Tuesday, January 24, 2012

This is the competition...  

In an amazing and slightly horrifying article, the NYT details why the iPhone is made in China. And it's not just low wages - it's simply incredible organization and speed. The most jaw-dropping revelations:
Apple executives say that going overseas, at this point, is their only option. One former executive described how the company relied upon a Chinese factory to revamp iPhone manufacturing just weeks before the device was due on shelves. Apple had redesigned the iPhone’s screen at the last minute, forcing an assembly line overhaul. New screens began arriving at the plant near midnight.
A foreman immediately roused 8,000 workers inside the company’s dormitories, according to the executive. Each employee was given a biscuit and a cup of tea, guided to a workstation and within half an hour started a 12-hour shift fitting glass screens into beveled frames. Within 96 hours, the plant was producing over 10,000 iPhones a day.
“The speed and flexibility is breathtaking,” the executive said. “There’s no American plant that can match that.”
Similar stories could be told about almost any electronics company — and outsourcing has also become common in hundreds of industries, including accounting, legal services, banking, auto manufacturing and pharmaceuticals. 
The company disputed some details of the former Apple executive’s account, and wrote that a midnight shift, such as the one described, was impossible “because we have strict regulations regarding the working hours of our employees based on their designated shifts, and every employee has computerized timecards that would bar them from working at any facility at a time outside of their approved shift.” The company said that all shifts began at either 7 a.m. or 7 p.m., and that employees receive at least 12 hours’ notice of any schedule changes.
Foxconn employees, in interviews, have challenged those assertions.
Another critical advantage for Apple was that China provided engineers at a scale the United States could not match. Apple’s executives had estimated that about 8,700 industrial engineers were needed to oversee and guide the 200,000 assembly-line workers eventually involved in manufacturing iPhones. The company’s analysts had forecast it would take as long as nine months to find that many qualified engineers in the United States.
In China, it took 15 days. [More of what should be mandatory reading to understand globalization]
Just like the old basketball saw, "You can't teach height", we still struggle in the US to grasp what millions of motivated low-wage workers can allow in terms of flexibility and market response. As manufacturing increasingly depends on shorter time horizons and being first to market, the ability to move literally hordes of people around to fit the task is a dominating advantage.

But just as we have centers for specific business activities (Silicon Valley, Motor City, Wall Street) it might be that we are moving to global focal points for manufacturing, finance, technology, etc. For us in agriculture we need ot work to make sure we are the leading location for agriculture.

I'm not sure that is our goal right now, and the sacrifices (less subsides for production, more for research, education, for example) needed to make it happen aren't being asked or made.

Update: For a refreshingly upbeat case that clearly articulates the other side of the story for the US, read this gem by Dan Dresner.

1 comment:

Dave said...

A counter point to the China manufacturing story. I have a neighbor who makes unique computers for law enforcement and medical facilities. He talked to the Chinese about manufacturing his computers and they insisted on 50% ownership of his company to be the manufacturer. Would you give up 50% of your farm for faster workers? I wouldn't!