May 18th 2016

Trump’s demand that Apple must make iPhones in the U.S. actually isn’t that crazy

Donald Trump has promised that “we’re gonna get Apple to start building their damn computers and things in this country, instead of in other countries.” He said this at a speech at Virginia’s Liberty University and several other events. It is very likely that he is not serious; Trump tends to say things he couldn’t possibly mean. But he did raise an intriguing question about whether Apple — and other American companies — could bring manufacturing back to the United States.

When American companies moved manufacturing to China, it was all about cost. China’s wages were amongst the lowest in the world and its government provided subsidies and turned a blind eye to labor abuse and environmental destruction. Things have changed. China’s labor, real estate, and energy costs have increased to the point that they are comparable to some parts of the United States. Subsidies are harder to get and Chinese labor is not tolerating the abuse that it once did. China is now a more expensive place to manufacture than Indonesia, Thailand, Mexico, and India according to Boston Consulting Group.

Add to this the efforts by the Chinese government to spur indigenous innovation — by forcing foreign companies to reveal their intellectual property and use local suppliers—and you have strong motivation to relocate manufacturing.

But Apple is by no means looking to exit from China, its second largest market. It just announced an investment of $1 billion in Uber’s rival Didi Chuxing. It clearly saw a large market opportunity and a way to appease the Chinese government.

Technology is, however, changing the labor-cost equation even more and China is becoming unpredictable because of its faltering economy. It may make sense for Apple to locate some of its manufacturing closer to other markets just to protect itself from this uncertainty.

What is changing the labor situation is robotics. Robots can now do the same manufacturing jobs as humans — for a fraction of the cost. A new generation, from companies such as Rethink Robotics of Boston, ABB of Switzerland, and Universal Robots of Denmark, are dexterous enough to thread a needle and nimble enough to work beside humans. They can do repetitive and boring circuit board assembly and pack boxes. These robots cost less than $40,000 to purchase and as little as a dollar per hour to operate. And unlike human workers, they will work 24-hour shifts without complaining.

The hurdle in relocating manufacturing for any company such as Apple is the tie to the chain of suppliers of its products’ electronics components. The key question therefore is: how dependent is Apple on its China supply chain?

In 2015, the supply chain for Apple’s products consisted of 198 global companies with 759 subsidiaries — so this is quite complex. Seamus Grimes of National University of Ireland and Yutao Sun of Dalian University of China studied each of these subsidiaries and interviewed executives of those located in China. The objective of their research was to advise China on how it could move further up the value chain and cause foreign companies to give it more of their intellectual property. The paper they published, however, provides another interesting insight: into how few of Apple’s technology suppliers are actually Chinese.

The authors researched each of the 759 subsidiaries and categorized the electronics components into core, non-core, and assembly-related, with the high-cost, intellectual-property dependent technologies being designated as core. They learned that 336, or 44.2 percent, of these subsidiaries were manufacturing in China; 115 were in Taiwan; and 84 in Europe or the United States.

When the researchers looked into the ownership of subsidiaries that were manufacturing in China, they found that only 3.95 percent were Chinese. And only 2.2 percent of the core component suppliers were Chinese. The largest proportion, 32.7 percent, were Japanese; 28.5 percent were American; 19.0 percent were Taiwanese; and 6.5 percent were European.

To put it simply, more than half of the components of Apple’s products are imported into China and practically none of the important, core, technologies are made by Chinese companies. Foreign companies do not trust China and nearly all of the intellectual property in Apple’s products originates from outside it.

This means that the value chains could be shifted over time. This begs the question: what it would cost to move manufacturing to the United States?

For this, it may be best to look at what Apple’s manufacturing partner Foxconn is doing in India. The Economic Times reports that Foxconn is finalizing negotiations to build a $10 billion facility to manufacture iPhones in India. The report anticipates it will take 18 months to get this operational.

India does have a labor cost advantage over the U.S. but robots could eliminate this. Similar manufacturing facilities could be set up in the United States, product by product.

Of course, this will not be easy and there are many risks. But it certainly is possible for Apple to bring manufacturing back to the United States. If Apple can do this, so can most other companies; their value chains are a lot less complex than Apple’s.

So it may turn out that for once, Donald Trump’s rant isn’t so crazy.

For Vivek Wadhwa's site, please click here.

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Vivek Wadhwa is a Fellow at Arthur & Toni Rembe Rock Center for Corporate Governance, Stanford University; Director of Research at the Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization at the Pratt School of Engineering,  Duke University; and Distinguished Fellow at Singularity University. He is author of  “The Immigrant Exodus: Why America Is Losing the Global Race to Capture Entrepreneurial Talent”—which was named by The Economist as a Book of the Year of 2012, and ” Innovating Women: The Changing Face of Technology”—which documents the struggles and triumphs of women.  In 2012, the U.S. Government awarded Wadhwa distinguished recognition as an  “Outstanding American by Choice”— for his “commitment to this country and to the common civic values that unite us as Americans”. He was also named by Foreign Policy Magazine as Top 100 Global Thinker in 2012. In 2013, TIME Magazine listed him as one of The 40 Most Influential Minds in Tech.

Wadhwa oversees research at Singularity University, which educates a select group of leaders about the exponentially advancing technologies that are soon going to change our world.  These advances—in fields such as robotics, A.I., computing, synthetic biology, 3D printing, medicine, and nanomaterials—are making it possible for small teams to do what was once possible only for governments and large corporations to do: solve the grand challenges in education, water, food, shelter, health, and security.

