Today's tour destination was Huawei. For those that don't know, Huawei is a gigantic Chinese communications equipment provider. They're also an MIT Media Lab sponsor so the tour could be lined up through the mutual relationship with the lab. In the first part, we'll be meeting with the R&D engineers, they'll be demonstration what they're working on, and the students will be giving a presentation on what they're working on in the lab. In the second part of the tour, we'll go out to Dongguan where HuaThe wei is establishing a new manufacturing facility. Over there, we'll be able to see their SMT, test, and final assembly lines for their cell phones. They are a major manufacturer of cell phones in many countries except the US from what I understand. Unfortunately, Huawei also has a strict no camera policy and we weren't allowed to bring any type of camera, laptop, or memory stick to their R&D and factory areas.
At first, they gave us a tour of the exhibition area and explained what Huawei does. There was a lot of infrastructure communications equipment down there and it was kind of nice getting back in contact with my communications background. Bunnie and I were geeking out over a lot of the big iron rack mount communications equipment there, while Jie and Pip were geeking out over the designer furniture they had there. Engineers versus designers.
Ha ha ha.
After the tour was over, the engineers gave us all a short demonstration of what they're working on in the labs and then we went to a meeting room. The Media Lab grad students gave a short talk on what they're working on. All the talks were very impressive and I felt like everyone was a badass. It felt strange because we were all spending so much time together that it's easy to forget everyone in the group is really creative and working on extremely interesting things.
After the talks were finished, we had lunch and then headed out to Dongguan to see the cell phone manufacturing factory. This was the tour that we were really interested in and I wanted to see what a world class SMT line looked like. Before we were allowed into the factory floor, we had to change into ESD safe clothing. The fabric on the clothing was conductive and I was explaining that this was the real purpose of conductive fabrics. I guess that point can be argued now though since there are so many wearable electronics applications using conductive materials.
Once we had our ESD smocks and shoes on, we had to go to machine where it tested our ESD levels. After being deemed safe, we went through a metal detector and then into the factory area. The SMT line was amazing. All the machines were outfitted for dual lane PCBs. What this means is that each machine can support two lanes of conveyor through them. On one lane, the PCB's top side components are assembled and in the other lane, the bottom side components are assembled. This is occurring simultaneously.
The SMT process for the PCBs are pretty standard and start out at the solder paste applicator machine and was taken by conveyor to the solder paste inspection machine, pick and place, machine vision inspection machine, 13-zone reflow oven, final inspection machine, flipped and then taken to the second lane to do the bottom side.
The SMT line was almost completely automated, but I was surprised that the final assembly process is still quite manual, even at a world class manufacturing facility. Each phone is tested for its RF parameters to make sure that the antenna and high frequency performance works properly. After that, workers run them through self test routines and test jigs that test the phones for proper functionality. After that's over, the final assembly process begins. This consists of inserting the PCBs into the enclosures, screwing down the enclosures, adding stickers and labeling, adding LCDs and touch panels, and testing the final assembly. Once this is done, workers then have an assembly line similar to the logistics facility we visited to put together the packaging, ie: boxing, inserts, documentation, product, stickers, labeling, and palletizing. Watching the amount of effort it took to produce a phone as a final product was dizzying.
Overall, it was interesting to see Huawei's facilities, more specifically, their manufacturing facility. The SMT line was extremely sophisticated, but actually not much different than what I run in my apartment or others in the OSHW community run in their shops in terms of functionality. The final assembly was also quite manual which actually relieved me. I had always thought I was being inefficient because I had a lot of manual steps in my processes to put together products. Seeing that its common in the industry was kind of soothing. Probably the best takeaway I had today, though was that I got to listen to what all the Media Lab participants were doing in their own personal research. We've been traveling together now for a while and it's easy to forget that the person right next to you is doing amazing work. I'm quite proud to be in this group of people.
On a side note, everyone has been touring factories for about a week and a half now. The schedule is actually pretty tough because we have factory tours in the morning and afternoons and usually a dinner with someone in the evenings. Tonight was a free night for people to do whatever they wanted to and unwind. Bunnie, David, and I went out to meet up with Andy Lippman, a professor from MIT Media Lab. He traveled here to meet up with the group for a few days and we had dinner with him and some interesting conversation. After dinner, we went back and watched The Empire Strikes Back with some people from the group. Jie had not seen the movie before which completely blew my mind (or at least made me feel old). It was a nice way to blow off some steam though and we set certain rules for the movie like every time there's sexual tension between Princess Leia and Han Solo, we had to drink our beers. By the end, we were so loud that we got in trouble the next day with the building management. Ha ha ha. Nice way to cut loose :)