Did You See Any OR During Apple’s iPhone 5 Announcement? I did!

On September 12, Apple finally announced its much-awaited iPhone 5. I didn’t have time to watch the keynote speech, but I watched the shorter 7-minute video that’s posted on Apple’s web site featuring Jony Ive, Apple’s Senior Vice President, Design. In that video, at around the 5-minute, 26-second mark, something they said caught my attention: the way they put parts together during the assembly process. I encourage you to watch that part of the video before reading on.

Jony Ive says:

Never before, have we built a product with this extraordinary level of fit and finish. We’ve developed manufacturing processes that are our most complex and ambitious.

And on Apple’s web site, they say this:

During manufacturing, each iPhone 5 aluminum housing is photographed by two high-powered 29MP cameras. A machine then examines the images and compares them against 725 unique inlays to find the most precise match for every single iPhone.

So let’s see if I understood this correctly. In a typical manufacturing operation, the multiple parts that get put together to create a product are put together without much fuss. A machine makes part A, another machine makes part B, and perhaps a robotic arm or a third machine takes any one of the many part A’s that are coming down a conveyor belt and attaches it to any one of the many part B’s that are coming down another conveyor belt. What Apple did was to improve on the “any one” choice. I don’t know if Apple pioneered this idea, I’d say probably not, but this is the first time I hear about something like this. If you’ve seen this before, let me know in the comments.

Before OR comes into play, Computer Science does its job in the form of computer vision / image processing algorithms. The photographs of the parts are analyzed and (I’m guessing) a fitness score is calculated for every possible matching pair of parts A (the housing) and B (the inlay). What happens next? How do they pick the winning match? Here are some possibilities:

  1. Each part A is matched with the part B, among the 725 candidates, that produces the best matching score.
  2. A 725 by 725 matrix of fitness scores is created between 725 parts of type A and 725 parts of type B, and the best 725 matches are chosen so as to maximize the overall fitness score (i.e. the sum of the fitness scores of all the chosen matches).
  3. Proceed as in the previous case, but pick the 725 matches that maximize the minimum fitness score. That is, we worry about the worst case and don’t let the worst match be too bad when compared to the best match.

After these 725 pairs are put together, new sets of parts A and B come down the conveyor belt and the matching process is repeated. Possibility number 1 is the fastest (e.g. do a binary search, or build a priority queue), but not necessarily the best because every now and then a bad match will have to be made. Possibilities 2 (an assignment problem) and 3 (assignment problem with a max-min objective) are better, in my opinion, with the third one being my favorite. They are, however, more time consuming than possibility 1. Jony Ive says the choice is made “instantaneously”, which doesn’t preclude something fancier than possibility 1 from being used given the assignment problems are pretty small.

The result? In the words of Jony Ive:

The variances from product to product, we now measure in microns.

It is well-known that OR plays a very important role in manufacturing (facility layout, machine/job scheduling, etc.) but it’s not every day that people stop to think about what happens in a manufacturing plant. This highly-popular announcement being watched by so many people around the world painted a very clear picture of the kinds of problems high-tech manufacturing facilities face. I think it’s a great example of what OR can do, and how relevant it is to our companies and our lives.

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Filed under Applications, iPhone, Motivation, Promoting OR

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