A tiny screw shows why iPhones won’t be ‘Assembled in U.S.A.’

“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,” Jack Nicas writes for The New York Times. “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,” Nicas writes. “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,” Nicas writes. “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.”

“‘China is not just cheap. It’s a place where, because it’s an authoritarian government, you can marshal 100,000 people to work all night for you,’ said Susan Helper, an economics professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and the former chief economist at the Commerce Department. ‘That has become an essential part of the product-rollout strategy,'” Nicas writes. “Ms. Helper said Apple could make more products in the United States if it invested significant time and money and relied more on robotics and specialized engineers instead of large numbers of low-wage line workers. She said government and industry would also need to improve job training and promote the development of a supply-chain infrastructure.”

Read more in the full article here.

MacDailyNews Take: In his full article, Nicas writes the “the Mac Pro has been a slow seller” as if its country of origin is the main issue and not the fact that it hasn’t been updated in 4 years, 1 month, 10 days and counting; an an eon and a half in tech time.

41 Comments

  1. One would think that a logistics expert would have figured this out beforehand.
    Is this yet another absurd reason why Mac desktops are unnecessarily overpriced? Do you really need custom-fabbed screws for a desktop machine where size and weight really aren’t that important? Why not saved yourself the logistical nightmares using off-the-shelf screws and save your customers some $$$?

    1. A hearty F YOU to the America-hating NY Slimes!

      Yes, America devised the nuke, liberated western Europe, and sent men to walk on the moon, but now we’re incapable of making a pallet of screws, the NY Slimes would have you believe.

      Use your heads. See the propaganda for what it is. Bullshit!

  2. MDN: …as if its country of origin is the main issue and not the fact that it hasn’t been updated…

    MDN, these two things may not exist in a vacuum. If it’s logistically difficult to produce them, this may be hampering their ability to design produce a new model.

  3. Not surprised to find a screw shortage at Apple’s home country, they are way too focused screwing the Iraqis out of their lives, but I’m sure it will be worth it when they find that weapons of mass destruction program there. They can turn it into a screw factory.

      1. Nice whine, reminds me of whaaaaaaaaaaaah Iraq was involved in 9-11 and whaaaaaaaaaah Iraq has a weapons of mass destruction program.

        Zero out of three is pretty bad, maybe your country has a few screws loose.

  4. I’m calling total BS on this article. The reason Apple isn’t making a lot of their products in the US isn’t because of screws, here is why:

    1) if screws are holding you up, go to china or wherever they are made and buy a supply and ship them back Fed Ex to the US.

    2) like stated above: don’t use a specialized screws! What is going to happen to your customer when they drop one on the floor and can’t find a replacement? That would suck.

    3) back in 1979 I made bolts on 4 machines that were made back in WW2. There was a cutter, a thread making machine and a heat treating machine and a tumble polisher. I ran the cutter, thread maker and the polisher, and one other employee ran the heat treating machine. We made between 10,000 to 20,000 bolts PER DAY. 20 people making screws today could output a pile of screws…….

    1. And Apple’s screw supplier with 20 employees could only produce 1,000 screws per day. That makes me think there is a big difference in the tolerances in producing a bolt and the very small screws that are used in computer assembly.

      1. the company I worked for specialized in heat treated “high tolerance” bolts. the smallest ones were #4 bolts which is small, but not “computer small”, all the way up to 1 inch bolts. those big size bolts were a pain- they were very heavy and they were flying around all over the place. Those machines ran so fast that you could get hurt.

        I don’t remember what our tolerances were but we checked them on an hourly basis- we could tell when they were not right and rarely did we “create a pile of scrap”. 🙂

        My whole point is manufacturing screws and bolts isn’t a complicated manufacturing process. I’m SURE that ONE good AMERICAN company could supply Apple all the screws that Apple would need for ALL their Macs, including whatever Jony Ivy’s idea of the perfect screw is.

            1. Not just me. Someone far greater than me
              too….

              Google “George Carlin Servicing the Customer”

              Does this mean you agree with Apple’s proprietary and source limited screws?

