1 Million Robots To Replace 1 Million Human Jobs At Foxconn? First Robots Have Arrived.

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Foxconn, the Chinese electronics manufacturer that builds numerous mobile devices and gaming consoles, has been in the media lately because of labor issues, complaints over working conditions, rumored riots, and even suicides, all occurring in the past few years as demand for smartphones and tablets is skyrocketing.

While consumers began to complain in response to media coverage over working conditions, prompting Apple to hire an audit of the factories, Foxconn's President Terry Gou had another idea for dealing with labor concerns: replace people with robots. In fact, last year Gou said that the company would be aiming to replace 1 million Foxconn workers with robots within 3 years.

It appears as if Gou has started the ball in motion. Since the announcement, a first batch of 10,000 robots --- aptly named Foxbots -- appear to have made its way into at least one factory, and by the end of 2012, another 20,000 more will be installed.

Though little is really known about these new bots, the rate of robot installation thus far is much lower than Gou's original claim; however, the evidence suggests that it is difficult to know exactly what is going on in the factories and what is coming down the pipe. On top of that, these robots are manufactured in house, meaning that little information about them needs to be shared with the outside world in marketing reports, for example.

The FoxBots that have been installed apparently are designed for simple, yet precise repetitive actions common for simple manufacturing robots (lifting, selecting, placement). When it comes to automated factories, robots that can perform these tasks aren't really anything new. But one look at the photo of the robot and it's clear this isn't just a simple machine, but a similar type of robotic arm to those used in assembly lines of automotive manufacturers.

That means more sophistication might be possible with these bots alone or in tandem.

As part of the investigation into conditions inside the factory, a few camera crews have been given access. As we reported back in April, you can see for yourself what conditions appear to be like:

According to a translated page from the Chinese site Techweb, each robot costs between $20,000 to $25,000, which is over three times the average salary of one worker. However, amid international pressure, Foxconn continues to increase worker salaries with a 25 percent bump occurring earlier this year.

It's worth noting that you can see automation is already part of the manufacturing process at Foxconn, but the new Foxbots are aimed to not merely complement factor workers, but replace them. As the world's largest manufacturer of electronics, this move wouldn't be happening unless the robots were ultimately cheaper than human beings.

If Foxconn ramps up the robot rollout, it'll be interesting to see what the worldwide response is. While there are those who worry that the rise of robots will bring about the end of work as we know it, others see the Foxconn working conditions as violating human rights, and therefore, might welcome robotic replacements, if it means that conditions for the remaining human workforce could improve.

Because Foxconn employs 1.2 million workers, robot replacements both solve worker problems and create them. It should come as no surprise then that many manufacturers are watching the situation at the company closely.

It would be too easy to criticize Foxconn for a move like this, but the company is not alone -- Canon reportedly aims to do the same thing.

An important statistic from the International Federation of Robotics is that the number of operational robots in China increased by 42 percent from 2010 to 2011 (close to 75,000 robots), an unprecedented growth in the 50-year history of robots. At that rate of adoption, it would be 2019 before there were 1 million robots in all of China, but odds are that the use of robots is only going to increase as the pendulum that led to the economic boom in China swings back in the other direction.

In the end, we all know that the future of manufacturing is all about robots. It's a question now of how fast the transition will occur and whether governments, businesses, and organizations will be able to adjust with the shifting workforce and economies.

During this time of flux, many are looking for leaders to take the lead. Whether Foxconn proves it can correct its current problems with robots or digs an even deeper hole by its displacement of a large workforce will play out in the immediate future.

Regardless, it means bots are here to stay.

image: Techweb

David J. Hill

Managing Director, Digital Media at Singularity University
I've been writing for Singularity Hub since 2011 and have been Editor-in-Chief since 2014. My interests cover digital education, publishing, and media, but I'll always be a chemist at heart.

