21 February 2020

Google may brighten Foxconn’s robotic future

Feeling the pressure from rising Chinese wages and suffering some negative publicity after a spate of worker suicides at mainland factories, Foxconn’s chairman Terry Guo Taiming {郭台銘} had boldly embarked on an ambitious automation program at the group’s electronics plants a few years ago, aiming to put in place a “million robot army” by 2014.

But things haven’t worked out as planned.

As of last June, only 20,000 robotic machines had been installed at the group’s Chinese manufacturing plants. And, even those installed machines didn’t perform as expected. Some Foxconn executives revealed to the media that the robotic arms can only carry out simple tasks such as moving a piece of component. Delicate processes, such as polishing the iPhone metal casing, are too much for the machines to handle. Moreover, those iron soldiers that were supposed to work around the clock also broke down often.

Given this situation, Foxconn is still relying largely on the good old human flesh and bone to get the work done. To ease a labor shortage after the Lunar New Year, rather than wait for new job applicants, the group’s human resource department has set up counters at train stations, hoping to employ workers with monthly salary as high as 4,500 yuan (US$742), double the level that prevailed three years ago, the National Business Daily noted.

But Guo has not given up on his robot dream. The latest talk is that Foxconn will partner with Google to develop new robots.

The Wall Street Journal, citing people familiar with the matter, reported Wednesday that the Taiwan contract electronics manufacturer has been working with Google’s former Android executive Andy Rubin on robotics.

The tie-up will make great sense as robotic technology is what Foxconn desperately needs at the moment, and its large number of factories can serve as an ideal testing ground for Google’s latest robotics.

The US internet search giant has set up a robotics group and acquired eight robotic companies last year. The unit is focusing on developing robots for use in manufacturing processes such as electronics assembly, which is exactly the core activity of Foxconn.

To move up the value chain and diversify its revenue streams from low-margin contract manufacturing, Foxconn has moved into high-tech areas like the production of automobile parts and medical equipment.

Guo said last month that the group is working on some “big projects” with foreign auto brands like BMW and Audi. Meanwhile, reports also have it that Foxconn hopes to manufacture large display screens in the US for electric sports car maker Tesla. The production lines will be on the American continent as it will be difficult to ship such big panels from Asia.

To achieve these goals, smart robots that are efficient enough and inexpensive hold the key.

In Guo’s own words, automation, software and technology innovation will be the group’s strategic focus.

– Contact the writer at [email protected]



EJ Insight writer