    2. “In my day, we made all kinds of phones and you could plug ‘em into your wall AND they were cheap. So, I don’t understand why phones today have to be so complicated and expensive and all the glass and tiny parts. Just make ‘em bigger and use a good ol’ 9/16 screw! Those are everywhere and even I could build phones from those!! I could even make ‘me with an attachment that would keep y’all off my lawn!”

    3. But apple is ordering tamper proof screws so the consumer can’t fix their own machine. If they used normal screws that every other computer maker uses, there would be no issue.

      1. If they used normal screws …

        Exactly correct. And because Apple can’t (won’t) apply what Detroit’s “Big 3” figured out 50+ years ago regarding automation scaling, then Project Titan is completely & utterly doomed.

        1. Detroit’s big three… which can’t even come CLOSE to how many vehicles produced in China per year? What, did they stop their learning 50+ years ago?

          The answer is most likely yes as the Japanese before the Chinese adopted true methods of scaling production.

          1. In regards to production scaling, there are limits to what it can do for you (KISS = the Law of Diminishing Returns).

            Thus, as total production volume increases, the incremental share of Fixed Costs per unit go down, and relative to the variable costs will become a decreasingly significant portion of the total.

            YMMV depending on specifics; but the point is that a doubling of one’s production volume might initially cut the unit price in half, but the next increment will only cut it by 25%, the one after that by 12%, the one after that by 6%, then 3%, 1%, … barring the caveats about production transformations, the cost curve is asymptotic to one’s Variable Costs.

            (end of part I)

  5. I got a screw from Apple when they secretly slowed my iPhone.

    Maybe these little ‘screws’ are harder to come by now that Apple has 59 class action suits filed against them.

  6. “as if its country of origin was the main issue”
    To me, it seemed to refer to the fact that the MacPro is a slow seller AND was always MEANT to be a slow seller (among all Macs sold, Mac Pro’s are in the single digit percent) and, even THEN, the manufacturing capabilities of the US were not able to keep up. They could go through the effort to ship ALLL the parts to the US to be assembled, but the shareholders would have a field day ripping the company for the financial waste. 🙂

    So, there’s no way Apple could make a Mac mini, iMac or any of the REALLY high sellers in the US… at least not today.

  7. Apple has enough cash and Americans have enough brains to build 50 million or more Macs in the US per year. And, we could be just as profitable. All the key component could be made by Intel, Micron, Corning and dozens of other companies. In 2020 Apple could profitably make a quarter of their products in the US. In 2022, half. In 2025, 90%.

    Remember we have a HUGE industrial base. We could be energy independent. 🙂

    1. Says the person that’s never attempted to contract to have a million of ANYTHING made in the US.

      The one reason why China is so cheap is because EVERYONE is using it. Apple trying to go it on their own, outside of Foxconn or the other Chinese companies would be prohibitively expensive… the land, the buildings, the equipment, the people, the infrastructure, the regulatory costs in the US would be borne by Apple, alone, rather than shared among ALL the other companies that use Foxconn. The shareholders would not allow it.

      Even if you just look at cars, supposedly where we shine in manufacturing, the number of cars churned out in a year when the US was at their peak (which they are not at any longer) is dwarfed by the amount that China turns out now. We have a big industrial base, China has sprawling multi-hundred thousand citizen industrial CITIES.

      I think there’s value in manufacturing being done in the US, but we’ll never make any progress in that area as long as there are people that believe that Apple, by themselves, without the built in infrastructure of Chinese companies, would be able to make a quarter of their products in the US in 2020. There’s a lot of work that has to be done even BEFORE the first shovel turns dirt that means that we’ll have a skilled workforce and the legislation in place to aid the creation of the people and materials ready by the time the first site opens in 5-10 years.

