Foxconn hits bumps in road to full automation

Electronics assembler’s love affair with robots goes on despite slowdown in the process of industrial automation due to complex manufacturing operations

PUBLISHED : Friday, 29 July, 2016, 10:00pm
UPDATED : Friday, 29 July, 2016, 10:23pm

Foxconn Technology Group, the world’s largest contract assembler of electronics, said it is slowing the process of converting manual labour to full automation because humans are cheaper and more flexible to adapt to an ever-shorter life cycle of consumer products.

The company had predicted installing one million robots over a three-year period in its China factories, according to a 2011 forecast by founder and chairman Terry Gou.

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Instead, it installed about 40,000 fully operational industrial robots as well as hundreds of thousands of other pieces of automated equipment, and still has one million workers in more than 20 factories across the country putting together Apple’s iPhones, iPads and smart devices for several other Chinese and overseas brands.

“Highly automated manufacturing is still an ideal,” said Dai Chia-peng, the general manager of Foxconn’s automation technology department committee, during an interview last Wednesday with the South China Morning Post. “The reality of manufacturing operations is more complex.”

Dai said the pace of applying robots in Foxconn’s factories had slowed in the past year, following current technical limitations in automation and concerns over cost-effective manufacturing management.

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Global sales and installation of industrial robots rose 12 per cent last year, slowing from the previous year’s 29 per cent pace, as a slowdown in China’s economic growth and changing appetites for electronic gadgets among Chinese consumers forced factories to postpone automation.

“The life cycle of consumer products like smartphones has become shorter and shorter, so it’s not cost-effective to spend money on a fully automated production line,” Dai said. “Humans are more flexible and cost-effective at a big number of workstations.”

Foxconn is also taking advantage of the lull in buying robots to develop its own automatons with an eye to selling these equipment to other manufacturers.

Known as Foxbots, these automatons were capable of performing more than 20 types of manufacturing tasks common among industrial factories, including pressing, printing, polishing and quality testing, said Dai.

The company also plans to sell Foxbots, using its own experience in contract manufacturing to provide automation solutions for other factories.

It now has the capacity to churn out more than 10,000 Foxbots a year, employing more than 1,200 workers in Taipei, Shenzhen and Jincheng in Shanxi province.

“We can help clients realign their entire production line based on Foxconn’s understanding and experience in automation,” Dai said.

Foxconn had already automated up to 70 per cent of its mechanical processes, he said.

Some “lights out” – or fully automated – factories had been established in Zhengzhou, Kunshan and Shenzhen.

The company was also redeploying some of the robots that had already been installed, Dai said.

“We learned through trial and error how to optimise our automation solutions and redeploy our stock robots to complete new tasks,” he said.

On the assembly line, where gadgets are put together by hand, machines are only able to handle about 5 per cent of the tasks because machines are still unable to replace the hand-eye coordination of human workers.

“We would need a breakthrough in innovation if we were to be able to replace workers with automation,” Dai said.

To be sure, with 40,000 robots bought and installed, Foxconn still counts as one of the biggest customers of industrial automation in China.

Last month, the Robotic Industries Association awarded its Engelberger Robotics Award to Dai, citing the company’s role in pushing China to become the world’s largest and fastest-growing market for automatons.

“Compared with those domestic companies investing aggressively in the industry for governments’ vast incentives, Foxconn’s automation target is pragmatic for its real manufacturing demand,” said Wang Cairong, the executive director at the China Artificial Intelligence Robot Industry Alliance.