In his roles at Stanford and  Duke, Wadhwa lectures in class on subjects such as entrepreneurship and public policy, helps prepare students for the real world, and leads groundbreaking research projects.  He is an advisor to several governments; mentors entrepreneurs; and is a regular columnist for The Washington Post, Wall Street Journal Accelerators, LinkedIn Influencers blog, Forbes, and the American Society of Engineering Education’s Prism magazine.  Prior to joining academia in 2005, Wadhwa founded two software companies.


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Jul 4th 2020
EXTRACT: "--- Nobody is more dangerous than he who imagines himself pure in heart, for his purity, by definition, is unassailable. --- Author James Baldwin’s words, written in the America of the late 1950s."
Jun 29th 2020
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Jun 29th 2020
EXTRACT: "Ruth Poniarski is a painter and the author of Journey of the Self: Memoir of an Artist (Warren Publishing, 2020), in which she tells the story of her decade long struggle with mental illness, a “spiraling malady” which led her into a “pattern of psychosis”. I recently had the opportunity to talk with Poniarski about her life and work, and how she eventually overcame her demons."
Jun 27th 2020
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Jun 27th 2020
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Jun 17th 2020
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Jun 13th 2020
EXTRACT: "Bonhoeffer’s life holds an important lesson for us today, regardless of our religious affiliation or lack thereof. And simply put it is this: you are called upon; you are called on behalf of your neighbor. When you are called to be responsible that is not an obligation which you can decline, discharge or acquit yourself of – it is an infinite responsibility, a “forever commitment” as Charles Blow recently put it. And we all must be prepared to make any sacrifice necessary when we are called."
Jun 11th 2020
EXTRACT: "People differ substantially in how much they’re affected by experiences in their lives. Some people seem to be more affected by daily stress, or the loss of someone close to them. On the other hand, some people seem to get through the same experiences relatively unscathed. Similarly, some people benefit strongly from counselling, or having a support system of close family and friends. Others seem better able to manage on their own. But understanding why some people are more sensitive than others isn’t just a question of how they were raised, and the experiences they’ve been through. In fact, previous research has found that some people in general seem more sensitive to what they experience – and some are generally less sensitive."
Jun 7th 2020
EXTRACT: " The root causes of anthropogenic climate change – which has led to the endangering of countless species across the globe – cannot be adequately grasped in isolation from the technological application of modern science. While Swedish activist Greta Thunberg was certainly justified in calling upon American legislators to “unite behind the science,” neither can we overlook the culpability of science in bringing about the environmental crisis. "
May 23rd 2020
EXTRACT: "The QAnon movement began in 2017 after someone known only as Q posted a series of conspiracy theories about Trump on the internet forum 4chan. QAnon followers believe global elites are seeking to bring down Trump, whom they see as the world’s only hope to defeat the “deep state.” OKM is part of a network of independent congregations (or ekklesia) called Home Congregations Worldwide (HCW). The organization’s spiritual adviser is Mark Taylor, a self-proclaimed “Trump Prophet” and QAnon influencer with a large social media following on Twitter and YouTube."
May 23rd 2020
EXTRACT: "The aim of my research for the Understanding Unbelief programme was to investigate the worldviews of non-believers, since little is known about the diversity of these non-religious beliefs, and what psychological functions they serve. I wanted to explore the idea that while non-believers may not hold religious beliefs, they still hold distinct ontological, epistemological and ethical beliefs about reality, and the idea that these secular beliefs and worldviews provide the non-religious with equivalent sources of meaning, or similar coping mechanisms, as the supernatural beliefs of religious individuals."
May 22nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Psalm 91, for example, reassures believers that God will protect them from “the pestilence that walketh in darkness… A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come nigh thee”.............Luther was a devout believer but insisted that religious faith had to be joined with practical, physical defences against sickness. It was a good Christian’s duty to work to keep themselves and others safe, rather than relying solely on the protection of God. "
May 22nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Evidence from this study shows clearly that eating foods rich in flavonoids over your lifetime is significantly linked to reducing Alzheimer’s disease risk. However, their consumption will be even more beneficial alongside other lifestyle changes, such as quitting smoking, managing a healthy weight and exercising."
May 5th 2020
EXTRACT: "It’s possible that the answers to questions like, “how do I live a virtuous life?” or “how do we build a good society?” are not the same as they were a few weeks ago."
May 2nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Strangely, those with strong beliefs tend to be admired. The human mind hates uncertainty, so it is comforting to be told what to think, and to form settled opinions. But it is not rational. As the philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote: “The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.”
Apr 21st 2020
Extract: "Humans, Boccaccio seems to be saying, can think of themselves as upstanding and moral – but unawares, they may show indifference to others. We see this in the 10 storytellers themselves: They make a pact to live virtuously in their well-appointed retreats. Yet while they pamper themselves, they indulge in some stories that illustrate brutality, betrayal and exploitation. Boccaccio wanted to challenge his readers, and make them think about their responsibilities to others. “The Decameron” raises the questions: How do the rich relate to the poor during times of widespread suffering? What is the value of a life? In our own pandemic, with millions unemployed due to a virus that has killed thousands, these issues are strikingly relevant.
Apr 20th 2020
Extract: "If we do not seize this crisis as a moment for transformation, then we will have lost the war. If doing so requires reviving notions of collective guilt and responsibility – including the admittedly uncomfortable view that every one of us is infinitely responsible, then so be it; as long we do not morally cop out by blaming some group as the true bearers of sin, guilt, and God’s heavy judgment. A pandemic clarifies the nature of action: that with our every act we answer to each other. In that light, we have a duty to seize this public crisis as an opportunity to reframe our mutual responsibility to one another and the world."
Apr 16th 2020
EXTRACT: "Death is the common experience which can make all members of the human race feel their common bonds and their common humanity."