How Huawei puts smartphones through the seven circles of hell


This is a room in Shenzhen where hundreds of Chinese smartphones are pushed to breaking point. In this high-security circle of Dante’s Inferno, there are rows of mechanical apparatus, slapping their cheeks and clicking their fingers in time. These devices look like they’ve been stripped from fairgrounds and Laundromats, and the sound they produce as they spin and churn and toss and bend is an overpowering, angular cacophony.

Not anyone can get inside this room. To be allowed past the guarded desk you need a special lanyard, emblazoned with a VIP insignia. Even then, you are not allowed to take your own devices with you. It is with a sense of surprising vulnerability that you relinquish your phone and your laptop, passing the threshold unburdened by the photographs in your pocket.

The first machine is described to you by an employee of Huawei as a tumble test. The six rotating containers remind you of a game you may walk past in a seaside arcade, and as you peer through the Perspex seal, you glance a phone tossing against the sides. Opposite this setup a single phone is bound to a clamp, suspended above a stone tablet. After a moment it is flung down onto the stone with a force that can only be described as violent. Another moment passes before an examiner releases the phone. She rotates it so that a different side of the handset is exposed, then attaches the phone once more to the clamp and waits.

The third machine is a jean friction tester. You are told that it is modelled after a lady’s pocket. Inside this denim-laced tumble dryer is a bolt, some screws, a set of keys, a pair of white headphones and a phone. This clump rattles, the objects touching each other’s sides as they mingle. It seems to you almost tender, this constant intimacy, but the situation is designed to encourage nicks and scratches.

This bulbous end is lowered onto the phone, exerting 25kg of weight onto the back panel.

You are led to the fourth machine, in which a smartphone sits on a belt of cloth. Above the phone is a stick, the end of which swells in pink. This bulbous end is lowered onto the phone, exerting 25kg of weight onto the back panel of the device. When the screen refuses to shatter, the rubber piece retreats, only to return the next moment. You are told this happens 2,000 times for each phone.

Somewhere close to this a phone is clamped, forced to keep still as a robotic arm pushes a charging cable over and over into its port. This happens 10,000 times for each phone, and the examiners check the health of the phone at intervals of 3,000 penetrations. Another row of machines contort white charging cables, twisting them backwards and forwards as if they’re folding strands of dough.

You have stopped counting the machines by the time you are led to a table of clamps, with phones strapped beneath fingers that jostle up and down, forward and backwards. These stiff tentacles press the phone’s volume, home and power buttons, over and over again. One million times. Tests like these are used to prove a phone’s endurance over time. If a person pushes their home button so many times as day on average, this can be extrapolated to work out how many times they’d press it over 20 years. That number is tested on machines like this, all at once.    

The Huawei employees are wearing lab coats, and they stand attentive beside the machines.   

Covering the window is what looks to you like a shower curtain, decorated on either end with golden tassels.

You’re led from this room into another. Whereas the space you just came from was characterised by its rhythmic cacophony, this place is quiet. There are rows of large, tomb-like boxes. You are led to the first of these oblong capsules. There is a small window, around the size of your head, in the centre of the front panel. Covering the window is what looks to you like a shower curtain, decorated on either end with golden tassels. Above the curtained window are a pair of passport-sized pictures. One is of a man, the other is of a woman.

Your guide pushes the curtain to the side, and you peer through the darkened window. This machine is designed to test movements between extreme temperatures. The top half of the chamber is 70°C, while the bottom is -40°C. A rotating platform moves a row of phones from one end to the other. It is supposed to simulate the effect of walking from an air conditioned room, into a hot summer afternoon. You picture a man walking from a nuclear winter into an oven.

The other tombs look identical to this one, but they are pushing the phones to different limits. The interior of one is hot. The interior of another is humid. The interior of this one, you are told, is full of light. We are unable to open the door to this one, you’re informed, as it is too bright inside.

The phones in these rooms, randomly selected from each batch, must pass the entirety of this gamut. Plucked from the manufacturing plant, these chosen devices represent their shipment. If any of them buckle under the strain, those phones are culled before they are shipped, stopped from crossing seas, into shops, into pockets. It can take weeks for a phone to pass through both rooms, to prove that its siblings are safe enough to be born.

As you leave the laboratory, as you put on your jacket and sling your bag back over your shoulder, you consider an alternative timeline. What if smartphones found their way to rooms like these after their owners had disposed of them? They spend years against your thigh; they are filled with your photographs, emails, love letters. What do they do after they have been emptied of your life?

Perhaps this is where they are taken to forget.

Images: Gustave Doré’s illustrations of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy. No photography was allowed inside Huawei’s Environmental Reliability Lab.

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