Robots and Automation

In manufacturing circles, the recent headline that Foxconn, Apple’s biggest contract manufacturer, intends to install 60,000 robots to replace workers is big news.  The implications of that news are something we should all take time to consider.

Work.  Is there anything we do to avoid it?  Since the earliest days of the industrial revolution human beings have been inventing ways to avoid work through mechanization and automation.  Is the Foxconn announcement a validation that robot workers are what we have been after as a civilization for hundreds of years?

Mankind has harnessed animals do the hard work of tilling ground, grinding wheat and transporting goods.  Making clothing, for example, was done by hand for one’s own family.  Mechanization of weaving and sowing in the 1500’s led to huge increases in production that made clothes widely available and less expensive.   By using water and eventually, steam powered facilities, there was enough product at a low enough cost to sell to people everywhere.

The notion that China, one of the lowest wage labor markets in the world, is having to use robots instead of workers is astounding.  The fact is that Chinese labor has increased in cost and the electronics industry in particular has major issues in the nature of the work and working conditions for which Foxconn has been criticized in the past.  Let’s face it, robot arms don’t kill themselves.  They may not work correctly, or may fail to work at all, but that is another set of problems.

In electronic assembly there are high volume, repetitive motions required to complete the assembly of phones and computers.  As package and interconnect densities have increased over the last few years, the components present challenges that have to be dealt with in manufacturing.  Interconnect systems with hundreds of contact points in very small spaces on surfaces that are flexing are problems not only of materials science, but push the boundary of what is possible in the assembly process.

The current generation of assembly robots is able to handle tasks requiring fine dexterity with absolute repeatability and speed greater than any human.  This is exactly what they are designed to do.  The impact on the labor market takes place when a robot can be purchased for less than the cost of wages and benefits for a worker for two years.  Or when the productivity increase is big enough to pay back the investment of the robot.

The consequences are how this will roll out in the next decade and how the overall labor pool required to keep our industries operating will need to change.

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