Don’t Sweat, Taiwan: Apple is Still Yours

Forbes today offers an interesting take on Apple, specifically, that Taiwan would feel the crunch of a major shift in the supply chain back to the US.

If Apple scales back contracts in Asia, at least a half-dozen core suppliers and assemblers in tech hardware hub Taiwan would face a loss in orders, analysts forecast. But those corporate heavyweights might be able to retain Apple’s business by moving their China-based production back home to Taiwan, if not to the U.S., and using automation for lower costs.

Let’s consider the various angles to this.

First, Forbes is right: A shift by Apple to somewhere outside China (it doesn’t have to be the US) would absolutely affect Taiwan’s major electronics ODMs. That precise outcome occurred when Cisco, AT&T, Motorola, Alcatel, Tellabs, Lucent and many, many others moved their manufacturing to suppliers outside North America. How much laminate is now manufacturing in the US? How much solder mask? Process equipment? Components? How many merchant fabricators and assemblers still do volume production in North America?

But let’s be straight here: Just who will be affected? Key Apple ODMs such as Pegatron, Compal, Wistron, Zhen Ding, and of course Foxconn would be directly impacted. They would have to spend tens of millions to rebuild elsewhere. But … they can afford it. Can anyone else?

Keep in mind, Taiwan doesn’t operate factories in China as a favor to the Chinese. It does so because it has to. Taiwan is a small nation with a population of less than that of New York City and roughly 16 to 17 million people of working age. The unemployment rate is 3.7%. It has no available domestic workers to hire into engineering and manufacturing. China has ample population resources, not to mention the stark differential in labor rates. (Taiwan’s national minimum wage is more than twice that of Shanghai’s, which is the highest in mainland China, and could be five times higher than that of China’s less developed areas. The fully burdened rates are equally disparate.) Taiwan has every incentive, financial or otherwise, to introduce more automation. If it could, it would. If Apple were to bail, China stands to lose much more than Taiwan.

Second, if not Taiwan, where would Apple go? The US doesn’t have the spare workers either. The unemployment rate is 3.9% and has been under the benchmark 6% rate for more than four years. Immigration is at a post-WW II low, further straining the labor pool. Wages are rising as businesses compete for a smaller available workforce.

Third, how long would it take? Building a supply chain in a new region takes time. Granted, the US has the processes in place to bring industrial parks online, but space in key areas is at a premium and local, state and federal regulations often impede quick progress. Many other nations have various issues (graft, corruption, lack of educated or trained workforce, lack of infrastructure, little or no IP controls, etc.) that also prevent a mass exodus. Businesses, especially public ones, cannot afford disruptions in getting products to market. They tend to be risk-averse, for good-reason.

Fourth, not all manufacturing plants are the same, a fact Forbes downplays.

Some Taiwan tech firms, most notably Foxconn, already operate factories in the US and could feasibly move final assembly of Apple’s gear to the US after some initial work at their cheaper China bases, says Tracy Tsai, research vice president with tech market analysis firm Gartner in Taipei.

If only it were that easy. An LCD panel plant is not the same as an SMT placement plant. It would be nearly as expensive to convert a plant as to greenfield one. And final assembly tends to be more labor intensive that upstream processes, which means higher costs. Putting that work in the higher (highest?) labor rate nation —  the average manufacturing labor rate in the US is now close to $39/hr. — makes little sense.

All in all, Forbes is waxing hypothetical, but it’s not a realistic notion.

Tariffs are Taxing the Supply Chain

The breaking tariff situation in the electronics industry is equal parts fascinating and chilling because of its lack of near-term precedence and unpredictability. We’ve spoken with several EMS companies (read the article here) to gauge the extent of the disarray and get a sense of how they are (attempting to) resolve the issue.

Our reporting is ongoing, so be sure to check back occasionally for updates.

 

 

In Trade War of Words, Huawei Goes on Offensive

“Huawei won’t move manufacturing to America.”

The headline sounds, well, weird, almost like “Tiffany’s not robbed.”

But the crux of it is a tale of global politics and business tactics growing ever-more-fascinating by the day.

In short, at the Consumer Electronics Show this week, the head of Huawei’s consumer business group issued a statement saying the smartphone maker doesn’t think much of the incoming Trump administration’s habit of calling out companies that build and import product to the US.

While Trump has thus far had mostly automakers in his sights (GM, Toyota, Ford), Apple has been the poster child for the war of words over trade. By speaking out at CES, the world’s largest technology trade show, Huawei is among the first companies, and likely the biggest, to go on the offensive.

