The high cost of cheap electronics

This article is part of a series of articles written by MBA students and graduates from the University of New Hampshire Peter T. Paul College of Business and Economics.

Ben Minerd received his B.S. in Computer Engineering from the University of New Hampshire in 2011 and will be completing his MBA from UNH in May 2015. When not working as a systems engineer, Ben enjoys skiing, hiking, and flying drones.

Some of you technologically curious readers may be familiar with Moore’s Law which predicted that the number of transistors in a dense integrated circuit would double every two years. What all that nerd speak (as a nerd I can use that phrase) boils down to is that the processing capability of electronic chips is increasing at a crazy rate. Like, scary fast.

On the flip side, electronics are really cheap these days. Yes, the $10,000 Apple Watch might be a tad pricey, but I’m talking about the industry as a whole. You can buy a computer that fits in your pocket for $200 that is many hundreds, maybe thousands, of times more powerful than my first computer and I’m one of those whiny millennial youngsters.

How can consumer electronics companies afford to sell their scary fast devices this cheaply? One reason is that the devices are being made by other devices (cue ominous music), as automation and electronics manufacturing are natural complements of each other. But another big factor in the cheap tech equation is the ever-increasing separation of technology development from technology manufacturing.

Contract Manufacturing

Big name companies like Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Amazon are doing less and less of their own widget building these days in favor of contract manufacturing (or CM). Contract manufacturing is essentially the outsourcing of your products’ fabrication and assembly to some other company (who is hopefully better at it than you are).

In theory, using a contract manufacturer should lower your costs and give you access to capabilities that you wouldn’t have access to otherwise. This is especially true of small businesses looking to produce physical goods (versus intangibles like software), where the up-front cost of building your own factory is immense and maybe even a non-starter. Or maybe you’re a big tech company who isn’t good at making hardware (ahem, Google) and you want to stick to your core competencies.

Whatever your reason, contract manufacturing is the unicorn that will slash your costs with its rainbow laser beam eyes. Well, maybe not entirely.

Hidden Costs

To loosely paraphrase Pee-wee Herman, every decision we make in business has a big ‘but’. For the economist reader, you can equate this with TANSTAAFL—There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch. One action almost always leads to some other potentially unexpected outcome. Certain people have even gone so far as to say this is always the case (some guy named Isaac Newton).

One of the biggest contributors to hidden costs within contract manufacturing is the loss of control over your production processes. While this might be obvious or even desired, there may be some complications as a result of this new relationship that you hadn’t thought of previously.

Communication is always an important topic, but even more so when it comes to contract manufacturing. Not only may your production team physically reside on the other side of the globe, but things like language, culture, and time zone differences can make it difficult to keep good lines of communication open.

Quickly ramping up or ramping down production to meet changing demand can become a lot more challenging, too. This is partly due to the nature of the shared resources that you are buying access to when you team up with a CM.

A classic example of a culmination of these issues came from Cicso in the early 2000’s, back when out-sourcing was in its infancy. Cisco had been riding the surging wave of growth in the telecommunications industry which starting leading to supplier shortages. Shortly thereafter, the bottom fell out of telecom and Cisco forgot to turn off the contract manufacturing tap. Before long, Cisco’s raw-parts inventory rose by more than 300% from Q3 to Q4 2000, leading to a $2.2 billion write-off of inventory. Wall Street responded as you might expect, causing Cisco’s stock to fall by 50%.

The Human Cost

Perhaps the greatest hidden cost is one that may never make it to your company’s balance sheet: exploitation of workers in the developing countries where many contract manufacturers do business. It’s no secret that the biggest driver behind outsourcing is low labor costs. While it’s not always apples-to-apples to compare a production worker’s wage in China to one in the U.S., by any measurement the difference is more than a factor of 10 (although that number is dropping).

This dirty little secret of the consumer electronics industry came to light in 2012 when it was discovered that Foxconn, the largest electronics CM with over $100 billion in revenue and manufacturer of the Apple iPad, was mistreating some of their workers. Conditions grew so bad that in some cases workers decided to jump to their death rather than survive in that environment.

Bottom Line

Contract manufacturing might very well still be the right choice for you, just keep in mind that you may have more “unknown unknowns” than you had, well, known about. The more you can discuss with your CM candidate up front, the better your relationship will likely be. Also, some of these “gotcha’s” can be planned for in the agreement between you and your CM, so don’t skimp on the up-front work. And remember, there is no unicorn with rainbow laser beam eyes. That I know of.

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