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Summary:

Foxconn is having trouble assembling the iPhone 5 — still. If it’s so complicated that what Apple considers the best contract manufacturer on the planet can’t figure out a way to produce it that keeps up with demand, it’s worth wondering if perhaps Apple designers overreached.

iPhone 5 product shot

The president of Foxconn, the company that builds Apple’s mobile devices, told reporters in China on Wednesday that the iPhone 5 is so hard to put together that his normally speedy, cutting-edge factories cannot build the devices at the rate expected of them. And it’s not the first time someone from his company has said so.

“It’s not easy to make the iPhones. We are falling short of meeting the huge demand,” Terry Gou said, according to Reuters. His comments echo what an anonymous Foxconn official told the Wall Street Journal last month, that “the iPhone 5 is the most difficult device that Foxconn has ever assembled.” The reason? “To make it light and thin, the design is very complicated,” this person said.

Apple strives for distinctive, functional design that sets it apart from fads and from the competition, and the iPhone 5 represented a major update to the phone’s industrial design for the first time in two years. It’s 18 percent thinner than the iPhone 4S, is made of aluminum and glass instead of just glass, and weighs about 112 grams, 20 percent lighter than the previous model. Apple’s designers achieved this by selecting materials carefully and taking advantage of advancements in components, like the display, where the touch sensor is built into the glass, instead of remaining a separate layer.

But the device is so complicated that the company Apple and most of the consumer electronics world considers the best contract manufacturer on the planet can’t figure out how to build it in a way that keeps up with demand while maintaining quality. It’s worth wondering if perhaps Apple went overboard. At what point do we begin wondering what the guys in Apple’s design team were thinking?

I mean, I love how lightweight the iPhone 5 is, and the thinness is of course appreciated. And Apple should always look ahead to the future of what’s possible, not just stay within the industry’s expectations of how a phone should look and be made. But there are limiting factors they have to consider — was there no middle ground between thin/light/and manufacturable at a reasonably expected rate?

Apple is no stranger to high-demand/low-supply situations. The iPhone 4 was hard to get at first, for example, and so was the iPad 2 when it debuted in 2011. That tablet was actually backordered for months — but there were outside factors at play, like the earthquake in Japan, and Foxconn’s employee shortage. None of those shortages caused the manufacturer to actually blame the product itself though.

CEO Tim Cook’s background is supply-chain management and manufacturing, and it would be surprising for him to put the iPhone 5 on the company’s most aggressive roll-out schedule ever if he didn’t think they could meet those goals. But there could be other dynamics at work here: maybe Jony Ive, who leads the industrial design group, gets to have the iPhone design he wants and Cook figures out how to get it made in huge volumes. After all, as Steve Jobs told his biographer, Jobs set it up before he left “that there’s no one at the company who can tell Ive what to do.”

It will be interesting to see if this bears out as a case of Apple’s prioritization of design having any negative impact on Apple and its sales.

We saw something similar with the iPhone 4’s antenna: Apple engineers cleverly (many would say too cleverly) built the antenna into a metal band surrounding the phone that disguised it and reduced the overall thickness of the device. There wasn’t clear evidence that impacted sales, but it did ding Apple’s reputation.

This time around, Apple is selling lots of phones — it announced 5 million sold the first weekend the iPhone 5 hits stores — but the device went on backorder almost immediately and stayed there. Almost seven weeks after launch, iPhone 5 models are still listed with shipping times of “three to four weeks.” And Apple has not updated us with specific numbers, even at the iPad mini and Mac event two weeks ago, or on the company’s earnings call two days later, on how its most important product continues to fare.

  1. lol Apple’s marketing BS at it’s best, there is nothing special about the weight for a device that size nor about it’s thickness. All they did was to use in-cell touch (not the first phone to do so) and get rid on the glass on the back to cut weight and thickness.The challenge is not to scratch the case while building it since apple messed up and went with the wrong solution.

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    1. True, this one is a self-inflicted wound by Apple. Had they chosen more durable and less scratch-prone backs, production would be faster, the workers’ jobs would be slightly less miserable, and the customer would end up with a better product that would look good longer.

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    2. You don’t know anything. Go run the malware scanner on your cheap plastic iPhone copy.

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    3. Demand for iPhone5 is so explosive they cannot make it enough in Foxconn. It´s not the only company cannot respond for demand anymore, Huawei also have troubles to fill all the orders from Apple.

      In my country there was no problem to get a new iPhone5 with one week que only 5 weeks ago.

      On last week it changed, I was shocked to hear que is now 5 weeks by our largest telecom operator and same concerns many other countries in Europe.

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  2. Are you kidding me? So .. excellence in design has to be superseded by shortcomings in manufacturing? How about if Foxconn gets it s**t together rather than limiting design and quality.

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  3. 50119376 วัชระพงษ์ Wednesday, November 7, 2012

    Good thank you..

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  4. “It’s worth wondering if perhaps Apple went overboard.”

    “I love how lightweight the iPhone 5 is, and the thinness is of course appreciated.”

    You just answered your own question, Erica.

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  5. Foxconn should stop whining and up their quality control.

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  6. nice

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  7. Is it conceivable that maybe Foxconn isn’t being 100% forthright about other internal reasons its having trouble keeping up with demand and quality control?

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  8. This article seems to be trying to say iPhone 5 is hard to make because “Apple’s design” is “so clever”.

    Sorry, but his is utter NONSENSE. Apple asked for it to be thinner. The really clever stuff, as always is done by other companies — Apple just takes the credit.

    It’s also notable that the burden of the work is undertaken primarily by under-paid over-worked staff in offshore sweat-shops under conditions which blatantly would not be considered legal or acceptable within Apple’s main territories including the USA and UK.

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    1. That is true to some degree, but Apple is known to keep the design and development iPhone close to their chest, not even bringing many vendors too close.

      Apple really does innovative work.

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    2. Andrew Lombardi Saturday, November 10, 2012

      It is true that Apple certainly is using the same sweat-shops that nearly every other manufacturer on the planet use. Why is Apple being singled out here as different? The burden of work for any device that is sitting on your desk is produced by underpaid labor in 3rd-world countries. Do I think Apple should lead the way in helping to reform this? Yes. Is it economically feasible in a world where for the consumer, price is the bottom line, and they’re playing by the rules set forth by other manufacturers? Probably not.

      And Apple’s design IS clever. You don’t approach Foxconn and say, we liked the iPhone 4, but make it thinner. What Apple provides IS the design, and that includes deciding the materials needed to build, and pulls all the pieces together to make a cohesive device.

      Few other manufacturers do this consistently, or care to do it consistently.

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  9. The point that is being missed, i think, is that this leap in terms of making it thin will help Apple in the medium term. do not underestimate that.

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  10. Calling Foxconn the “best contract manufacturer on the planet” is like saying HP makes the best laptops on the planet. This statement is very uninformed unless best = highest volume. The iPhone is the same everywhere – same device, same software and same box. No variability. Foxconn has no say in the design, they are order takers from a very demanding and fickle customer.

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    1. Cool

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