On the Receiving End

By LE PAN staff - LE PAN | Winter 2016-2017

There are phones, and then there are Gigaset phones.
LE PAN is given exclusive access to the brutal regime the company’s models
endure before being deemed fit to sell. Those of a sensitive
disposition should look away now.

Photography by Philip Sinden

In a low-slung, garage-like building, in a small, unremarkable German town, unsuspecting phones are about to be subjected to testing that would stretch the endurance levels of American Navy Seals. For here, in Bocholt, close to the Dutch border, lies the factory of German phone giant Gigaset. The listed company – which grew out of Siemens’ telecommunications arm – specialises in producing phones for homes and businesses, its models honed with precise German engineering. And it is in this corner of the vast Gigaset complex that 450 direct workers produce nine million units a year, helping to generate about €300 million (US$330.6 million) in annual revenue.

Making it past testing in this inhospitable environment is quite an achievement, with conditions bleak for the crash-test phones arriving from research and development (R&D). Before a new model enters production, prototypes must endure tortuous trials: over several hours, temperatures vary from 55 to -25 degrees Celsius in a cycle that is repeated five times. Phones are then dropped onto a steel plate, 16 times, from as high as 1.52 metres.

Head of software development Frank Heinelt in Gigaset’s radio-frequency (RF) testing room, with the SL 540 handset. Here, the team measures the RF radiation emitted by phones, and checks that no other radio waves interfere with a model’s performance

In an enclosed chamber, dust swirls around in desert-like conditions before settling on the phones in a thick layer. Over five days, acrid artificial sweat, infused with acetic acid, seeps through blotting paper, coating the handsets with a level of perspiration few deodorants could combat. Phones that make it through this ‘environmental simulation laboratory’ must then endure electric shocks and radiation tests. All this before they can be approved for manufacture in keeping with high-quality German standards.

The same level of rigour applies to the production process itself. No fewer than 200 tests are carried out in the factory’s vast, hangar-like hall – on everything from plastic granules to circuit boards to packaged handsets. A low hum, reminiscent of a vacuum cleaner, accompanies the lightning-quick actions of robot arms working alongside their human colleagues. Up to 16,000 complete units (comprising handset and base station) are produced during each eight-hour shift.

“People don’t buy our products because they’re cheap. Whatever we did in the past, and what we will do in the future, is oriented towards quality. Gigaset’s products are known for being robust and reliable – while looking elegant and timeless. Some of our customers have Gigaset 1000 or 2000 models, which they are still using 15 years later.”

– Frank Heinelt,
Head Of Software Development

Employees head home, many of them by bicycle. But in the dark, now-empty simulation labs, tests continue through the night. The lab never sleeps. Rather, a rapid beat that wouldn’t sound out of place in a nightclub sounds continuously. Each keypad button will be tapped 100,000 times over the course of four days – just one more element of the lifetime’s worth of beating that phones undergo in just three weeks. Technology moves fast, and there’s no time to waste in getting the next big thing to market. Providing, of course, that it has what it takes.

Each button on a phone’s keypad must withstand 100,000 taps – a lifetime’s worth – over just four days Right: A phone slides in and out of a pocket containing cut-up tissues, dust and tobacco, 5,000 times

“We test the life cycle [of a phone] before it even starts its life. Over the course of three weeks, there are about 30 different tests that it has to pass before we release it for production.”

– Gunther Schlingemann,
Head Of Quality And Service Assurance

Dust blows around a sealed chamber, settling slowly on phones and entering every crevice – on the keypad, earpiece and microphone. If a model doesn’t work once it’s been dusted off, then it’s back to the drawing board

“Twenty years ago we were fully manual; now we are fully automated, but we are going back to semi-automated in some areas. More flexibility for the customer is necessary. Robots are best at producing high volumes. Robots working with humans is the way of the future: a hybrid system that keeps jobs in Germany, but combines them with the quality and precision of robots.”

– Jörg Wissing
Head Of Automation

Fitted with an earpiece and microphone, a mannequin bust in Gigaset’s soundproofed acoustics lab tests the clarity of sound transmitted and received by a phone. Below: Phones must also pass a screen pressure test

This post is also available in: Chinese (Simplified)


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