Chinese manufacturer Foxconn may do its part to hasten the arrival of the robo-calypse as it considers scaling up introduction of a robot work force that some pundits believe could become cheaper than human workers by 2014.
The 21st Century Business Herald spoke with manufacturing analysts and experts that identified the year 2014 as a possible inflection point for Foxconn when the costs of robot-driven manufacturing will have dropped below those of human labor.
Last year, Foxconn CEO Terry Gou outlined an ambitious plan to ramp up from 10,000 robots to 300,000 this year and a total of 1 million by 2014. Considering that the company employed 1 million workers in mainland China at the time of the announcement, the project’s scale would presumably replace a significant portion of its workforce.
With the electronics industry booming, especially orders of smartphones and tablets, Foxconn has faced trouble finding workers at some of its facilities and has even been accused of turning to student interns to fill peak season personnel needs. That problem is expected to get even more severe, in coming years as demographic shifts in the Chinese population show shrinking numbers of young people.
Foxconn’s move toward automated manufacturing has been partly driven by accidents that took place at its facilities. A Fair Labor Association audit earlier this year revealed that the company had brought in robots for a dangerous polishing process after an explosion occurred at a factory. Apple hired a consultant to revamp the process and changes were made to remove humans from the work.
“I’ve seen the improvements that have been made, and they’re dramatic. The room is full of robots. It’s totally automated,” FLA president Auret van Heerden said.
According to the report, earlier estimates had suggested that Foxconn would have put together “the world’s largest smart robot production base” by 2016.
Foxconn’s shift to automated processes is likely to bring a mixed response. On one hand, it will help alleviate issues of labor violations like overtime and unsafe working conditions. On the other, it’s a sharp reduction of jobs, which is hardly ever popular.
I, for one, welcome our new robotic overlords. The only question I have is…who’s going to manufacture the robots?
Update: Separate reports are claiming that Foxconn may have met some delays in hitting its current targets for robot workers. One source claims that the company has only implement 15,000 robots so far.
Image credit: Daniel Berehulak / Getty Images