iPhone manufacturer announces plans to automate factories

Foxconn, the Taiwanese manufacturing firm largely responsible for making the iPhone and several other mass-market tech devices has revealed plans to “automate entire factories” by replacing the majority of human employees with software and robots designed in-house.

According to MacRumors and The Verge, the company plans to carry out its automation process in three phases, the first of which will involve using machines to perform tasks believed to be too dangerous or repetitious for human employees to continue doing. In phase two, entire production lines will be replaced, and by phase three, factories will be nearly 100% automated.

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These goals will be accomplished using software and in-house robotics units known as Foxbots, of which the company produces 10,000 per year, according to reports. By the end of phase three, only a minimal number of human workers will remain. They will be assigned to the production, logistics, testing and inspection processes, Foxconn officials told DigiTimes.

Foxconn has slowly been working towards automating its manufacturing process for years now, having previously set a benchmark of 30% automation at its Chinese factories by 2020, said The Verge. The company said that it has already deployed at least 40,000 Foxbots at factories located in China, and in March, it said that it had eliminated 60,000 human jobs at one of its facilities.

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While, as The Verge pointed out, robotic labor is cheaper than human workers in the long run, the up-front costs can be expensive, and it can be difficult and time-consuming to program these machines to perform a series of tasks, or to complete jobs they were not originally designed for. Also, the Chinese government offers companies incentives for using human workers.

However, the website said, Foxconn “understands it will have to transition to automation” in order “to stay competitive.” In addition to developing robots for labor, company officials report that they are developing machines that will provide medical care. However, they recognize that robots will not be able to completely replace human workers, because people are flexible enough to quickly switch from one task to another without needing extensive reprogramming.

How far along is Foxconn’s plan? As Dai Jia-peng, general manager of the firm’s Automation Technology Development Committee, told Digital Times, factories in Chengdu, western China, Shenzhen, southern China, and Zhengzhou, northern China, have all already been brought to the second or third phases of the program. Furthermore, he said that there are 10 fully automated or “lights-out” production lines in factories located in Chengdu, Chongqing and Zhengzhou.

While the loss of jobs is not good news for the Chinese work force, The Verge explained that there is “a central side effect to automation that would specifically benefit” Foxconn, which has in the past been linked to poor working conditions and an abnormally high rate of suicide among its employees. “By replacing humans with robots, Foxconn would relieve itself of any issues stemming from its treatment of workers without having to actually improve living and working conditions,” the website added. “But in doing so, it will ultimately end up putting hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people out of work.”


Image credit: FoxConn