Disturbing Trend, advanced machining skills disappearing from USA

NY Times, 1.28.19

A Tiny Screw Shows Why iPhones Won’t Be ‘Assembled in U.S.A.’

In China, Apple relied on factories that can produce vast quantities of custom screws on short notice. In Texas, where they say everything is bigger, it turned out the screw suppliers were not.

CEO of Apple, Tim Cook: “In the U.S., you could have a meeting of tooling engineers and I’m not sure we could fill the room,” he said. “In China, you could fill multiple football fields.”

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I posted that one in a Linux forum. You miss the real story; it isn’t a lack of machining skills:

'When Mr. Melo bought Caldwell in 2002, it was capable of the high-volume production Apple needed. But demand for that had dried up as manufacturing moved to China. He said he had replaced the old stamping presses that could mass-produce screws with machines designed for more precise, specialized jobs.

Mr. Melo thought it was ironic that Apple, a leader in offshore manufacturing, had come calling with a big order. “It’s hard to invest for that in the U.S. because that stuff is purchased very cheaply overseas,” he said.’


'American workers won’t work around the clock. Chinese factories have shifts working at all hours, if necessary, and workers are sometimes even roused from their sleep to meet production goals. That was not an option in Texas.

“China is not just cheap. It’s a place where, because it’s an authoritarian government, you can marshal 100,000 people to work all night for you,” said Susan Helper, an economics professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and the former chief economist at the Commerce Department. “That has become an essential part of the product-rollout strategy.” ’

As I pointed out on the Linux forum, the real problem is custom fasteners. There’s no reason they can’t use stock parts. Maybe it’ll add a gram, but anyone can replace it. I suspect that’s the real reason. The original Mac required an extra-long Torx screwdriver. I made one by welding a bit onto a flat screwdriver I cut the blade off.

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There is a reason they won’t use stock parts. Apple Design. I capitalize this because it is a discipline known as Industrial Design that makes the iPhone and iPad look the way they do. How the phone looks feels and interfaces with its operators is industrial art and a key differentiator of the Apple brand. If a stock screw would compromise the design, it must change. Apple builds enough iPhones and screw manufacturers want that business, so a custom design it becomes. It may not matter to you but to a buyer of an $800 iPhone it does. That’s why they don’t buy the $300 Samsung instead.

The same concept has been applied to cars for 100 years - a Honda Civic doesn’t look like a Toyota Corolla anymore than a Frank Lloyd Wright home looks like a Levittown home.


Exactly right. They could use stock parts but then they probably can’t accommodate their custom designs. They have the purchasing leverage to get custom parts for nearly off-the-shelf prices so it doesn’t matter to them. I do find it ironic that their latest commercial shows them altering the edge profile to be more like other manufacturers. Personally, I never liked the rounded back to sharp front edge on the IPads even though we have several. I find my Samsung tablet more comfortable to hold even without a secondary case around it…

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In response to the OP title, machining skills have been disappearing since the invention of the CNC machine. We only have a couple of true machinists at work and they are older gents. Most of the mechanical guys download the 3D CAD model from their computers to the machine and after loading the material, sit and watch it do the work…

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Apple used to do great hardware.
Software is kind of “love or hate”, but hardware was great, no doubt.
I had a few notebooks go for 5-7 years before I would grew tired of them, still would not fail.
Last few years?
Breaking keyboards with hundreds of dollars to fix (who the hell would make them unibody with the main board???).
Screen getting top coating flaking up??
Now, last generation has too short display cable, making it to develop cracks if you routinely open cover more than 90 degrees??
That’s it, I moved to Windows, done with this crap for sub-orbital price.

iPhone was a miss on me: too basic, too much of nanny-state, fine, at least I hoped hardware would hold up same as MacBooks.
Then due to Apple firmware issue it fried battery (and made white case YELLOW), they denied the warranty.
I was shocked. Replaced battery with aftermarket, they bricked phone on automatic firmware update few weeks later (sorry, your battery is not original, so we can not install update, but hey… we can not roll back either - BRICKED).

I had a chat with the owner of a local machine shop about 15 years ago - Dick’s Crankshaft. Now closed but that really was the business’ name. Dick lamented even the local community college grads from the machinists program were almost useless to him. Most couldn’t run Bridgeport, crank grinder or most of the other machines he had for engine rebuilding. And he paid well.

When I worked for GM, they got rid of their screw machines in the late 70’s because it was cheaper to buy the parts than make them. Cheap labor was the excuse but the operators at the time were not machinists, they were just operators.

Yeah, except that part of Apple Design is that you don’t see screws. So, who cares what the stupid thing looks like, because it’s hidden behind something pretty anyway. The real reason is end-user serviceability, which also carries over to cars. We’ll require a special tool to do pretty much anything but rotate the tires, to force the owner to take it to a shop.

And while I know that the manufacturer isn’t at all guaranteed to get that repair business, someone is, and they will charge money for it. If I have to pay my mechanic $500+ every time something needs replacing on my car instead of grabbing a $20 part, a $5 beer, and a Saturday afternoon, I’m much more likely to conclude that the car is nickel-and-diming me to death, and I’ll buy another car.

Planned obsolescence originally meant “we’ll stick neat things on here that people want and will be willing to junk their old car to get in the new models.” Now it means “We’ll make ownership after 3-5 years markedly less pleasant than new ownership so that they keep wanting to get a new car so they feel happy about their vehicle again.”

BTW, the Samsungs are in the 4-figure territory now. :wink:


"Cause they use SPECIAL screws they can hide! :grin:

And you’ll choose it because of its looks, human interface and feel when you drive it - the Industrial Design stuff. And then all the other stuff like reliability and service experience. We all like driving nice looking cars. The Aztek was a perfectly nice vehicle to drive but too many couldn’t get past the looks of the thing!