Discussion — 25 Responses

  • anthrobotic November 12, 2012 on 5:23 pm

    And then there’s also the issue of “Hey China, robots are coming to get your economy.” So is China Hosed? It breaks down like this right here: Punch #1: a move to robotic labor; Punch #2: China realizes they have very limited product-related intellectual capital; Punch #3 & Kick to the Junk: The developed world gets their own manufacture-bots (along with 3D printers), and saves a bundle on shipping & handling. “Hello, China! Welcome to Capitalism. Ummm, You Might Not Like the Next Part…” http://goo.gl/nOH8r

    • Finno anthrobotic November 14, 2012 on 4:09 am

      You forget that not only is China a manufacturing base but it’s also a market. A very big market that US companies are clamouring over themselves to get a piece of. Once manufacturing is completely automated it will be moved either near the market or near the raw materials.
      There’s also other considerations such as he who has the best robots wins(like varying costs of labor you will see varying costs of robotics and efficiencies). Who makes these robots? The Taiwanese?

  • Sly November 12, 2012 on 8:05 pm

    So maybe now it’s time to stop the “working for money” era !
    And give evry body enought money to live, and they can work if they like it.
    The only probleme is, take the power out of the hands of the wealthies and give it back to the people.

    • Sven Sly November 13, 2012 on 3:45 am

      It’s true what you say. The only solution for this automation “dilemma”, which is not a real dilemma, since not having to work as much is a good thing (more time for education, living, having fun, etc..), is to introduce some form of basic income for everyone. This income should be the same for everyone regardless of their social situation. That way, we could get rid of the monstrous buerocratic and in itself expensive social welfare administration (nix child support, retirement, social security, joblessness insurance, etc..).
      The money for those payments would have to be raised through taxes on the other hand. However, these taxes should not be income taxes, since the number of people who work will decrease more and more. Instead, we should raise taxes on consumption only, such as VAT/sales taxes on all products. That way, comanies would have to pay these taxes exactly where the products are bought (and not on the Cayman’s where the company’s headquarters happen to be).
      Of course, for most of the people, things wouldn’t change much, since they probably would keep working anyway to keep the salary (on top of the basic income). What would change though is that cheap labourers would not be as prone to abuse anymore and companies would be required to create fulfilling jobs that people like doing (or pay them more in return).

      • Aaron Cole Sven November 13, 2012 on 12:48 pm

        I support the idea of a guaranteed basic income. Now, how do we convince the “they voted to get free stuff” crowed that it’s pretty much our only hope for survival as a society?

        I really don’t want to wait around for our unemployment to go into the twenties or thirties while still being forced to pay for basic necessities.

    • xgrassboy999 Sly June 29, 2015 on 8:55 pm

      That is exactly what “The Second Intelligent Species” says will happen. Heck of a read for $1.00 on Amazon.

  • Mark Panszky November 13, 2012 on 12:42 am

    Foxconn is not Chinese. It is Taiwanese.

  • turtles_allthewaydown November 13, 2012 on 8:21 pm

    These robots are internally designed and produced. How many people does it take to design the robots?
    As it says, most of these are tedious jobs, but if they can be replaced by robots, then why have the factory in China? Perhaps we can start moving factories back to the U.S. with however many jobs it has.
    (I’m thinking the next 10 years, you guys are thinking about 30-40 years from now).

    • anthrobotic turtles_allthewaydown November 13, 2012 on 8:27 pm

      Turtles, that’s exactly what I’m saying, yo – combine that with 3D printing, and Japan slides back into that #2 Economy in the World slot straight away.

    • abdussamad turtles_allthewaydown September 23, 2013 on 12:01 am

      Because the workers you do hire are cheaper in China, raw materials cost less, electricity is cheaper (although that might change because of fracking), sourcing parts is easier and faster because you have an entire eco system of parts manufacturers nearby and there is a ready market of 1.4 billion consumers that you can also serve if exports don’t work out! Finally for a lot of industries the US does not have any manufacturers at all. The only manufacturers are Chinese or from other South East Asian countries. Naturally these businesses are more comfortable working in their own backyard.

