THE automation on the assembly lines of companies it is a reality that has been going on for almost a century, but that does not mean that it does not represent a challenge – even in technological multinationals with hundreds of billions of dollars in cash.
A recent article from The Information shows that this was exactly the problem experienced by Apple over the last decade: according to the report, the company invested millions of dollars to automate some parts of its production line, but failed repeatedly – and, in (almost) all the cases, he ended up using good old human hands to assemble his products.
The report cites an initiative set up by Apple in 2012, when the company brought together a group of experts in robotics and automation in a laboratory in Sunnyvale (California). The idea was to develop solutions to replace manual labor at Apple partner factories, such as the Foxconn, to increase productivity and reduce possible failures – it was Foxconn itself, which introduced the idea to Apple and encouraged the company to develop these technologies.
Quickly, however, the challenge proved almost insurmountable: sources heard by the story described the difficulty of building robots to replace human hands with perfection. Apparently, even for one of the largest technology companies in the world, it is difficult to build robotic jaws that perform certain precision jobs – robots are able to position and tighten tiny screws, but fail to detect subtle assembly problems that would be easily perceived by humans , for example.
While Apple developed its automation technologies, Foxconn was implementing similar techniques in an experimental laboratory in China; invited to check the results of the experiment, Apple executives left unsatisfied. This would explain the fact that in 2019, the automaker had only 100,000 robotic points in its production line – in 2012, Terry Gou (then president of Foxconn) stated that the company would quickly reach 1 million robotic points.
The Sunnyvale laboratory, in turn, was abandoned in 2018 – but not without causing problems before that: according to the report, the launch of the MacBook Retina it had to be delayed by a few months because automation experts were unable to design a robotic assembly line for the computer. Parts broke continuously, production was fickle and robots could not immediately detect problems on the line – a human being had to notice the problem, stop manufacturing, correct the issue and get back to the previous pace.
It is true that the automation initiative did bear some fruit – but for disassemble products, not assemble them: the robot Daisy, which dismantles iPhones and separates their parts for recycling, is a great example of an automatic process that worked and serves an important function. Apple also employs robots to test products, such as Apple TV, Apple Watch and iPad.
Setting things up, on the other hand, is an activity that looks like it will remain largely a monopoly on humans. For a while.