“If [companies] move all manufacturing to the U.S., some manufacturing is not good for US companies, because costs will likely increase,” said Richard Yu, who was also a keynote at the show. “If you move all that [low-cost] manufacturing to the US, you’ll damage the US.”

Huawei has an uneasy history with the US. Its head is a former Chinese military officer Ren Zhengfei, and the company was banned from supplying telecom equipment to US government buyers after a Congressional committee accused the firm of spying on behalf of China. It is also the third-largest smartphone OEM in the world, and given the easy nature of using those devices as tools for capturing user habits and data, that is hardly less troubling.

More complex, Huawei, like Apple, depends heavily on Foxconn as a contract manufacturer. Although based in Taiwan, Foxconn founder and chairman Terry Gou is a strong supporter of China. He also is reportedly considering a run for president in his native Taiwan, a move that if successful would likely strengthen the ties between the island and mainland — and potentially further complicate already precarious relations between China and the US.

Until the new administration is officially installed in two weeks, the machinations are mostly bluster. But the chatter shows no signs of abating, and the campaigns for — and now, against — Made in America are just starting to heat up.

Don’t Expect Apple to Fall for US Again

Analysis of the impact of Apple moving its production — or at least some of it — to the US will continue over the next several months but with the imminent change in US administration it could be peaking now.

Back and forth continues among various media sites debating whether Apple can or can’t, and should or shouldn’t, relocate some of its assembly.

Forbes today points to multiple studies, one by Syracuse and another by MIT (from June) that estimate assembly costs for a high-end domestically produced iPhone would rise 5% ($30 to $40). Other estimates peg it at closer to 13% ($100).

To be sure, there will be more of these types of discussions taking place. But much of the chatter disregards that Apple can’t do this alone. We have argued previously that Apple’s mastery of the supply chain has as much to do with its success as the occasionally startling hipness of its designs. The cool factor is subsidizing; keep in mind Apple has only 12% share of the cellphone market, and the tablet market — in which it once commanded a 90% stake — is now absolutely flooded with competitors and shrinking by the year. Apple’s net income has been falling with it, and the Watch Series 2, its latest entrant in the smartwatch sector, is not only losing share, the entire category is diving.

Capacity would not only be a huge issue, but the costs of scaling up are not included in any of the financial analyses I’ve read. The very real costs of $1 million or more per high-volume line would be to be absorbed — and passed on. (Zhengzhou is said to be the largest Foxconn/Apple factory in the world, with 94 lines currently running.) That’s not including the costs of finding and/or greenfielding factories, hiring, training, and so on. By the time all that is done, a new administration could be in place.

And then there’s the issue of taxes, which most reports fail to assess or even discuss. A New York Times article today, however, quotes a former chief of staff of the congressional Joint Committee on Taxation as saying: “US multinationals are the world leaders in tax avoidance strategies. In doing so, they create stateless income — income that has become unmoored from the countries to which it has an economic connection.”

Apple has stashed scores of billions of dollars offshore to avert a ginormous tax bill. The US corporate tax rate is third highest in the world on a top marginal basis, according to the Tax Foundation. This is a bit of a red herring — the lowest listed non-island nations are Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, and no one is thinking of rushing there. But Ireland is among the lowest 20, a fact Apple has used to its advantage (although that could bite them, if the EU has its way).

All of this adds up to a very unlikely scenario that Apple will be motivated to relocate production. I could see a bit of highly publicized migration to what’s essentially a US showroom as a means to give politicians a “win” and displace some heat, but it would be trivial relative to the overall volume.

Update: Here’s yet another opinion, published on Dec. 29. And other, from the South China Post, asking whether China’s manufacturing is “hollowing out.”

Dec. 30 update: Foxconn’s CEO says will invest $8.8 billion in a new flat-panel display plant in China.

Patents, Home and Abroad

The annual review of the world’s patent filings always tells an interesting story.

Some 2.9 million applications were filed in 2015, up 7.8% year-over-year. China led with 1.01 million filings, followed by the US (526,000) and Japan (454,000), reports the World Intellectual Property Organization.

But … (when it comes to China there’s always a big but) … only 4% of China’s applications were outside their own borders, while 45% of US applications were filed abroad.

Computer technology (7.9% of the total) saw the highest percentage of published patent applications worldwide, followed by electrical machinery (7.3%) and digital communication (4.9%), WIPO reports.

