As Apple (AAPL) prepares to unveil the iPhone 6 on Sept. 9, engineers are toiling in secrecy to make sure everything works properly. Their task won’t end when the phone goes on sale. As customers line up to buy the device around the world, Apple employees will show up at work to learn how they screwed up—and fix it.
Within hours of a new phone’s release, couriers start bringing defective returns from Apple’s retail stores to the company’s headquarters in Cupertino, Calif. In a testing room, the same engineers who built the iPhone try to figure out the problem, say former employees who have participated in the program and don’t want to anger their former employer. “They take them apart to diagnose what’s happening right then and there,” says Mark Wilhelm, who helped lead Apple’s returns program.
The program, created in the late 1990s, is called early field failure analysis, or EFFA, and it’s about as fun as it sounds. The idea is to keep easily resolved problems from becoming punch lines for late-night comics. Often, they jury-rig a hardware fix, then coordinate a solution across Apple’s global supply chain. Sometimes the problems can’t be solved quickly—remember Apple Maps leading people astray. “Every day they don’t recognize a problem, they are potentially manufacturing more bad products,” says Michael Fawkes, the former head of supply chain for Hewlett-Packard (HPQ). (In his HP job he hired Tara Bunch, now Apple’s vice president for operations and the head of its returns program.) “When you mess it up, you pay an enormous price. You piss off customers, and then you have the economics of reworking your supply chain.”
“If you can find a problem in the first week or less, that can ultimately save millions of dollars”
All consumer-electronics companies try to keep an eye on complaints during their product launches to head off major problems early, but the sheer number of Apple devices produced around the clock in Chinese factories makes even small tweaks a massive enterprise. Apple’s advantage is its retail stores, Fawkes says: HP and Dell would have to coordinate similar operations with retailers such as Best Buy (BBY), but first responders in Cupertino learn directly of a defective iPhone in New York, Paris, or Tokyo as soon as a Genius Bar staffer reports it. The phone goes on the next FedEx (FDX) plane to California. Using the serial numbers in each device, Apple can trace a problem down to individual workers on an assembly line.
That 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. Apple declined to comment.
Apple’s EFFA testing is most stringent during a device’s first weeks on sale, but it continues for months as problems arise, say three former employees involved. Along with quality-control and operations teams, the program is run by AppleCare, which most customers know only as the warranty and support service pitched by Apple store clerks. Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook used to supervise AppleCare when he headed the operations division and increased its standing within the company, says Wilhelm, who now runs customer support for cloud-storage startup Lyve Minds in Cupertino.
AppleCare representatives are in charge of providing data to Apple’s senior executives and engineers about defective devices and publish a weekly report highlighting the three most common problems reported by customers, the former employees say. They sit in on early design meetings and can marshal engineers from other product teams to fix problems. As with the early iPhone bugs, most of the problems they’ve discovered over the years relate to components not being connected properly, Wilhelm says—an unfastened cable or too little glue or solder. “If you can find a problem in the first week or less,” he says, “that can ultimately save millions of dollars.”