The Real Reason Why iPads Are Made In China

The Real Reason Why iPads Are Made In China

When people ask why Apple doesn’t make its iPads in America, the usual explanation is that labor costs are so high, there’s no way an iPad could be made in the country for less than $1000. That answer has always lacked weight, as the manual labor of constructing an iPad is actually a very small portion of its overall build cost: building an iPad in America would cut down margins, but not double the price.

No, there’s a better reason why every iPad gets made in China, and you can find it on your local periodic table. Every iPad is made with a sizable number of rare earth metals… all of which can only be mined in China.

Over at iFixIt, there’s a fantastic post that explains why it’s so hard to make an iPad outside of China… or, for that matter, any other gadget.

What it all comes down to is that China has a monopoly on 17 hard-to-mine elements that are necessary for making gadgets. In the iPad, it’s suspected that these earth metals are used to make the iPad’s lithium-ion polymer batteries, the display, the magnets to attach the Smart Cover, and even to polish the glass.

Can’t Apple go somewhere else for these metals? Not really. At best, only 5% of the world’s rare earth metals come from mines outside of China, and while there are companies in Australia and America that are gearing up operations, it’ll be a long time to come before they can supply enough of these in-demand elements to handle orders of Apple’s magnitude.

Rare earth metals also can’t be easily recycled. Although there’s no shortage of old gadgets rotting in scrap heaps and landfills, none of the companies who are working on rare earth metal recycling have managed to actually recover any.

Okay, so rare earth metals are hard to get outside of China. Why can’t Apple just export them? Simple: China exploits their monopoly, and the only way they’ll let you export rare earth metals — even in components — is if you actually manufacture the vast majority of it in China.

I suppose the bright side of all of this is that by staying in China, Apple is leading by example and improving working conditions for hundreds of thousands of workers. Over time, that’ll be a net gain for China. There’s no other way around it, though: in every other respect, manufacturing iPads in China with a lingering amount of rare earth metals is a deal with the devil.

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  • fcallio

    As far as I know Brazil has pretty respectable rare earth mineral reserves, and Apple is supposedly building iPads there.

  • Ai-Ling Logan

    That really depends on what you consider “improved” working conditions. From what I understand, life on the ipad assembly line ain’t no 9-5 job…

  • zviivz

    Apple Engineering team has to step up and use materials not made of rare earth mineral. That $40 Billion could have been better use for such research instead of paying off shareholders.

  • Bguss

    Which is why it would be expensive to build the iPad in America. Even if China allowed these materials to be shipped to America, the cost would be extremely expensive. And with different labor laws in America, employees would be paid more. As well, the output volume would be much less. Unless Apple is willing to pay extra for OT, or extra employees for shift work. No, the main reason is still because it would cost more for Apple in the long run.

  • Ramón

    Efforts are underway to mine rare earth metals in California.

  • andycapp123

    Sorry but i think this article misleading and the underlying tone a little unpleasantly close to “damn foreigners are stealing our jobs!!!” The main reason Apple makes their stuff in China is quite clear in the Steve Jobs biography. And yes, it is labor. But its not price. Its education. Jobs explained to Obama that Apple can get thousands of educated engineers in a few weeks in China when it would take maybe a year in the USA. It’s not the low paid workers that are cheaper. It’s the educated ones that are better. We don’t train enough engineers and scientists to compete. Our education system is dysfunctional. Also, despite the exciting name “rare earth minerals” are not rare-as-in-scarce at all. They are some of the most abundant minerals on the planet. China just mines cheaper right now which is favorable to their electronics industry. That may change if they price gouge because of their monopoly. Colorado used to be the worlds largest exporter of REM. The Chinese are not “the devil” to be dealt with. It’s a fallacy to think they’re cheating us in some way. That kind of thinking only speeds up our own decline by blaming others for our own problems, not fixing them. There’s no conspiracy about why they make our stuff. China has a really large number of well educated people who work really hard. We don’t.

  • warex3d

    very convenient -_-

  • DriggsDave

    This post is not correct. Rare earths are being mined outside of China. Mountain Pass I’m California and Mount Weld in Austrailia.

About the author

John BrownleeJohn Brownlee is a Contributing Editor. He has also written for Wired, Playboy, Boing Boing, Popular Mechanics, VentureBeat, and Gizmodo. He lives in Boston with his wife and two parakeets. You can follow him here on Twitter.

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