If the latest rumors are true, Apple's made-in-America shift will be an extremely experimental, low-cost operation — and if you look at the supply chain, that may point to more of a symbolic gesture than a genuine engine of job creation. The whispers, which have increasingly better sourcing, now say the tech giant will move its Mac Mini production line from China's Foxconn to the the U.S., possibly near California or Tennessee, per the rumor site DigiTimes. It's still a rumor, of course, but it would make sense for Apple CEO Tim Cook to choose the cheapest and simplest of Macs in fulfilling what he promised earlier this month would be a move "to bring some production to the U.S. on the Mac." It's not going to be a massive Apple factory on these shores, not nearly. Here's why the market and the product specs will dictate less man power:
Low-demand equals low-supply equals a smaller operation. Apple does not break down individual Mac Mini sales in its quarterly reports, but DigiTimes guesses 2012 sales totaled somewhere around 1.4 million units. In one quarter last year, the company sold 1.48 desktop computers, which includes the Mac Mini, iMac, and Mac Pro. Say those sales divided equally; then over a year Apple would sell just under 2 million Mac Minis. Even with that higher estimate, it's a teeny-tiny number compared to the 3 million iPads (Minis and normals) it sold over one weekend in November.
With demand relatively low, Apple won't have to run a huge operation in the U.S., which means fewer jobs necessary at any new or converted factory.
Tiny product equals fewer parts equals a smaller operation. You can see from the photo above just how little the littlest, lowest-end Mac computer really is. The iFixit teardown for the latest Mac Mini takes 14 steps compared to the iMac, which takes 25. Meaning, the reverse — putting it back together — takes around that amount of work (plus, you know, factory speed), which may point to a much, much lower percentage of workers per product to get the new line of Minis built here.
The smaller box also has fewer parts, some of which will come from American suppliers. (To get the "Made in America" stamp requires a certain amount of parts and labor built in and working on U.S. soil.)
Perhaps Apple's making a smart choice by starting small, as TechCrunch's Darrell Etherington argues. All of this smallness means lower costs for Apple. It also means fewer possibilities for something to go wrong in the supply chain. Or you could take the cynical road, and see Apple's choice not as a test model for the future, but as a way for the company to say it makes something here. And then go back to China.