      China didn’t get to be where they are by pie in the sky “DONE IN 6 MONTHS!”. It’s taken years to get where they are and it will take years before anyone is able to put a profitable dent in that. Maybe it won’t be one company, maybe several companies getting together with government should would create something Foxconn-like. So, each company gets to benifit from the fact that the others are using it.

      1. “Says the person that’s never attempted to contract to have a million of ANYTHING made in the US.”

        that’s true in a literal sense, but I would say that myself and the guy running the heat treatment equipment produced pretty darn close to a million bolts in the year that I spent doing that…. That’s just me as a 19 year old and the heat treat guy got drunk every Friday at 12:30*. 🙂

        I believe what we need to do is get Apple and EVERY other company and bring home their profits and invest in America. I sick of hearing about someone or somewhere else is better or more profitable. I travel around a lot and I’ve seen with my own eyes what smart manufacturers can do. Yes China has five times the population than we do, but we make our own choices. A large chunk of their so called competitive advantage is that, in effect, they are slaves to the Chinese Army.

        If I was in charge the back of EVERY iPhone would say this:

        Designed in California
        Assembled in Communist China by slave labor.

        I’m just sick of the “we can’t do it” BS. Apple could produce 60 million iPhones and 20 million Macs inside the United States in 2020 if they wanted to. And, shareholders would love it.

        *being fair and complete: we did have help in shipping, stocking, machine maintenance, material ordering, and billing. But remember, the primary machine was made between 1942 and 1945. 🙂

        1. The first part is to accept the truth. You may be sick of HEARING the truth, but here it is one more time. China, with it’s slaves to the Chinese Army can not only produce MORE, but also don’t balk at custom part requests AND do it cheaply (again, slave labor). And they can produce in the MILLIONS. All the car companies in North America, again, the thing we’re supposed to manufacture well, barely produce 18 million cars in a GOOD year. There is no way one company operating on their own will be able to buy their way into 20 million of anything made in the US in 2020. A smart manufacturer is a smart manufacturer, but if I need 20 million of something, it really doesn’t matter how smart you are, your aptitude isn’t going to help me get 20 million of a product on a shelf.

          And here’s another truth you’re sick of hearing, right now WE CAN’T DO IT! Can we get there, yeah, if folks really want it but right now, Today, if you want to make a large number of anything, you’ll be making it in China. Just try this, call up a company that advertises that they do contract jobs and ask them for a quote to make 20 million of one of thier standard parts IN THE US, not subcontracting to China. They’d laugh at you. Now, tell them that you ACTUALLY need them to make it 2 millimeters shorter than they sell, but you’d be willing to pay a premium for the custom parts. Like most of the people in this thread, they’ll just hang up on you. “How dare you not use standard parts!?”

          We are in competition against a country that has free labor, will make whatever you want them to make and produce the results in HUGE quantities if you like. And, unfortunately, shareholders only care about the value of the stock they hold, they don’t care how many slaves it takes to get it. So, any plan to bring back manufacturing is going to have to take into account that shareholders would be able to SUE Apple for bringing jobs back to the US when the money could be better spent (in their minds) in China.

          I guess I SHOULD also ask, what would be your plan of manufacturing 20 million Macs in the US in 2020? Have you already talked to companies that are saying they could do it because I’d be willing to give them a call, too. Would this entail shipping all the parts to the US and then… or build a number of factories this year or… call on US companies to step up (when they’ve all outsourced their manufacturing capability)… I mean, I see it as impossible, but maybe I just don’t see what you see.

          1. Here is my plan: require this on the back of every Apple product:

            Designed in California
            Assembled in Communist China by slave labor.

            And, after 2021, require it on the FRONT.

            1. If this is the plan, why be weasely about it, require it on the FRONT on DAY ONE of your grand plan! What does waiting a year gain you?

              Granted, putting writing on a package doesn’t raise the skill of employees, doesn’t train employees, doesn’t put a single brick towards building a factory. SOoooo, it’s not so much a PLAN as a way to put off any real effort into fixing the problem because you’ve already got it solved!

              Meanwhile, in reality, stuff continues to get manufactured in China.

