CHICAGO — Jim Wicks was on his way back from vacation at a quiet lakeside cabin in 2011 when he got a call alerting him that his employer, Motorola Inc., was about to make some news.
The next morning, Google Inc. announced it was buying Motorola's cell phone group, Motorola Mobility. During the nine months it took to complete the deal, Motorola Mobility shed both production and product lines, but the result of the refocused and streamlined operation has just come out on the market and is already making waves.
Not only does the Moto X offer increased voice operations — with the phone actually "learning" the user's voice to respond more quickly to demands — it is being made in the U.S., marking a shift in a consumer electronics market previously geared toward manufacturing in Asia.
Wicks, senior vice president of consumer experience design, said during the Industrial Designers Society of America's annual conference in Chicago Aug. 22-24 that Motorola determined it wanted to build the new phone in the U.S. early in the development process.
The company knew that the Moto X would be a big symbol for the company under Google, he said. The change in ownership meant that Motorola would change from producing 60 to 70 new products per year down to six. The smaller development team would also work closer together.
During development talks for the Moto X, everyone from designers to engineers to the head of supply chain management were all in one room, able to quickly get input on new ideas and what would be possible.
"We started talking about how cool it would be to shift manufacturing to the U.S.," Wicks said.
Making that change was not only cool, but made it possible for the Moto X to offer something new to the market beyond software improvements.
Buyers can go online to select from 18 different colors and textures for the plastic back of the phone. There are two options for the front — black or white — and seven different accent colors. There is also a wood grain option.
"There are different materials, different colors," Wicks said. "Why do we have to choose? Why not make that choice something the consumer can do?"
Altogether, there are 504 different permutations of the colors, textures and material combinations available, he said.
Having assembly in Fort Worth, Texas — with manufacturing partner Flextronics International Ltd. — makes that variety possible while maintaining a four-day delivery to the customer's front door, noted IHS Inc. in an Aug. 28 report on the phone.
"Motorola has been generating a great deal of publicity regarding the Moto X's production in Texas," said Wayne Lam, senior analyst for wireless communications at IHS in a press release about the consulting group's teardown. "However, beyond the public relations boon, the domestic manufacturing allows Motorola to rapidly assemble custom versions of the phone for customers in the United States."
IHS estimates domestic manufacturing only adds $3.50 to $4 to the total production costs of $226 for the Moto X. That compares to $207 total costs for Apple's iPhone 5 and $237 for Samsung's Galaxy S4, both assembled in Asia.
The Moto X's design and manufacturing story involved more than simply setting up shop in Texas, Wicks added. The companies had to develop many new processing techniques to make it, which including a method to insert mold around the glass face.
Previous attempts at insert molding failed because finished phone would not stand up to drop tests and other quality requirements, he said.
The Fort Worth location also has led to another atypical opportunity compared to Asia, he noted. In the weeks leading up to the Moto X's launch date on Aug. 22, 50 of Motorola's development team volunteered to go to Texas to work on the assembly line, which gives them even more exposure to local manufacturing's possibilities.