Apple’s iPhone factories are Industry 4.0 rock stars

Key iPhone production facilities have been recognized as global examples of great Industry 4.0 deployments.

Apple, iPhone, smart, digital transformation, Industry 4.0
Jiraroj Praditcharoenkul / Getty Images

Apple’s technologies aren’t simply used within Industry 4.0, they are also manufactured using the same technologies. Key iPhone production facilities have been recognized as global examples of great Industry 4.0 deployments.

What is Industry 4.0?

The first Industrial Revolution in the 19th century gave us industrial machinery; the second, in the 20th century, saw introduction of mass production. The third industrial revolution was all about IT.

Industry 4.0 is the fourth disruption, characterized by smart devices, smart machinery, robotics and artificial intelligence (AI). IBM has a useful information explaining it that you can read here.

Why Industry 4.0 matters

There’s plenty of interest in smart industrial production. Not surprisingly, 91% of industrial companies are investing in these deployments. Accenture, PwC, Gartner, and IDC are all watching the evolution in this area, and the World Economic Forum (WEF) and McKinsey & Co. have curated some of the world’s best examples of factories enabled for smart production processes.

These rock stars of Industry 4.0 now include the world’s biggest iPhone factories.

Smart industry at the iPhone factory

“This is a time of unparalleled industry transformation. The future belongs to those companies willing to embrace disruption and capture new opportunities. The lighthouses are illuminating the future of manufacturing and the future of the industry,” says Francisco Betti, Head of Shaping the Future of Advanced Manufacturing and Production, World Economic Forum.

There are just 69 such factories listed, at least three of which are iPhone manufacturing facilities. Foxconn’s factories in Shenzen and Chengdu are on the list, as is a smaller manufacturer, Wistron’s facility in Kunshan, which improved manufacturing costs by 26% through Industry 4.0 technology.

Apple has been exploring this space for years. Back in 2017 it reached an industrial partnership with GE, along with its iOS for industry agreement with IBM.

Industry 4.0 and the iPhone

Apple being Apple, we don’t know too much about how the company and its manufacturing partners are making use of AI, Internet of Things and connectivity on the factory floor, but we have seen a few examples, such as its Daisy recycling robot.

We do know that Foxconn’s state of the art "lights off' Shenzen factory is highly-automated with robots deployed across the production line, reducing its reliance on human workers. The WEF has praised that factory, noting a 30% increase in production efficiency and a 15% lower inventory cycle.

Broadening our understanding a little, it claims the factory "utilizes a fully automated manufacturing process," and has an "automated optimization system for Machine Learning and AI devices, an intelligent self-maintenance system, and an intelligent real-time monitoring system.”

Foxconn’s Chengdu plant has seen efficiency increase by 200% through the adoption of mixed reality, AI, and IoT technologies. Foxconn says it put these technologies in place to resolve rapid business growth when it faced a lack of skilled workers, presumably on the iPhone production line.

Based on an educated guess, I can imagine that during the pandemic this extends to telepresence robots Apple engineers in Cupertino can use to monitor the production lines and resolve problems. We know the company already makes use of these.

The digital unlock

Industry 4.0 proponents point to agility, efficiency, productivity, and cost gains through the use of such technologies, but there are additional synergies. As the entire manufacturing-to-consumer journey becomes data, and as supply chains become increasingly data-centric so they can adapt quickly to challenges such as those wrought by the pandemic, industrialists are finding such deployments can unleash new business and partnership opportunities.

This data can reveal opportunities that were invisible before. Data analytics can unlock even more.

To understand this at a prosaic level, consider what happens in early summer, when your local retailer suddenly seems to put barbecue equipment on sale on the first hot day of summer.

In order to achieve this within the ‘just in time’ distribution networks that dominate modern distribution, that retailer requires:

  • Accurate weather forecasting to inform ordering systems.
  • Accurate sales forecasting — returns cost money and shelf space has value.
  • That this data inform the entire supply and logistics chains.
  • That suppliers manufacture the equipment sometimes months ahead of time, including sourcing components from further down the chain.
  • That logistics challenges be resolved in near real-time without generating undue stress on scheduled deliverables.
  • The data should make it possible to automate the entire process.
  • When the first hot day in Alaska is likely to take place, the entire ecosystem lurches into action.

Replacing the human

Foxconn aims to deploy a 70% automated workforce by 2024, replacing humans with more precise machines. The idea is that humans become free from the thrall of dangerous or repetitive work to focus their energy on other tasks, but the other likely outcome is mass unemployment as even the most low-level occupations become automated.

This is also why the gradual diversification of iPhone and other consumer electronics manufacturing across more nations is unlikely to generate the kind of employment opportunities some people expect.

Your iPhone will be designed in Cupertino to be manufactured by robots. Though you’ll probably still require ‘soft skill’ humans at retail stores.

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Copyright © 2021 IDG Communications, Inc.

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