Apple 2.0

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Inside the Apple iPad factory

May 21, 2011: 11:05 AM ET

The site of Friday's explosion was massive 8-building complex thrown together in a record 70 days

Workers on a Chungdu assembly line. Photo: M.I.C. Gadget

When a polishing workshop blew up in Foxconn's new factory complex in Chengdu, China, it was an English-language website operating, as they put it, "outside the Great Firewall of China, temporarily," that broke the news and provided U.S. media outlets with videos, photos and regular updates.

On Saturday, the website -- M.I.C. Gadget -- posted a background story on Foxconn's Chengdu facility that offers a rare glimpse not only of life inside the factories (see photo), but of the industrial policies that brought them to Chengdu in the first place.

It's a remarkable tale. According to M.I.C.'s Star Chang, the factories were constructed in record time specifically to meet demand for Apple's (AAPL) iPad 2. With its Shenzhen factory operating at full capacity churning out, according to Chang, 2.5 million first-generation iPads a month, Foxconn needed 50 new production lines capable of building up to 40 million second-generation iPad per year.

Foxconn chose Chungdu, the capital of Sichuan province, because so many of the workers in Shenzhen had come from the inland province. Foxconn hoped to tap into this source of low-cost labor without the problems -- among them a rash of high-profile suicides -- created by moving young workers from small provincial towns to a big industrial city on the coast.

The province, eager to attract industry, bent over backward to accommodate Foxconn:

"Sichuan's governments and officials," writes Chang in somewhat fractured English, "have provided fast-tracked approval for Foxconn to set up their factory plant in Chengdu city, including clearances for fiscal subsidies and preferential corporate income tax rates. Foxconn has requested the inland governments to support for the plant construction at the initial stage, they have to build an area of several 10 thousands square meters for the factory for less then 90 days, and within half a year, the plant has to be expand to an area of 1.7 million square meters. Foxconn has also lined up all nearby component makers and supporting enterprises in a short period of time, with the help of local officials. The government even asked local vocational schools to provide student to take internships in Foxconn factory to ensure a plentiful workforce for the future.

"While everything has prepared ready for the new plant's production, Foxconn need Apple's approval for manufacturing iPad in Chengdu, and the Apple's inspection team only take two days to visit Chengdu's factory. The team has inspected all the production lines and facility, especially the worker's dormitories. ... Finally, Apple approved Chengdu's factory to produce iPad. It took about 70 days from setting up the production lines, 8 huge factory buildings were built and it has set a record on the shortest period of time to set up a factory plant. The officials from Chengdu has also arranged to increased cargo flights to Hong Kong and set aside the biggest block of land in its tariff-free zone for the company to help cut costs."

UPDATE: Foxconn issued an update on Sunday:

"Foxconn can confirm that, sadly, a third employee has died from injuries from the May 20 explosion at one of the polishing workshops at our company's Hongfujin Precision Electronics (Chengdu) Co. Ltd. facility in Chengdu."

On Friday Apple issued this statement:

"We are deeply saddened by the tragedy at Foxconn's plant in Chengdu, and our hearts go out to the victims and their families. We are working closely with Foxconn to understand what caused this terrible event."

Below: More photos from M.I.C. Gadget.

Foxconn's worker dorms in Chengdu. Photo: micgadget.com

Foxconn's Chengdu worker dorms. Photo: micgadget.com

Recruiting new workers in Chengdu. Photo: micgadget.com

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About This Author
Philip Elmer-Dewitt
Philip Elmer-DeWitt
Editor, Apple 2.0, Fortune

Philip Elmer-DeWitt has been following Apple since 1982, first for Time Magazine, and now on the Web for Fortune.com.

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