Apple’s supply-chain secret? Hoard lasers

“About five years ago, Apple design guru Jony Ive decided he wanted a new feature for the next MacBook: a small dot of green light above the screen, shining through the computer’s aluminum casing to indicate when its camera was on. The problem? It’s physically impossible to shine light through metal,” Adam Satariano and Peter Burrows report for BusinessWeek. “Ive called in a team of manufacturing and materials experts to figure out how to make the impossible possible, according to a former employee familiar with the development who requested anonymity to avoid irking Apple. The team discovered it could use a customized laser to poke holes in the aluminum small enough to be nearly invisible to the human eye but big enough to let light through.”

“Applying that solution at massive volume was a different matter. Apple needed lasers, and lots of them. The team of experts found a U.S. company that made laser equipment for microchip manufacturing which, after some tweaking, could do the job,” Satariano and Burrows report. “Each machine typically goes for about $250,000. Apple convinced the seller to sign an exclusivity agreement and has since bought hundreds of them to make holes for the green lights that now shine on the company’s MacBook Airs, Trackpads, and wireless keyboards.”

Satariano and Burrows report, “Most of Apple’s customers have probably never given that green light a second thought, but its creation speaks to a massive competitive advantage for Apple: Operations. This is the world of manufacturing, procurement, and logistics in which the new chief executive officer, Tim Cook, excelled, earning him the trust of Steve Jobs. According to more than a dozen interviews with former employees, executives at suppliers, and management experts familiar with the company’s operations, Apple has built a closed ecosystem where it exerts control over nearly every piece of the supply chain, from design to retail store. Because of its volume—and its occasional ruthlessness—Apple gets big discounts on parts, manufacturing capacity, and air freight. ‘Operations expertise is as big an asset for Apple as product innovation or marketing,” says Mike Fawkes, the former supply-chain chief at Hewlett-Packard and now a venture capitalist with VantagePoint Capital Partners. ‘They’ve taken operational excellence to a level never seen before.'”

Much more in the full article – recommended – here.

MacDailyNews Take: With money comes power and Apple is right to wield it over the supply chain rather than piss it away on buybacks or dividends; tools for sedate companies with little or no growth.

21 Comments

  1. Most designers would just drill a hole and place the LED lens under it. On to the next thing. But not seamless, elegant Apple. If Ive put that much attention into a tally light, imagine the attention he gave to really important things.

    (That’s how I bought my last car—several little things caught my attention and my approval. I figured if they were paying attention to such little things, the engineers were really focused on bigger things. And the car has been “invisible” and reliable for a decade.)

      1. Honda Civic. I’ve taken it in for the scheduled maintenance, and nothing else. I get 44 mpg on a commute that is half city, half highway—42 if I turn on the AC.

        1. Hondas are great cars. I enjoyed owning ours and it really was repair-free for the ten years we owned it.

          If only Porsche and BMW could make their cars so dependable!

          1. I have a 2012 Honda Civic EX-L sedan on order that’s supposed to be built this week. It will replace a 1989 Honda Civic Si that I bought the wife new, and I have been driving since we got a new Civic EX sedan in 2000 for her. The ’89 is going to my brother-in-law, and still runs well and gets between 32 and 36 mpg. It’s hard to go wrong with a Honda.

    1. I doubt it’s just on MacBook Airs. My iMac has a similar green light by the iSight, and while it may just be covered by glass so I can’t see the hole, it may also be cut out with a laser. Plus, you can’t just have a few lasers, because then only a few MacBooks can be produced at a time. That limits volume production.

      I wonder if the same process is being used for the four battery charge indicator lights?

  2. This is really awesome. I admired it in the wireless keyboard.
    Here is a LED closeup from 2008. The grain of the aluminum surface will give you an idea about the scale.

  3. I remember well when Apple was at the back of the line waiting for pieces and parts. It was simply “understood” that Apple’s lower volume meant higher costs.

    One more aspect of this amazing 14 year reversal.

  4. That is pretty interesting 🙂

    As a recent mac convert (well full on convert to where I don’t run Windows at home) I find myself noticing the little things on my macbook pro each time I use it.

    Just the quality… everything fits nice and tight, there is nothing loose and nothing out of place.

    I never really thought about the physical design of a computer much before owning this amazing machine.

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