Man vs. Machine Print E-mail
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Written by Randall Sherman   
Monday, 08 August 2011 19:06
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Why Foxconn’s robots of the future might be a good thing.

A great deal of hand-wringing and speculation has occurred over the recent announcement that Foxconn plans to install an estimated one million robots over the next three years, up from about 10,000 robots in use now. The company’s chairman, Terry Gou, correctly stated to his staff that he planned to move its more than one million employees up the value chain beyond basic manufacturing work. Critics fear the change would result in a company that was previously “mostly human” becoming one that is “mostly robot.” The critical question becomes, “What ‘kind’ of robots do you want?”

Machine robots do have a way of replacing inefficient human labor activities, as the automotive industry can attest. In that sector, robots do a much better job than humans of painting, welding and assembling cars. As a result, we find the percentage of robot assembly in car manufacturing increasing every year – now without apology. The benefits of using robots with regard to quality, accuracy and improved productivity (no breaks, sick days, little downtime or accidents) is beyond dispute, much to the frustration of humans who lose these relatively low-skilled jobs. The result has been much cheaper and higher quality automobiles as repetitive tasks are assumed by machines, thereby forcing humans to migrate to higher value-add work activities that are uniquely human.

The high-tech electronics industry is one of the most automated sectors in the world. Printed circuit board assembly today is performed almost 100% by robotics using surface mount technology (SMT). The only parts not placed by automated surface mount machines are components that are odd-shaped and not easily conformable to pick-and-place equipment because they lack standardized packaging. While special machines exist to automate assembly of these odd components, lower-volume electronics manufacturers cannot always justify the cost, instead electing to use humans to place and solder these parts manually. As with the automotive industry, automated assembly of PCBs has led to higher quality, lower cost and enormous strides in productivity. Today, end-users benefit by purchasing superior products at lower cost (think computer notebooks just 10 years ago compared to today).

Robot technology in manufacturing electronics assemblies has advanced mainly in speed and in handling smaller-pitched components. The so-called “box” side of the product assembly (that is, the finished product steps, as compared to the PCB board assembly) is still largely dependent on manual labor, although signficant inroads in robotics have been made in boxing and palletizing finished products. Yet, greater improvements can be achieved in automating the assembly of subsystems and modules such as power supplies, LCD displays, batteries, keyboards, connectors – and even riveting and screwing together the final assembly. Only a small percentage of robot technology has been applied to these tasks because, to date, the cost of labor in China (and other low-cost regions) has offered such a gap as to not justify the capital investment needed for a robotic solution.

Labor cost is only one element of the total cost of assembly, of course. Both hard and soft dollar costs are becoming increasingly vital to companies like Foxconn that deal with such a massive volume of electronic product assemblies. In 2010, more than 362 million PC products (including tablets) and over 1.3 billion mobile handsets were manufactured, with nearly all the PCs and most of the handsets made in China. It is estimated that Foxconn alone produced over 80 million PC products and perhaps as much as 500 million mobile handsets. To manage this, the company employs over 500 SMT assembly lines throughout China in its factories that operate 23 hours a day, seven days a week. Given the scale of such an operation, it begs the question where additional efficiencies could be found by robots to remove costs and further improve productivity.

Last Updated on Friday, 12 August 2011 11:47


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