…After Apple announced a large new campus in Austin, Tex. — creating as many as 15,000 jobs, none of them expected to be manufacturing — it’s worth looking at the company’s flirtation with advanced manufacturing in Silicon Valley in the 1980s. Apple’s co-founder, Steve Jobs, had an abiding fascination with the tradition of Henry Ford and the original mass manufacturing of automobiles in Detroit, as well as the high-quality domestic manufacturing capabilities of Japanese companies like Sony. But his efforts to replicate either in California were examples of his rare failures.
In 1983, Mr. Jobs oversaw the construction of a state-of-the-art plant where the new Macintosh computer would be built. Reporters who toured it early on were told that the plant, located just across San Francisco Bay from Apple’s headquarters, was so advanced that factory labor would account for 2 percent of the cost of making a Macintosh.
“Steve had deep convictions about Japanese manufacturing processes,” recalled Randy Battat, who joined Apple as a young electrical engineer and oversaw the introduction of some of the company’s early portable computers. “The Japanese were heralded as wizards of manufacturing. The idea was to create a factory with just-in-time delivery of zero-defect parts. It wasn’t great for business.”
In 1990, just a mile and half from where he had built the original Mac factory, he created another $10 million one to manufacture his Next Inc. personal workstation. Like the early Macintosh, however, he was never able to make flashy jet-black Next machines in quantities to support a Silicon Valley-based assembly operation.
That failure taught Mr. Jobs the lesson. He returned to Apple in 1997, and the next year, he hired Tim Cook as Apple’s senior vice president for worldwide operations. Mr. Cook had mastered the art of global manufacturing supply chains, first in IBM’s personal computer business and then at Compaq Computer.
“When I started my career, all my flights were to Japan,” said Tony Fadell, one of the hardware designers of the iPod and iPhone at Apple. “Then all my flights went Korea, then Taiwan, then China.”
Today, Silicon Valley has retained a relatively small manufacturing work force, as electronics manufacturing has exploded globally, creating millions of jobs. The small amount of manufacturing still done in the Valley is largely done by specialized contract firms that focus on fast-turnaround prototype systems.
The challenge today is that an enormous manufacturing ecosystem is required to make products for mass markets, and that ecosystem has largely moved to mainland China, where some 450,000 people have worked at a single iPhone plant.
In the early 1990s, when Andrew Hargadon was a product designer at Apple with a portable computer called the Macintosh PowerBook Duo, the ecosystem had already moved to Asia. He worked with a complex web of suppliers.
When Mr. Jobs fell ill and had to take a leave of absence in 2009, he appointed Mr. Cook as the company’s future chief executive. It was a significant statement about the nature of Silicon Valley and what the mature computing industry there looked like. The dream of manufacturing computers at scale in California was basically abandoned.