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A U.S. Apple factory may be robot city

Apple will need to rely on automation to make its U.S. factory work

December 7, 2012 04:06 PM ET

Computerworld - Apple's planned investment of $100 million next year in a U.S. manufacturing facility is relatively small, but still important. Apple has the money, talent and resources to build a highly automated factory that turns out products that are potentially cost competitive with those it now makes in China.

Apple has already demonstrated its use of automation in the manufacturing of some of its MacBook products, including the MacBook Air. It was built with what the company calls its "unibody design" that was crafted from a single sheet of aluminum.

A 2009 Apple video of its unibody manufacturing process has glimpses of highly automated systems shaping the metal. In it, Jonathan Ive, Apple's senior vice president of design, talked about the manufacturing process. "Machining enables a level of precision that is just completely unheard of in this industry," he said.

Apple has the know-how to build one of the world's most modern plants, and if it succeeds, it could influence others to build in the U.S. But success will mean holding down costs, and to do so, Apple will likely rely heavily on automation, say analysts and manufacturers.

Larry Sweet, the CTO of Symbotic, which makes autonomous mobile robots for use in warehouse distribution, described a possible scenario for the Apple factory.

First, a robot loads the aluminum block into the robo-machine that has a range of tools for cutting and drilling shapes to produce the complex chassis as a single precision part, Sweet said.

A robot then unloads the chassis and sends it down a production line where a series of small, high-precision, high-speed robots insert parts, secured either with snap fit, adhesive bonds, solder, and a few fasteners, such as screws. At the end, layers, such as the display and glass, are added on top and sealed in another automated operation.

"Finally, the product is packaged and packed into cases for shipping, again with robots," Sweet said.

The importance of robots in warehouse distribution was illustrated in March, when Apple's tablet-making rival Amazon announced an agreement to buy Kiva Systems, a company that also makes autonomous mobile robots to work in warehouses, for $775 million.

Apple CEO Tim Cook has not said whether Apple's manufacturing plant will build products from scratch or assemble materials. Some see this relatively small manufacturing investment as an effort to counter criticism about the company's reliance on China, where it now makes its products. Apple's revenues are at $156 billion.

But it may be shortsighted to dismiss what Apple is doing as a public relations move.

Whatever Apple builds, "you can guarantee it will be using the most up-to-date and modern factory automation equipment that one can buy," said Robert Atkinson, president of The Information Technology & Innovation Foundation and author of Innovation Economics: The Race for Global Advantage.



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