Apple CEO Tim Cook is on the interview circuit, with "exclusive" interviews given to both Bloomberg Businessweek and Brian Williams on NBC's Rock Center. There is one very important piece of news contained within them: Next year, Apple is going to have one of its "existing" lines of Macs made here in the United States. Which, for some reason, feels a little bit like that moment in Return of the Jedi when Mon Mothma informs the rebels, "But most important of all, we've learned that the Emperor himself is personally overseeing the final stages of the construction of this Death Star."
We’ve been working on this for a long time, and we were getting closer to it. It will happen in 2013. We’re really proud of it. We could have quickly maybe done just assembly, but it’s broader because we wanted to do something more substantial. So we’ll literally invest over $100 million. This doesn’t mean that Apple will do it ourselves, but we’ll be working with people, and we’ll be investing our money.
The line of Macs that Cook is referring to could be the iMac, given that some of the new models have already shipped with "Assembled in USA" etched onto their aluminum skin. This will no doubt satiate some critics who unfailingly press for more manufacturing jobs in the United States, but Macs are in fact a tiny business for Apple compared with the iPhone and iPad — Apple sold nearly 27 million iPhones and 14 million iPads last quarter, compared to just under 5 million Macs — and one that has a comparatively limited life as computers become increasingly mobile. Cook is, of course, quick to point out that the iPhone and iPad's processors are also made in the U.S. (albeit, by Samsung), but iPhones and iPads are mostly assembled in China. Which should reinforce the point that assembling Macs here does nothing to change the fact that most of its parts are still going to be produced abroad by foreign companies, even if they're going to be put into place and fastened together on a line somewhere here in the U.S. by whoever Apple partners with to make them.
Cook himself explains to Brian Williams why making consumer electronics entirely in the USA on the scale that Apple does is a staggeringly difficult proposition: It's "not so much about price; it's about the skills... Over time, there are skills that are associated with manufacturing that have left the U.S." Part of the reason Foxconn workers went on strike, in fact, is because of the iPhone 5's insane difficulty to manufacture. And The New York Times' report on the "iEconomy" makes what Cook is referring to exceedingly clear, with giant numbers:
Apple’s executives had estimated that about 8,700 industrial engineers were needed to oversee and guide the 200,000 assembly-line workers eventually involved in manufacturing iPhones. The company’s analysts had forecast it would take as long as nine months to find that many qualified engineers in the United States.
In China, it took 15 days.
Putting the iMac together here isn't going to change that anytime soon. But as Cook says, it is, if nothing else, "another step."