The Information today published a detailed report on the difficulties Apple faces in trying to assemble products with robots instead of humans. The report said that since 2012, Apple has formed a team of robotics and automation experts in a secret laboratory in Sunnyvale, California, to find ways to reduce the number of workers on the production line. However, it is said that this team quickly encountered challenges when designing some automated systems.

Building a robot that can fix screws is one of the most difficult challenges in the industry.

The robot must pick up the screw at a specific angle and use multiple industrial cameras to align it with the hole. The screws used by Apple are so small that the robot has no way to measure the force of drilling the screws. In contrast, human workers can feel resistance from their hands and can determine when something is wrong.

As for applying glue to the display panel, Apple’s specifications are so strict that the glue must often be within one millimeter of the desired position inside the product. A former team member said that well-trained Chinese workers are better at applying glue than robot workers. Although many automation systems were abandoned or not implemented, the team apparently did replace some workers with robots to complete simple tasks, such as testing products such as Apple TV, Apple Watch, and iPad.

The report also provides more examples to illustrate Apple’s attempts to improve the degree of automation, but only encountered some challenges. For example, in 2014, Apple tried to automate the assembly of a 12-inch MacBook, but due to various problems, the production line was clearly outweighing the gains. In the early tests, the movement of the conveyor system was unstable, resulting in slower parts. A robot that uses 88 small screws to install a keyboard keeps on malfunctioning, requiring people to repair most processes afterwards. Containers for moving parts are constantly piled up on the conveyor belt, causing blockages. These problems obviously caused Apple to postpone the launch of the 12-inch MacBook by about 6 months. This notebook was released in April 2015.

The report concludes that although Apple has not achieved much success in using robots to assemble products, for specific parts, automation can be effectively achieved. A few years ago, Apple also introduced a robot called Daisy, which can disassemble up to 200 iPhone devices per hour, disassemble and sort parts for recycling.

Apple's attempt to automate assembly products meets the challenge: it is a bit difficult for robots to screw screws

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