WIPO doesn’t indicate why Chinese inventors are by and large choosing only to protect their claims in-country. Here are some possible reasons:

1. The US requires that inventors obtain a “foreign filing license” before filing foreign patent applications on inventions that occur in the US.  “This allows the government to assess, for example, whether the technology could threaten US national security,” says Dennis Crouch, a professor at the University of Missouri School of Law and co-director of the Center for Intellectual Property and Entrepreneurship.

2. China, on the other hand, requires inventors to first file domestically, where it will then determine whether the invention needs to remain secret for security or other purposes. Only then is the inventor allowed to submit an application abroad.

In summary, domestic firewalls in the world’s two largest markets could well be hampering outsiders.

Made in the USA

This is a pet peeve, so forgive me in advance.

Manufacturing in the US is by no means dead.

We don’t have nearly the number of unskilled or semi-skilled manufacturing jobs as once before, thanks in part to hands-free automation and a higher level of engineering knowledge / skilled labor needed for the non-automated work. Overall employment in the sector dropped about 12% between 2003 and 2013, and more than 20% from 1993 to 2013.

We are no longer the global leader in either manufactured goods — a title lost in 2010 — or valued added manufacturing — which we ceded in 2013 — although the data are skewed of late in China’s favor because of currency valuation changes.

And here’s no question manufacturing as a percent of GDP has certainly slipped in the US (and not to our advantage, but that’s a different discussion).

But even given that, in terms of how much the US produces, we still produce north of $2 trillion worth of manufactured goods every year.

That’s a really big number.

Now, how to get some of that back in the US printed circuit industry?

Red Makes Green

The arrival of India’s Mars Orbiter is an achievement on many levels. Much will be made of the fact that it is the first Asian satellite to reach the red planet’s orbit. That they accomplished it on their first try will open some eyes to India’s hardware capability as well, given than the success rate for the rest of the world is just 40%.

What I’d like to focus on is the price: India spent a reported $74 million on the Mars Orbiter Mission. That’s barely 10% of what NASA spent on the Maven mission.

Coincidentally, the F-22 Raptor saw action for the first time this week. But the fighter has been under fire for years for what critics call a bloated price tag and unmet performance objectives. The DoD has spent $67 billion for 188 planes, and no more will be produced.

Wall Street Journal

Should the US government wake up and realize that a huge price tag does not necessarily translate into performance, what will be the impact on the electronics supply chain, especially in the US where so much of it relies on military spending?

Is A New Vision Needed?

China’s industry minister has put forth an aggressive goal of building five to eight giants in the electronics industry with $16-plus billion in sales in the next two years through consolidation and overseas acquisitions and alliances. The Ministry of Information and Technology’s blueprint wants to move the country away from low-cost electronics manufacturing toward higher-yield, higher technical segments such as Lenovo and Huawei Technologies.

We believe that China will reduce the mining of rare earth metals to increase margins and offset recent price declines while using these materials as leverage in foreign dealings. The country is still far behind the rest of the world in chip design and manufacture, so we can expect major moves in that arena. The China Development Bank will put $20 billion behind ZTE to help it reach the $16 billion goal. The Haier Group, one of China’s bigger electronics companies, spent $700 million to buy a New Zealand company to increase access to Australia and Europe while increasing its technology base.

One has to wonder how the rest of the world will compete with this massive government supported approach. (China has a stated similar goal for automotive calling for 10 companies to have 90% of its industry concentration by 2015.) One has to speculate who will join forces with China’s electronic industry forays. How greatly does it threaten open markets and free competition elsewhere? How serious a role does industrial espionage play in this new game with newly stated ambitious goals? How big a role will defense issues and security have? Does America need a new vision for the future?

Another Tidal Wave Hits Japan

Old friend Dominque Numakura comes back from the annual JPCA Show with a stunning announcement: Japan’s PCB industry seems to be on life support.

From a series of dull presentations to the outsourcing of manufacturing to a general lack of optimism, the mood is dour, Numakura says. More ominous, some veterans are comparing the trend to the decimation of the US PCB industry in late 2001.

As late as 2000, the US and Japan were neck-and-neck in annual PCB sales, with the US dominating the large board space and Japan leading in HDI. Despite the problems experienced in the US, Japan continued to be the technology leader in PCBs, leading some to surmise that its vast investment and wise decisions on which technologies to focus on made Japan impervious to the cost pressures that sunk the North American industry. Numakura’s essay suggest that’s not the case, leaving one to wonder what this means for the circuit board industry for the coming decade.