We all carry them around, we rely on them every single day, hundreds of times a day – yet very little time is exhausted wondering; how is this made? This week, I got a look behind the secure doors in HTC’s Taiwan factory to see the new HTC U11 being made.
I’ve watched a lot of those “how it’s made” documentary, in fact yesterday I saw one on the TV in my hotel showing how the packet Ginger Bread Houses are made – wow, what a factory. But then I went one better, and saw inside a real, working mobile phone factory.
Imagine for a moment what you think the process is like. Wrong. It’s not all machines and computers, and it’s also not some huge warehouse either. This multi-story building in Tawian features floor after floor of manufacturing processes, part robotic, part human production line.
With the capability to make almost 100,000 smartphones per day, the sheer scale of things is mindblowing.
40 production lines, each ending with a new mobile phone every 30 seconds and the number of people that touch your phone is amazing.
Circuit boards are printed with the finest levels of accuracy, then every single point – 6,000 of them on the circuit board of the HTC U11 is tested. And not randomly, every spot, on every board they make.
Then reel after reel of resistors and capacitors (and whatever other thing goes on a circuit board) are fed into machine after machine and inserted into place on the board.
Out the end of those machines the board is tested – every, single one, and any possible issues are flagged and checked with a precision human eye.
Manufactured as four circuit boards all attached together, they are then split into individual boards where the testing continues. Everything from GPS to the mobile radios are tested with robots placing them in and taking them out of the test equipment.
That entire process is the most automated of all – with just a few staff monitoring and double checking the process.
The assembly area is where things get surprisingly manual. Antennas are fitted, motherboards enter the device frames, the liquid look back cover is glued into place and the device is pressure tested to confirm it’s water tight seals are in place.
A worker places the device into a large rubber sleeve – think of the ugliest cover you could imagine using on your new phone – and it’s placed into a box, the door is shut – and a tumble sequence begins. That phone is thrown around inside the box over and over again for 20-30 seconds. Any loose connections of errors in assembly will be brought out in that test.
Those errors would then show on the next station which is an automated test of every single unit. The screen is checked for calibration, as is the camera, and after a range of other tests it’s dispatched for final checks.
A team of people on each line look closely for any imperfection on the device. Gather together the parts which will go into the box and push down the line for final assembly. Yep, people box these things up. In fact, to my surprise a young lady second to last on the production line was manually putting on that plastic cover the phone is in when you first open it up.
One final check – the box is weighed to confirm everything is in place, and its set down in a packaging box ready to be shipped out.
But that’s not all – there’s another room where the “user experience” is randomly tested. One in 100 phones is taken, and unboxed. Checked for any imperfections, box contents are checked, the phone is checked itself – and quality is kept in check.
40 production lines, capable of working two ten hour shifts (workers get a 15 minute break every two hours), with a phone produced every 30 seconds. 96,000 phones per day.
It’s much more manual than I imagined, seemed efficient, and the checks and balances in place were exceptional.
But before all that, back at the HTC headquarters in Taipei, there are a team of designers on the 16th floor, working with almost only natural light to find the materials, colours and designs for the next great phone.
This is where this liquid cover design was born, looking at how glass reflects light, adding colour, ensuring more than “just” a gloss finish.
But in another location again, there are the engineers working on the standout features of HTC phones. In this case, sound and camera.
In the sound labs two anechoic chambers, one small one in a box, another where 20 people could fit – are used to test the response and sound from speakers and microphones. This enabled the slightest tweaks in calibration of the speakers, plus allows them to build speakers that provide more power, more bass and just better sound.
Dummy’s are used to test the response to voice and sound at different angles, while in another room more similar to a studio – they are testing features like the U11’s new 3D audio.
Down the hall, in a room with black carpet floors, matte black painted walls and ceilings and black window coverings – the camera team are testing and refining the camera hardware and software.
From brightness and low light adjustment settings, to improving white balancing time – and to testing the Optical Image Stabilisation on a rig that shakes devices consistently – they are thinking of everything.
While these engineers likely know exactly what needs to go into a phone to make it amazing, they probably also have to work with the hardware required to suit the budget for any given phone.
I guess I knew there would be teams of people working on design, and even in testing – but I was really blown away by the scale of the manufacturing, and I’ll never look the same at a fresh new device out of the box when I’m removing the packaging and covers placed around a device, knowing someone’s own hard work went into that – not a robot!
Trevor Long traveled to Taiwan as a guest of HTC. For full details of our commercial agreements, travel and disclosures – click here
Trev is a Technology Commentator, Dad, Speaker and Rev Head.
He produces and hosts two popular podcasts, EFTM and Two Blokes Talking Tech. He also appears on over 50 radio stations across Australia weekly, and is the resident Tech Expert on Channel 9’s Today Show each day and appears regularly on A Current Affair.
Father of three, he is often found down in his Man Cave.