You’re having trouble finding a new iPhone 5 due to its design

The president of Foxconn, the company that builds Apple’s mobile devices, told reporters in China on Wednesday that the iPhone 5 is so hard to put together that his normally speedy, cutting-edge factories cannot build the devices at the rate expected of them. And it’s not the first time someone from his company has said so.

“It’s not easy to make the iPhones. We are falling short of meeting the huge demand,” Terry Gou said, according to Reuters. His comments echo what an anonymous Foxconn official told the Wall Street Journal last month, that “the iPhone 5 is the most difficult device that Foxconn has ever assembled.” The reason? “To make it light and thin, the design is very complicated,” this person said.

Apple strives for distinctive, functional design that sets it apart from fads and from the competition, and the iPhone 5 represented a major update to the phone’s industrial design for the first time in two years. It’s 18 percent thinner than the iPhone 4S, is made of aluminum and glass instead of just glass, and weighs about 112 grams, 20 percent lighter than the previous model. Apple’s designers achieved this by selecting materials carefully and taking advantage of advancements in components, like the display, where the touch sensor is built into the glass, instead of remaining a separate layer.

But the device is so complicated that the company Apple and most of the consumer electronics world considers the best contract manufacturer on the planet can’t figure out how to build it in a way that keeps up with demand while maintaining quality. It’s worth wondering if perhaps Apple went overboard. At what point do we begin wondering what the guys in Apple’s design team were thinking?

I mean, I love how lightweight the iPhone 5 is, and the thinness is of course appreciated. And Apple should always look ahead to the future of what’s possible, not just stay within the industry’s expectations of how a phone should look and be made. But there are limiting factors they have to consider — was there no middle ground between thin/light/and manufacturable at a reasonably expected rate?

Apple is no stranger to high-demand/low-supply situations. The iPhone 4 was hard to get at first, for example, and so was the iPad 2 when it debuted in 2011. That tablet was actually backordered for months — but there were outside factors at play, like the earthquake in Japan, and Foxconn’s employee shortage. None of those shortages caused the manufacturer to actually blame the product itself though.

CEO Tim Cook’s background is supply-chain management and manufacturing, and it would be surprising for him to put the iPhone 5 on the company’s most aggressive roll-out schedule ever if he didn’t think they could meet those goals. But there could be other dynamics at work here: maybe Jony Ive, who leads the industrial design group, gets to have the iPhone design he wants and Cook figures out how to get it made in huge volumes. After all, as Steve Jobs told his biographer, Jobs set it up before he left “that there’s no one at the company who can tell Ive what to do.”

It will be interesting to see if this bears out as a case of Apple’s prioritization of design having any negative impact on Apple and its sales.

We saw something similar with the iPhone 4’s antenna: Apple engineers cleverly (many would say too cleverly) built the antenna into a metal band surrounding the phone that disguised it and reduced the overall thickness of the device. There wasn’t clear evidence that impacted sales, but it did ding Apple’s reputation.

This time around, Apple is selling lots of phones — it announced 5 million sold the first weekend the iPhone 5 hits stores — but the device went on backorder almost immediately and stayed there. Almost seven weeks after launch, iPhone 5 models are still listed with shipping times of “three to four weeks.” And Apple has not updated us with specific numbers, even at the iPad mini and Mac event two weeks ago, or on the company’s earnings call two days later, on how its most important product continues to fare.