One Reason Apple’s Computers Are Mostly Made In China: A Tiny Screw

The company began manufacturing a high-end Mac in Austin, but couldn’t find the parts or the people it needed to make a go of it.

By Michael MarksFebruary 1, 2019 8:04 am,

In a 2016 speech, then-presidential candidate Donald Trump used colorful language to urge Apple to build products in the U.S., rather than in China. In fact, the iPhone and Mac-maker had been doing that on a small scale, or trying to, since 2013, manufacturing the high-end Mac Pro in Austin.

Jack Nicas, who covers Silicon Valley for the New York Times, says making Macs in the U.S. was easier said than done.

“Apple contracted an Austin manufacturer called  Plextronics to build that Mac Pro,” Nicas says. “And as they designed and built and tested that new computer on this Austin factory line, they would iterate the design and sometimes need new screws.”

Nicas says ordering new screws in the volume and turnaround time needed proved difficult. In China, creating new screws of this type is a straightforward task, Nicas says, but not in the U.S., where machine shops aren’t set up to produce them. With a capacity of 1,000 screws per day, the Lockhart, Texas machine shop Plextronics contracted with could not meet the needs of mass Mac Pro production.

Nicas says that, ironically, the Lockhart shop had once been geared for the kind of mass production Apple needed, but that the company had changed its business model to focus on smaller-scale manufacturing, due to lower-priced competition from Chinese firms,

“[They] got rid of the old screw machines and bought what are called CNC machines that do far more precise manufacturing,” Nicas says.

To fulfill Apple’s needs, the Lockhart company produced more than 28,000 screws, many of which were delivered to Plextronics by the machine shop owner. But it wasn’t enough.

Nicas says the Mac Pro project faced other difficulties in Central Texas.

“When I spoke to Apple managers that worked on the project, and also Plextronics folks, there was also a sense that the project was understaffed,” he says. “In China, cheap labor is plentiful.”

And because employees cost more in the U.S., Nicas says, there were fewer of them in place when it was time to begin building the Mac Pro.

“When production was ready to start, materials or supplies were often not there, or ready not ready on time, and that also contributed to delays,” Nicas says.

In December, Apple announced it would build a $1 billion campus in Williamson County, on the edge of Austin. Nicas says the thousands of jobs it will bring – likely making the company Austin’s largest private employer – will not be on a factory floor.

“These are going to be engineering jobs, R&D jobs, customer service jobs,” he says. “And these are more the positions companies like Apple are looking to the U.S. for.”

Written by Shelly Brisbin.