A custom screw was the bottleneck in US Mac Pro production

Posted:
in Current Mac Hardware edited January 28
A custom screw easily sourced in China held up the Mac Pro build process in Texas, with the tale highlighting one of the problems Apple faces if it moves iPhone and Mac assembly back to America.

Apple CEO Tim Cook visits the Austin, Texas production facility in 2014
Apple CEO Tim Cook visits the Austin, Texas production facility in 2014


Apple announced a commitment to produce the Mac Pro in the United States in 2012, making it the first Apple product to be manufactured in the country in years. While the declaration was ambitious, production for the model resulted in limited supplies at launch, but ultimately it shipped to consumers bearing the "Made in the USA" engraving instead of the usual "Made in China."

The slow start to production was apparently down to a lack of supply for a specific kind of screw, according to a report by the New York Times.

Speaking to three people who worked on the project, screws for the Mac Pro were hard to source within the United States. Initial tests of production were hampered by a contractor's constrained production levels producing at most 1,000 screws a day in its 20-employee shop.

The team behind the Mac Pro required new parts as the design changed, but while components could be shipped from China, some elements Apple attempted to find closer to home in Texas. In this case, Mac Pro assembly partner Flextronics hired Caldwell Manufacturing of Lockhart to produce 28,000 screws.

While Caldwell was previously capable of producing screws to high capacities, owner and president Stephen Melo had replaced the stamping presses for mass production with versions used for more precise jobs, due to China's ability to mass produce cheaply.

"It's hard to invest for that (Apple-level orders) in the U.S., because that stuff is purchased very cheaply overseas," Melo advised.

In the end, the new machines were used to create the screws, but not the exact versions Apple wanted. It is also noted that the 28,000 screws were delivered to Flextronics across 22 trips, with Melo performing some deliveries in a Lexus sedan.

One former Apple manager noted the relatively small team at Flextronics working on the project compared to the larger teams in China, which overwhelmed overstretched workers. It was unclear why the team was smaller, but it was suggested the higher wages of American workers was behind the decision.

Another citied issue with American production is the lack of 24-hour production, with U.S. workers not working around the clock. By contrast, in China, factories scheduled production for all available hours, with workers woken from their slumber to meet production goals if required.

Case Western Reserve University economics professor Susan Helper noted "China is not just cheap," as it is a country where the presence of an authoritarian government means "you can marshal 100,000 people to work all night for you."

China's factories are also able to find vast numbers of employees in a short space of time, such as Foxconn's recent pledge to hire over 50,000 people across all of its Chinese factories in the first quarter.

Helper suggests it is possible for Apple to increase production in the United States, but it would require a significant investment in time and resources for robotics and hiring specialized engineers, rather than hiring large numbers of low-paid workers. Job training would also need to be improved by the government and industry for it to happen.

Despite calls by the Trump Administration for Apple to bring manufacturing to the United States, Helper warns the chance of it occurring in the current climate is low.
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Comments

  • Reply 1 of 58
    asdasdasdasd Posts: 5,266member
    Cook is a supply chain expert and he has always said its not labour costs but the supply chain, and the expertise to fix the machines that build the machines. 
    netmageStrangeDayswatto_cobrajony0
  • Reply 2 of 58
    The US needs to produce more babies. Apple needs to diversify its supply chain more. 
  • Reply 3 of 58
    linkmanlinkman Posts: 893member
    Perhaps this was a bit of karma biting Apple in the butt for using pentalobe screws.
    boboliciousking editor the gratemwhitejbdragonJohn Lockwoodburnsidejasenj1tyler8278Banditentropys
  • Reply 4 of 58
    linkman said:
    Perhaps this was a bit of karma biting Apple in the butt for using pentalobe screws.
    ...I was thinking the exact same thing...
  • Reply 5 of 58
    neilmneilm Posts: 589member

    Case Western Reserve University economics professor Susan Helper noted "China is not just cheap," as it is a country where the presence of an authoritarian government means "you can marshal 100,000 people to work all night for you."

    Yeah, nothing chilling about that...
    foregoneconclusiontyler82dysamoriaentropyswatto_cobra
  • Reply 6 of 58
    Is this article trying to imply Apple was already trying to manufacture more products here 4 years before Trump was elected? Impossible!

    edited January 28 brianmjasenj1tyler82Solidysamoriaroundaboutnowradarthekatwatto_cobra
  • Reply 7 of 58
    Enough of the TDS, please.
    SpamSandwichjbdragonentropys
  • Reply 8 of 58
    Notsofast said:
    Enough of the TDS, please.
    what the heck is TDS? I don't see anything that references that acronym in the story or comments.
    randominternetpersonwatto_cobra
  • Reply 9 of 58
    bulk001bulk001 Posts: 462member
    brianm said:
    Notsofast said:
    Enough of the TDS, please.
    what the heck is TDS? I don't see anything that references that acronym in the story or comments.
    I was wondering that too! Who knows? You could always browse this list of options https://acronyms.thefreedictionary.com/TDS
    watto_cobra
  • Reply 10 of 58
    Sounds like a good job for 3D printing.  As price of machines come and capabilities get better, this will allow for production of specialty parts where they are needed.

    Here is an article (biased source) of the Navy using 3D printing https://3dprintingindustry.com/news/u-s-navy-will-rely-1000-3d-printed-parts-end-2018-131910/
    watto_cobra
  • Reply 11 of 58
    neilm said:

    Case Western Reserve University economics professor Susan Helper noted "China is not just cheap," as it is a country where the presence of an authoritarian government means "you can marshal 100,000 people to work all night for you."

