The Apple Supply Chain: The Best in the World?
by Steve Banker
July 2nd, 2012
Many supply chain professionals consider Apple’s supply chain to be the best in the world. I don’t.
The reasoning appears to be that since Apple is one of the fastest growing and most profitable companies in the world, it must surely have one of the best supply chains too. This is a “halo effect” fallacy.
Apple is the best in the world at innovative product development. Because the company develops hardware, software, and associated digital services—rather than just focusing on one dimension—it can provide an unmatched user experience. This allows Apple to capture high margins from its products and services. ...view middle of the document...
Manufacturers can get hit with penalties for quality issues and warranty claims. Apple is becoming so big that even though it has a number of customized components that it has to pay extra for, the company’s cost structure is starting to resemble that of some of its rivals that only source common components.
But other parts of the supply chain become more difficult for a company that differentiates itself based on product excellence.
Apple works to lock up the supply of key components, particularly custom components, with exclusivity agreements. This serves to protect the uniqueness of its products. In some cases, Apple invests in capital equipment to make these special components (the company lends the production equipment to its manufacturing partner). At times this production machinery becomes Apple exclusive either because of exclusivity agreements or because Apple is so large that a backlog for the equipment becomes horrifically long.
Managing new product launches is also more important for a “fashion” manufacturer. The process from design to production launch typically takes 10 months. This includes sourcing, testing, government approvals (like FCC approval for an iPhone), and factory dry runs. For weeks prior to the launch, factories work overtime to build hundreds of thousands of devices. Then they work more overtime to clear the backlogs.
According to Apple’s supplier responsibility progress report, the company’s standard labor policy is for workers to work a maximum of 60 hours per week and to get at least one day off per week. And yet, at 93 of its suppliers, more than 50 percent of their workers exceeded these rather low limits. In fact, working conditions at Foxconn, Apple’s partner for final assembly and some core components, have been bad enough that Apple has gotten a bit of a black eye from press reports of accidents, suicides, and labor strife.
While the existing customer base has largely ignored these labor relations problems, the demographics of the people that buy Apple products indicate a concern for social responsibility. Further, the Chinese market is becoming very important to Apple, and closer Chinese governmental scrutiny could affect shipments.
What is different about Apple’s launch planning is the extreme secrecy attached to it. Apple places electronic monitors in some boxes of components to track them from Apple’s headquarters in Cupertino. The goal is to discourage leaks and ensure customer delight and surprise when the products hit the market. One article claims that Apple has shipped devices in plain boxes, even tomato boxes, to avoid detection.
But Apple, like many companies in the electronics industry, has a supply chain with a high-risk profile. Many of its key components come from northern Taiwan, the company sole sources several customized components, and it relies on massive factories located in Shenzhen, China for final assembly. Any sort of man-made or natural disaster at any of these sites could...