I don’t doubt any of us appreciate how complex it must be to make a mobile phone, today they are high powered computers with big batteries, amazing cameras and technology that was unimaginable some years ago. So this week I got the opportunity to go inside the labs and factories of Oppo in Shenzhen, China to see for myself – and it was eye opening.
It’s not my first such factory tour, I recall visiting HTC in Taiwan in 2017 and being blown away by the process. This week felt like what I saw was a leap forward in every way, not just in the final product but the entire process through design, testing and manufacturing.
Before we get to the actual factory floor, let me take you into some of the labs the Oppo has to test their software and hardware before it comes anywhere near being sold around the world.
NFC for example, there’s a whole lab with robots that continually take a phone and test it against NFC devices like payment terminals, door access points and many more things which frankly, have to work. So if your phone is not compatible with that unit, what do you do. Oppo can test devices we might not have heard of or that are popular around the world, allowing them to ensure their hardware, antennas and software are all working together for the best user experience.
Then there’s health – perhaps we take for granted that our smartphones, let alone smartwatches (Oppo’s Smartwatch is sadly not available in Australia) work well to track our steps and activity. But it’s far more complex than that.
When tracking a run, you need to accurately be able to work out – from the wrist, how the stride, gate, vertical oscillation and other factors of the wearer affect the measurements. You do that with Hollywood like motion trackers and a variety of runners to ensure you are getting accurate readings. Of course.
But then the most important thing, the camera. It’s one of the main competitive areas for smartphones today – and it’s all well and good to make a phone with a bigger sensor or a better lens – but how good are the photos?
Oppo has an impressive photography lab, which I could only best describe as a movie set. A Hotel lobby, Fast Food outlet, Lounge room, restaurant, shop, bar, karaoke bar, and more, all side by side along one corridor.
A series of robots take an Oppo Smartphone and roam the areas taking hundreds, if not thousands of photos.
The same photos, in the same spot, in the same position.
There’s even a robot – we’ve called her Sally – because Oppo didn’t seem to want to name her – who’s got a face – a whole replica Madame Tussauds style face, modelled on an actual Oppo staff member I’m told, roams around with a Selfie Camera on a smartphone pointed at her taking photos in a range of lighting conditions.
All this allows Oppo’s Visual Lab engineers to tweak the software and hardware for their devices to ensure they are getting the best photography possible.
The labs give you a sense of the dedication to quality and performance that exists within the Oppo team, and it’s a massive team of course.
But head into the assembly line and you get a real sense of the scale of things.
Our visit was to just one production facility – Oppo has many, and it seemed less like a “Factory” more like a floor in an office building from the outside.
But inside was a clinically clean pristine white facility, all behind glass walls through which we could not enter. But our view was fantastic along an entire single production line.
At a guess, across the floor were seven production lines – each capable of manufacturing up to 3,000 smartphones per day. Less for the more complex foldable devices, but a peak number that was mind blowing to imagine.
And it starts with the brains and beating heart of the phone, the motherboard. Staring with nothing these completely automated machines would print a circuit board, add solder to them, and then using the most amazing machine with resisters and every other component possible on reels each and every part of the board was assembled, then “baked” to fix it down and then run through machines to test each part of that board.
Load it with software and put it through robot guided visual tests and you end up with thousands of little mother boards ready to move to an entirely different room for assembly.
This next room is far less automated, there are people for each component it seemed, be that the finger print sensor, the camera, the SIM card tray or more – the device moves through machines along a conveyer and stops for a team member to do their part before moving it onto the next part of the process.
It ends with the battery, battery cover and plastic protection, and during this whole process the device undergoes software tests to check it’s performing as it should.
Amazingly, and understandably, should 5% or more devices fail the quality assurance testing, the entire line is scrapped.
The process ends with boxes of mobile phones stacked on pallets, ready to be shipped around the world.
Test and re-Test
Devices are taken from the production line regularly for additional testing. These tests are more physical than software based.
For example, a drop test from various heights onto a solid surface.
Or a rolling drop test which has a device put into an odd shaped rotating vessel, similar to a barrel for a prize draw, and rotated time and time again – replicating multiple back to back 1m drops.
There’s a spray test and submersion test and even a twist test where one clamp holds the top of the device, and on the bottom another clamp twists the phone.
It’s brutal to watch, but gives you a real sense that what they’re making is durable.
We can only assume the same exists across the industry, but full respect to Oppo for highlighting it all – so I could see it with my own eyes.
Trevor Long travelled to China as a guest of Oppo Australia