Wall Street insiders and the financial press are hard at work extracting tidbits of information from elements of Apple’s supply chain. The buzz and interest centers squarely on what can be anticipated for Apple’s Fall new product introduction (NPI) pipeline. Obviously there is a lot at-stake.

We at Supply Chain Matters have featured prior commentaries related to information leaks from the Apple supply chain ecosystem. But we put that aside in this commentary. Rather, let’s focus on Apple’s new product ramp-up, overall planning and supplier management strategies that are evolving in this current phase.

The current two areas of focus are on the rumored introduction of Apple’s next iteration of the iPhone along with the so termed, iWatch, a smartwatch that is rumored to have rather mind blowing functionality and characteristics.

Earlier this week, the Wall Street Journal published an article, Can Apple Crack the Smartphone Code? (paid subscription required) The article indicates that Apple will join other consumer electronics firms, namely Samsung, Sony, Intel and a host of start-ups who have already released versions of a smartwatch into the market. We recently called Supply Chain Matters reader attention to reports that Google was ramping-up volume production for  a smartwatch product as well. According to the WSJ article authors, thus far the market has been lukewarm in sales volumes. Thus, Apple does not have its usual first-mover advantage, and is compelled to provide more attractive product innovation to differentiate from existing competitors. The publication cites one market research firm as indicating that shipments of so-termed wearable devices amounted to roughly 3 million units in the first quarter of 2014, not a lot in the context of previous Apple product releases.

Regarding supply chain related insights, the WSJ cites a source indicating that Apple’s past ability to integrate both hardware and software design concurrently give it a leg-up in the market. Another source from a component supplier is quoted as indicating that Apple is planning for 2014 shipments ranging from 10-15 million production units this year.

A separate published report by Reuters , citing a source familiar with the matter, indicates Taiwan’s Quanta Computer will begin mass smartwatch production in July, with the planned product launch coming as early as October. Thus, we can surmise that in 3 months, Apple is planning to ship three to four times the market volumes that occurred in Q1.  That’s Apple’s big bet on more attractive production innovation. The cited source further indicates that Apple expects to ship 50 million units within the first year of the product’s release, although these types of initial estimates can be subject to change or later adjustment. Further noted is that LG Display Co is the exclusive supplier of the screen for the gadget’s initial batch of production. LG Display has become Apple’s preferred go-to supplier for next generation display technology, that which requires difficult challenges in overcoming initial production yields. Two other sources of Reuters indicated that the subject smartwatch is rumored to also contain a sensor that monitors the user’s pulse. Singapore-based imaging and sensor maker Heptagon is cited as being on the supplier list for that feature, a rather new player in the Apple ecosystem.

Now let’s turn attention to the rumored new iPhone6.

A published advisory on Seeking Alpha cites Taiwan’s Economic Daily News report indicating that global contract manufacturer Foxconn is being tapped to be the prime contract manufacturer and is in the midst of hiring 100,000 workers to help ramp up iPhone 6 production. Fellow ODMPegatron is also said to be ramping iPhone-related hiring. Further noted is the rumor that Apple is targeting a price hike for carriers regarding the new phone model, which perhaps implies a bigger margin. Yesterday, a published report from Bloomberg indicates that production for the new model iPhone will begin in July and include two different models. One model will have a 4.7-inch display, compared to the 4-inch screen of the current iPhone 5s and may be available to ship to retailers around September. A 5.5-inch version is also being prepared for manufacturing and may be available at the same time according to the Bloomberg sources. The new iPhones will also be rounder and thinner than previous models, and include curved glass. Production of the 5.5-inch model is more complicated than the smaller version, resulting in lower production efficiency that must be overcome before manufacturing volume can be increased.

That news concerning Foxconn is incredibly interesting because the CMS was previously transitioning away from Apple’s volume business. Foxconn actually declared in February 2013 that it would freeze all hiring in China.  Supply Chain Matters featured a past commentary related to Foxconn’s annual meeting of shareholders that communicated that having Apple as one of your prime customers is probably both a blessing and a curse, because the Apple way requires maximum flexibility with a magnification of the principle that the customer is always right, even when that customer abuses planning norms. In that stockholder event just about one year ago, Foxconn management indicated the intent to lighten its high exposure to Apple related production contracts in favor of both moving downstream in the consumer electronics supply chain and developing its own line of devices and software. At the time we opined that we would not be at all surprised that one day, there will be a number of consumer electronics devices branded by Foxconn, probably in the China market.  If the rumors that Foxconn will be the prime manufacturer for the upcoming iPhone 6 turn out to be accurate, that would place a new or different perspective, namely that Apple is leaning on its most trusted and experienced contract manufacturer to insure that innovative design can meet high volume production requirements in a more-timely manner.

Apple is obviously deep into two major new production introduction ramp-ups with entirely new product designs, over the next several months. Notice that the windows are shorter, production start in July with possible global product launches in September or October. Usually, these NPI ramp-up phases start earlier in the year, perhaps May or June.

A brand new product area, namely a wearable device, far different iPhone design functionality (bendable glass, touch fingerprint sensor, wireless charging to name but a few rumors) blended among dynamic connections among product design, management and contract manufacturing partners. No doubt, this is an intense effort, with high stakes.  Apple’s information connections from product management to the manufacturing shop floor, its inventory positioning and overall S&OP coordination are all dynamically at-play.  We would not be all that surprised to hear that product designers are still making changes.  That is the Apple way.

Yet, if any supply chain is up to the task, it certainly will be that of Apple.

We all await the results that come over the coming months.

Bob Ferrari

© 2014 The Ferrari Consulting and Research Group LLC and the Supply Chain Matters blog.  All rights reserved.