    Yeah, nothing chilling about that...
    Graveyard factory shifts have exited in the US as well. There are generally three shifts in a max capacity plant. 
    randominternetpersonwatto_cobra
  • Reply 12 of 58
    brianm said:
    Notsofast said:
    Enough of the TDS, please.
    what the heck is TDS? I don't see anything that references that acronym in the story or comments.
    I try to avoid any semblance of discussion on these matters since it’s so frowned upon here these days, but you asked, I’ll answer.

    TDS = Trump Derangement Syndrome
    edited January 28 maltz
  • Reply 13 of 58
    MacProMacPro Posts: 18,147member
    linkman said:
    Perhaps this was a bit of karma biting Apple in the butt for using pentalobe screws.
    Yep, a real screw-up.  ;)
    SpamSandwichapplesnorangesentropys
  • Reply 14 of 58
    dewmedewme Posts: 1,992member
    This is an insightful snapshot of what modern manufacturing has looked like for several years, and one that the vast majority of people who aren't close to manufacturing just don't understand. Most people assume that all large companies manufacture their own products using employees who actually work for the product company. The reality is that many many products are manufactured by contract manufacturers who are not exclusive to the company that sells the product. In essence companies like Apple, HP, Dell, Microsoft, Google, Amazon, etc., have long outsourced their manufacturing operations to companies like Flextronics and Foxconn.

    If the US government really want to apply leverage to bring/keep manufacturing in the US they really need to make deals with the companies who are actually doing the manufacturing work. Those companies are the ones who decide where to locate factories, source parts, and hire workers. Apple can exert pressure on the manufacturers that it uses, but only in the same way that you can lean on the garage that is repairing your car. If you are not happy with the service you are getting, you can threaten to take your business elsewhere or you could try to fix your car yourself. Neither option is easy, especially the latter one, and the number of car repair shops is massive in number compared to the number of manufacturers who can assemble tens of millions of iPhones per quarter to exacting standards and maintain sourcing relationships with far reaching tentacles.

    I worked for a company that transitioned from in-house manufacturing to a contract manufacturer who took over the companies factories. It turned out to be a great deal for the manufacturing employees who transferred to the contractor because they were no longer subject to cyclical layoffs when the company's product sales slowed down because the contractor also manufactured products for competitors and other companies. Of course the contractor's factory became off-limits to the non-manufacturing employees of the original company. I'm sure that many contract manufacturers do not retain the former employees of their clients, but this does describe a scenario where both sides can come out better off than before. Making it work in a beneficial way requires negotiations with all parties in the mix, not just a blustery tweeter badmouthing the product owner.    

    The point here is that product manufacturing needs to treated as a national, regional, and local capability and core competence that sustains employment and drives economic growth. It's not simply an Apple problem or an outsourcing problem. It's an macroeconomic initiative that needs to be purposefully orchestrated at the highest levels. The CWRU professor's take on China's manufacturing capability is tainted and politically biased. What the professor is neglecting to mention is the huge investment China, like Germany, is making in trade and skills attainment geared towards sourcing candidates into the workforce to fill the skilled trade positions that exist in the middle of the spectrum between low-skill assemblers and degreed professionals. The open-loop, for-profit US education system is overly biased toward pumping students into the degreed professional tracks while neglecting the skilled trades and having no path to help those who have low-skill assembly worker credentials in their job search struggles. If "authoritarian" means having a closed-loop education system that is geared towards funneling more job candidates for the jobs that actually exist into the country's manufacturing capability and competence, then shame on them for having a plan rather than simply "hoping for the best" while trying to figure out what to do with the glut of art-history and sports management degree program graduates and huge pool of unemployable skill deficient working-age adults who are not working and have few prospects of ever doing so.   
    stompyrandominternetpersonCurtisHightwatto_cobra
  • Reply 15 of 58
    jbdragonjbdragon Posts: 2,040member
    brianm said:
    Notsofast said:
    Enough of the TDS, please.
    what the heck is TDS? I don't see anything that references that acronym in the story or comments.
    Trump derangement syndrome!!!
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trump_derangement_syndrome
    edited January 28
  • Reply 16 of 58
    RuleNo. 1: If you want custom innovative element for your assembly then make that home. Otherwise your production will be held hostage. Isn't that simple?
  • Reply 17 of 58
    The US needs to produce more babies. Apple needs to diversify its supply chain more. 
    The U.S. doesn't have a problem producing babies. It has a problem keeping them. 
    F_Kent_D
  • Reply 18 of 58
    RuleNo. 1: If you want custom innovative element for your assembly then make that home. Otherwise your production will be held hostage. Isn't that simple?
    Frankly, unless Apple is the source of the information and it’s verifiable from multiple independent sources, it’s just as likely this story is completely made up by a reporter. 

    The number of stories which have been proven created from whole cloth recently have served to undermine the believability of even the most innocuous of reports.
    radarthekatwatto_cobra
  • Reply 19 of 58
    melgrossmelgross Posts: 31,475member
    That’s funny. I just read this story in the Times, and came here to see the same story, likely as a result of the Times story.

    anyway, it’s just not possible for robots to assemble phones. At least, not yet. Phones have parts put in in different ions. They require the phone to be picked up, turned around, etc. robot assembly stations can only do 2 dimensional work, while this is three. That’s one major problem, and there are others.

    we can be sure the manufacturers of automated assembly equipment have been working on this. When they’ll figure it out is the question.
    watto_cobra
  • Reply 20 of 58
    melgrossmelgross Posts: 31,475member
    RuleNo. 1: If you want custom innovative element for your assembly then make that home. Otherwise your production will be held hostage. Isn't that simple?
    Simple to state, very difficult to do.
    watto_cobra
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