And that just scares the hoo-haa out of Apple because people are willing to PAY that price for Samsung! I like and own Samsung phones and tablets, BTW.

While I can’t say I am defending Industrial Design, I do understand why it exists. From Harley Earl to Frank Lloyd Wright to Chris Bangle it can add a lot of value (or take it away - Aztek again!) to a product.

I worked for a forklift company that had an industrial design department headed by a VP. Who cares about design for a forklift? The customers did. The operators did - human factors is a part of ID.

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I’m not coming out against industrial design. I’m saying it doesn’t make sense that they’d need a custom screw just so they can hide it behind a cover. There are plenty of small off-the-shelf flathead machine screws that could be used.

They’re doing it for some other reason. Whether that reason is to make it harder for you to take your phone apart and fix it, or because they’re getting some sort of kickback (buy a custom screw from me and you can have that fleet of 100,000 workers dragged out of their beds whenever you ask) can’t be ascertained by us mere mortals, but there is a reason beyond Apple’s design ethic.

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I don’t usually subscribe to the conspiracy of repair since there are ample folks out there willing to make those special screwdrivers and such to service the phone. Batteries Plus replaces the glass screens on IPhones as well as other brands. Not saying it doesn’t happen, though!

Apple had a reason for their odd screw. I might blame the engineers for a hidden screw’s special nature. I saw enough of that at GM! (We WANT it that way 'cause we order millions of them!)

That’s why Motorola curved the battery in its X-line of phones awhile back. Used the same flat battery as anyone else, but theirs was curved, and if you tried to curve an off the shelf replacement you had a fairly good chance of curving it just slightly too far and risking it catching fire. Now when the battery life is junk, you have to junk the phone. Even the cell phone repair places wouldn’t touch the thing.

It wouldn’t surprise me if you were right about the GM engineers. That company hasn’t always been good at making the best decisions. I mean, really, hiring a Mustang Man to work on Camaros!? :wink:


Have you taken apart any of these devices? I have. Most of them. Some to fix, others I do when they are end of life just to see how they are put together, components used etc. Those screws in the iPad/phone are the way they are to do the job. The special head design is needed for clearance in many instances. Just a byproduct of cramming 10 lbs of electronics into a 1lb box. The hardware is no real impediment to repair. You can buy the necessary tools just about anywhere. I bought my last set at Lowes because they had a super deal on a full set of bits and a great ergonomic driver. The real skill needed is patience… :wink:

I have indeed! Although I’m fairly terrible at getting the plastic case separated without cracking it, so I only do it on devices I’m willing to replace.

I’ve never noticed anything special about the flat top of the flat-topped screws. Maybe the taper on the underside is special? But if that’s the case, surely you could countersink the underlying plastic to match an off-the-shelf one.

It’s not just the case screws. Look at the connector hold downs and some of the other internal applications. That thin pancake head is necessary for clearance of what’s directly above it. We go through supplier and material rationalization where I work on a fairly periodic basis. No one wants to have a myriad of different hardware types or even less so, single sourced or custom parts. But often it is necessary and must be done to meet certain criteria in the design. Engineers are typically held to fairly rigid cost targets so there is no benefit to using more expensive or esoteric parts, in fact the opposite is true.

I’m with you, separating the external case is the most nerve wracking part. A crack sound followed by a wince… I saw a funny joke recently- phones are so expensive now that if you fall and hear a crack, you hope it’s your hip…


I’ve worked on other Apple hardware. I’ve replaced custom parts with stock parts. They may save a gram, it may be more-perfect in ID, but it isn’t necessary.

They didn’t build in the US for this excuse.

Some friends asked me to look at their Imagewriter; Apple would only replace it. After taking it apart, I found the fuse blown. That was the only problem.

I disagree and have some experience otherwise.

Batteries are different, a large part of a small device.

I can jury-rig the tools, but if I need to replace the fastener I have to rely on my jars of salvaged parts, a tedious chore to search, or re-tap the hole.

I don’t use Apple products because I find the whole philosophy to be so overly controlling. They certainly have beautiful packaging, and apparently their things work well, but do make it as difficult as possible for you to escape their control for as long as you own their machinery. And, in spite of the very high prices they put on their products, they do use some very sophisticated ways to keep control of the devices long after you have paid for them. The recent business of deliberately slowing down iPhones “in order to protect a failing battery” is a fine example. They warn you every time if you should commit the sin of buying a non-Apple cable. They change their recharging ports frequently so you can’t use the old chargers you still have. And now they seem to have locked up deals with hearing aid makers so certain management adjustments can only be accessed by Apple phones, but not by Android.

As far as machining skills, those are a disappearing art because computerized systems are just much better for mass production, and that’s where the money is.

Well, I’d ask why you’re finding a need to replace hardware? It was intact when you took it apart. Did you strip something trying to use the wrong tool? Did you lose it? Regardless, if you find yourself in that pinch, re-tapping the hole won’t help. The uniqueness of the fastener is not the threads but the head design. Good luck modifying a standard screw to match. I do all kinds of modifications but not to hardware this minuscule. I take care to use the right tools and great care not to lose any of it while taking it apart. If you do need to replace a screw, many options online for the OEM equivalent from whole sets for a particular product to generic bin style replacements of every size and length. Prices range from <$1 to ~$10. That considered the price of doing it yourself (and messing it up)!

I forgot to mention that the tool to take apart cases is called a spudger or sometimes a “black stick”. Look on Ebay to see what they look like. They are cheap.

When I learned that the battery of an iPhone was not a “user serviceable part”, that ended my consideration of that product.