Inside Foxconn as iPads get made

Customers test new IPad, on April 4, 2012 at the newly Apple store inside the Confluence shopping center in Lyon, on the day of its inauguration.

Tens of millions of iPads have been sold since the product first went on sale two years ago. It’s hard to peg an exact number since a bunch more have been sold in the time it’s taken you to read this sentence. They’re flying off the shelves, if they ever manage to get to the shelves.

But despite the device’s cultural ubiquity, few Americans have been inside a Foxconn facility to see how it’s actually constructed. Rob Schmitz, China correspondent for Marketplace, is one of them. Rob was the second journalist to be allowed inside an Apple production line at the facility. We spoke to him about what he saw and heard.

Schmitz: I wanted to play you some of the tape I gathered from inside the iPad production line just to give you a feel for what it sounds like

Moe: It’s very rhythmic

Schmitz: It's hypnotic. So you hear this eerie voice saying, ”OK.”

Moe: “OK”, yeah

Schmitz: So, what this is at each station at the assembly line there are these scanners and once a worker completes a task, the worker scans that part under the scanner and if everything checks out, you're OK.

Moe: This is what a Foxconn worker hears all day long

Schmitz: Right.

Moe: How fast does it take to box an iPad up?

Schmitz: I timed the workers and figured out how quickly these iPads were coming off a number of assembly lines, so my rough estimate here is that at this one facility that I toured, the workers produced about one iPad every two seconds or so, and we know that Apple clears about $200, $300 off of each iPad, so as we say at Marketplace, John, do the numbers

Moe: You talked about these movements that the workers were doing. Explain what that means.

Schmitz: I talked to a few industrial engineers before I took this trip because I wanted to find out how this assembly line work at Foxconn impacts a worker's health, basically at what point does the repetitive motion become dangerous to that person's body, and industrial engineers have a term for this - it's called the process cycle time. What I heard is a process cycle time that's below 10 sec or so is considered by some to be unhealthy. and while I was there watching the assembly line, I noticed some process cycle times were quite slow, But in other parts, they were less than 10 seconds, which is sort of in the danger zone. I spoke with one worker who works on the iPad line, and he uses tweezers to install the WiFi component into each iPad. He told me it took him around five seconds to do this, and he does this 8 to 10 hours a day, but he does get a 10-minute break every two hours and he gets to rotate between three different assembly jobs every few days. But here's what he had to say.

He says that when he first started working on the line, his hands were really sore, but after while, he says he got used to it.

Moe: Rob, you're in China, you’ve seen other factories there. How does this compare?

Schmitz: A lot of these workers I spoke to had also worked at other factories previously and what they told me is Foxconn, as far as factories in Shenzhen, and Shenzhen is one of the largest factory towns in China, was at or near the top of the list of places they would like to work. According to them, Foxconn pays them on time usually and will pay overtime. A lot of factories have problems paying on time if at all sometimes, and sometimes they'll withhold your wages for a couple of months just in case you decide to go and then they won't pay you when you leave, and so there's a lot of problems like this in factories in China.

About the author

John Moe is the host of Marketplace Tech Report, where he provides an insightful overview of the latest tech news.

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