One of LG’s mobile testing rooms. This one checks for a device’s durability and life expectancy by running hundreds of devices, each handling a different task, nonstop. Photo: LG
On a brutally cold December day in Pyeongtaek, about 60 minutes drive south of Seoul, I watched hundreds of LG smartphones get tortured: spun around in a metal cage like dirty clothes inside a washing machine; dropped repeatedly onto the concrete floor at varying heights; having every button pushed hundreds of thousands of times; placed inside heated and freezing boxes; and finally, the worst indignity of all: being sat on repeatedly by a mechanical butt.
LG lab experts test a phone’s shatter-resistance by having a mechanical butt repeatedly sit on a phone with various amounts of pressure. Photo: LG
I’m inside the quality assurance lab of LG Electronics’ smartphone assembly plant, where up to 8,000 smartphones are assembled and tested everyday. Now, it would be a cliche/marketing propaganda to say LG puts quality control as a top priority, since this is something every major consumer electronics company would claim, especially after the Note 7 fiasco. But near the entrance of LG’s 640,000 square meter Digital Park — in which the assembly plant resides — and various other LG buildings spread throughout Seoul sit statues of company founder In-Hwoi Koo, with a single quote that stresses the importance of quality control:
“If a single defect is found among 100 units, then the remaining 99 units will be considered defective. Selling large quantities for the sake of sales is not the best solution. Every product we assemble for our customers must be of excellent quality.”
A statue of LG founder In-Hwoi Koo at the entrance of the Digital Park. Photo: Ben Sin
An exterior shot of LG Digital Park. Photo: LG
In told employees that in 1948, a year after LG began as a chemical company (then known as Lak-Hui, aka “Lucky”). In the 68 years since, LG, which is acronym for “Lucky-Goldstar,” has become the fourth largest chaebol (basically the Korean word for conglomerate) in South Korea and one of the most respected consumer electronics brands in the West, responsible for everything from washing machines to TVs, smartphones to car parts.
Inside LG’s mobile assembly plant, I got the chance to witness first hand Koo’s vision. One of the most noticeable things that sets LG’s production lines apart from other phone companies is that more than 90% of the workers across all 22 assembly lines are women. The plant’s assistant manager, Tokyo Lee (yes, she is named after the Japanese capital, where she was born) tells me that LG hires women to assemble its phones because they have smaller hands that are more suited to assemble tiny components together.
This is LG Electronic’s washing machine line, which I didn’t tour. But it appears to be mostly women too. Photo: Cho Seong-joon/Bloomberg
These women handle everything from piecing the main display panel with the motherboard, and testing functionality features that require judgement and touch sensitivity, like motion sensors, gestures, camera tests, etc. Automated machines handle other testings like camera OIS and connectivity reception. Standing at the end of the line are two women who do the final inspection. It’s a very intimate and human process — they hold the phones up close and check for scratches and defects, much like consumers when they first receive a product. Lee dubs the two women “phone masters.”
Phones that are okay-ed by the two female masters are then put into a conveyor belt, which directs the units into a box to be picked up by an automated mobile cart — basically a little robot.
Phones are being put in the tumbling torture chamber here. Photo: LG
Since LG’s arch nemesis, Samsung, suffered arguably the biggest consumer tech brand image disaster just a few months ago, has LG took efforts to ramp up its battery quality check?
Not really, claims Ian Hwang, product planning team leader of LG’s mobile line.
“We’ve always had higher safety ratings than the market,” he says. “So what happened elsewhere didn’t change what we were doing. We’re pretty sure [what happened to the Note 7] wouldn’t happen with LG phones.”
If that quote made Hwang sound cocky, rest assured that’s not the case. During our talk at LG’s headquarters, Hwang comes off as polite, sincere and humble — to the point that when I mentioned the G5’s commercial failure, he expressed a look of genuine disappointment.