When Apple CEO Tim Cook revealed in an interview with Brian Williams airing Thursday night that Apple will begin building Macs in the United States next year, that's about all he said: We're coming to America — no how, no where, not even really a when. But strange as a stateside Apple factory may seem, Cook's comments come amid a wave of enthusiasm for producing things here. Two stories on the topic in the current issue of The Atlantic, along with a look at the challenges of Apple's past and the American economy's present, may offer a small window into Made in the U.S.A., Apple edition.
The Ghost of Apple Factories Past
Once upon a time in America — the '80s, to be exact — Apple made its computers at the original Mac factory in Fremont, California (pictured above, via Flickr user JoshCUK). Developing the company's new factory, of course, won't be as simple as replacing those dated clunkers with skinny new iMacs: the Fremont factory, after all, failed. Part of the trouble, as explained in this two-part video tour, had to do with design flaws like conveyor belts that led to "excessive handling" and this inefficient ASRS system that "indicates high inventory and poor supply chain performance":
There was a basketball court...
...but Apple's 22nd-century-looking campus should handle the company's buildings in the looks department. What Apple wasn't able to handle in the U.S. the first time around was efficiency, something its notoriously dogged Foxconn plant has been able to achieve with "breathtaking" speed and flexibility, as a New York Times investigation reported earlier this year. Who needs basketball courts, the "iEconomy" seems to say, when you've got robots?
The Promise of American Manufacturing
"There's no American plant that can match" Foxconn's speed, an Apple executive told the Times in its January investigation. But there is now an increasing skepticism that ideas and products should be so far apart — that location can compete with speed — and, as James Fallows explains after a visit to Foxconn for The Atlantic, one of the benefits of bringing jobs back to America is bringing back the proximity of idea and thing. And while that proximity — and the growth of Silicon Valley's hardware business — may benefit smaller companies than Apple, the mantra still holds especially true for "innovative products in mature markets," as Charles Fishman writes in another new Atlantic story about the recent uptick in so-called "insourcing." An innovative product like, say, a Mac computer.
So where will the Apple plant be located, exactly? Some signs point to California, though not necessarily near that fancy new Cupertino HQ. The SFMade movement has already provided the Bay Are will the kind of manufacturing manpower it will need to become any kind of factory town. Maybe not the Chinese type, but still. Also: maybe some robots.
And Jobs! (Not Steve.)
"It's not so much about price," Cook tells Williams in Thursday's Rock Center interview, "it's about the skills." Cook may be right: America still may not have the types of workers it may take for full-scale Apple work — it takes about 8,700 industrial engineers to oversee Apple production. But Apple sells many more iPhones than Macs, so the smaller-scale Mac factory will likely require a subset of (affordable) American workers with more than a high school diploma but less than a college degree — and that all-important engineering skill set. Then Apple will need a bunch of low-skill workers to put the pieces together.
No one said it would be easy, but no one's really said what an American Apple factory will look like, either.