Reborn in the USA: What to Make of Apple's American Manufacturing Plans

The company plans to start building computers in the United States next year. This might be a milestone. It could also just be a PR stunt.

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(Reuters)

Apple tends to get treated as a symbol of everything that's both right and wrong with American industry -- its ability to design and market brilliant products, and its reluctance to build them here at home. 

So, there might be a temptation to treat the announcement that Apple will start manufacturing some of its Mac computers stateside next year as a milestone of sorts, a sign that when it comes to making consumer electronics, the U.S. is on the rebound. And who knows -- five years from now, we might find out that was the case. But as of this moment, it's too early to tell whether this is a meaningful experiment, or a PR move by a corporation that's been skewered for its labor practices. 

In any event, this much is worth remembering: Whatever Apple does in the long term, there's plenty of manufacturing that appears to be returning to our shores anyway. 

In interviews with NBC's Brian Williams and Bloomberg Businessweek, CEO Tim Cook, who as chief of operations under Steve Jobs helped mastermind Apple's Chinese outsourcing efforts, explained that the company would begin building one of its current Mac lines in the U.S. as of 2013. Here's the exchange from Businessweek:

You were instrumental in getting Apple out of the manufacturing business. What would it take to get Apple back to building things and, specifically, back to building things in the U.S.?

It's not known well that the engine for the iPhone and iPad is made in the U.S., and many of these are also exported--the engine, the processor. The glass is made in Kentucky. And next year we are going to bring some production to the U.S. on the Mac. 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. [Italics mine]

Apple has been dogged by bad press related to the dire factory conditions at its manufacturing partner, the Taiwanese behemoth Foxconn. So it's possible to read this as an attempt at currying a bit of public goodwill, especially as it follows months after the company's arch rival, Google, announced it would attempt to build one of its own gadgets domestically. But Google's orb-shaped streaming media player, the Nexus Q, was a bit of an oddity that appears to have been pulled from the market before its official release. Mac computers, on the other hand, make up a small-but-important chunk of Apple's revenue. The $100 million the company is throwing at this effort is pretty much a rounding error in the scheme of its finances. But it's not nothing. This would appear to be an honest-to-God effort to mass manufacture a popular computer in America.

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Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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