In 2021, Apple allocated $55 million to build an R&D and training center at Pohang University of Science and Technology (known as POSTECH), in Pohang, South Korea. Reportedly the first such facility that Apple has built, the investment was the result of a fine issued to Apple by the Korea Fair Trade Commission (KFTC), South Korea’s primary antitrust authority.
KFTC imposed the fine, in total amounting to about $85 million, due to allegations that the world’s wealthiest company had unfairly passed costs for repairs and promotions onto companies in the Korean telecom industry. Last week (June 21-22), Apple held its first Smart Manufacturing Forum at the facility — known as the Apple Manufacturing R&D Support Center — an event where the tech giant shared information about its digital manufacturing ecosystem with South Korean small and medium enterprises (SMEs).
Since Apple tends to play things close to the vest when it comes to its manufacturing processes, it is not so surprising that the publicly available information, both about the event as well as the center itself, is only presented in the most general terms. But we do know that the center is jointly run with Apple by POSTECH, that it includes an ‘Apple Manufacturing R&D Accelerator’ and an Apple Developer Academy, and that applicants hoping to attend the Smart Manufacturing Forum had to be from companies legally defined as SMEs by South Korea’s Ministry of SMEs and Startups.
Additionally, the second day of the two-day event included interactive sessions at the Apple Manufacturing R&D Accelerator facility, which is divided into three areas of focus: the Smart Data Lab, Smart Process Lab, and Smart Quality Lab. Most intriguingly for the additive manufacturing (AM) sector, one of the Smart Process Lab’s two subdivisions is ‘Lean Manufacturing’. Again, there are not many specifics as to what that entails in this context, but Apple claims that applicants will learn “fundamental principles of lean manufacturing”, as well as an array of skills related to the quality control of the processes involved.
Despite all the mystery, or in fact because of it, observers of industries making up what’s increasingly being referred to as “smart manufacturing” can’t help but speculate on how Apple will affect the market long-term. As 3DPrint.com’s editor-in-chief, Michael Molitch-Hou, recently wrote in Forbes — regarding Apple’s newly announced Vision Pro augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR) headset — “While most AR/VR companies certainly rely on 3D printing to some extent, at least at the level of product design, Apple’s latest product, specifically, may kickstart a niche segment of the industry known as ‘additively manufactured electronics (AMEs).’”
Along those lines, the scale of Apple’s global operations is such that a product launch like the Vision Pro could on its own, simply by leading to an explosion in competitors racing to get their own headsets off the ground, spark mass production of hardware for AME output — even if the manufacturing hardware is “just” for prototyping, at first. This is not to mention all the add-ons and paraphernalia that inevitably pop up whenever a major new product line is launched, plus the subsequent generations of the Vision Pro, etc.
Moreover, down the line, the Vision Pro is likely to have a reciprocal impact on how smart manufacturing is done. That is, once it’s being produced at scale and accumulates a user base, the Vision Pro will almost certainly be used to augment the same smart manufacturing processes that helped beget it in the first place. Thus, the Vision Pro, and everything else that comprises the industrial metaverse, will collectively provide one of the first large-scale glimpses into how smart factories could eventually lead to fully self-sustaining manufacturing supply chains.
Finally, it is rather remarkable that, already at the beginning of 2021, the South Korean government viewed Apple’s smart manufacturing processes as a worthy enough prize to go after in getting the company to make amends for its alleged antitrust activities. It is worth thinking about how much real value this type of investment represents: would the fine have been far larger if the KFTA wasn’t planning on being repaid in R&D and occupational training capital?
This is especially interesting to consider in terms of the role of SMEs, specifically, as the example of the aerospace/defense sector in the US makes clear that this is the area of the economy that will require the most attention in being brought up to speed on smart manufacturing practices. This is not meant as a prediction that Apple could eventually join AM Forward, but the idea of a separate tech consortium emerging that is related to the identical set of challenges doesn’t seem so far-fetched.
Images courtesy of Apple