  • Richard Morgan November 13, 2012 on 9:06 pm

    Finally the world we were promised, where robots do all the work and we humans can sit back and live a life of luxury.

  • Orean Keels Jr. November 13, 2012 on 9:52 pm

    The author seems to (strangely) think that it will take 1 million robots to replace 1 million workers, or that Gou’s statement inferred such. That would, simply, be stupid. One manufacturing robot has the potential to replace many, many workers because they work exponentially faster and at nearly 100% efficiency. I don’t see that the installation of 10,000 robots is off track to replace 1 million workers in any respect. In fact, if they are installing 20,000 more, the number of workers might go well over 1 million.

  • Elmoamf Paglia November 14, 2012 on 5:41 am

    What a bitterness… The hypocrisy of the human being

  • lezah November 14, 2012 on 8:27 am

    I am fascinated with robotics. Question:
    Can robots reproduce themselves? lezah

  • Jesus_Is_Fiction November 14, 2012 on 2:17 pm

    Having robots perform all of these tedious manual labor tasks is something that is decades overdue.

  • Michael Russell November 14, 2012 on 2:51 pm

    So, I just got a job making 1,000,000 robots. Pays well.

    • David J. Hill Michael Russell November 28, 2012 on 4:55 pm

      that logic is sound, actually.

      won’t work for everyone, won’t work in the long run, but for now, a niche is a niche.

  • Paul Eichhorn November 18, 2012 on 8:29 am

    One of the reasons I haven’t inveighed even heavier against exporting our jobs overseas was because I’d recognized that the crappy capitalist meme of zeroing out of our labor costs merely prefigures the age of robotics. I didn’t want to give the bad guys any more ideas.

    So. The worm has turned. A revolution will be required to secure for everyone having a purposeful, humane job paying a living wage as a basic human right. Anything less is the work of the Devil.

  • Robert Schreib November 18, 2012 on 4:09 pm

    ?? America is still unable to cope with the millions of jobs lost to China economically. What’s going to happen to all of these Chinese workers when they lose their jobs to robots? If the middle class isn’t making any money due to not having ANY jobs, how do they expect them to be able to afford to buy all these cutting edge electronic products?

  • Tesla Berry November 27, 2012 on 6:23 pm

    you see the real story here is about cheap SKILLED labor. why cannot america make giant factories with robots doing this work. it couldn’t afford the engineering talent, which china has developed over the past 20 years in droves.

    the average cost of a well paid engineer in china is probably a fraction of that in the usa. an engineer capable of putting together robotic arms liek that in house in the u.s. is, even in these difficult times, at least 80k. quite possibly a lot more for the team leaders.

    it’s gonna take 100 engineers to put together 10,000 robots + lots of laborers to help them.
    i’m sure someone has a spread sheet on the cost of salaries for everyone. i’m sure if you saw that spread sheet, you’d understand why i am writing the story is about the cost of cheap talented labor.

    it’s not about robots. automation of this sort has been routine for a long time.

    and remember these same armies of engineers are going to start building drones, missiles, tanks and sophisticated radars sooner than later. the military buildup is already beginning.

  • Kevin Larson February 13, 2013 on 8:10 am

    This article is complete hogwash. Do the frickin math before you write this garbage David. The average worker at Foxcon makes $3500/yr. There is no way on earth to make a robot to assemble an Ipad for $11000. Equally as stupid as Jason’s article http://singularityhub.com/2013/02/07/us-unemployment-is-7-9-are-robots-to-blame/
    implying that robots are responsible for the US unemployment rate. You people need to get a job in the industry so you understand where the technology is at. There are no robots yet. There are expensive toys like ASIMO that are smoke and mirrors, really more like an extremely expensive RC puppet than anything else. Robots have replaced workers on the autoplant line doing some very specialized jobs like welding and painting, but hands still assemble the things. There are nearly as many workers behind the robots now as there were replaced by them. Programmers, lots of them, mechanics, inspectors, robot builders, testers, assemblers….There are more robots laying around big companies that cost a fortune and never were able to do what they were promising, than there are working on anything.