Tales of Apple robots more trouble than they’re worth

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;

8 Comments

  1. Fred Stein said:
    Great article, thanks. Some lessons in chapters due to 550 char limit
    1) Lucky Apple customers and investors that Apple strives for great things, but only gives what works – at scale – at unbelievable quality and great price. (except butterfly)

    1
    June 4, 2020
  2. Fred Stein said:
    2) For specific tasks where the ROI for automation can be amazing. As task complexity increases, the number of anomalies exceeds the ability of designers or AI to anticipate and handle. This kills the ROI.

    1
    June 4, 2020
  3. Fred Stein said:
    3) Disclaimer – pure opinion/speculation: Some team fails. The team formed in 2012, may have been too far ahead of its time, or the scope was overly broad, or being a secret operation they weren’t in touch with needs of product groups, or there may have leadership/personality issues. That’s OK.
    3A) The true magic of Apple is the teams that do work out and still give us the best products, at global volumes, at such incredible quality that Apple can afford to give away support. No other company comes close.

    1
    June 4, 2020
  4. Fred Stein said:
    4) Cliche in silicon valley: “You never fail, you learn.” Despite the write-offs and loss of some employees, no doubt Apple has some IP and has retained some employees who are now better equipped for new work.
    4A) The real story about Automation for Apple is the future, not the past.

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    June 4, 2020
  5. Aaron Belich said:
    Being in aerospace fabrication some of that sounds rather ridiculous. Perhaps at first pass / initial review, but when you control as much of the supply chain that Apple does, they should be able to find, better, cheaper methodologies to minimize human touch time and takt time given the small number of skus that they sell in the millions of quantities.

    And who’s to say that the now “defunct lab” hasn’t been rolled into Apple Park?

    2
    June 4, 2020
  6. John Miller said:
    Earlier commenters have said as much, or at least implied the following, but I’ll take another stab at it:

    When you’re going for complete automation of a complicated process, you’re more likely to fail. But it’s possible you can break down the larger automation project into smaller automated component processes, valuable as automation on their own. From this viewpoint, I’m guessing the project had smaller but still significant successes.

    0
    June 4, 2020
  7. Jerry Doyle said:
    Foxconn uses about 100,000 robots in its factories. Elon Musk attempted a fully automated plant. He confronted much the same as David Bourne denoted that, “Robotics & automation is fantastic & amazing when it works, but when something breaks, God knows what happens.” I believe that expression is close to what Elon Musk said about using robots. The big issue is “production delays,” if some robots decide to go rogue. Elon Musk discussed this somewhere in a podcast my friend Kirk D sent me.

    Apple already has an extremely difficult time making devices fast enough to keep up with consumer demand. Imagine if a robot goes rogue. Conversely, human labor problems on the assembly line quickly can be addressed through training & resolved quickly vs. the opaque automated systems resulting from robotic production delays. Apple’s culture is one that is meticulous, if not obsessed with attention to finite details in the processes used to manufacture its products.

    Why did Terri Gou attempt to go the robotic route? Gou was having difficulty finding enough Chinese employees to fill his factories in order to keep up with demand for new Apple products even though they already were using 1.7 million workers in its supply chain every time a new iPhone is released. Also, robots need retooling for new product releases each year as even the most similar designs of products like the iPhone undergo significant internal changes.

    I suspect Apple will stay with Daisy.

    1
    June 4, 2020

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