The new global marketplace is rife with "American Made" items whose parts are produced elsewhere. Levi's are mostly outsourced now. JanSport, the iconic label that's a part of the American college experience, is produced mostly overseas. But in the world of tech, where consumers have started closely following the conditions at the Chinese manufactures where iPhones and iPads are made, stamping a sleek new gizmo with "Designed and Manufactured in the U.S.A." is not only considered a "symbolic and significant" experiment signifying a shift in the overseas manufacturing of tech, it's downright begging for scrutiny. Especially if it turns out many of the guts of the gadget in question were manufactured overseas.
Enter the Nexus Q, Google's new entertainment orb.
Wired recently secured some high-resolution photos of its precision-engineered innards, which noted the U.S. origins of Google's bold experiment in home hardware. But the images also revealed the tiny, obscure markings on some of the components used to make the Q tick--arcane groups of letters and numbers that don't really mean much to anyone apart from the makers and electronics enthusiasts like the folks at iFixit. But they also reveal that parts of the Q, core elements of its circuitry, aren't made in the U.S.A.
For example, there's a tiny power transformer there stamped with a "WE" logo. That's the mark of German firm Wurth Elektronik, a Wurth spokesperson confirms to Fast Company: "There is a Wurth Electronics Midcom transformer on the device (part number 75012548) and also a common mode choke (744821110)." While these bits of tech aren't super-clever, they're vital to making the Q function and they actually come from a German firm. "The transformer," the Wurth spokesperson pointed out, "is produced at our factory in China."
Meanwhile the Q's neat NFC capability is delivered by a chip stamped "NXP 44501." That's the mark of NXP, a semiconductor firm based in the Netherlands, and which was actually spun out of the well-known Philips company some while ago. The chip seems to be a relabeled version of NXP's PN544 device, which was championed as the "world's first industry standard chip" for NFC back in 2009 and which is used in many devices like the Nexus S and Nokia C7.
Another chip on the Nexus Q's board is labeled "TXC," and would seem to be a quartz timing chip from makers TXC--who just reported some promising sales projections, driven by the explosion in consumer electronics like the Nexus Q. TXC is headquartered in Taipei.
These are just a handful of the thousands of the parts of the Q, a list which includes tiny surface-mounted diodes and resistors, large electrolytic capacitors, plus a handful of other chips and components like connectors. It's an analogous mix to what's inside most modern devices, of course, from dishwashers to smartphones. And it's a fair estimate that many of these are not made in the U.S.A.
Can a device still have all of these global guts an still be considered to be "Developed and Manufactured in the U.S.A.?" Damn right. Companies that make products of every kind source their raw materials and components from all over the globe nowadays, and it's particularly true in the high-tech industry where some nations have leaped ahead in designing components, while others capitalize on their raw materials to create others.
For example, an NXP executive confirmed to Fast Company that the while its chips are designed in its front-end offices in Europe, such as its headquarters in the Netherlands, the silicon wafers for the device are made at home or in Germany, and then shipped to one of the company's numerous Eastern fabrication plants to be made into devices. These are then shipped--in the Nexus Q's case--to the U.S.A., where, presumably (Google did not respond to our requests for more information or comment, and they have not said specifically which parts are made or assembled in which American factories) everything's put together and finished off.
Those surprised at how this qualifies as being manufactured in the U.S.A. need not look far for comparative cases. Odds are, that French handbag or those "Made in Italy" shoes you're wearing were hammered together, cut, or sewn, at least in part, in China, too.
Google did get back to us with a comment: "The Nexus Q is designed and built in the USA - but not all components are from the USA - this is something that we have been clear about." Google's spokesperson even pointed us to the Times article, highlighting the section that notes "semiconductor chips are more of a challenge." It is of course these chips that actually make the darn thing work--no matter how sleekly orbular its American-designed plastic body is.
[Top Image: Flickr user Daniel Lobo; Nexus Image: Wired]