THE ULTIMATE COMPUTER FACTORY Steve Jobs has built a Next workstation plant with just about everything: lasers, robots, speed, and remarkably few defects.
By Mark Alpert Reporter Associate: Sally Solo

(FORTUNE Magazine) – Welcome to the Next world. Here a robot that looks like a futuristic sewing machine places tiny capacitors and integrated circuits, rapid-fire, on a printed computer circuitboard. A laser zeros in on each electrical connection. Two robot arms move in tandem, one selecting parts from a bin and the other deftly inserting them into the board. After 20 minutes the board reaches the end of the assembly line, where -- finally -- a real person steps in to check it. Robots outnumber people 13 to five on this line, which turns out the brains | for aging whiz kid Steve Jobs's new workstation. Not to save money: Labor accounts for only 3% to 5% of the cost of a typical computer-manufacturing operation. Instead, the automation is meant to ensure the highest possible quality. When Jobs left Apple Computer and started Next in 1985, he was determined to create a manufacturing process as advanced as the product it makes. He assigned some of his best engineers and software designers to the problem. Until recently the 40-person manufacturing staff had more Ph.D.s than the group designing the Next machine. Says Randy Heffner, vice president for manufacturing: ''Most startups don't invest in advanced automation, but that's the key to long-term success.'' The circuitboard for a $9,995 Next workstation has hundreds of tiny components attached to its top surface by 1,700 minuscule dabs of solder, each only one-hundredth of an inch thick. A robot designed and built by Next engineers measures each joint with a laser, checking its height and skew to within one ten-thousandth of an inch. Two more robots attach integrated circuits and other components to the solder dabs at speeds of up to 150 parts per minute. The result: Next circuitboards have a solder joint defect rate of only 15 to 17 parts per million, less than one-tenth the typical rate for the industry. The other distinguishing characteristic of the Next factory is speed. Instead of languishing in a warehouse for months on end, these key components go immediately to the plant's final assembly area, and after 24 hours of testing, the finished computers go directly out the door and onto a waiting truck. While the robots do the boring repetitive tasks, the people oversee the robots, resupply them with circuitboard parts, and solve any problems. The workers are not restricted to the assembly line, as their counterparts are in a traditional factory. They are just as likely to be at their own computers, doing a statistical analysis of defect rates to find the cause of a snag. Next's two-year-old 40,000-square-foot plant in Fremont, California, produces circuitboards for more than 60 machines a day, or approximately $100 million of hardware in a year. That's just a fraction of capacity, since Next sales are off to a slow start. If the machines are a hit, the plant could produce up to $1 billion worth of them a year with no more than 100 workers. Says Jobs: ''I'm as proud of the factory as I am of the computer.''