Apple has spent years and millions of dollars automating its production lines with technology, and has always used skilled humans instead.
The world’s most profitable technology company, and arguably the most technologically advanced company in history, will not use automation to manufacture its products. Apple repeatedly tried to build machines to build its machines, but in any case, aside from its recycling plans, it failed – and returned to using humans instead of robots.
“Robotics and automation are fantastic and incredible when they work,” David Bourne told The Information in discussions with Apple supplier Foxconn. “But when something breaks, God knows what’s going on. “
Bourne, who is now a senior systems researcher at the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, used to work with Foxconn on several automation projects to produce Apple products.
It was Foxconn who pushed Apple to automate, and it was also Foxconn who impressed Apple on the idea. In 2012, Apple executives, including Tim Cook, traveled to China to see the results of an experimental production line. It was built to assemble the iPad by robots and showed that the parts were cut, polished and then partially assembled in the final product.
Terry Guo, then president of Foxconn, reportedly told Apple that his company’s assembly lines would contain a million robots within two years.
Seven years later, in 2019, Foxconn used only 100,000 robots in all of its manufacturing. Neither Foxconn nor Apple would publicly comment on why automation was so much lower than expected, but according to The Information, sources say it was due to Apple’s dissatisfaction.
Apple automation teams
Apparently as a result of Foxconn’s original efforts, Apple launched its own secret robotics lab in 2012, based about six miles from Apple Park. It housed a team of automation specialists and robotics engineers who first tried to emulate the iPad’s automatic production line.
Their goal was to halve the amount of human labor required. Specifically, Apple wanted to be able to remove 15,000 workers from the production chain, which is about 50% of the number of workers used at key times.
It did not work. Typical problems that have arisen include how Apple’s use of glue required precision which the machines could not reliably match. And the tiny screws needed required automation to choose and position them correctly, but that same automation couldn’t detect problems in the same way as a human hand.
The lab was abandoned in 2018, although some of its work is said to have been resumed and continued by other parts of Apple. It was not the only department working on the project – and it was probably not the biggest failure.
The title goes to the millions of dollars spent to automate the production of what would become the MacBook in 2015. This automated production line was launched the year before in 2014, but the persistent failures not only meant that it was also abandoned , but that the MacBook itself had been postponed by a few months.
The attempt to automate the production of the MacBook went beyond a test department in Cupertino. The equipment was installed in a factory in China, and was intended to assemble the screen, keyboard, and trackpad in the MacBook case.
However, there appeared to be problems with the conveyor belt moving the pieces along the line. It was erratic, sometimes it was slow, but the biggest problem was that the parts along the line continued to fail.
MacBook postponed to 2015 due to automation failures
Worse still, it would not always be clear that something had gone wrong. “If things stop working, the automation can’t detect this all the time and fix it,” Bourne told The Information.
If a company was able to solve a technological problem, it would surely be Apple, but besides the technical problems, there were other more fundamental ones. Specifically, given that Apple redesigns its main hardware at least in some ways every year, it should also rethink automated plant lines.
Compared to this, training workers on new models is much easier and faster.
In addition, one of the reasons Foxconn and Apple were interested in automation is that, in addition to being dependent on workers, this dependence fluctuates considerably. Foxconn was struggling to recruit enough staff for peak periods just after, say, an iPhone launch.
Automation would theoretically reduce this problem, but Apple already has a way to remove it. When necessary, Apple is currently able to transfer production to other companies. If there is a problem or if additional production is needed, there are other sources that he can tap into.
If these sources were to have automated production lines updated annually by Apple, the company would not have the flexibility it currently has.
So, more than overcoming technical issues, it is the series of business reasons that will likely drive Apple to use human labor in the production of its machines. It’s not just Apple, because Tesla and Boeing have tried and abandoned automation for the same reasons.