When you think of what it takes to crank out the tens of millions of smartphones and tablets sold each year, images of crowded, disgusting worker dorms and gruelling factory floor conditions probably come to mind.
We’ve all heard the stories. We’ve seen the photos.
That’s not what Samsung’s mobile device factory in Gumi, South Korea was like when I visited in early April. The facility, which resembles a college campus more than a manufacturing center, is spotted with well-manicured outdoor recreational areas that have soothing music pumping from outdoor speakers disguised as rocks.
Inside, it’s so pristine, so clean you could eat off the floor. Fluorescent lighting reflects off the spotless, white linoleum. Visitors have to wear plastic shrinkwrap bootie things on their shoes to prevent dust and dirt from getting inside. The atmosphere is more like a sanitary hospital wing than a facility that pumps out thousands of smartphones a day.
On the basement level below the factory floor, there are lounges for workers, complete with a library and video games. Next to that, there are classrooms and mockup workstations where employees can learn how to build new Samsung products.
Basically, it’s the complete opposite of what you’d expect after years of horror stories on the human toll it takes to build your smartphone.
Gumi is a factory town that’s about a three-hour drive south of Seoul. At the center of the city, you can see a bunch of factories from major Korean electronics companies like LG and Samsung with company housing, shopping malls, and restaurants dotted around it. Workers typically live in company-subsidized apartments that border each manufacturing center.
Most of the workers at Samsung’s factory appeared to be young women in their late teens and early-to-mid twenties. The Samsung guide who gave me and a few other journalists a tour of the factory said many workers join the company right after high school if they’re unable to go to college. A lot of them end up leaving the factory when they’re ready to get married and start a family, but Samsung also offers college courses at night for employees who want to further their education.
Workers are rated on their performance too. Along one wall of the factory floor, there’s a giant bulletin board with each employee’s photo and a quantified rating of how well they’re doing. The board fosters competition, a constant reminder for workers that the floor bosses are keeping tabs on everything they do.
The room I saw was where workers were putting together initial shipments of Samsung’s new flagship phone, the Galaxy S5, a few days before launch. The factory floor is divided into units where a handful of workers test the phones they assemble for basic stuff like camera and screen functionality. Since the Galaxy S5 comes in several variations for different regions and wireless carriers, there are a lot of specialised tests workers have to do before a phone can be packaged and shipped.
The Gumi factory isn’t Samsung’s only manufacturing facility where it makes the Galaxy S5 and other gizmos. Samsung has factories all of the world, so it’s tough to tell if what I saw in Gumi is representative of the company’s entire manufacturing network. It’s very possible things aren’t as rosy in the poorer countries where Samsung operates.
Still, it was fascinating to see. Unlike some of its rivals, Samsung is in the unique position of being able to control all aspects of its smartphone production from chips to screens to software to assembly.
Disclosure: Samsung paid for a portion of our trip to South Korea for this story, including the flight and some meals. Business Insider paid for most expenses, including lodging, meals, and other transportation.
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