Why can’t iPhone assembly be automated?

The Information is out with a detailed look today at the myriad difficulties Apple has faced trying to automate iPhone assembly and the building of other products.

Quality assurance, iMac production, China (Image via Apple's Supplier Responsibility 2020 Progress Report)
Quality assurance, iMac production, China (Image via Apple’s Supplier Responsibility 2020 Progress Report)

Joe Rossignol for MacRumors:

The report claims that, beginning in 2012, Apple assembled a team of robotics and automation specialists at a secret lab in Sunnyvale, California to search for ways to reduce the number of workers on its production lines. However, the team is said to have quickly encountered challenges designing some of these automated systems.

Wayne Ma for The Information:

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.

In early trials, the conveyor systems moved erratically, slowing down the movement of parts. A robot that installed the keyboard using 88 small screws kept malfunctioning, requiring humans to come in afterward and rework most of the process. Containers used for moving parts kept piling up on conveyors, creating traffic jams.

MacDailyNews Take: A famous scene just flashed in our minds (humans being overwhelmed, not robots, ironically):


  1. The question is not, “Can it be done?” The question is, “Can it be done cost effectively?” Right now, and likely for the near future, using humans to do the work is more cost effective.

    For all the reasons mentioned in the article and for all the reasons not mentioned, e.g., redesigns every year and major redesigns every two to three years that will cause redesigns, rebuilds, and retraining of the robotics, it is currenly just not cost effective to use a fully automated factory to build iPhones and similar Apple devices.

    Apple was using robotics to build Macs over 30 years ago. Robotics has progressed very significantly in the past 30 years. However, the level of precision Apple requires would make such an implementation cost prohibitive.

  2. I don’t believe that with today’s Robot technology, automatic control systems, Al/Machine Learning, modeling and simulations, smart-manufacturing, industry 4.0, we cannot design and make a robot to handle those screws. Of course, we can. if GM, Ford, and Chrysler could assemble their cars using robots decades ago, Why cannot we do that for Iphone? The key point is that Apple still wants China cheaper labors to do that so that they don’t have any new trouble. Thus, they are trying best to justify what has been done in the last 15 years. If Apple doesn’t have choices one day, of course, all kind of solutions will come up…I strongly believe that US should start to make/assemble Iphones in US now…

    I would do it if Apple would invest in the production line in US as partnership (we will iterate with designer and manufacturing processes). Not only I would build up a full automatic/smart plant to assemble Iphones/machine some of key parts, but also I would use that as a model plant to demonstrate to US manufacturing industries: a new era of Smart Manufacturing Technologies will start now in US! As one of MIT technology review articles talked about, the product innovation cannot be separated from the production innovation.

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