According to a report from DigiTimes, Foxconn, the renowned Taiwanese manufacturing powerhouse responsible for Apple’s iPhone and a plethora of other prominent electronic devices, is actively pursuing an extensive automation initiative aimed at minimizing its reliance on human employees. Dai Jia-peng, the general manager of Foxconn’s automation committee, has outlined a comprehensive three-phase plan involving the implementation of software and in-house robotics units known as Foxbots in their Chinese factories.
In the initial phase of Foxconn’s automation strategy, the focus is on replacing tasks that are perilous or involve monotonous labor that human workers are disinclined to undertake. Subsequently, in the second phase, the emphasis shifts to enhancing efficiency by optimizing production lines, thus reducing the surplus number of robots employed. Finally, the third and ultimate phase entails the complete automation of entire factories, with only a minimal workforce assigned to crucial aspects such as production, logistics, testing, and inspection processes, as stated by Jia-peng.
The gradual and consistent progression of manufacturing automation has been an enduring presence within Foxconn for an extended period. In the preceding year, the company unveiled an ambitious target of achieving a remarkable 30 percent automation level within its Chinese factories by 2020.
According to Jia-peng, the company currently boasts a production capacity of approximately 10,000 Foxbots annually, all of which possess the capability to supplant human labor. In March, Foxconn said it had automated away 60,000 jobs at one of its factories.
In the long term, robots are cheaper than human labor. Moreover, the process of programming robots to handle multiple tasks, or reprogramming them to undertake functions beyond their initial purpose, presents substantial challenges in terms of complexity, expense, and time consumption. That is why, in labor markets like China, human workers have thus far been cheaper than robots. To stay competitive, Foxconn understands it will have to transition to automation.
Complicating the matter is the Chinese government, which has incentivized human employment in the country. Local governments in places such as Chengdu, Shenzhen, and Zhengzhou have provided Foxconn with billions of dollars in bonuses, energy contracts, and public infrastructure to support the company’s expansion.
As of last year, Foxconn employed as many as 1.2 million people, making it one of the largest employers in the world. More than 1 million of those workers reside in China, often at elaborate, city-like campuses that house and feed employees.
In a comprehensive report recently published by The New York Times, the various government incentives provided for Foxconn’s prominent Zhengzhou factory were outlined. This factory, often referred to as “iPhone City” locally, stands as Foxconn’s largest and most advanced facility, manufacturing an astounding 500,000 iPhones per day. According to Jia-peng from Foxconn, specific production lines within the Zhengzhou factory have already entered the second phase of automation and are steadily progressing towards achieving complete automation in the upcoming years.
Consequently, it appears thatone of China’s major employers will soon face the intersection of its automation aspirations and the advantageous transformation of rural regions into thriving industrial hubs.
However, it is crucial to recognize a significant consequence associated with automation, one that may specifically benefit a company like Foxconn. The manufacturer has grappled with well-documented issues regarding worker conditions and a distressingly high rate of employee suicides. To address these concerns, Foxconn has resorted to implementing suicide netting in its factories across China and undertaking measures to protect itself from employee lawsuits.
By replacing human workers with robots, Foxconn can potentially alleviate the challenges stemming from its treatment of employees, without necessarily making substantial improvements to living and working conditions or raising wages.