Apple's iPhone 5: Where the supply chain begins

Summary:Key to Apple's success has been its diligence in putting together a strong supply chain to make sure products like the iPhone 5 come out perfect. Here's where it begins.

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When you picture Apple's iPhone 5, you imagine a sleek device perched in a clinical, modern setting. The complications and complexities are hidden beneath panes of glass and metal. The restrained industrial design hides the messy components behind the screen and makes abstract the even messier process that led to its creation. If you think of any mess at all, you think of the labor unrest in China to which the technology company has been subject. 

An important part of the supply chain is people -- no one can argue with that. But just as important are the materials that those people put together. Not just the components, mind you, but the very elements they're made of. So it might come as a surprise that your cherished iPhone began its life not in a minimalist design lab in Cupertino, but in a massive open pit under a scorching hot sun somewhere near the California-Nevada border.

My CNET colleague Jay Greene -- bless his heart, because I'd melt on such an assignment -- recently visited this pit, the Mountain Pass rare earth mine, to understand where iPhones (and other iProducts) are born. The mine is owned by a company called Molycorp, and is the source of all the rare -- that's why they're named that! -- elements that make modern electronics work.

We may love our gadgets, but they start out dusty, hot and environmentally harmful. (Ironically, they end their lives that way, too.) 

I urge you to read his lengthy report, which you can find right here.

My thoughts upon reading it:

  • It's no wonder Tim Cook is now CEO. Without its formidable supply chain, Apple is merely a tech company with a lot of ideas but no execution. Give credit where credit is due.
  • Electronics are putting massive amounts of stress on limited natural resources -- both from a supply point of view and an environmental one. For all of Apple's green credentials, the company (and its peers) is fundamentally bad for the environment.
  • How deep must we look into tech supply chains? And what do we do once we get to the bottom of them? There's nothing warm or fuzzy or even encouraging about mining rare earth minerals, but we wouldn't have our gadgets without them. What are we OK with?
  • China controls 90 percent of this stuff. When it comes to domestic reliance on imported resources, are iPhones the new crude oil?

What did you think? Leave your impressions below, in Talkback.

Photo: Jay Greene/CNET

Topics: Apple

About

Andrew Nusca is a former writer-editor for ZDNet and contributor to CNET. He is also the former editor of SmartPlanet, ZDNet's sister site about innovation. He writes about business, technology and design now but used to cover finance, fashion and culture. He was an intern at Money, Men's Vogue, Popular Mechanics and the New York Daily Ne... Full Bio

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