During our very first day of Industrial Design school, our professor Dan Chelsea warned us fresh-faced sophomores of the ignorance we'd face during our careers. As he tackled the question "What is industrial design?" he recounted trying to explain the profession to a seatmate on an airplane: "You know, we design physical products, like telephones, blenders and Walkmen*," he said. (*It was the '90s.)
"But I thought those things just came out of the factory like that," the woman replied.
This unbelievable notion that factories are magical places where one pushes a button and finished products pop out is depressingly common. While this ignorance is a mere annoyance to designers making small talk, it can become more problematic when a would-be politician suffers from it and begins promising things he cannot possibly deliver. Watch this snippet from Donald Trump's speech at Virginia's Liberty University earlier this week:
What we all know is that Apple makes their iPhones in China, at Foxconn's factories. Where our knowledge base differs is this: Whereas Core77 readers have a decent grasp of how things are made, I think Donald Trump believes that you pour marbles into one end of the factory and iPhones just start shooting out of the other end.
We designers know that something as complicated as an iPhone is made from components. Those components come from suppliers. Sometimes those suppliers have sub-suppliers. These suppliers all use raw materials. Backing up all the way, at some point those raw materials are mined from the earth. Those raw materials travel through this magical thing called a supply chain where a variety of skilled and unskilled labor processes it into highly specific parts. These parts arrive by truck at Foxconn's facilities, where an army of Chinese laborers that are paid less than U.S. laborers assemble them into iPhones.
That crucial supply chain is largely in Asia. The suppliers set up shop in and around China for reasons of geographical proximity. They're keen to quickly get components in and finished products out. Chinese manufacturers and municipalities will go to such great lengths to keep that supply chain efficient that, according to The Economist,
At [Hewlett-Packard's] prodding, [the city of] Chongqing built a railway line to carry products overland through Kazakhstan into Europe, reducing transit time from 35 days to 22. Today roughly one in every four laptops in the world is made there. "It would be hard [for other countries] to recreate what China has done," says [HP executive Stuart] Pann. "The economics aren't there [in other countries], nor are the sub-suppliers."
Trump's proposal seems to suggest that Apple simply pulls out of China, builds a new factory in America, and starts making iPhones there. How does that work, when all of the suppliers are in Asia? Where do we get the marbles? Do you think America has the political will to build a new railroad for Apple, and if so, how long would that take? For reference, New York City has been trying to add a new subway line for over 100 years; we finally started building it in 2007 and it's still not finished.
This idea that Apple can just turn on a new factory over here and hire American workers to make iPhones—Motherboard reckons it would add a mere $50 to the price tag to use American laborers for final assembly—is pure fantasy.
Well, perhaps Trump would say, "Then let's just use all American suppliers, too." Yeah, that's not going to happen either, and here's one very good reason why:
As Mike Rowe has been lamenting for years, America has simply stopped training their workforce in a set of formerly crucial skills. Factories don't just need assembly lines and assembly line workers, they need that massive supportive infrastructure around it, and in America that infrastructure has largely evaporated. American manufacturing is never going to come back on the scale that we once enjoyed. The best we can endeavor to accomplish are small- and medium-sized manufacturing outfits, and some of these do thrive in America, as we'll look at in a future series.
Whatever gripes I may have with Apple, them not being a good corporate citizen is not one of them. Them supposedly being part of the problem with the decline of American manufacturing is not one of them. Apple manufactures the Mac Pro in America because it makes good financial sense to, since the relevant suppliers for that particular product are here. Apple sources what American parts they can, with a reported "Thirty-one of the 50 states [providing] parts, materials, or equipment to make Apple products."
In the past decade, Apple's directly employed workforce has increased by a factor of just under six. When Apple does well, America does well; putting up all those Apple stores alone has employed 20,000 American construction workers to build them and 30,000 American employees to staff them. Adding these workers up with their internal employees, local suppliers and app developers, Apple reckons they've created or supported 1.9 million American jobs as of last month.
If you want to bash Apple for their designs, that's fair game, it's subjective. But I can objectively say that criticizing their manufacturing choices and concocting this fantasy that they can efficiently be forced to produce here merely demonstrates a profound ignorance of how things are actually made. Apple can and does help "make America great again," but not in the way that the misguided Trump envisions.