The importance of robots in warehouse distribution was illustrated in March, when Apple's tablet-making rival Amazon announced an agreement to buy Kiva Systems, a company that also makes autonomous mobile robots to work in warehouses, for $775 million.
Apple CEO Tim Cook has not said whether Apple's manufacturing plant will build products from scratch or assemble materials. Some see this relatively small manufacturing investment as an effort to counter criticism about the company's reliance on China, where it now makes its products. Apple's revenues are at $156 billion.
But it may be shortsighted to dismiss what Apple is doing as a public relations move.
Whatever Apple builds, "you can guarantee it will be using the most up-to-date and modern factory automation equipment that one can buy," said Robert Atkinson, president of The Information Technology & Innovation Foundation and author of Innovation Economics: The Race for Global Advantage.
Atkinson said Apple will build a leading facility partly because it's Apple, but also because of the relative high cost of U.S. labor. "You've got to use automation more than you might in China," he said.
"One of the potentially significant things about the Apple announcement is it could send a message to American companies -- you can do this -- you can make this work here," Atkinson said.
Michael Palmer, an IDC analyst who researches electronics manufacturing, said that by having a manufacturing plant in the U.S., Apple will save on shipping costs and shorten the time a product is in inventory.
Palmer also pointed out that labor costs in electronics manufacturing are already relatively low, about 8% of the total manufacturing cost. "It's all about having volume," he said.
In the mid-1990s, Apple did make products in the U.S., and Jim Daly, manufacturing expert, helped to set up one of their plants.
Apple originally built a factory that was highly automated, but it wasn't flexible and couldn't adapt quickly to changing needs. At the time, Daly was working for a contract manufacturer that was hired by Apple, which quickly set up a factory to build two models of the Mac. That plant relied more on labor and less on automation to get its flexibility, he said.
Today, Daly is vice president of manufacturing and operations of Rethink Robotics, which makes robots for manufacturing. These robots are designed to be flexible enough to adapt to fast-changing manufacturing requirements.