Nov 15, 2013

    Apple bets billions on robots


    APPLE is putting a record US$10.5 billion (S$13 billion) to work in new technology - from assembly robots to milling machines - that consumers will never see.

    To get a jump on rivals like Samsung Electronics and lay the groundwork for new products, it is spending more on the machines that do the behind-the-scenes work of mass-producing iPhones, iPads and other gadgets.

    That includes equipment to polish the new iPhone 5c's colourful plastic, laser and milling machines to carve the MacBook's aluminium body, and testing gear for the iPhone and iPad camera lens, said people with knowledge of the company's manufacturing methods, who asked not to be identified.

    The spending, which Apple outlined in its fiscal 2014 capital-expenditure forecast, underscores how the world's most valuable company is diving deeper into designing and inventing technology for its manufacturing process.

    Apple is increasingly striking exclusive machinery deals, said the people familiar with the work, outspending peers on the tools that it then places in the factories of its suppliers, many of which are in Asia.

    "Their designs are so unique that you have to have a very unique manufacturing process to make them," said Mr Muthuraman Ramasamy, an analyst with consulting firm Frost & Sullivan, who has studied the use of the machinery.

    "Apple has so much cash that it can invest in cutting-edge, world-class machinery that is typically used for aerospace and defence."

    Apple's work on its manufacturing process typically begins with the industrial-design team led by senior vice-president Jony Ive.

    The group comes up with ideas, then works with the company's hardware-engineering group to develop large-scale methods for getting the products built, since some of the techniques Apple uses have only been applied to making small batches of goods, said people with knowledge of the process.

    Apple engineers often spend weeks at facilities in Asia, making sure the parts and equipment they buy or make are working properly, people familiar with the work said.

    The company has hired robotics experts and its website has several job openings for engineers who can operate high-end manufacturing equipment.

    Mr Doug Field, a senior engineer who worked with Mr Ive's design group, recently parlayed the experience into a new job at Tesla Motors, as vice-president for designing new vehicles.

    Apple's new Mac Pro, which will go on sale next month, will be assembled in the United States with robotics technology used in car manufacturing.