even be a challenge in China. Sometimes workers go home for the Lunar New Year and just … don’t come back.)

      Nowadays we ship most of our Product to Nanjing. From there, it moves to subcontract houses for packaging and comes back internal for testing. (We test internally to protect IP. Which is why I don’t name companies, etc., …)

      We are not alone in this. Our customers and I suspect our competition do the same. Our factory rarely ships to customers outside our company, mostly to internal customers who then ship to the external customers in package form. Our largest external die/chip customer receives material in china, though.

      I haven’t heard about negative ramifications of our trade relationships with China, but I have heard about extra layers of logistical bullcrap.

      Anyhoo, the point I was intending to start from is that, in semiconductor manufacturing, one wafer becomes many parts, so that changes the economics and the IP protections. When it comes to handling the individual chips, things get much more labor/process intensive. And that requires large factories. The same applies to assembling phones. Think about it: Foxconn, 800000 employees (Wikipedia 2017 data) is essentially a large US city. But in Chinese terms, a city of one million is practically a small town. That’s a lot of people to move a lot of parts.

      1
      January 29, 2019
  2. Fred Stein said:
    Ha!

    Steve Jobs spoke specifically to this issue, mainly the agility of suppliers in China. He said that local suppliers turn on a dime to address changes in design or specification. Apple needs this responsiveness for its fall ramp of new iPhones. Indeed that is why they chose only the Mac Pro, a very low unit volume product for US manufacturing.

    1
    January 28, 2019

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