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In the early days of personal computers, manufacturing was not as automated as it later became, and a factory would often consist of people sitting at tables placing components by hand.

I'm interested in how much labor went into each computer. Not talking about what went into making the chips etc, or driving the trucks or selling on the retail floor, but just into the manufacturing of computers from components.

I would be interested in figures for any of the early personal computers, but to pick one for the sake of definiteness, say the Apple II; one related account I did find for the Apple I, the very first batch of that first computer that company made, 50 machines to be assembled (though at that time that just meant the circuit board and components thereon) for Paul Terrell's Byte Shop in 30 days; this was just barely accomplished by Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, Ron Wayne, Patricia Jobs and Dan Kottke (exhaustive list?). Say they averaged five hours a day (some of them had day jobs), so that's 5 x 5 x 30 = 750 hours, divided by 50 machines is 15 hours per machine. Later machines were more complex, but processes became more efficient; would those factors more or less cancel each other out?

How much labor (in hours, dollars or as a percentage of parts cost, wholesale price or retail price) did it take to assemble an Apple II?

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    A computer wasn't any different, from a production POV, as any other electronic device, whether a TV, stereo, or VCR. Mind, I don't really know anything about electronic manufacturing. But I'm pretty sure my KIM-1 wasn't don't by hand, at least the soldering. And that wasn't some large volume thing. The overall point being that I don't think computers were anything particularly special at scale. Apple I's may have been a stand out, but here was a company with very little capital at the time. I don't think a C64 or Atari took any extraordinary amount of time. – Will Hartung Aug 14 '18 at 14:51
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    @WillHartung You're right, except about the KIM production volume. The KIM was eventually the most sold single board computer ever (before Arduino and alike that is) with production numbers way into 6 digits. Not at least due it's quite long production time: 1976 until at least 1983. It was not only used for geting aquitaned to microprocessors or first home builds, but widely used as microprocessor board/embedded system. – Raffzahn Aug 14 '18 at 16:48
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    @WillHartung actually one thing different about a computer from most other consumer tech would be the presence of a bunch of physically similar ICs (or their sockets) and an only slightly larger number of supporting passives. Something like a radio or TV or record player amp would have both passive and active discretes vastly outnumbering ICs and far, far many more distinct line items in the bill of materials. – Chris Stratton Aug 14 '18 at 20:10
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    Watch a ZX Spectrum compatible built here for an idea on how much pure manual labor is involved: youtube.com/watch?v=H4o7jELxk1E - roughly an hour time-lapsed into some minutes. – tofro Aug 14 '18 at 21:30
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    The Harlequin is of very much the same complexity than an Apple II, the build in the video is completely manual - 15 hours might be well beyond what was actually needed. – tofro Aug 14 '18 at 21:39
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I don't have exact figures, because as pointed out in the comments it will vary massively between different production lines, machines, and times, and manufacturers weren't eager to publish this kind of information. However, it's likely to be less time than you think.

Wave soldering makes assembling an entire board very quick, and was starting to become popular in the 70s and 80s, so you can bet that anyone making complex products like computers would have been quick to switch to it. The question then becomes how quickly can you place all of the correct components onto a board and clamp them in place (with a prebuilt jig to make sure they're in the right place)? That's a very fast operation once you get the hang of it.

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    I think you mean wave soldering (a.k.a flow soldering)? Reflow is challenging with through-hole components even today. – user71659 Aug 15 '18 at 20:15
  • @user71659 - yes, you're right. :) – Jules Aug 16 '18 at 7:57
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It seems the answer is only a few percent of components cost. For example, Jef Raskin, "Preliminary Cost Investigation" (27 September 1979) in "The Macintosh Project: Selected Papers from Jef Raskin (First Macintosh Designer), Circa 1979," gives an estimated cost in 1981 to build the Macintosh as then envisaged: total cost $346, of which labor to build and test $10, the rest being components. A note suggests that economies of scale and automation could end up reducing these figures to $212 and $2 respectively.

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