Originally Posted by Commodification
An insanely great video clip from 1990 of Steve Jobs talking highly about Next's American factory and it's use of automation @ http://youtu.be/2nMD6sjAe8I?t=11m42s
This is interesting since Apple went to China to build their products, not to use the latest high-tech automation but to take advantage of poor slave-like human workers.
Look how much better workers were treated in Next's California factory (from a 1990 edition of Fortune magazine):
"The workers are not restricted to the assembly line, as their counterparts are in a traditional factory. They are just as likely to be at their own computers, doing a statistical analysis of defect rates to find the cause of a snag. Next's two-year-old 40,000-square-foot plant in Fremont, California, produces circuitboards for more than 60 machines a day, or approximately $100 million of hardware in a year. That's just a fraction of capacity, since Next sales are off to a slow start. If the machines are a hit, the plant could produce up to $1 billion worth of them a year with no more than 100 workers. Says Jobs: ''I'm as proud of the factory as I am of the computer.''
Manufacturing has changed radically in the 20 years since that video. One of the things that Jobs learned from that experiment in automation is that it is (1) very expensive to set up, and (2) very hard to modify for a different product. (3) extremely hard to balance the workload, so the process that takes the most time becomes the bottle neck. (4) By the time you get a fully automated line tuned, you (a) need to tear it down and produce a different product, or (b) constantly be starting up and stopping the line due to critical machine maintenance.
What works better in today's manufacturing is a combination of automation and human labor. Now, any factory is a hungry machine and needs to be fed constantly. Foxxcon has hundreds of manufacturers they build for and so feeding the factory is easy. Apple cannot stay competitive if they had to feed their own factory. Jobs learned that as well with NeXT. It was the lessons that he learned with the NeXT factory that brought him to the current fabrication strategy... not any love for Chinese labor. If there were an equivalent to Foxxcon in the USA, it would need an infrastructure to support it. (1) Massive numbers of production workers that could be hired or let go as work built up or died down. The hiring needed to be done in a matter of hours, not weeks or months. (2) Massive numbers of professionals need to be available for surges in need. For example, "we need 25,000 mechanical engineers next week." Such a request is possible in China, but just wouldn't be thinkable in the USA.
Then, outside of the factory, there will be needed roads and runways to move the finished goods quickly and bring in raw materials even as rapidly. Look how long it took for Apple to get the solar and fuel cells installed in NC. American workers, suppliers and local governmental bodies just cannot act as fast as their Asian counterparts. We generally think in terms of weeks or months instead of days or hours. It was once in our DNA, but no longer is there. Read up on how rapidly the Pentagon was built, or auto factories converted to tank production during WWII. The USA was once a powerhouse of production, not just in volume but also in speed of ramping up. While the world is evolving faster today than in 1940, the USA infrastructure is acting as a damping effect on keeping up.
Even if we were to try to ramp up our automation, we encounter strange problems. For example, it was an American mathematician that developed fuzzy logic, the basis of smooth robotic control. No American factory was interested in that form of machine control, however the Asians were. Now, the Asians manufacture nearly all the robotic systems in the world. The USA would need to buy boatloads of Asian robotic machines and control systems just to get back into automation production. When you watch an American car commercial and they are showing the welding robots hard at work... you are watching Asians (in proxy) building American auto in American factories.