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There’s been talk about how much an American-made iPhone would cost, but the real question is whether an American-made iPhone is even possible.
President-elect Trump has called for Apple to start making their “computers and things” in the United States, rather than overseas. And while contributing to the American economy by creating manufacturing jobs is a noble goal on the surface, the actual logistics of making that happen are a bit more complicated.
The MIT Technology Review has estimated that an American-made iPhone could cost around $100 more or so, depending on the specifics of a Trump plan to bring manufacturing jobs back to the U.S. But that isn’t really the heart of the issue. If you dig deeper, there’s really no logistical way for Apple to make all of their devices in the U.S. and still turn a profit. And even if they could, the effect that it would have on the jobs market would be minimal — which, really, sort of makes the entire effort essentially worthless.
Apple chose to manufacture their devices in China not just because of cheaper labor, but because the country has more flexible factories and parts suppliers, and the prevalence of skilled workers — things that the U.S. lacks. According to Bloomberg, China now has a more skillful and nimble workforce than the U.S., which is able to mobilize very quickly. In June 2014, Apple reportedly hired 100,000 more workers to quickly ramp up production for the fall release of the iPhone 6s — something like that hasn’t happened in the U.S. since World War 2, and really isn’t likely to happen again.
Combine that with the fact that China has a heavy concentration of manufacturing, suppliers and skillful workers — all in one place. Many of the components that go into an iPhone are made just a short distance from the factories where Cupertino assembles their flagship. If Apple were still to use foreign-made components in their phones, it wouldn’t make any economic or logistical sense to ship the parts all the way to the U.S. for assembly.
China’s industrial ecosystem has taken decades to foster — and there’s really no way to relocate it to another country. It allows companies like Apple to produce devices quickly, reduce logistical costs, and mobilize workforces to meet demand. Creating something like that in the U.S. would require much more than simplified campaign rhetoric. It would require intense industrial subsidies and large-scale vocational education to actually train a capable workforce that’s large enough. All of this could, like in China, take decades.
And by that time, it might not even be worth it to wrangle companies like Apple to bring their low-paying manufacturing jobs back to America. Especially when, in the next few decades, robots might make human manufacturing increasingly obsolete.