Several machines drop smartphones from a height of one meter. The mobiles fall hard on a marble plate. After the impact, some workers check if any one has broken. In most cases, at first glance they are still intact. And the process starts again.
This is just one of the more than 150 tests that dozens of mobile phones from the Chinese brand Oppo are subjected to daily. It takes place at its factory in Dongguan, a city of eight million people neighboring Shenzhen and belonging to the southeast province of Guangdong, the Chinese capital of electronics. In it, Oppo and manufacturers like Huawei or Vivo produce one in five of the world’s smartphones.
Or at least that was when EL PAÍS Retina visited the area, just before the outbreak of the coronavirus crisis. About 90,000 terminals a day come out of the production lines that Huawei has there. “Every day we produce the best mobiles in the world”, reads one of the banners on the spot. More than 20,000 employees work alongside all kinds of machines and robots. They are in charge from the placement of the first piece until the smartphone be ready to be shipped anywhere on the planet. They also subject their products to severe stress tests and test the sound, applications, battery or cables of mobile phones. Nothing can go wrong.
Time Trial Race
by a robotic finger with a pressure of one kilogram. “If a user clicked on the buttons 50 times a day, it would take them about six years to do those 100,000 keystrokes,” explains an Oppo employee. A few meters from the quality department, there are different assembly lines. To access one of the 26 existing you have to go through a kind of disinfecting air shower. Inside, dozens of engineers and technicians in blue uniforms and hats work side by side with all kinds of machines. Upon entering, multiple devices print motherboards. 7.5 million are produced each month. Others with optical vision analyze the chips, which are then reviewed by employees. Hand in hand with robots This joint work between machines and humans is common throughout the process. Chen bets on coexistence between more than ‘smartphones’ “How do we interact with our phone now and how we did it years ago, when it still had keys?”, Asks at an event organized by Oppo Tom Morrod, executive director of research at IHS Markit . Connectivity, according to him, will mean a similar change in the way we interact with the smartphone. Hence Oppo’s commitment to create an ecosystem of connected devices that complement mobile phones. Oppo founder Tony Chen believes, “There will be no company in the industry that focuses only on smartphones. Mobiles will continue to be a key engine of our ecosystem. But in the connected world, we will also have smart watches, wireless headphones, augmented reality glasses, and even smart robots. ”
Every minute is important. The Oppo factory is running 24 hours a day. There also takes place from the welding of the motherboard circuits to the quality control of the finished product, through the assembly of the components. More than 20,000 employees work tirelessly alongside thousands of machines. In addition to testing the resistance of different models, they produce 200,000 mobiles every day. That is, more than 8,300 terminals per hour or 100 per minute. Oppo has been there in a decade and a half.
The company was founded in 2004, began its internationalization in 2010 and is already the fifth largest mobile phone manufacturer in the world, behind Samsung, Huawei, Apple and Xiaomi, according to IDC. In the third quarter of 2019 alone, it sold 31.2 million terminals, according to data provided by the company, especially successful in the Asian market. In fact, in February 2017 it managed to be the manufacturer of smartphones with more sales in China after surpassing, although for a short time, the giant Huawei. Today it continues to remain at the top of the sales ranking in this country. In addition, it boasts being the leader in Indonesia and the Philippines and number two in other Asian markets such as Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam.
Among his priorities is to differentiate himself by design. Some terminals, such as the Reno 2, are characterized by an elegant finish and a front flap that unfolds the camera for selfies. But unlike other technology giants like Samsung or Huawei, the company has not launched into the world of folding. Alen Wu, global president of sales for Oppo, explains that they design the terminals with user demands in mind. “At the moment, we have not found the right setting for that format,” he said last December in a meeting with international journalists at Oppo’s headquarters in the Chinese city of Shenzhen.
The mobile torture rack
Still, some of its terminals incorporate new technologies. For example, the company recently unveiled the world’s fastest-charging mobile phone and the world’s first terminal with an under-screen camera. His commitment to innovation does not end here, according to the founder and president of Oppo, Tony Chen. In his first public speech in six years, in December 2019, he announced that investment in technology R&D will multiply by five over the next three years, to € 6.4 billion.
Dropping the phones from different heights and angles is part of the quality control process, the department in which the devices are subjected to all kinds of torture. Each model passes more than 150 tests that are divided into three blocks: electrical performance tests, structural tests and environmental aging tests. To the test of falls from high heights is added that of micro-falls. Several machines drop the smartphone 20,000 times from a height of seven centimeters. This simulates the soft shocks that a mobile phone can suffer when falling with the screen, the back or the sides. Other machines analyze how the mobile responds to extreme temperatures, dust, humidity, sweat or water.
For example, the terminal is inserted into a chamber filled with water jets or subjected to temperatures of 85 degrees for 500 hours. The volume and unlock keys are also tested. Each one is pressed 100,000 times by a robotic finger with a pressure of one kilogram. “If a user clicked on the buttons 50 times a day, it would take them about six years to do those 100,000 keystrokes,” explains an Oppo employee.
A few meters from the quality department, there are different assembly lines. To access one of the 26 existing you have to go through a kind of disinfecting air shower. Inside, dozens of engineers and technicians in blue uniforms and hats work side by side with all kinds of machines. Upon entering, multiple devices print motherboards. 7.5 million are produced each month. Others with optical vision analyze the chips, which are then reviewed by employees.
Hand in hand with robots
This joint work between machines and humans is common throughout the process. Chen is committed to the coexistence between the two: “Machines are machines and they will never replace human beings.” Each device takes about two hours to manufacture in a process involving about 90 people. The company has not specified the cost of manufacturing a terminal.
While different robotic arms shape the Oppo Reno 2, employees with a kind of finger covers carefully examine what machines do. They test the touch screen and clean any remaining particles with a small plastic stick. They check every detail in millimeters: from the front camera to the quad system of rear cameras, audio, temperature or connectivity.
If the mobiles pass all the tests successfully, dozens of workers await them for the last phase. They clean the terminal with a cloth, put a protective plastic on the screen and stick a sticker on the back. Then they put them in their boxes along with headphones and a charger. Smartphones are now ready to invade stores around the world.