You may recall that last month, Foxconn was making waves with their plan to automate some of their Chinese factories, in order to cut down on labour costs (which are rising in China, believe it or not) and avoid some of the controversy that has arisen due to their poor working conditions. The plan was to deploy a bunch of robots in their factories, replacing some of their more low-level production line workers with the automated machines.
Unfortunately, it now looks like the timeline on the deployment of those robots is being delayed. A report in the Wall Street Journal says that Foxconn will not be able to deploy the robots as fast as they’d like, due to complications regarding the cost of the robots, as well as concerns about their ability to do the jobs required of them.
One of the biggest issues facing the proposed Foxconn robots is that Foxconn changes their production lines to make different products quite often. It won’t be cost effective to make a robot that’s capable of building a certain component, for example, if that component is going in a product that Foxconn will only be manufacturing for a few months. Instead, they must find a way to make robots with some sort of universal production line capabilities, and that’s a much harder task than just making a robot that can perform a single menial task ad infinitum.
For now, it looks like Foxconn’s dream of a automated future may be farther away than they had hoped. As China’s labour costs continue to rise, Foxconn will be raising the manufacturing rates they offer to consumer electronics companies like Apple; in fact, they’ve already raised their costs substantially over the last two years. If they don’t find a way to keep their costs as low as we’ve come to expect from Chinese manufacturing, they may find themselves replaced by factories in other countries where the labour costs are still at rock bottom.