I guess somebody forgot to tell Apple there’s a recession going on.
Defying the struggling economy and crushing Wall Street’s expectations, Apple delivered its best quarter ever, setting record unit sales of both iPhones and Macs, and producing its largest profit in history: at $1.67 billion, a 46-percent increase over the year ago quarter.
Now to be honest, I’ve long been a bit of an Apple fanboy, and an admirer of CEO Steve Jobs obvious genius. While I’ve developed, published and supported software for both Mac and Windows PCs, and am quite comfortable working in a Windows environment, the Mac has been my platform of choice at home for over two decades, and when given the option, at work as well. And with Apple’s share price now hovering near an all time high, the couple hundred or so shares I own in my IRA comprise my single largest asset outside the equity in my home, and by far my best investment ever. (I bought in October of 2001. You do the math.)
But this post isn’t meant to be one of those partisan Apple vs. Microsoft things, for while I love Apple’s products, and have personally profited from its stunning revival, I fully understand that it is just another amoral corporation, whose primary responsibility is to maximize shareholder value. Rather, I thought I’d use Apple’s earnings report as a springboard for making a brief comment on the likely future of Boeing here in Washington state.
On the back of my beloved iPhone, and I suppose on every other piece of Apple hardware these days, is stamped the pronouncement: “Designed by Apple in California. Assembled in China.” Apple used to proudly tout its state of the art US manufacturing facilities, but shuttered its last major domestic plant in 2004. Nowadays it appears that all of the company’s manufacturing is contracted out to third parties, mostly in Taiwan and China. (Apple is infamously secretive to the point of paranoia, so it’s hard to say for sure.)
Apple sold 3.05 million Macs, 7.4 million iPhones and 10.2 million iPods in the last quarter, and I’m not sure they own and operate a single factory. Yet they still manage to maintain some of the highest margins in the industry.
From a shareholder’s perspective, it’s hard to argue with that kinda success.
Now apply that same sort of logic to Boeing, and you get a pretty good idea of where its local manufacturing jobs may be headed.
Of course, jetliners aren’t mass produced, so it would be wrong to make too direct a comparison, but anybody who thinks a sense of corporate citizenship is going to push Boeing executives to keep manufacturing jobs here in Washington state is smoking crack. Nor should we expect the recent meltdown in Boeing’s outsourcing strategy to dramatically alter the company’s long term manufacturing plans.
Boeing is intent on moving production to where labor is cheapest, be it South Carolina, or ultimately, China. That’s what Boeing executives believe it takes to compete in today’s global market, and that’s what they believe they need to do to maximize shareholder value. And there’s nothing we can do to stop them.
So the question is… are Boeing executives right?
Apple excels at innovation, engineering, industrial design and marketing — some of which Boeing itself hasn’t been too shabby at over recent decades — but apart from a few custom chips and case moldings, Apple’s products are largely assembled from commodity components using standard, if generally cutting edge manufacturing techniques. But when Boeing designs a new airplane, it also designs many of its basic components, sometimes right down to the individual rivet. Meanwhile building an airplane is much more labor intensive, and requires many more specialized skills than, say, assembling an iPhone.
But of course the biggest difference between Apple and Boeing is the acceptable level of quality control. When a Mac crashes, the worst case scenario is you lose a little data. But when an airplane crashes… well, I don’t need to draw you picture.
That said, the possibility of outsourcing components, and possibly even final assembly to low cost contractors, wherever they may be, must be awfully compelling to Boeing, especially considering that this option is not nearly as available to its primary competitor, Airbus.
Think about it. Airbus was conceived and subsidized primarily as a jobs program for its European partners, so with the tens of billions of taxpayer euros invested in the venture, it’s hard to imagine the political will necessary to export these high wage manufacturing jobs to China or anywhere else. Boeing on the other hand is unburdened by such demands, putting it at a distinct competitive advantage should it successfully execute its outsourcing strategy.
That it is, assuming, Boeing’s primary competitor really is Airbus.
Like I said, Apple excels at innovation, engineering, industrial design and marketing, skills its Chinese manufacturing partners have yet to master, but which are absolutely critical to successfully selling consumer products with short product life cycles in a crowded global market. Transferring the technology necessary to enable a contractor to assemble an iPod doesn’t give this manufacturer the skills and know-how necessary to create a product that can compete with the iPod and the iTunes ecosystem Apple has built around it.
But the same may not be true of the Chinese aviation industry Boeing will increasingly be forced to partner with as it pursues a business strategy contingent on substantially lowering its cost of production. Commercial Aircraft Corp. of China has already announced ambitious plans to launch a 737 competitor by 2016, and any technology Boeing transfers to mutual suppliers and partners will only make this goal more achievable. Furthermore, with much of the anticipated growth in commercial aviation expected to take place in China itself, the Chinese government backed Comac already has a captive customer in the Chinese government backed airlines that dominate the market.
So, can Boeing successfully transition itself to an outsourced manufacturing model without losing market share to its low-wage partners? Will we eventually see a Boeing airplane stamped “Designed by Boeing in Washington. Assembled in China”…? And if Boeing does manage to leverage its innovation, engineering and design prowess to retain its position as a market leader, even while jettisoning the bulk of its manufacturing infrastructure, what will this mean for Washington state?
I don’t know. But given Boeing’s apparent eagerness to move production out of state, it sure does look like we’re eventually gonna find out.