It is well-known by now that the Moto X smartphone will be built in the United States. That is a stunning piece of news, considering how commonplace overseas manufacturing is in technology. Designs are routinely sent abroad so that vendors can build the products that take our world by storm, and there is a windfall of pros and cons to this scenario. Yes, it is usually (much) cheaper to outsource the labor, so consumers can get their goods at a lower cost. But it can be extremely difficult to regularly police working conditions of facilities located far afield. Then there’s the dilemma of sending jobs out of the country when so many people at home are still struggling with unemployment.*
When it comes to foreign outsourcing, one industry that could give tech a runs for its money is the fashion business. And judging by what happened recently to a British apparel maker, there could be a valuable lesson to be learned from it.
British online clothing merchant Asos recalled one of its belts due to the last thing most consumers could imagine — radioactivity. One of its brass studded leather belts tested positive for Cobalt-60, a radioactive isotope with gamma rays so intense, it is usually reserved for things like radiation therapy. According to an internal Asos report, this could prove very dangerous if someone wears one of these belts for more than 500 hours. But some 49 units were sold in more than a dozen countries before the issue was discovered by U.S. border control.
Check out the studs on this belt. They’re no bigger than some electronics components.
“None of these belts are suitable for public use or possession,” says the report. But the most alarming aspect of the investigation was the part that called the incident “a common occurrence… India and the far east are large consumers of scrap metal for their home and foreign markets. During the refining process of these metals, orphaned radioactive sources are sometimes accidentally melted at the same time. This in turn [contaminates the process] and traps the radioactivity in the metal as an alloy or in suspension.”
Nokia-Siemens and Ericsson already do some manufacturing in India, where sweeping efforts are being made to address imported products. Foreign companies may be compelled to build products locally if they want to tap its consumer market. This means many other companies may soon follow Nokia and Ericsson’s lead. Meanwhile, many major tech players — like Apple, Samsung and HTC — have long used Chinese factories to produce their devices.
This does not mean that every product made or assembled in India, China or other countries should be immediately considered dangerous. But at the same time, Western companies outsourcing production need to ensure that there are rigorous health and quality assurance checks — particularly for items people hold up to their faces or wear on their person.
Manufacturing is something Apple has been grappling with for years. Right now, the company is in the midst of diversifying Chinese production of its devices by adding on a new vendor. Pegatron is reportedly an even cheaper producer than Foxconn, which is currently hard at work to launch its own electronics brand.
But Cupertino is also looking to create manufacturing facilities in the U.S. It’s investing as much as $100 million to build a domestic plant that will build some of its Mac computers. The site will be in Texas, the same state that Google’s Motorola division is looking at for its Moto X manufacturing.
It looks like a bona fide trend is starting up, one that has tech companies keeping a closer eye on their own production. But it’s not necessarily to build a better quality products, monitor employees’ work conditions or ensure the health and safety of its customers. They apparently want to keep the factories within their sights so they can protect their intellectual property. In other words, they’re trying to plug the numerous leaks that so often come from sources in the companies’ own supply chains. But sweeping changes won’t happen overnight, and even once these domestic factories are up and running, those companies probably won’t rely completely on only locally made or sourced components.
And so, we may wind up having to trust the tech companies with more than just our hard-earned dollars and personal data. But will they protect their customers with as much veracity as they protect their own intellectual property? That’s the question.
*There’s plenty of debate over this, as robotics and mechanization is being blamed for reducing workforces all over the world.