The highly globalized laptop consumer market shows a concentration of contract manufacturing in one place: Taiwan. From 1988 to 2008, the proportion of worldwide laptop computers produced by Taiwanese manufacturers rose dramatically from zero to over ninety percent. By the late 2000s, Taiwanese contract manufacturers [CMs] did most of the engineering and manufacturing efforts that produced laptop computers. However, little academic research focuses on the knowledge or role of CMs in laptop production. Lin's dissertation project investigates the manufacturing processes in the making of laptops and the thus far "invisible" role of CMs in the history of computing. Lin's research examines the kinds of special knowledge and practices among contract manufacturers that contributed to the phenomenal expansion of the production of laptops in Taiwan. Using semi-structured interviews, oral histories, and archival analyses, this research documents Taiwanese CMs' forms of expertise and explores the history and practice of knowledge circulation between Taiwanese CMs and their partners in the United States and other countries. This research further examines how contract manufacturers of Taiwanese laptops produce not only the machines but also innovations in engineering and manufacturing, which are firmly integrated together and may not be owned by their clients, such as Apple Computer and Dell Computer.

This project provides a better understanding of the business of contract manufacturing. Contract manufacturing makes up a significant proportion of the economic activities of many countries, and, as such, deserves empirical study. An in-depth examination of this sector of the economy shows how countries that support contract manufacturing do so strategically. They are not simply passive recipients of global corporate interests. This project contributes to histories of computing and histories of manufacturing. It also contributes to studies of science policy, providing insight into the economic activities of greater China, and to the exploration of firm-to-firm relations under the contracting connections by examining the roles that such factors as trust and reputation play in determining the cooperation between CMs and transnational corporations.

Project Report

The NSF funding enabled me to do research in Taiwan, the U.S., and China for my dissertation research on how contract manufacturers (CMs) matter in laptop production history. My research is based on in-depth interviews and archival research. I did most interviews in Taiwan in 2010. As Taiwanese CMs, especially their engineers and managers, are my research focus, most of the interviewees are Taiwanese. I also had a short-term visit to China during the summer of 2012 since most of the Taiwanese producers’ factories are in China. In total, by the end of July 2012, I interviewed 66 people in 88 interviews for this project. I also visited several organizations for collecting historical documents, including the Institute for Information Industry (III), the Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI) and the private collections of Kwoh-Ting Li, in the Institute of Modern History at Academia Sinica in Taiwan. Beyond Taiwan, I had several interviews in Silicon Valley, and did archival research on the earliest laptop products in the Computer History Museum in California, 2011. My research project aims to make the role of CMs and their knowledge production visible. Traditionally, manufacturers are seldom the protagonists in product innovation stories. This situation is not surprising, as manufacturers are often thought to play only the role of 'executing' design plans. In other words, there seems to be a hierarchical relation between knowledge of design and knowledge of manufacturing. My study of laptop production attempts to flatten this hierarchy of knowledge and to demonstrate that there is strong feedback in the design-manufacturing process. My study shows that first, Taiwanese laptop CMs played not only the role of 'executing' of design concepts from their brand-name customers. They produced and possessed integrated design-manufacturing knowledge, which required a strong interaction between engineering and manufacturing and which might not be possessed by their clients. Different principles, such as 'design for manufacturing', or 'manufacture for design,' will generate different bodies of knowledge and outcomes. Second, I further extend the integrated design-manufacturing (D-M) knowledge to the concept of 'field knowledge' I proposed, which concerns not only these producers' D-M expertise, but also their active connection with and response to the rapidly-changing situations surrounding them to make sure of their survival in the industry. For a broader audience in all the social sciences and humanities, I believe that my project will contribute to four dimensions: 1. the mediating role of contract manufacturers, 2. the methodological engagement with different levels of analysis, 3. The new category of "field knowledge," and 4. the interpretive flexibility of the design-manufacturing boundaries and their relations. First, by making visible the role of contract manufacturing as an important intermediary between ideas and the material world, Since contract manufacturing makes up a significant proportion of the economic activities of some newly "developed" countries (such as Taiwan) and "developing" countries (such as China and India), a deep examination of this important activity can help to recover these countries’ agency, dreams, and histories, rather than viewing their roles as low value and passive execution of designs. The project will call for reflection on the "manufacturing activity", which seldom involves only the final assembly in the factory by workers or machines. Outsourcing manufacturing is not just outsourcing assembly. Outsourcing products is far from separating a "low-value", "low-knowledge content" assembly from "high-value" design. Second, and methodologically, the way I explore the boundaries and relations between D-M can shift between a cross-national macroscopic analysis and a microscopic, local, detailed examination of actors’ daily practices. I believe such an integrated exploration will be useful for many fields in the humanities and social sciences. Thirdly, field knowledge is a new concept that I propose to analyze knowledge activities. It includes the elements of local knowledge, tacit knowledge, situated knowledge, and interactive expertise, but it is not just the sum of them. It has two other important dimensions: actively refer to the outside situations and interact with the surrounding situations to change or adapt their own practices and knowledge on their expertise. Finally, the concept of the floating boundaries and the intertwining relations between design and manufacturing can serve as a new conceptual tool applied to many production activities in industries. The D-M boundaries and their interpretative flexibilities do matter because they are value-laden, geography-laden, and history-laden judgments exerted on people’s work and lives. Even if they are doing innovative and design-oriented work, they might still be labeled as "low-value" manufacturers at others’ convenience.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Social and Economic Sciences (SES)
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Linda Layne
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Cornell University
United States
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