First Click: What the hell is going on in Apple’s US-based Mac Pro factory?


Remember when Apple came out with its six-guns a blazin’ to announce its Mac Pro and a return to US manufacturing? It was a big deal for much of 2013 and 2014, accompanied by a lot of flag-waving bombast and back-patting bravado. But then Apple fell mysteriously silent on the topic as the months turned into years without any upgrades.

It was President Obama who at the beginning of 2011 asked Steve Jobs what it would take to build iPhones in the United States. Why can’t that work come home, the president asked. Steve Jobs’ answer was unequivocal: “Those jobs aren’t coming back.” Nevertheless, in 2012 Tim Cook’s Apple committed to investing over $100 million to kickstart US manufacturing. In 2013, Apple would launch the completely redesigned Mac Pro, which would be partially manufactured and then assembled in Austin, Texas though a partnership with Flextronics.

Cook spoke triumphantly of the undertaking as he did the rounds on the media circuit. But he also expressed his concerns in an interview with Brian Williams:

Cook said he believes the U.S. education system is failing to produce enough people with the skills needed for modern manufacturing processes. He added, however, that he hopes the new Mac project will help spur others to bring manufacturing back to the U.S.

“The consumer electronics world was really never here,” Cook said. “It’s a matter of starting it here.”

Cook knows a little something about “modern manufacturing processes” because he was there at its invention. Cook joined Apple in 1998 with a mandate to clean up Apple’s woeful manufacturing apparatus around the world. He’s the guy who closed Apple’s factories and warehouses in earnest and outsourced the work to more efficient and flexible contract manufacturers that could scale a skilled workforce quickly and still do the work more cheaply. It was a move that paid off when the world demanded hundreds of millions of iPods after the product’s 2001 debut, and established a highly visible precedent for the rest of the consumer electronics industry to follow. The corresponding supply chain is firmly entrenched in China as a result.

Despite this, the US-made Mac Pro went on sale on December 19th, 2013.

Notoriously, the Mac Pro hasn’t seen an update in over three years — an eternity for computers. Yet it’s still for sale. Bizarre, don’t you think, for a product that received annual updates in the years preceding it? Yesterday, Mark Gurman writing for Bloomberg gave us some insight into what’s going on (emphasis mine):

Under pressure from politicians to create manufacturing jobs at home, Apple was looking to score political points. The decision caused production headaches though.

The Mac Pro’s glossy exterior and chrome beveled edges meant Apple had to make its own manufacturing tools and then train people to run those machines in an assembly plant. This slowed production and constrained Apple’s ability to make enough computers to meet demand.

Three years on, the Mac Pro is ripe for an upgrade with its chips and connector ports lagging rival products. Because of the earlier challenges, some Apple engineers have raised the possibility of moving production back to Asia, where it’s cheaper and manufacturers have the required skills for ambitious products, according to a person familiar with those internal discussions.

This seems to validate Cook’s concerns about having enough skilled workers for modern manufacturing processes. Makes you wonder what the hell is going on in that Austin factory, doesn’t it?

Apple declined Bloomberg’s request for comment on the story before it was published on Tuesday. But that’s okay, because Tim Cook’s posting to an internal Apple message board just happened to leak on Monday. A coincidence I’m sure. Cook said that Apple has “great desktops” on the roadmap, a term he used interchangeably with iMacs. Some read that to mean that the Mac Pro was dead.

In hindsight, one could argue that the Mac Pro was merely a token political gesture, akin to Budweiser changing its name to “America” in an election year. Apple knew it couldn’t kickstart US manufacturing because those jobs aren’t coming back. Instead, it was willing to play along in order to win favors in DC, and the patriotic admiration of US consumers. In that context, $100 million, or whatever Apple ultimately invested in the Mac Pro manufacturing line, can be written off as lobbying and marketing expenditures over the last three years. (Pennies compared to the $238 billion it hoards in cash). The less cynical answer is that Apple was truly committed to the effort, and so surprised by its failure that it never had a plan B — though I have a hard time believing Tim Cook, the guy who helped created the template for the modern manufacturing process, could have been so easily blindsided.

Now president-elect Trump is again asking Apple to bring back manufacturing; and Apple again seems to be playing along. But you’re fooling yourself if you think the outcome will be any different this time around.

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