More on the "smiley curve": China makes, Apple takes

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My current Atlantic article about the Chinese factory-world of Shenzen talks about the famous-in-China concept of the "smiley curve." This is a way of expressing the principle that although Americans import huge volumes of manufactured goods from China, most of the money spent on those imports stays in American hands. (Quote from the article, explaining the smiley curve, after the jump.)


An academic study I had heard about during my reporting, but which wasn't ready in time for my article, sets out a detailed and dramatic illustration of "smiley curve" principles. It involves the Apple iPod (which I have seen manufactured in China).


According to a summary of the report, in the new issue of Richard McCormack's Manufacturing News:



Not much of Apple's iPod is manufactured in the United States, but the majority of value added is captured by Apple... Apple made $80 in gross profit on a 30-gigabyte video iPod that retails for $299. Its profit is 36 percent of the estimated wholesale price of $224. [Not to mention the retail profit, if it is sold in an Apple store.] The total cost of parts was $144.



Many more dollars-and-cents details in the Manufacturing News story and the original academic study, from the Personal Computing Industry Center at the University of California, Irvine, here.

Defining the smiley curve, from the article:



The curve is named for the U-shaped arc of the 1970s-era smiley-face icon, and it runs from the beginning to the end of a product’s creation and sale. At the beginning is the company’s brand: HP, Siemens, Dell, Nokia, Apple. Next comes the idea for the product: an iPod, a new computer, a camera phone. After that is high-level industrial design—the conceiving of how the product will look and work. Then the detailed engineering design for how it will be made. Then the necessary components. Then the actual manufacture and assembly. Then the shipping and distribution. Then retail sales. And, finally, service contracts and sales of parts and accessories.




The significance is that China’s activity is in the middle stages—manufacturing, plus some component supply and engineering design—but America’s is at the two ends, and those are where the money is. The smiley curve, which shows the profitability or value added at each stage, starts high for branding and product concept, swoops down for manufacturing, and rises again in the retail and servicing stages. The simple way to put this—that the real money is in brand name, plus retail—may sound obvious, but its implications are illuminating.


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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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