December 09, 2012, 3:20 PM —
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.