CITYSCAPE The Nokia plant in Sriperumbudur exports mobile phones to 58 countries. PRINCE FREDERICK tracks its assembly line
While all those accompanying me are let in only after the International Mobile Equipment Identification (IMEI) numbers of their mobile phones have been noted down, I walk in without being subject to it. I, however, can’t feel self-important. It is just that I am carrying a Sagem 101X, and the security desk at the entrance limits its inquisitiveness to the IMEI numbers of Nokia cellphones that visitors bring in.
I am at the Nokia plant in Sriperumbudur.
At the next stage, there is equal treatment. Our bags and mobiles, Nokia or not, are locked away. As the last of the mandatory procedures, we are made to wear special overcoats and shoe covers. This gear is a protection for the mobiles-in-the-making (and not me, as I first thought) against electrostatic discharge (ESD), a momentary current that could be caused by something as simple as shoes scraping against the floor.The shop floor operates to a different timescale. As production manager T.S. Amarendra walks me through the board assembly section, I can’t help thinking that the workers are trapped within the prison-walls of time.
Nine-tenth of the process is automated and as links facilitating a flow of impersonal activity, the workers have to keep pace with machines. I notice a female worker perform a task at a double because she took a fraction of second longer with the previous one. As the repetitive nature of the work on the assembly line can cause a drudgery that can result in irritable behaviour, employee relationship specialists hang around the shop floor and step in when they sense depression or interpersonal problems. One of them, Shipra Majumdar is on duty today and she points to me a chart bearing the flags of countries where Nokia has a strong presence, and explains the de-stressing programmes organised for the workforce. The chart will be on display for a month, after which a contest of matching the countries with the flags will be organised.The workers on the assembly line probably don’t see their work as creative, but the precision and orderliness of the system introduces me to a new definition of creativity. I try to grasp it all, starting with the board assembly section. Except probably the back panel, work at this section involves the putting together of internal components (the printed wiring board assembly, ‘D’ cover, LCD assembly and shield assembly). Following this process, an automated inspection system gets into action. This machine checks if a piece is broken, not screwed or soldered properly and conveys the result through the glow of either a red or green light. An amber light glows to indicate that the inspection is still on.
Human hands are however required to segregate the faulty pieces from the good ones. The ones that have passed the test are kept waiting in a buffer area for the next leg of the operation. The number of pieces made available to the final assembly section depends on the target that is determined by the planning team. Weekly targets are set on the basis of demand from the local and export markets (cellphones made at this plant are exported to 58 countries). In keeping with the requirement, decision on the number of lines and their nature (high volume or low volume) will be taken. Final assembly includes fixing of the ‘A’ cover (front panel), key mat and placement of the charger and the user manual along with the cellphone in a packet called ‘Gift Pack’ (GP). And it is here that every cellphone gets a unique identity. Part of the work at the software customisation loading section is the installation of IMEI numbers. The Gift Pack is weighed to find out if anything is missing or something more has been added. In numbers of 400 or 480, GPs are loaded into master cartons. As part of quality control exercise, cellphones are randomly chosen from master cartons and inspected. The finished cellphones make it to the shipping area where they are removed off the rack with battery-operated forklifts and loaded on to waiting containers. Consignments get on the road after Customs’ clearance that takes place within the Nokia’s precincts.
With male workers enjoying a monopoly, the shipping area strikes a contrast to the board and final assembly sections. There, women are clearly in the majority. This lop-sided recruitment policy has been driven by the belief that women are more careful and nimble in the handling of delicate electronic equipment.It is late in the evening and as we head towards the car park, the illuminated nameboards of Nokia’s suppliers are hard to miss because of the darkness that envelopes them. I spell out two names, S-A-L-C-O-M-P (which makes chargers for Nokia) and P-E-R-L-O-S (which makes outer covers). If I time my next visit around the fag end of 2008, I must get to spell names of five more suppliers, expected to be accommodated into the Nokia industrial estate. And the workforce would jump to a whopping 30,000 from the current 6,000.I tell myself that I should try to have a ringside view of all that bustling activity.