The Secret Apple Team That Fixes an iPhone's First Fatal Flaws

Hours after a new iPhone hits retail stores, couriers start putting defective devices on FedEx planes and shipping them right back to Cupertino. There, engineers try to figure out the problem and come up with a solution, which can be relayed to assembly lines in China before they manufacture more faulty iPhones.

It's a fascinating cycle of events that Bloomberg neatly captures.

The idea is simple: catch any problems that escaped Apple's stringent tests before manufacturing in time to prevent them from occuring in millions of devices that Apple's factories in China pump out.

Many times, Apple's engineers jury-rig a hardware fix and then coordinate a solution across Apple's global supply chain. According to Bloomberg, an iPhone's serial number lets Apple trace problems all the way back to the individual worker who made it.

The system, known internally at Apple as "Early Field Failure Analysis" (EFFA), was set up in the late 1990s, and has saved the company millions of dollars. Let's face it: when you mess up, you pay an enormous price. You piss off customers, and spend gazillions of dollars trying to rejigger a complex supply chain. "Every day they don't recognize a problem," Michael Fawkes, the former head of HP's supply chain, explained to Bloomberg, "they are potentially manufacturing more bad products."

Clearly, the system worked well. Says Bloomberg:

[It] paid off with the original iPhone in 2007, when many were quickly returned with faulty touchscreens, according to an engineer involved in fixing them. Some suppliers manufactured iPhones with a flaw near the earpiece that let sweat from a person's face seep in, shorting the screen. The EFFA team added a new coating to shield the leaky area and told their suppliers to do the same on their assembly lines. Other EFFA workers, investigating the failure of early iPhone speakers, concluded that the problem was a lack of airflow that caused the speakers to build up pressure and implode during flights from Chinese factories to the U.S. The team relieved the pressure by poking holes in the speakers.

Presumably, the entire EFFA team was on vacation when Antennagate happened. Head over to Bloomberg for the complete story. It's got some great insights. [Bloomberg]