Apple's U.S. manufacturing may be more automated

Last week, we learned that Apple plans to sink $100 million into U.S. manufacturing. Some of the company's new iMacs are already being assembled domestically.

ComputerWorld has written up an interesting story about what Apple's U.S. manufacturing push might look like. According to the analysts and industry experts who spoke to the site, Apple will probably "rely heavily on automation." Products may be built almost entirely by robots instead of being put together by underpaid laborers, as they are now in China.

Whatever Apple builds, "you can guarantee it will be using the most up-to-date and modern factory automation equipment that one can buy," said Robert Atkinson, president of The Information Technology & Innovation Foundation and author of Innovation Economics: The Race for Global Advantage.

Atkinson said Apple will build a leading facility partly because it's Apple, but also because of the relative high cost of U.S. labor. "You've got to use automation more than you might in China," he said.

The site also describes an example scenario where a slab of aluminum might be turned into a chassis, filled with components, and assembled into a working product, all (apparently) without direct human involvement.

According to IHS iSuppli, assembly costs for the iPhone 5, which is manufactured in China, added up to around $8 as of September. The same device has a bill-of-materials cost of $199 and sells for $649. Judging by those figures, I think Apple could probably afford higher-paid workers and still make a humongous profit. I like the robot idea better, though. Jobs on those Foxconn assembly lines look pretty soul-crushing, and automated assembly might yield higher product quality. "Low cost labor hides a lot of sins," Rethink Robotics VP Jim Daly tells ComputerWorld.

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