Apple’s secretive Cork facility opens up – to an extent

At the firm’s European headquarters, which employs 6,000, some topics are off limits

It may employ close to 6,000 people but Apple's Cork facility remains a mystery to outsiders. While the likes of Google, Facebook and Twitter are forever flinging open their doors to the public, the world's most valuable company tends to keep things relatively low-key.

So low-key that some media coverage of the tech giant’s presence in Ireland would almost have you believe its Hollyhill campus is little more than a postal address from which the company seeks to divert its hefty profits to avoid paying taxes.

It comes as a surprise, then, to be so warmly greeted on a recent visit to the site, with even the supposedly mysterious and media-shy Irish country manager and vice-president of European Operations, Cathy Kearney, popping by to say hello.

Whatever your view on Apple’s tax arrangements, there is no denying that the company has built up a sizeable base in Cork over the past 37 years. What’s more the facility, which serves as the group’s European headquarters, plays a more important role in delivering products and providing aftercare support than one might expect.

Among the functions the facility houses are customer care, finance, localisation, logistics, manufacturing, finance, sales support and transport management. In more recent times, it has also taken responsibility for iTunes after the business relocated from Luxembourg.

Apple organises the supply of products to more than 147 countries through Cork, either through online, retail or resellers. The company supplies more than 110 physical stores and 24 online stores, which typically chalk up more than a billion visits a year, as well as a large number of direct and indirect resellers.

And the workload is continually ramping up, particularly as the Cork facility supports all global product launches. Take the company’s new iPhone X, for example. It was launched simultaneously in 55 countries in late October, easily smashing the previous record of 33 launch countries for the last iPad. For this to work, the company arranged some 150 flights with deliveries to 11,000 depots. Although delivery success rate was over 99 per cent, the team described it as disappointing.

Christmas tree-ty

Apple employs more than 100 people in the Cork-based logistics team, which ships to 51 countries across 13 time zones.

“Last year we shipped in the hundreds of millions of units from Cork,” a company spokeswoman says, adding that the company’s supply and demand teams must arrange everything with military precision.

It’s close to Christmas when The Irish Times pays a visit to Hollyhill. It’s a particularly busy time for the company, given the obvious demand for its products and its “order by/deliver by” service, which promises an ultra-fast turnaround during the holiday period. So determined is Apple to ensure deliveries make it in time to appear under the Christmas tree that, as one staff member proudly recounts, a US executive once ran into an Apple store to pick up a bunch of products during a blizzard and then jumped into his 4x4 to personally deliver the goods to customers.

Apple has been based in Cork since 1980, when it first opened a manufacturing facility with 60 staff. It now employs more than 5,500 people across sales, distribution, manufacturing and technical support across four buildings. Work on a new four-storey office block, which will accommodate 1,000 employees, commenced recently and is expected to be completed in early 2018.

In addition to the main campus, the company also employs more than 500 other people at an office on Lavitts Quay in Cork city centre, which does work in a number of areas including customer services, finance, and operations. A further 1,000 people work remotely for Apple in Ireland, 700 of whom are working for AppleCare technical support.

Unlike many tech companies with Irish operations, the Hollyhill campus is a little more sober-looking than most, with the age profile of employees also generally higher. In sharp contrast to other firms – where staff tend to get caught on a merry-go-round of switching from one tech company every year or two – some staff members can count 30 years of service or more with Apple.

Off-limits topics

Similarly to other multinationals, though, the Cork facility resembles a mini-United Nations with more than 80 different nationalities represented on campus, although about half of all employees are Irish nationals.

Needless to say, while Apple staff are invariably keen to discuss various “hero products” – the in-house phrase used to denote goods such as iPhones, iPads and iMac – other topics, such as tax arrangements, the difficulty in obtaining planning permission for data centres in Ireland, or when Apple will set up a dedicated flagship store locally, for instance, are firmly off limits.

There is, however, plenty of talk of “Steve” and “Tim”, neither of whom require a second name. If it isn’t quite hero worship, then it is something pretty close.

One of the things the local workforce is most proud of is that the Cork campus is home to Apple’s only wholly owned manufacturing facility in the world. The site builds so-called “configure to order” iMacs – nonstandard machines that can be built using about 35,000 different options.

As with most manufacturing facilities, there is a constant hum on the floor, where about 200 people work. Automation has crept in, with some functions now managed by machines, many of which have been built by Irish companies such as Lasertec in Dublin and ATS in Sligo.

Apple estimates that, unlike other manufacturers, which typically spend more time on assembly than testing, it does the reverse, with about 65 per cent of all build time spent on quality tests. An iMac typically takes just over an hour or so to assemble, but this is then followed by up to 22 hours of stress-testing.

Even when an iMac has been stress-tested that’s not the end of things. A small percentage of units are put through an additional 95 minutes of final testing, and if any are found to have a fault, more than 40 others are also pulled to check for problems.

Design ethos

Not surprisingly, given how central industrial design is to the company, there are some odd steps taken by Apple during the manufacturing process. An example of this is that because a rubber gasket is needed on one side of an iMac, a nonworking one is included on the other. This is purely for aesthetic purposes, even though barely anyone outside those assembling the computers will ever see it.

We’ve heard a story that Jony Ive [Apple’s chief design officer] was talking about how if you had the Mona Lisa you’d also need an incredible frame for it and a fantastic hook upon which to hang it. We’ve never had that particular story confirmed but that kind of thinking and attention to detail carries across whatever we do,” says one of the manufacturing employees.

He highlights another example of how it affects the manufacturing process: two different types of packaging foam are available to store iMac documentation, simply because the company believes the final product, including its packaging, should look the same, no matter what size iMac is bought.

The design thinking is evident in the tastefully decorated working space and most particularly in the mock-up “store”, which shows off the company’s products using the exact same set-up as its flagship retail outlets, even down to the display units. Again, this is despite the fact that relatively few people will ever get to see the section.

Talk to staff and it becomes obvious that most are fans. Nearly all will gush about how the most fulfilling part of their job is when a new product is coming out. Given the high levels of secrecy in Apple, large swathes of the organisation often don't know what their colleagues are working on, with many not discovering the full picture until Tim Cook gets up onstage to tell the world.

Then after the famous “one more thing” line is delivered, it is a case of all hell breaking loose as staff rush to sort the logistics that will see the products quickly delivered from Cork into the hands of people across the globe.

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