Ensuring Austin’s Connectivity for High Tech Manufacturing

Motorola’s assembly plant in Fort Worth, Texas, had a brief existence, lasting almost exactly a year. The message from the Google-owned smartphone brand was straightforward: The entire endeavor had proven to be too challenging. “What we found was that the North American market was exceptionally tough,” Rick Osterloh stated plainly at the time.

Ensuring Austin's Connectivity for High-Tech Manufacturing
Ensuring Austin’s Connectivity for High-Tech Manufacturing

Ensuring Austin’s Connectivity for High-Tech Manufacturing

The signs were already evident when the news was disclosed in May 2014. Two months earlier, Google had agreed to sell the brand to Lenovo for a fraction of the purchase price three years prior. Additionally, the plant had seen a significant reduction in its workforce, decreasing from thousands to just hundreds before the official closure announcement.

Lack of ambition wasn’t the issue here. Being able to tag their phones as “assembled in the U.S.” was a distinction that had been rarely achieved, with “Designed in California” being the closest comparison in recent decades. Additionally, the Moto Maker’s customizable color scheme had outpaced Samsung’s current emphasis on “bespoke” products by nearly a decade. However, sales didn’t meet expectations in the end.

While Motorola’s CEO, Dennis Woodside, eagerly clarified, “the belief that you can’t bring manufacturing here due to excessive costs is a misconception,” it soon became apparent that the company’s aspirations didn’t align with consumer demand.

Motorola and Texas 

Motorola has strong ties to Texas. Forty years ago, the company established a presence in Austin when the metro area’s population was around 300,000, roughly 15% of its current size in 2022. However, the foundation for a tech hub was laid in the late 1960s with IBM, and Motorola became part of a group that included names like Texas Instruments. During the 1990s, Motorola started producing semiconductors in Austin, pouring over $1 billion into five plants and employing thousands of workers.

As the new millennium began, development had slowed down or halted in different places. This culminated in the spinoff of Motorola’s semiconductor division and the subsequent formation of Freescale. Under this new model, some plants were shut down, and Freescale underwent a restructuring process. It became a smaller entity compared to its earlier self and eventually merged with the Dutch firm, NXP.

A significant portion of Motorola’s office space in Austin has been vacant since the early 21st century. However, City Council approvals during the pandemic have initiated redevelopment efforts to attract new tenants. Renamed as Tech 3443, paying homage to the address of the Motorola campus, 3443 Ed Bluestein Blvd., this development aims to align itself with the current tech scene in Austin. Instead of targeting large corporations from the past, the owners intend to lease space to a more varied group of primarily smaller clients.

Nonetheless, the presence of tech giants still casts a significant shadow over the Texas capital. Apple made its entry into Austin in the early 1990s, just as Motorola was intensifying its local chip production. During that era, the fortunes of these two companies were markedly distinct. In the 1990s, Apple was navigating through transitional periods between Steve Jobs’ leadership stints and attempting to counter the growing dominance of Windows with Macintosh clones and the Newton.

Fast forward to 2014, as Motorola was in the process of closing its Maker plants, Apple initiated the production of the Mac Pro in Austin. It was, perhaps, the kind of high-value product that made more economic sense to manufacture domestically.

The company also offers other, less conventional, operations in the city, including Daisy, the iPhone disassembly robot. The system, which lives in a warehouse in the region, is part of Apple’s larger sustainability push, stripping the phones down to repurpose components.

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