          2. I guess I SHOULD also ask, what would be your plan of manufacturing 20 million Macs in the US in 2020?

            Well, what this report tells us is to be careful about what components we call out in our specs, to make sure that we’re not adding an unnecessary bottleneck to our supply chain.

            Overall, scaling up for modest quantities of a couple million units per quarter of a ~$1000 product isn’t Rocket Science, but straightforward Project Management.

            To that end, where this report is about is that the responsible PM simply failed in doing his job, and because they were operating in the USA, they couldn’t rely on China’s greater agility in manufacturing to cover up their mistakes.

            1. Just makes me wonder if all the Project Managers moved to China, too. Because, if it was REALLY about Project Management, companies could just hire a bunch of good ones and produce products in the US! I mean, if THAT’S all it takes.

              No, the story is about a company that wanted to buy a thing, there were no US companies in the area that could provide the thing because they all got rid of their “volume quantity thingmakers” long ago.

              Now, what you might be inferring is that companies desiring to put a “made in the USA” sticker on their products need to focus more on making it really, really REALLY simple. Dumb it WAAAAY down. Because in the US, unlike China, what you want to build is limited by the parts on hand. And I’d agree with you.

            2. @ Wrong Again

              (begin Part II)

              No, this isn’t merely about Project Managers and if they might move to/from China. I’ve simply identified who made this particular mistake at Apple from this report.

              And is the compensation strategy for this to “dumb it way down” as you suggest? Not necessarily.

              For example, we don’t know why Apple just didn’t place a FedEx order for their fancy screw from some cheap company in China to solve their supply bottleneck problem. Was it probably “Made in USA” politics? Probably yes, but we still don’t have those details.

              What we do know is that because the screw that they did spec out was a high precision variant, it probably was severe overkill for what they really needed and paid extra for it both in terms of cost and availability, just to (presumably) get that “Made in USA”. To this end, there had to have been other alternatives, such as not using a security screw as suggested. Sure, it possible that Apple looked at every other option too, and rejected all of them, but had they done so, this point certainly would have made it into this story so that it wasn’t a story of poor PM.

            3. “who made this particular mistake at Apple”
              If anyone at Apple made a mistake it was assuming that companies in Texas could produce parts as well as China and at the same volumes.

              “is the compensation strategy for this to ‘dumb it way down’”
              They were sourcing parts next to production. Not so much because of “Made in USA” politics, but, in manufacturing, parts near production is a good thing. So if you’re producing in the USA, your first go to for sourcing parts is the USA. The companies in Texas couldn’t fill the orders so they did indeed end up shipping the screws from China.

              We agree that Apple was asking for something that was too hard for the American companies to do AND, if they had made an easier-to-fill request, they would have been able to use US companies. That’s pretty much the definition of “dumbing it way down”.

            4. @ wrongagain:

              What was the Texas supplier’s fault was in agreeing to a particular delivery schedule…but it was also Apple’s fault for not verifying a new vendor’s production capacity.

              And it is incorrect to claim that the TX vendor couldn’t make the screw: they actually were set up to make higher precision versions of them .. that’s why they couldn’t fab the volume that Apple had called for on their delivery schedule. Really hard to call a higher precision version to be a “dumbing down” in America.

              The reason why TX vendor made higher precision versions is because China ate their lunch for the cheap low precision ones, so they divested themselves of that lower tech manufacturing equipment.

              Apple managers very well should have seen this supply chain problem when they qualified the vendor.

              And it is IMO likely that Apple had also grown complacent with backflipping China suppliers who would work miracles to save their schedules whenever Apple made 11th hour changes. Again, it comes back to the PM…where was their schedule plan’s slack, etc?

  8. “‘China is not just cheap. It’s a place where, because it’s an authoritarian government, you can marshal 100,000 people to work all night for you,’ said Susan Helper,…..”

    Gosh, that makes me feel so good about buying Apple products. But, I digress. Please somebody show me another video of the new Apple HQ campus. All will be well.

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