From Wayne Ma’s “What Apple Learned From Automation: Humans Are Better” ($) posted Thursday in the Information:
Over the past few years, Apple has experimented with various automation projects of its own—ranging from product testing to assembly of the iPhone and MacBook. In many cases, however, Apple has abandoned the efforts. Apple’s engineers have come to realize that products such as the iPhone are best assembled by hand, according to people familiar with their efforts…
“Robotics and automation is fantastic and amazing when it works, but when something breaks, God knows what happens,” said David Bourne, principal systems scientist at the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University…
Apple’s struggles with robotics and automation are best illustrated by a now-defunct secret lab in Sunnyvale, Calif., less than 6 miles away from Apple’s main headquarters in Cupertino. There, beginning in 2012, Apple assembled a team of robotics and automation specialists to search for ways to reduce the number of workers on its production lines, which can seasonally grow to more than 1.7 million people ahead of a new iPhone’s release, according to former team members and other former employees familiar with the group.
However, former team members said they quickly encountered challenges designing some of these automated systems. Building a robot that can fasten screws is among the hardest challenges in the industry. A robot must pick up the screw at a specific angle and align it with a hole using multiple industrial cameras. Apple uses screws so tiny that robots had no way to measure the force used to drill them in. By contrast, human workers can feel the resistance from their hand and can tell when something is off.
As for putting glue onto display panels, Apple’s specifications are so tight that glue must often be placed within a millimeter of its desired spot inside a product. One former team member said well-trained Chinese workers were more adept at applying glue than their robot counterparts.
More anecdotes where those came from.
My take: The Information delivers good reporting, sometimes about Apple. But at $419 a year, it’s one of my most expensive subscriptions, right up there with the Wall Street Journal. Just saying.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story included an offer to share the full article. That turned out to be too good to be true;