They build cars, assemble TV panels and vacuum floors. But can robots build an iPhone?
For Foxconn, the manufacturing giant that builds Apple's iPhone, it's an enticing prospect, and one that could not come at a better time. The Taiwan-based firm employs more than a million people at its factories in China, but lately it has come under fire for alleged mistreatment of its workers. Last month it was forced to close one of its biggest plants for a day after thousands of workers rioted. And Foxconn has been facing labor shortages and is hiring recruits as young as 16 to staff its factories.
There are signs that Foxconn is keen to embrace robots as a solution. CEO Terry Gou made headlines last year when he said Foxconn planned deploy a million robots over the next three years to perform assembly line tasks. Soon after, the company broke ground on an R&D facility devoted to "intelligent automation."
But while it's tempting to imagine row upon row of shiny robots piecing together the "iPhone 6," some experts said that's unlikely to happen soon. They cite the cost of deployment, the need for flexibility to meet fast-changing production orders, and the type of detailed work involved.
Foxconn, which also makes products for Microsoft, Nintendo and others, declined to discuss its robot plans, citing "commercial sensitivity." But according to one Foxconn worker at a plant in Zhengzhou, robots are already used in the production of the iPhone 5 and iPhone 4S, but only for basic assembly line tasks.
One type of robot is programmed to remove iPhones from 24 testing bays after their Wi-Fi functions have been checked. "To use a metaphor, it's like 24 bread ovens," said the worker, who asked not to be named because he is not authorized to speak for the company. "When the bread has been baked, the door to the oven opens and the robot removes it and places it back on the assembly line."
In a sense, the robot is doing the job of 24 people and helping to streamline operations. But for now, Foxconn's robots are used primarily for these "pick and place" tasks, and have yet to advance to the stage of assembling parts, said an analyst with first-hand knowledge of the manufacturing work involved, but who wished to go unnamed.
"I don't see how robots will be able to assemble (the iPhone) in the near future," the analyst said, citing the detailed work involved. Building an iPhone involves hundreds of small steps that are each handled by hundreds of workers along the assembly line, according to the analyst.
The work includes pushing thin wires through holes only slightly larger in diameter than the wire itself, she said. Other tasks include laying Kapton tape, a type of industrial tape, in narrow crevices along the sides of components. While the work is easy for humans, robots are ill-suited for the task, the analyst said.
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