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Exploring Apple's supply chain secrets

One of the unsung heroes in the success of Apple over the past ten years or so has been the ability for the company to take control of manufacturing, procurement, and logistics of its products in ways that are completely innovative. In a Bloomberg Businessweek post yesterday, writers Adam Satariano and Peter Burrows did a deep dive into what makes Apple so successful in terms of operations -- an area where Apple CEO Tim Cook excels.

According to the article, Apple has "built a closed ecosystem where it exerts control over nearly every piece of the supply chain, from design to retail store. Because of its volume -- and occasional ruthlessness -- Apple gets big discounts on parts, manufacturing capacity, and air freight."

The supply-chain management success story apparently began when Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1997. At that time, most computer manufacturers shipped their products by sea, which was much less expensive but also slower. Jobs wanted to ensure that the translucent blue iMacs that had just been introduced would be available for Christmas 1998, so he had the company pay $50 million to buy up all available holiday air freight space. Companies such as Compaq later tried to book air transport for holiday shipments, only to find that Apple had monopolized the space.

Apple's ability to manufacture a product and ship it right to a customer's door began with the iPod era, and an ex-Hewlett Packard exec recalls that an HP staffer bought one and received it a few days later, watching its progress from factory to home on Apple's website. Mike Fawkes, who was the supply-chain chief at HP, recalls that "it was an 'Oh s---' moment." By doing this, Apple was able to avoid keeping large inventories of product on hand

Apple also buys up speciality equipment, including customized lasers that are used to poke the almost-invisible holes that are used to emit a green dot of light on many of the company's products, including the MacBook Pro and MacBook Air, as well as the Wireless Keyboard and Magic Trackpad. Those machines cost about $250,000 each, and Apple has bought literally hundreds of them to add a touch to its products that few people may notice.

The Bloomberg Businessweek article is a good read, and fascinating for anyone who has an interest in what goes on behind the scenes at Apple.

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