Once more, Apple has rocked Wall Street and financial media with spectacular fiscal Q1 financial results, again fueled by the company’s supply chain capabilities.  However, with each passing quarter, that supply chain becomes subject to more visibility, not all of which will remain complimentary.

The numbers are staggering even in context to the fact that the quarter included the holiday selling period. They included a 118 percent year-to-year increase in profits amounting to $13.1 billion on sales of $46.3 billion.  There is commentary that Apple could once again overtake Exxon Mobil as the world’s most valuable company in terms of market value. Internationally based sales accounted for 58 percent of the quarter’s revenue indicating the increased tapping of emerging markets as consumers around the world succumb to the Apple experience.

In terms of output volumes, Apple delivered 37 million iPhones and 15.4 million iPads during the quarter, sustaining an average fulfillment volume of over 402 thousand iPhones and over 165 thousand iPads per day. These are volumes that can challenge any global based supply chain. The iPhone 4S is now available in 90 countries across multiple channels. Company executives also admitted that the company struggled to meet demand and could have done better if it could have ramped production. The iPhone was noted as on ‘significant’ backlog at the end of the quarter, and the unavailability of supply has been cited as a cause of rioting at Apple’s new Beijing outlet as consumers and black market profiteers sought new iPhones.

Gross margin was equally impressive growing to 44.7 percent compared with 38.5 percent one year ago. Wall Street has been taken back with the fact that the company generated $16 billion in free cash flow during the quarter, along with a near $100 billion cash balance. In its reporting, the Wall Street Journal made note that Apple not only benefitted from strong demand but also lower component costs, highlighting how the company’s supply chain remains a distinct advantage. Keep in mind that the consumer electronics industry has been dealing with certain supply shortages brought about by the compounding effects of the Japan tsunami and Thailand floods. Apple’s influence over suppliers made its mark and volume remains a considerable influence.

The lens on Apple naturally turns to what comes next and how can it sustain these spectacular results.

For its supply chain, the lens is of course maintaining a steady stream of supply while supporting a new edition of the iPad later this year. As the company’s distribution turns more toward international channels, the risks will increase. Company officials see China as a huge untapped opportunity but the reality of being the most expensive smartphone implies either more prepaid plans and distribution channels or a scaled-down version. The lens on supplier social responsibility policies has also widened considerably.

Supply Chain Matters provided previous commentary related to Apple’s recent release of its 2012 Supplier Social Responsibility Report.  This weekend, New York Times columnists Charles Duhigg and Keith Bradsher penned one of the most revealing articles in our memory concerning the supply chain capabilities of Apple.  The article, How the U.S. Lost Out on IPhone Work, (paid digital subscription or free metered view) extracts observations from former employees and others as to why Apple elects to source all of its major manufacturing operations in China. It describes one incident where 8000 workers at one of Apple’s contract manufacturers were awakened after midnight and started a 12 hour shift fitting last minute re-designed glass screens into frames to support iPhone volume production.

Bottom line, Apple believes that China provides far more speed, flexibilities and far more skills than can be garnered elsewhere, including the U.S. Corning’s CFO is quoted: “The consumer electronics business has become an Asian business. As an American, I worry about that, but there is nothing I can do to stop it.   Asia has become what the U.S. was for the last 40 years.

The Times article raises some profound conclusions as to the definition of supply chain flexibilities, and we urge our readers to absorb all that is within the article.  Apple employees and management appear to demand total flexibility without regard to the worker ramifications associated with such directives. At the same time, they enjoy the healthy financial benefits in corporate profits, bonuses, and over $2 billion in stock awards. Apple CEO Tim Cook, the architect of the current supply chain received a 2010 compensation package valued at $59 million, while the average Chinese factory worker garners $17 per day. Not many of these Chinese factory workers could afford to buy a new Apple product.

From our perspective, the most profound cited quote came from an unnamed current Apple executive who states that the company does not have an obligation to solve America’s problems, but rather making the best product possible. Having its pile of cash grow even more each quarter only leads to more perceptions of greed and lack of national or social responsibility as U.S. job growth continues to falter.

Readers no doubt are aware of the technology vendor hype concerning the need for supply chain flexibility.  The looking glass into Apple’s supply chain is perhaps revealing a real-world definition.

The Times columnists began their article by citing an event last February and the question that President Barrack Obama posed to Steve Jobs: What would it take to make iPhones in the United States?  We believe that Apple, and all of us in the supply chain community need to think long and hard on that question.

What’s your view? Have countries such as the U.S. any realistic opportunities in closing the supply chain capabilities gaps in consumer electronics and high tech?

Bob Ferrari

©2012, The Ferrari Consulting and Research Group LLC and Supply Chain Matters.  All rights reserved.