TECHNOLOGY SPECTATOR: Apple's real iPhone cost

If workers making an iPhone earn about $US2 an hour, what are the other components that make up the estimated $US300 in base costs for each phone?

Technology Spectator

An iPhone generates approximately $US650 in revenue for Apple. This figure has remained fairly steady over time. Using deduction from overall margins, it’s possible to estimate the gross margin on the product to be around 55 per cent.

That means that the cost of goods sold for the iPhone is about $US293. Is that a lot? Where does that money go? What else does it tell us about how the company operates?

To find out we need to understand the cost structure of phone building.

Typically there are four main categories of costs for a phone:

- Bill of materials (BOM). This represents the cost of the components that go into the device. These are paid to suppliers.
- Transportation/warehousing. This is the cost to transport and store the product before sale. This is paid to shipping companies and warehousing.
- Manufacturing cost (including labor). This is paid to contract manufacturers.
- Warranty expense. This is paid back to customers for returned product that can no longer be sold.

We can estimate a device’s BOM through a teardown analysis and there are firms that do this. Usually this offers enough competitive insight into the cost structure and hence gross margin because the other items are predictable in that they do not vary greatly from product to product.

In the case of the iPhone the BOM has been fairly steady around $US200 for a new model. That leaves quite a big gap to the overall COGS of $US293.

Could transportation, manufacturing and warranty costs really add up to $US90 for an iPhone?

The manufacturing costs are not usually discussed in detail openly because the processes used are secret. However, thanks to an ABC Nightline report, some clues have emerged about how iPhones are built and, although incomplete, they offer some interesting bounds.

One data point recently published is that the iPhone takes 24 hours to be built. Of that six to eight hours is spent in "burn-in” to install and test the software and components automatically. This leaves about 17 hours unaccounted for in the throughput time. Could this time be spent in labor intensive operations? In the ABC report the wage of workers on the line is given as $US1.78/hr. Foxconn has since clarified its wage structure saying that "We have over 75 per cent of the employees in the category of earning at least 2,200 RMB ($US349/month) basic compensation standard." That means they are earning 13.75 RMB ($US2.18) per hour”.

Seventeen hours of labor input would imply $US30 labour cost per iPhone. That seems a lot higher than the industry (i.e. iSupply’s estimate is $US8 for manufacturing cost.) This is an upper bound. Obviously, those 17 hours could be spent in automated operations which were not shown or simply sitting idle, waiting for a process to begin.

Is there another way we can check this?

There is. The ABC report also mentioned that there were 141 (presumably labour) work steps in the production for an iPhone. If we knew the time each step took we could obtain another estimate. For example, if each step in the human assembly process took three minutes then human hands will touch the iPhone for 423 minutes or about seven hours. This would imply a labour cost for an iPhone of about $US12.50. If each step was longer or shorter, the cost would vary accordingly.

Unfortunately we can’t be sure of the exact cost. However, these recent clues offer some interesting bounds and observations:

- Manufacturing costs for the iPhone are likely to be much higher than comparable devices. This is partly because of the design of the product and partly because of the quality testing needed.
- Those costs are likely to range between $US12.5 and $US30 per unit.
- The iPhone manufacturing costs are likely to be twice or three times the average.
- Labor costs are still a small part of the overall cost structure at between two and five per cent of sales price.
- The high level (141 steps) of human interaction in the process could be automated,however, the fact that it isn’t implies that the cost of automation would be higher and the flexibility of the automated process would be lower. It’s much more likely that the process is a mixture of labour and robot intensive sub-processes.
- Even if we assume a $US30 manufacturing cost, there is still $US60 that needs to be allocated to transportation and warranty expense. These require sanity checks as well.

Horace Dediu is founder and managing director of Asymco, a Helsinki-based app developer/industry analysis advisory firm. You can find his blog here.

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