Foxconn's effort to automate its plants is facing challenges due to high costs and rapid changes in technology, reports the WSJ.
Automated production of electronics such as iPhones, televisions and game consoles could be a game changer for Foxconn as it helps the company become more efficient while also distancing it from the suicides and workplace conflicts that have become synonymous with its name in the West since 2009. But some executives at Hon Hai said that the robotic arms installed in some facilities can only perform simple and repetitive tasks like moving a piece of a component. Many of the complicated processes, such as polishing the iPhone's metal casing, still require human attention.
Another problem with introducing robots into the production process is inefficiency given the short production cycle of most consumer electronics, said Hon Hai spokesman Louis Woo. "By the time you are familiar or stabilize the process it's already the end of the product [manufacturing cycle]. Then there is another product coming up," he said.
Despite these challenges, Hon Hai Chairman Terry Gou said he hopes to introduce a fully automated plant in 5-10 years and eliminate "monotonous, repetitive tasks" through automation within a "few years." This is a step back from his previous goal of 300,000 robotic arms by the end of this year and 1 million by 2014.
"The chairman's 1 million robotic arms target is just like a carrot in front of the donkey. We are always chasing after the technology," said a Hon Hai executive.
One worker tells the WSJ that he was moved to a new production line at the Shenzhen Longhua plant after robotic arms were brought in to do his work.
"There were about 20 to 30 people on the line before, but after they added the robots it went down to five people, who just pushed buttons and ran the machines." His initial job was plugging components into a motherboard.
It's estimated that it would cost between $2.1 billion to over $10 billion to build a fully automated plant depending on the size and sophistication of the robots.