Foxconn, the Taiwanese supplier best known for making iPads and iPhones, has run into some well-publicized human rights trouble over the past few years, including multiple suicides and strikes. To its credit, Apple has made strides in fixing the suicide problem. But ultimately, it might just be easier for Foxconn to ditch some of the workers and replace them with pleasant, easygoing robots.
Foxconn announced a plan earlier this year to roll out one million robots over the next three years, up from 10,000 today. Now the supplier says it will build the robots without outside help at a new intelligent robotics manufacturing hub in Taiwan. Or, as CEO Terry Gou calls it, an "intelligent robotics kingdom."
The robot kingdom is a good business move for Foxconn. In addition to employee unrest, Foxconn has recently been dealing with the "cost of labor, including moving people into dorms, through training school, onto the assembly floor, and keeping them trained," explains Frank Tobe, publisher of the Robot Report. At the same time, China’s growing wealth is causing wages to rise. It’s simpler, in other words, to deal with robots than raise salaries (and robots don’t need suicide nets).
Building so many robots isn’t cheap (it will cost $223 million), but the move could generate up to $4 billion in production value for Foxconn over the next three to five years. It will also allow the supplier to replace half a million workers.
"The robots will be sanders, polishers, welders—the basic dull kind of work that has to be done. The intricate work is still left up to the humans," says Tobe. At least, until we figure out how to build cheap robots to do the complicated stuff, too.