Apple’s Manufacturing Problem

Apple has a big problem. It’s not the rise of Android, it’s not the recent management re-shuffle or that everything they do is deemed by pundits as something “Steve would never have done”. Apple’s problem is that its success has led, in my opinion, to a significant reduction in the quality control of its manufacturing.

I have been a huge Apple fan since I first started buying computers well over ten years ago. Every computer I’ve ever owned has been a Mac. I’ve owned every iPhone, every iPod and every iPad. So, while this post will get the inevitable barrage of “you’re being paid by Microsoft/Google/Samsung” to write this, believe me I don’t want to be writing this. It’s not easy for me to say what I have to say, but someone needs to. Ever since Apple started manufacturing in China their quality control has been steadily slipping. And as Apple products become more and more cutting edge, its designs are not being done justice by Apple’s manufacturing partners.

Over the last two years almost every Apple product I’ve owned has had some problem, either big or small. You could argue that I’ve been unlucky, and that may be true, but statistically speaking, the chances of continuing to get defective products time after time without there being some underlying issue is pretty unlikely. I’m not the only one either. The pinnacle of this trend for me has been the iPad 3. I’ve written previously about my issues with trying to get an iPad 3 with an acceptable screen. After three replacements I’ve given up. But there are dozens of threads across various forums with people having the same problems. Some have had their iPad replaced up to 8 and 9 times before either getting a good one or giving up. I can’t help but think that this widely reported issue was at least part of the reason for the rapid roll out of the iPad 4. So far there hasn’t been the same issues reported with the iPad 4, but it’s only been out for a short time so we’ll see.

The MacBook Pro with retina display has had image persistence issues with the screen widely reported by users on various forums. There was one thread on Apple’s own discussion site that ran for several hundred pages. I initially dismissed this as people not understanding LCD screen technology but then my Retina MacBook pro started developing its own problems.

I recently bought two iPad Mini’s. One for my wife and one for myself. Luckily for me, mine is fine but the backlight on my wife’s is badly mottled. It looks like a big hand print across the screen. It’s not bothering her, but I don’t think it is acceptable.

I know there are lots of people out there with no issues with their devices. I’m not trying to say that every Apple product is defective. I know some think that because they haven’t had an issue personally, I’m just making it up, or am just a troll, or just out to “get” Apple. Of course if you think that, nothing I can say will convince you otherwise. People who know me know that I have been one of apple’s biggest supporters. But it’s got to the stage now where I’m reluctant to buy a new Apple product because it feels like you’re rolling a dice and trying to score snake eyes just to get one that doesn’t have some sort of issue. I’m not the only one who thinks this either. There are lots of people out there in a similar situation who have made similar observations.

As I said earlier, not all of these are big problems. Many issues may appear minor to the average consumer. The typical teen or soccer mom might not care about an uneven backlight or ghosting on a display, but that doesn’t mean the problems don’t exist or should be allowed to continue. The variation in quality might be within some arbitrary tolerance set by Foxconn or one of the other partners, but the result is that beautifully designed Apple products are coming off the assembly line with a wide variation in quality that doesn’t belong in such a high-priced and high-end product.

Look, I get it, Apple is pushing the envelope, and I love the design of Apple’s products. I love that they’re cutting edge. I don’t think anyone can touch them for their innovation and continuing desire to push technology forward. But Apple’s designs are advanced technology with highly complicated engineering and this type of bleeding edge product is traditionally built with precision hand crafted engineering. But Apple through its partners are mass producing these designs by the cheapest available (and some would say questionable) labour. Something has to give somewhere. The more demand for Apple products the bigger this problem is going to get.

Some will argue that it’s a cost issue, that the only choice is to manufacture in China, but this isn’t the case either. Tim Cook even said himself that the issue wasn’t cost, but the lack of skilled labour. Either way if the trend continues, High end users will be put off buying Apple products.

Apple is in danger of making the same mistakes Sony made. Sony used to make superb, high-grade precisely engineered and manufactured products, and they too moved manufacturing (from Japan) to China, and now a large percentage of their products are not particularly well made. Of course Sony has had lots of other issues too, but I know many Sony fans who long for the days when Sony made high quality precision engineered products, and not the plastic crap they churn out now. So, it is with some sense of optimism that I read about Apple considering moving manufacturing back to the USA.

I’m sure the loyal fans will be lining up to trash this blog post, and claim that I’m just imagining things, that Apple is perfect in every way and that it’s just because they’re making so many products, and it’s just a vocal few that have had issues. There is a time I would have been one of them, but this is a real problem for those who’ve had to return multiple products multiple times. We’re not imagining it, we’re not being too picky or being paid off by a competitor. We’re not stupid either. If you have never had an issue, then consider yourself lucky, but don’t automatically assume that those of us who have are lying/imagining/making it up. Even if it is only a small percentage of users who get defective products, the sheer scale of Apple’s production runs means that even a small percentage is still a huge number

I just hope that someone somewhere inside of Apple is taking the manufacturing of their products seriously. Or at the least accepts that a problem exists. At the end of the day, for all of Apple’s genius and vision, its biggest issue has always been that the people who work there believe their own mantra a little too much. They firmly believe that they do make the best products possible, and that belief can some times blind them to reality. Just because Apple is making profits hand over fist don’t mean its infallible, or that it never makes mistakes.

Apple makes high-end premium products, and it needs to find manufacturing partners that can work on the same level. Churning out millions of devices a month may be a great achievement, but that achievement has come at a cost. it’s time for Apple to take a serious look at the weakest link in its chain.

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