Science/Technology

The Tech Curmudgeon – iMacs “Assembled in USA? Don’t make me ROTFLMAO….

iFixit iMac teardown

iFixit iMac teardown

The Tech Curmudgeon read today that some Apple iMacs have been showing up in the States with the words “Assembled in USA” etched into the aluminum on the back. According to the NBC-LA blog press:here, this implies that Apple may have started to do “some real work… somewhere in the United States.” And Apple Insider, the site that appears to have broken this non-story, writes that the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) “substantial transformation” critera means that the iMacs had to be getting more than merely screwed together from 100% imported parts.

When the Tech Curmudgeon read this at lunch today he nearly spewed Red Bull all over his screen he was laughing so hard. Clearly neither the NBC-LA blogger nor the Apple Insider writer had ever built commodity electronics. The Tech Curmudgeon has, and let him tell you what Apple’s claim means: it means that Apple’s marketeering department got hold of the laser engraver, and nothing more.

In theory, “Assembled in USA” means just what Apple Insider says it means, namely that the new Apple was “substantially transformed” as its imported parts were turned into a finished computer. But theory represents reality a lot more often in theory than it does in reality.

The FTC writes that Customs defines “substantially transformed” as

a manufacturing process that results in a new and different product with a new name, character, and use that is different from that which existed before the change.

Customs is part of the Department of Homeland Security, and the FTC doesn’t really get to say what does and doesn’t qualify as “substantially transformed.” Sure, the FTC writes that merely screwing together foreign computer parts isn’t “substantially transformed,” but if Customs says it is, the FTC is stuck with what Customs says, not the other way around.

Long, long ago in a city far, far away, the Tech Curmudgeon actually built commodity electronics that were marked as “Assembled in the USA.” And even though all the components except for the aluminum box were imported from Mexico and Hong Kong, it was still right and proper to say that the electronics had been assembled in the USA for one simple reason: loopholes. Specifically, loopholes the size of Mack trucks.

First, products made in Mexico at the time were defined as having been made in the USA because of NAFTA. Free trade required that products made in Mexico and Canada be treated identically to those made in the USA, and so Mexico-manufactured components were still marked “Made in USA.” Last the Tech Curmudgeon checked, Nogales and Cuidad Juarez weren’t part of the USA.

Second, assembling the foreign-made components takes more than a screwdriver. Why, it took the Tech Curmudgeon’s former employer a pair of pliers, some Loctite, the insertion of several computer boards that were mated together using idiot-proof, self-guiding electrical connectors, a torque wrench, and a screwdriver. And what really put it over the top was that the completed product was (gasp!) tested in a US factory. Clearly it was assembled right here in the United States of America, right?

The Tech Curmudgeon’s former employer sold commodity electronics products that were 90% foreign manufactured material and that took maybe 15 minutes to assemble and another 5 minutes to test, yet they were legally permitted to say that the products were “assembled in the USA.” So you’ll excuse the Tech Curmudgeon if he doesn’t buy into Apple’s marketeering.

The Tech Curmudgeon looked at the iFixit teardown of the iMac that started all this laughable speculation, and he noticed a few things. For example, the fan was made in China. So was the LCD display. And the power supply. The AirPort module – made in Korea. The hard drive – made in Japan. The only parts that don’t say that they are foreign made are the main electronics board and the attractive brushed aluminum case.

The way the Tech Curmudgeon figures it, the best case is that the main electronics board was assembled in the USA and bolted into a USA-manufactured aluminum case along with all the other foreign-made electronics. But that’s best case. More likely, however, is that the main electronics board is actually made outside the USA just like everything else is. While the Tech Curmudgeon don’t have any proof of this, he’d guess that the board is made in Mexico or some other free-trade partner, shipped into the US using a NAFTA-like loophole, and then the entire iMac put together from 90%+ foreign-made components.

Who cares, right? It’s an Apple and so the iMac is clearly God’s Jobs’ gift to consumers, and Apple buyers are above all that country of origin nonsense. Bullshit – American consumers care a lot about “Made in the USA.” “Made in the USA” was a major enough slogan back in the 1990s that foreign car makers moved entire assembly lines to the US just to be able to bypass that nativist sentiment (that there were tax benefits too merely sweetened the pot). Nativism and isolationism is again on the rise in the US, and so Apple’s marketeering people are trying to gain a competitive edge for their products against their competitors like HTC (China), Samsung (South Korea), Nokia (Finland), and Sony (Japan). And Apple is probably trying to claim that mythical moral high ground defined by “Assembled in the USA” from Google and it’s subsidiary, Motorola, before they claim it for themselves.

“Assembled in USA” is nothing more than a calculated, cynical marketeering ploy by a company that has turned cynicism into high art. If you believe for a moment that Apple’s products are really “Assembled in the USA,” the Tech Curmudgeon has a nice telecom startup that is expected to hit profitability any day now to sell you at a nice low price.

3 replies »

  1. the problem you have is that nobody actually ever thought that ‘assembled in usa’ meant anything more that using a screwdriver (and a pot of glue) to put these macs together. you’d have been better off doing some research and proving the above, rather than sprout the bleeding obvious.

  2. > “Assembled in USA” is nothing more than a calculated, cynical marketing ploy by a company that has turned cynicism into high art.

    The pot-kettle-black irony of this line is breathtaking, except that there’s no art, high or low, in this article. Like @olddog said above, it’s not like the phrase ‘assembled in america’ conjures up images of anything other than assembly. Apple hasn’t commented about this so it hardly seems like a marketing ploy. Maybe they labelled these iMacs as assembled in the US because they couldn’t just continue labelling them as assembled in China if they, you know, weren’t.

    • While I don’t know for sure what’s going on, my best guess, having spent way too much of my life inside American corporations, is that there’s some kind of legal loophole at work. If they can do X, it might mean a tax credit somewhere, and they may have done just enough “assembly” to qualify for said credit. I don’t know. The fact that they aren’t trying to make marketing hay suggests that something else is afoot, and I’d bet a dollar or three that the Made in America label is there for a reason. And that reason has to do with cash.