By Ian Sherr
The 15-minute video begins with upbeat music and a title slide that reads “We Are Manufacturing.” It cuts to a shot of the clear blue sky, with three flags ruffling in the breeze. There’s the Stars and Stripes, California’s Bear Flag and a multicolored Apple logo.
The camera pans toward a high-tech-looking building and a narrator tells us we’re in Fremont, California, about an hour’s drive from the heart of Silicon Valley.
“People and machines work together to build the highest-quality personal computers in the industry,” the narrator says. The screen cycles through images of microchips and boards moving through an assembly line while workers test and inspect them.
“This facility combines state-of-the-art equipment with a skilled workforce to achieve manufacturing excellence.”
Eventually, the parts end up inside a Macintosh computer, which is packed, boxed up and put on a truck headed to a store to be sold.
This isn’t some totem from an alternative universe where Apple builds the technology we depend on in the US. It’s a marketing video that dates back more than three decades — from the halcyon days when Apple co-founder Steve Jobs was obsessed with showing his company was savvy enough to manufacture its technology in the US, just as well as the powerhouse Japanese consumer electronics giants of the time.
Spoiler: Apple couldn’t. The factory was shuttered in 1992, and the company shifted those jobs to Asia.
Today, millions more American manufacturing jobs have shifted overseas, and many companies almost entirely rely on factories that are a boat, plane or long-haul drive away from their customers. But now that may be starting to change.
The COVID-19 pandemic exposed how fragile this whole system is. Many factories in China were forced to shut down as the virus began its spread. But that wasn’t all. Even as Chinese factories began to slowly restart manufacturing, companies faced disruptions in shipping, trucking, air travel. And soon enough, shelves in stores around the country started to go empty.
Manufacturing experts and advocates say the last year highlighted how, even in a pinch, American factories haven’t been able to fill the gap. It’s also partly why in January, President Joe Biden signed an executive order bolstering “Buy American” rules, encouraging the federal government to spend its multitrillion-dollar budget purchasing goods with up to 75% of parts made in the US. Boosting demand for American products, he hopes, will get companies to start reinvesting in manufacturing back home to fill that demand.
Biden isn’t alone in trying to solve this problem. Jobs’ successor, CEO Tim Cook, pledged in April that Apple will spend $430 billion on US investments that’ll add 20,000 jobs in the United States over the next five years to work on 5G wireless, artificial intelligence and silicon chips.
But there’s a limit to how far this can go. Even with that multibillion-dollar investment, it’s unlikely Apple and Cook will make US manufacturing the next big thing for key Apple products. The iPhone, Apple’s top moneymaker, will most likely continue to be assembled at factories in China for many years to come. To make that change, the US would need to spend years investing in new manufacturing technologies while offsetting lower wages and other costs from overseas, experts and advocates say. The United States would also need to rebuild its apprenticeship and education systems to improve the pipeline of American workers for manufacturing jobs, and convince people it’s a worthwhile career field to join.
The global supply chain of parts for the products Americans love — mobile phones, cars, computers, refrigerators, silverware, patio furniture — would need to expand back to American shores too.
But perhaps the biggest hurdle to American manufacturing is you and me, our friends and families. We vote with our wallets. And even though “Buy American” polls well, we all seem to keep buying stuff no matter where it comes from.
“Am I willing to do the legwork to find what’s made in the US or find what was made locally and purchase that to give my signal to the system?” says Krystyn Van Vliet, a professor, research vice president and associate provost at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who looks for ways to bring products designed from MIT’s research out into the real world.
She adds, “Consumers signal to manufacturers what consumers want, so we have a responsibility if we want this to change.”