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OM in the News: If the Japanese Can Make Cars in the U.S., Why Can’t Apple Make an iPad?

August 6, 2012

As you are preparing for the 1st week of Fall classes, you may want to read the New York Times (August 5, 2012) lead article, which basically asks the question in  our blog title. The story opens in 1983 with Smyrna, Tennessee  farmland  paved over so Nissan could build its first American assembly plant. Eighty miles to the south, a Nissan engine factory was added, and across Tennessee about 100 Nissan suppliers now dot the landscape, making steel in Murfreesboro, air conditioning units in Lewisburg, transmission parts in Portland. Nissan broke with conventional wisdom that Japanese automakers would not build many cars anywhere but Japan, where supply chains were in place, costs were tightly controlled and the reputation for quality was unparalleled. (Nissan’s U.S. quality is now so high that it exports engines to Japan).

Today, high-tech executives continue to argue that the U.S. cannot compete in making electronic devices. Apple, Dell and HP, which rely on huge Asian factories, assert that manufacturing would be too costly and inefficient in America. Only overseas, they claim, can they find an abundance of educated engineers, low-wage workers and at-the-ready suppliers. But the migration of Japanese auto manufacturing to the U.S.  offers a case study in how the transformations can unfold. We today remain one of the top auto manufacturers and employers in the world. Japanese and other foreign companies account for more than 40% of cars built here, employing hundreds of thousands.

When Apple CEO Tim Cook was asked if his company — which once made computers in America, but now locates most assembly in China — would ever build another product in the U.S., he replied:  “I hope so. One day.”  That day, interestingly, came recently for Brazil instead, which cajoled Apple and Foxconn with a combination of financial incentives and import penalties to make iPads and iPhones there.

Discussion questions:

1. Why did Brazil land iPad manufacturing, when the U.S. did not?

2. What is the answer to the question posed in the blog title?

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