Apple: Manufacturing at the core of Cork presence

There’s something a little odd about ambling through the only Apple-owned manufacturing facility in the world, watching man and machine combine to build products destined for every corner of Europe, all against the unmistakable backdrop of Cork voices more readily associated with the terraces of the old Páirc Uí Chaoimh.

That, however, is what you experiences as you enter the iMac manufacturing facility in Hollyhill — an area staff are perhaps more protective and proud of than any other.

It is, after all, the original of the Apple Cork species opened by Steve Jobs more than 30 years ago.

Cork TD Gene Fitzgerald opens the Apple plant at Hollyhill on November 24, 1980, with, from left, Apple’s then vice-chairman Steve Jobs, chairman Mike Markkula, and managing director Alec Wrafter.

Through thick and thin and despite wholesale changes over that time, the manufacturing site in Cork has been maintained.

“While Apple has changed the supply chain in many other factories and got out of manufacturing in many cases, it has always kept the Cork facility here so we’re the only Apple-owned manufacturing facility in the world,” senior director of manufacturing Paul Coburn explains.

“There’s a huge history there… and when they transitioned [to outsourcing manufacturing] I think they saw that to get rid of all manufacturing expertise from Cork would actually be a risk.”

Instead, the Cork facility has flourished in the past decade as the core knowledge of its employees — many of whom are locals — grows in importance as outsourcing continues apace and new products are brought to market.

As Apple scales its Chinese manufacturing facilities, Irish teams have headed for distant lands to oversee the process while local expertise are also relied upon by those designing the latest products in Cupertino.

“I think it’s been recognised the value that they add to the company has really been very significant and I think the standing of Cork is only going to grow because people see they value we bring,” Paul says.

In a world where it is undeniably more expensive to manufacture from a European base, that status must be under pressure though? Not the case, insists the man overseeing its development.

“Ten years ago I’d have 100% agreed with you and said it is a serious issue but labour in China is getting [more expensive], costs are obviously rising there — it’s still at cost premium of course — but the way Apple is going I can only see our relevance in the company increasing all the time.”

Neither can an expansion of its manufacturing be ruled out, he says, adding that he can see more customisation work being done in Cork if it adds value for the customer.

And the customer is what it’s all about for Apple, as manufacturing engineering manager, Tim explains.

More than 30,000 different configurations, or “skews”, of iMac are manufactured in Cork — each a combination of a series of personal preferences accommodated by the manufacturing team.

Of the labour applied to each product, 65% concerns quality control and testing — to which up to 38 hours alone can be attributed.

Aiding that process are suppliers such as Crest Solutions, founded by a former Apple employee and based in Little Island, Cork, which provides automatic inspection machines, while Sligo-based Automatic Technology Services’s system integration technology also hums away in Hollyhill.

Every order placed online is in production within two hours and shipped anywhere between 24 and three days later, depending on the complexity of the configuration.

“Apple is obsessed with the customer,” says Paul. “It’s one of our core philosophies, it’s all about what the customer wants. When you open up a product, the wow factor you get is something the company actually worries significantly about.”

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