I remember when I bought my first new Mac. The label on the box read something like “Assembled for Apple in California.” Famously, that has now changed: Apple computers (and iPhones and iPads) are assembled in China and the conditions of the workers there came under scrutiny when Mike Daisey’s one-man show about his trip to Foxconn factories there was featured on US radio station NPRs This American Life – scrutiny that continued despite revelations that Daisey fabricated some of the incidents he described.
But take a minute to contemplate that word “assembled.” Those Chinese factory workers aren’t making Apple products from scratch; they’re putting them together from pre-existing components – components that weren’t built in the same factory or even in the same country. Curious about how the family tree of a typically complex piece of computer equipment, I decided to try to track down the origins of the major components in that computer – a mid-2010 13” MacBook Pro model. Where did it come from before it got to me? How many parents did it have? The journey travels over much of Asia and of course the U.S.A.
At the heart of my MacBook Pro laptop, which is a couple years old at this point, is a Core 2 Duo chip from Intel. This is one of Intel’s Penryn family of chips and was therefore probably manufactured at Intel’s relatively new fabrication facility in Chandler, Arizona. Intel has other factories in the American Southwest, in California and in Ireland and Israel.
The MacBook Pro’s unibody shell may be one of its most distinctive features, but they aren’t handcrafted by Apple’s own artisans; they’re manufactured by companies that make laptop bodies for a number of companies, including Lenovo, Asus and Dell. One of the primary vendors Apple uses for this most basic of components is Catcher Technology, which is headquartered in Taiwan but does its manufacturing in mainland China. One of the plants where MacBook bodies are made – perhaps the very one where my own laptop was born – was shut down last fall because it was violating Chinese pollution laws, which led to Apple announcing it would audit its supply chain over environmental concerns.
Apple sources displays from multiple manufacturers, including companies that compete with it in other fields, for instance, Samsung, with whom Apple is locked in vicious competition (and legal fights) in the smartphone and tablet markets, also makes all iPad retina displays. Finding out who made the display on your laptop is a little trickier, since there are multiple possibilities. Go to System Preferences > Displays > Color, then highlight Color LCD and click Open Profile. This will bring up a table of information about your monitor; scroll down to line 17, which will offer a manufacturer number. A little judicious Google searching should match the number with a real company.
My display, it turns out, is built by LG Display, which like Samsung is a South Korean company. My screen was probably built in South Korea, although the company also has module assembly plants in China and Poland.
System Profiler tells me that my hard drive is made by Hitachi, a century-old Japanese company and has the model number HTS545032B9SA02. This raises an important question: how much information does the serial number need to encode? 11 digits seems a bit excessive, don’t you think? We are very curious about what all the numbers mean.
Perhaps they’d help us track down the exact factory (or even the exact portion of the factory?) where the hard drive was built, though in the end that level of sleuthing turned out to be unnecessary. Plugging that model number into Google brought me to an eBay auction that helpfully includes a photo of the hard drive, complete with legible label that informs me that the drive was made in Thailand. I’m going to go ahead and assume the one in my computer’s guts has the same provenance, since my IT department would probably not appreciate my poking around inside my laptop just for curiosity (or even research).
A lot of hard drive manufacturing from a slew of companies has moved to Thailand in the past few years, in one of those odd quirks of global capitalist specialisation. One upshot of this is that last year’s devastating floods in the country, which have affected Hitachi among other companies, have resulted in a global hard drive shortage.
The RAM industry has its own cast of manufacturing characters, some of which you’ve heard of (Mitsubishi, IBM) and some of which you haven’t (Eurotechnique, Zilog). OS X’s System Profiler app will give you the manufacturer code for your RAM DIMMs; see if you can match the last two digits against the Hex column in this PDF list.
My computer’s RAM was built by Micron Technology, a company with a high-tech name so awesomely generic it sounds like it should be the corporation that the villain runs in an early ’90s techno-thriller. Micron’s original manufacturing facility is located in Boise, the capital of US state Idaho and that may be where my RAM was manufactured. However, in the last several years the company has expanded its production to Japan and Singapore.
The wireless card inside my laptop – dubbed “AirPort Extreme” by Apple in a bit of branding that might have seemed vaguely hip in 2007 but seems embarrassing today – is really just a run-of-the-mill 802.11n card from Broadcom. Broadcom’s boring, low-slung corporate headquarters are in Irvine, California and that’s where this wireless chipset was born.
But here I mean “born” in the intellectual/theoretical sense – it’s where it was designed by Broadcom’s engineers. Broadcom is what’s called a fabless semiconductor company, which means that it doesn’t have its own foundry, outsourcing the physical fabrication (or fab, in chip lingo) to some other company that does the grunt work. Companies that Broadcom works with to produce chips like those in my Wi-Fi card include GlobalFoundries (with factories in Singapore and Germany), Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corporation (with factories in China), United Microelectronics Corporation (with factories in Taiwan and Singapore) and TSMC (with Taiwanese factories that also make the A5 and A6 chips in iPhones and iPads).
The laptop’s graphics chipset, the GeForce 320M that Nvidia makes especially for Apple, has a similar provenance. Designed by Nvidia engineers, who are mostly based in the company’s Silicon Valley headquarters, the physical chips are manufactured in Taiwan by the aforementioned TSMC. ZDNet did the dangerous computer-opening work on a MacBook Air with the same chipset and they’ll show you the Made in Taiwan label, if you’re interested.
All these components are of course just the next layer down from the computer. Where did the metal and plastics and silicon that made up the components come from? That’s a question from another article. I do hope that the description here has given a sense of how global and disparate the sourcing needed just to put together one laptop is – and that the “Made in China” label may only tell part of the story of any electronics you own.