So how does a garage start-up become the most valuable company in the world? Well, Apple Computer did it by selling 93 million iPhones last year and 40 million iPads and the only reason they didn't sell more is that they can't make them fast enough. But that relentless demand has raised uncomfortable questions about how these precious objects are made and how the people that make them are treated. A few week ago the company invited me to witness its first-ever third-party audit of its biggest Chinese supplier Foxconn. For the record, our parent company Disney and Apple have strong ties. Our CEO sits on their board and the Steve Jobs trust is Disney's largest individual shareholder. But I only agreed to report exactly what I saw on this, the first look inside the iFactory.
We arrived at dawn. This is the entrance, no idea of what to expect, but eager for a glimpse at the mysterious place that builds the stuff that fills our lives. We were met by a top Foxconn executive who refuses to confirm that're inside all these buildings. They're working on top secret projects for Intel, Nintendo, Dell and many others. "There we go."
But Apple has allowed him to show me how they build the world's most popular objects of desire, the ones that turned the little garage start-up into a company more valuable than Exxon, a brand more beloved than any other. I'm told this is the very first time, any reporters from any country was allowed to see this. We were done static-proof jacket or full bunny suit and exact numerous air showers because one speck of dust could ruin an entire line. There is one obvious reason for an Apple's legendary secrecy over the years, if the world sees this line, it might change the way people think in this line.
Unlike any other product, the launch of sexy Apple gadget is a cultural advance and that cult following comes in part from a mystique cultivated brilliantly by Steve Jobs. "It's really extraordinary and I urge you to get your hands on one and see for yourself." I'll admit, I'm among the millions who bought in the idea that these are not just dependable appliances, they're works of arts, carefully wrapped in pristine boxes, lovingly sold in museum-like stores. I don't know about you, but when I enjoyed the delicious steak, knowing where it came from changes the experience. "So how many steps are there?" "141." "141 steps." But it is time now to think different about Apple because here it is. This is where your iPhone was born and these are the people who brought it to life.
"My name is Bill. Nice to meet you." I'm first struck by how young they are, not 13 like some of the horror stories I've heard, but 17, 18, no one looked over 30. I know many came from poor villages out in the countryside with a hope of making two dollars an hour, but their haircuts proved that teen style lives everywhere. I'd expected more automated assembling, more robots, but the slip machines that dazzle and inspire and change the lives of people eight to 80 are mostly made by hand, after hand, after hand. Behold the camera mojo for the iPad. Look how tiny and intricate this is and get this, with two shifts, they can make 300,000 of these in a single day. It takes around five days and 325 sets of hands to assemble an iPad, they tell me, and they can turn a raw houk of aluminum into a slip design complete with the bitten Apple logo at a rate of 10,000 an hour. At the end of the process, I find 27-year-old Xiao Yin who carves the aluminum burrs from 3,000 Apples every shift.
"What're you thinking about while you're working?" "A lot of times, I'm thinking about how tired I am," the mother of two tells me, "I think about resting." The supervisor will give the occasional order in mandarin, but on this line the machines do most of the talking. A lot of people work in silence and they will repeat that motion and hear that voice a few thousand times or more before lunch. Their 12-hour shift is broken up by two hour-long meal breaks when they march in single file to a massive canting and bear on 70 cents for a plate of meat and rice. If they eat fast enough they can catch a few winks back on their spot on the line. The Foxconn executive tells me it's not exhaustion, but a Chinese post-meal tradition. "So this is home. How long have you guys worked here, lived here?" After 12 hours here, many head home to their nearby dorm room they share with seven other workers. There is an Internet cafe and a soccer field. They even offer classes in English and other studies. But most are here to work. Most left their families to work because back home there are few good jobs.