By Chand Bellur
June 4, 2020 at 5:15 p.m. PT
- Through the years, Apple’s research and development of automated manufacturing tried to eliminate labor and speed up production lines.
- Various experiments and real-world automated manufacturing attempts failed to demonstrate cost savings or accelerated production.
- Apple is no longer rushing to automate manufacturing, as they achieve better results with human workers.
Apple Doesn’t Use Automated Manufacturing?
Many of us have seen Apple commercials, where they boast about automated manufacturing. For some time, Apple was big on showing off industrial robots in advertisements. The company, which often touts near-perfection in product design and manufacturing, used automation to project quality and technical advancement. These are desirable traits for a tech company to possess.
LIAM, Apple’s automated recycling robot, charmed millions of customers with its combination of advanced technology and environmentalism. Their short video about automated recycling has over 5 million views on YouTube, with many more impressions on TV and other platforms:
With all of these automated successes, one may assume that Apple, like modern automakers, employs very few manufacturing workers. The reality is quite different. After several attempts to increase manufacturing automation, the company now prefers humans to robots.
Sometimes Humans Are Better Than Robots
Automated manufacturing may seem like a slam dunk. Robots never get tired. They never ask for higher wages or go on strike. Once developed and purposed for a specific task, they’re typically more accurate than a human being.
The problem with robots is that they’re designed and programmed by imperfect human beings. One flaw in an automated manufacturing process could produce millions of defective units. While some companies can get away with it, the media would quickly pounce on Apple.
With a human assembly line, people can detect problems with manufacturing at every step in the process. If a worker down the line is putting in a component incorrectly, someone else may notice and correct it. With an automated process, quality assurance will get the final product, but it may not detect a loosely fitted component or similar flaw. These seemingly small flaws can have significant repercussions in the final product.
QA could be part of an automated production line; however, the labor savings eventually evaporate. With skilled human workers, you risk a few individuals making a mistake. With automation, a simple mistake can ruin thousands or even millions of devices.
For all of these reasons, Apple has backed away from automation. This is not the industry trend. Automation pervades our new reality. Health care, law, supermarkets, transportation, education, and myriad other fields will see humans replaced by machines.
Foxconn Tempted Apple with the Future of Automated Manufacturing
Apple’s preference for skilled human workers came from experience. The company, working with Foxconn, tried very hard to replace workers with machines. They found that automation didn’t save costs or produce higher quality products.
Foxconn, Apple’s manufacturing partner, attempted to persuade the Cupertino tech company to adopt automation. Their leadership promised a bright future, with a million robots building Apple products. Today, only one-tenth of Foxconn’s robots exist, as their promise didn’t meet reality.
Motivated by Foxconn’s automation enthusiasm, Apple set up a lab near Apple Park to test robotic iPad assembly. They quickly found that robots weren’t as skilled or precise as Chinese workers. The machines had problems applying the correct amount of glue. They didn’t work well with the small screws and fasteners.
After this experiment, Apple soured on automated manufacturing, dissuading Foxconn from pursuing this endeavor. Without Apple on board, Foxconn couldn’t achieve its goal of a million robots assembling the iPhone and iPad.
Apple Still Uses Automated Manufacturing
Like virtually every tech company on the planet, Apple still uses automation in their process. While human beings excel at assembling Apple products, the components are another story. Working with alloys and machining cases is not done by hand. Other companies manufacture many of the components in Apple products. They often employ automated manufacturing.
Make no mistake, automation is the future. Current problems with automated manufacturing will be solved, with human workers destined for obsolescence. For the time being, assembling Apple devices with human hands saves time, costs and ensures higher quality. As technology evolves, Apple will likely replace skilled workers with machines.