More than a year ago, when Dan and I were combing through Apple’s factory lists to build what eventually became Dong xi, I reached out to Matthew Hockenberry. I wanted to understand how Apple’s products came to life, but their own reports only provide breadcrumbs. I asked him for advice: How could we better understand where and how parts turn into assemblies, and assemblies turn into finished products?
To answer my questions, he brought me a story about a distinct shift in Apple's supply chain. As he would later write of the iPhone 5c’s colorful polycarbonate shell:
Despite the attention this case received in Apple’s own marketing, critical analysis of their supply chain tended to focus on internal components like batteries and microchips—as if the object’s most visible parts were somehow too obvious to study. But all manner of sins may be hidden in the mundanity of the visible. There is nothing remarkable about a leather case for a phone, or a leather strap for a watch. But its appearance on a customer’s wrist nevertheless signals a shift in the supply chain—moving a company which indirectly deals in death to one which must, necessarily, manage a slaughterhouse.
On the one hand Apple’s foray into plastic phones was mundane. But on the other, it signified a reordering of the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of people. His analysis, which traces the 5c’s case from SABIC’s raw Lexan and Jabil’s Wuxi injection molding shop on to Pegatron’s Shanghai assembly plant, is the latest feature on theprepared.org. I’m incredibly proud to have it.
The most clicked link from last week's issue (~14% of opens) was a Twitter thread of all the handles that Apple has put on Macs over the years.
Chatter from the paid subscriber Slack this week: Complex vs. complicated supply chains, “new tool syndrome,” McMaster-Carr Swedish Fish, and prep for our latest reading group on The Unknown Craftsman: A Japanese Insight into Beauty.
Planning & Strategy.
- Radiolab on the Wubi input method, which maps Chinese character strokes onto a QWERTY keyboard and acts like blazingly fast (244 characters per minute!) T9 typing. From the perspective of both technological and cultural history, this is a fascinating story.
- I *blasted* through Malcolm Gladwell’s most recent book, Talking to Strangers, last weekend. As always, his argumentation is engrossing to the point of feeling just a little bit slick, but immediately upon completing the (audio)book I felt compelled to start back at the beginning to try to absorb it better. Anchored on the story of Sandra Bland’s arrest and death, the book presents a thesis on the many ways that people fail to understand one another - a useful thing to meditate on for sure.
- A Chrome extension that gives quick access to a random product from McMaster-Carr’s catalog.
- A retrospective of Uber’s stewardship of Jump (née Social Bicycles), and the ultimate destruction that resulted from it. I’m told that this article misses the legitimate sense of energy that existed at Jump’s product team in 2019, and I also know that they took seriously the idea that Ofo and Mobike were onto something when they scaled production dramatically and decreased the per-ride price to almost zero. Regardless, Jump’s fall should make any entrepreneur conscious of the downsides of venture capital and the extreme risk/reward model that VC-backed businesses must ultimately accept.
Making & Manufacturing.
- A good photo album of cork being grown, harvested, and processed.
- Sizing is the term used to describe a thin coating applied to the surface of carbon fibers before they are assembled into composites. Sizing is formulated to protect the fibers during handling and also to improve adhesion to a resin matrix.
- Traditional methods of wood bending require steaming, and steaming requires (among other limitations) a box big enough to put the wood in. Cold-bend hardwood, on the other hand, is autoclaved and then compressed longitudinally - allowing it to be bent at room temperature with some pretty incredible results.
- A frapping mallet is a tool that looks more or less like a sledgehammer and which is used as a lever to tighten lashings.
Maintenance, Repair & Operations.
- Senator Ron Wyden and Representative Yvette Clark (who represents my neighborhood) are introducing legislation that would override the legal agreements that medical device manufacturers use to create monopolies on repair and service. I strongly support this, and right-to-repair legislation in general.
- A quick, hacky, and somewhat hopeful attempt to reduce airborne particles using a box fan and a MERV-13 filter.
- An auxiliary cable on the Arecibo telescope snapped last week, causing a dramatic-looking 100 ft gash in the dish itself. Note that the dish itself has a 1000 ft diameter, and has recovered from significant damage before.
Distribution & Logistics.
- Of all the seemingly intractable problems right now, the one that’s bothering me most is the hitjob being done to USPS by Louis DeJoy, former CEO of XPO Logistics’ supply chain business. On this I recommend Aaron Gordon’s recent reporting (see The Post Office Is Deactivating Mail Sorting Machines Ahead of the Election, and then just follow him on Twitter) and, well, the front page of the New York Times. I’ll also note that I've been personally involved in shipping ~ten thousand Public Radios via USPS since 2015, with virtually no lost packages - until this May. See also McSweeney’s (satirical) In Defense of President Trump’s Decision to Destroy the Nation’s Roads.
- Pelican’s page for custom cases, many of which are pretty insane.
- A cute and comprehensive (and German) taxonomy of cargo bikes.
- A pilot gives a short tour of the avionics server room underneath an A350’s cockpit and shows off the flight deck; A hacker walks through a 747-400. Interestingly, it’s hard to do adversarial security testing on aircraft due to their cost and the difficulty in re-certifying them once they’ve been hacked on, but COVID is accelerating airlines’ scrapping programs and therefore potentially giving security consultants some actual hardware to test.
- Planet Money on “lease operator” trucking, in which a big trucking operation leases tractor trailers to drivers, treating them exactly like gig workers except that they’re contractually barred from hauling anyone else’s loads and also they’re leasing a ~$140k Freightliner instead of a $20k Honda Civic.
Inspection, Testing & Analysis.
- Munro & Associates, the famed auto manufacturing analysts, are selling 23,793 pages of cost estimates on the BMW i3 for $10.
- A profile of Trek, and the wild ride that bicycle sales have seen over the past six months. “Complicating matters is the fact that accelerating production of bikes is a lot trickier than it is for, say, flour or baking yeast, two other products that experienced unexpected booms in the wake of the lockdown. A flour maker, for example, can simply mill more grain and rush packages to store shelves within days. Trek, by contrast, operates an insanely complex supply chain, with a single bicycle composed of parts — wheels, handlebars, shifters, brakes, grips, pedals, cables, housings, drive-trains, and more — from as many as 50 different suppliers. Those components are sent to one of four Trek assembly plants in China, Taiwan, Germany and Wisconsin, where the company’s high-end models are produced. Then, the bicycles are boxed up and shipped to company warehouses around the world, and finally on to retailers. The entire process can take as long as 120 days.”
- A short, mesmerising video of an origami crane being folded in virtual 3D space.
- An extremely satisfying video of a large rock being split by hand with a sledgehammer and a series of steel spikes.
- A gallery of beautifully printed models from 507 Mechanical Movements.