Randy Heffner, who was VP of manufacturing at NeXT at the time, told a reporter for the membership magazine of Association for Manufacturing Excellence that keeping manufacturing in the same facility as design meant that NeXT could out-innovate its competitors by continuously improving its products. And the only way to justify that proximity was to use a very high level of automation, and a very carefully designed assembly line, to keep costs lower than manufacturing in Asia plus shipping costs and an import duty.

To Heffner’s commitment to flexibility and cost control, Jobs added his trademark obsessiveness, which went all the way down to the color of the robots themselves. From the same 1991 article:

The color coordination—gray, white and black—and Bauhaus simplicity of the plant reflects the founder’s vision of thorough integration of all elements of the physical design—furnishings, color, lighting. The 40,000 square foot facility is laboratory-clean.

During the start-up, one supplier’s machine arrived at the facility in glossy stippled texture, rather than flat gray, as specified. “Take it back and repaint it,” was the order. This was the supplier’s first encounter with concern for color integrity. His initial response, “You can’t tell me that the company president cares what shades of gray his machines are!” soon faded. The machine was returned to the factory, sanded down, and repainted.

(For an image of that “Bauhaus simplicity,” check out this scan from a vintage magazine article on NeXT.)

Of course, Tim Cook is no Steve Jobs, and the “pick and place” and soldering robots featured in NeXT’s promotional video are now so commonplace that nearly identical machines show up in contemporary, and much lower-budget, promotional videos for circuit board factories in mainland China.

Ultimately, NeXT’s manufacturing experiment was a failure, but only because not enough people wanted to buy NeXT computers that couldn’t run either Windows or Macintosh software. By the time the company was acquired by Apple, in 1997, all that remained of Jobs’ attempt to build the next big thing was the computer’s operating system, which eventually became Mac OS X.

But that doesn’t mean that what Jobs learned at NeXT wasn’t valuable to Apple, which he returned to upon the acquisition of NeXT. At NeXT, Jobs oversaw a manufacturing facility that borrowed from competitors in Japan concepts like just-in-time manufacturing, in which orders for parts are placed on an as-needed basis. As a result, NeXT, and later Apple, were able to build factories that didn’t need to be attached to warehouses full of parts that were a drag on the bottom line.

Any Apple manufacturing facility in the US is likely to involve a great deal of the sort of automation that was in evidence at NeXT. The US simply isn’t a place where Apple can create the sort of vast campuses of assembly-line workers run by Foxconn, which does most of the assembly of the iPhone. Those campuses allow both the scale and flexibility that Apple’s exacting design team and enormous sales volume demand. For example, executives at Apple told the New York Times that a last-minute design decision required that a factory in China rouse 8,000 workers at midnight to commence a 12-hour shift.

What the US does offer is proximity to Apple’s headquarters and R&D operations in Cupertino, California. Apple has engineers and support staff in an expanding campus in Austin, Texas, a facility that appears to be important for design of the microchip “brain” of the iPhone. (That chip is also manufactured in Austin, in a facility owned by Samsung.) It makes sense that more high-value or specialized manufacturing might come to the US. For example, Apple is long overdue to update its Mac Pro line of high-end workstations. They might be prime candidates for US manufacturing, because they’re large, which means higher shipping costs, and they’re highly customizable, which means they require a more varied manufacturing process.

📬 Sign up for the Daily Brief

Our free, fast, and fun briefing on the global economy, delivered every weekday morning.