Another aspect of Chinese manufacturing I've found difficult to reconcile is that they've made some seriously junky crap that I've purchased--and they also make the iPhone. The manufacturing quality and the fit & finish of that device is top-notch, and they are reportedly manufactured at breakneck speed in a facility with high quality control, much like a 21st-Century version of the Singer factory of the 19th and early 20th Century.
When the iMac first came out it was manufactured at an Apple-designed factory in California, but now nearly all of the company's production happens overseas. Why?
The answer is long, complicated, and eye-opening. In an exhaustively-researched feature in the New York Times entitled "How the U.S. Lost Out on iPhone Work," reporters Chalres Duhigg and Keith Bradsher reveal some shocking capabilities of Chinese factories—in particular, the Foxconn City factory that's cranked out 200 million iPhones—that makes you understand why the U.S. and many other countries simply cannot compete. The quality control is in place, and the sheer manpower available, which can apparently be turned on and off like a tap, is unprecedented.
The facility has 230,000 employees, many working six days a week, often spending up to 12 hours a day at the plant. Over a quarter of Foxconn's work force lives in company barracks and many workers earn less than $17 a day. When one Apple executive arrived during a shift change, his car was stuck in a river of employees streaming past. "The scale is unimaginable," he said.
Foxconn employs nearly 300 guards to direct foot traffic so workers are not crushed in doorway bottlenecks. The facility's central kitchen cooks an average of three tons of pork and 13 tons of rice a day....
..."They could hire 3,000 people overnight," said [a former Apple] worldwide supply demand manager.... "What U.S. plant can find 3,000 people overnight and convince them to live in dorms?"
The manpower on tap also leads to greater flexibility. When the first iPhone received a last-minute design tweak, 8,000 workers were put to work incorporating it, and...
...Within 96 hours, the plant was producing over 10,000 iPhones a day.
"The speed and flexibility is breathtaking," [an] executive said. "There's no American plant that can match that."
It's really a must-read article filled with a lot of astonishing facts on what a superfactory like this is capable of; it also goes into the decline of the original iMac factory in California. Check it out here.
Update: The New York Times has added a rather shocking follow-up article focusing on the human costs of running the superfactory here.